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Monthly Archives: December 2011

May Old Acquaintance Be Forgot

The eye of the holiday hurricane has almost passed and the residual New Year storm is right behind. New Year’s Eve, a holiday only second to Valentine’s Day for its ability to make people feel badly. Even if you choose to eschew the societal pressure to have the best night ever!, you may very well still succumb to the resolutions.

I am all for self-improvement and living with intention, but I am baffled by the resolutions. The fact that that may be made while drunk doesn’t disturb me. Some of my best moments of resolve have come when having gone just a bit too far. No, what bothers me is the time of year of this universal resolving. Come January 1st, we enter into the longest, darkest, bleakest stretch of the calendar. Not counting Valentine’s Day (see above) we get no break in the mundanity until spring (birthdays of political leaders notwithstanding.) An informal survey indicates that the majority of resolutions involve physical improvement. Yet our bodies and minds cry out for carbohydrates and alcohol this time of year. Layering of clothes offer no incentive to tone, and darkness does not invite activity. Our relationships with our screens becomes borderline obsessive (there is a reason television programming peaks during the colder months.)

Come mid-January, the bills and regrets start to appear. A fiscal resolution would be appropriate this time of year. And fear not, six weeks along, when resolve tends to lag; it’s tax season! Your accountant can take on the cheering role of a personal trainer. But short of resolving to not spend more than I have or to increase savings, I shy from New Year’s resolutions.

I tried it once. In my twenties I resolved to not have any regrets. Ah, youth. How charming, how utterly near-sighted and self-involved. Sweet. With the determination of a four-star general, I went forth and conquered.  Regrets? No. Creating a version of my best self? Not exactly. But what a great learning opportunity. I discovered that New Year’s resolutions were not entirely for me. I also discovered that behavior change works best (for me) when aimed outward. Resolving to; experience more generosity of spirit, seek out those who need a kind word or smile, offer help to strangers, all help to create a personal world in which I’d like to live. The very fact that I engage in this resolution year after year after year, does nothing to support the efficacy of resolutions. But just like physical fitness, spiritual fitness does have muscle memory.

As I struggle to stay awake on my couch, nursing a glass of bubbly, I will wish to you kindness. May you experience kindness towards yourself (eat the chocolate!) and kindness towards others this new year.

Happy New Year

 
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Posted by on December 14, 2011 in Cultural Critique, Holiday

 

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Not A Creature Was Stirring

If you are lucky enough to live somewhere that has experienced the first snowfall of the season, you have heard the hush.  In towns and cities small and large, a snowfall of any measure muffles sound through physics and through awe.  Stepping outside to the sight of a freshly painted world, we are reverent, quiet, stirred.  During the next few weeks, a season filled with candlelight, greenery, and religion, I am in pursuit of such silence.

I like sound.  I make sound.  But there are moments when the most beautiful sound is silence.  My day has a soundtrack, similar to yours no doubt.  Where NPR leaves off, my iPod picks up.  I’ve been told I sing rather audibly in the park, but I deny it.  I talk enough to be considered an ambient noise machine, and even have been known to take a call in public.  I can’t bring myself to carry-on a phone conversation on the street however as it seems to conjure my pushcart peddling ancestors (and I think it would break their hearts.)  But I do my best to contribute to the cacophony of the city street.

However, there are times when silence is its own stirring background noise.

There was a time when just stepping into a religious sanctuary rendered one silent.  I suppose there are still places of worship that generate such reverie.  A recent holiday service I attended inspired the women seated behind me to discuss the merits of DSW, the best subway route to DSW, the return policy of DSW, and each shoe in DSW.  Their crass incessant shopping chatter took a brief hiatus during the silent prayer.  During that portion they discussed an “obnoxious” mutual friend.  I shudder to consider what these women deem “obnoxious.”

Clearly “place” is not sufficient enough a prompt for silence.

Theaters are filled with shopping bag crinkly, slurping, chomping, talking, ringing audiences.  Ticket purchasers talk through the overture.  The overture!  (No wonder no one writes those anymore.)  At a recent Joan Crawford estate auction, people spoke loudly, as the lovely auctioneer toiled.  She kept track of live bids, internet bids and phone bids, all over a deafening din.  Once the Golden Globe went on the block though, well that was a horse of a different color.  As the bids climbed well north of $20,000, you could have heard a pin drop.  I suppose we are all entitled to worship any deity we choose.

I would suggest that we consider each other and the world we live in to be ample reason to hush.  Not permanently, not even for long stretches of time.  But for the next few weeks, let us be mindful of the noise we make.  Pausing the soundtrack of our lives for a moment, will allow us to make discoveries.  A sight, a sound or a thought will prompt a moment of awe.  This time of year, as we prepare to look forward and make grandiose plans for our new and improved selves, let us take a moment to quietly consider the world around us and our place in it.

Happy Holidays!

 
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Posted by on December 12, 2011 in Cultural Critique, Holiday

 

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Please To Put A Penny*

My mailbox (and inbox) have been stuffed to the gills with donation requests since November. Cashiers in chain stores have been asking me if I’d like to donate to their company’s favorite charity for months now. The sidewalks are dotted with bell ringing charity workers (every time a bell ring and angel writes a check?) A person might suffer a wee bit of wallet fatigue by the time the holiday actually arrives.

If you find the notion of holiday tipping repugnant, I would encourage you to reexamine your stance. Whether one celebrates Christmas or not, we live in a country which considers the day to be a national holiday of sorts. Many traditions have developed in support of this practice. It is customary (when possible) to give employees the day off on Christmas Day. It is also the time of year in which people express their gratitude for work done throughout the year. Hence, the Christmas bonus. For those of us who are not a C.E.O. of a grand financial institution,the Christmas bonuses we dole out are more like, uhm, tips.

It is customary to tip anyone who regularly provides a valued service to you or your family, such as:

  • Grooming Professionals (hair stylists, manicurists, etc.)
  • Babysitters (for humans or canines)
  • Tutors
  • Cleaners
  • Home Health Aide
  • Handy-people
  • Newspaper deliverer
  • Mail Carrier**

Where one lives determines another list to be considered:

  • Assisted Living & Nursing Home staff
  • Apartment Building Superintendent
  • Doormen

I have often heard people grumbling about tipping their building staff. I would just like to point out that you probably were not forced to live in a doorman building, anymore than you were forced to eat food served to you by a waitress. It is implicit in the service sector that not all compensation comes from an employer.

There may be others you would like to acknowledge during this season. I would caution however, to consider a gift (versus a tip) if the individual is not a service professional. **And while mail carriers are not to accept cash gifts, I am a scofflaw in this regard, as my mail carrier is too lovely to me to be the recipient of baked goods (despite their indescribable deliciousness.)

How much one gives is entirely up to the individual. There are no hard and fast rules, there are only guidelines.  Never give more than makes you comfortable or than you can afford. Give the amount which makes you happy. Yes, happy. Tipping, like gift giving, is not the result of extortion. It should be a genuine expression of your thanks. And why in the world would you say thank you unless you actually felt gratitude?

Hee Haw and Merry Christmas.

* …in the old man’s hat. (“A Round About Christmas”-The Kingston Trio)

 
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Posted by on December 8, 2011 in Holiday

 

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Reading, Writing, Rigoletto

There is enough bad news (or at least, not such good news) about the state of education to go around.  When a story comes out, no matter how small, I feel like a Who shouting loudly, for one and for all.  Imagine my joy as I woke to discover, that teaching of arts has edged out Red Rover.

According to a piece today by Kyle Spencer there are city schools offering arts “electives” during traditional recess periods.  Music, art, dance and theatre are being taught in elementary schools.  Adult volunteers are creating mini-book clubs.  Yes, it is only a handful of schools (for now,) but it is so very encouraging, no?  Before anyone gets all “what about their unstructured playtime of recess” on me.  One need only consider the climate of primary education, to realize there is not a whole lot of unstructured activity being encouraged.  I don’t think (and I could be wrong) there is a lot of creative organic play happening in the school yard during recess.  I think what’s happening are the same dull or painful games of my youth (including standing around in clusters determining whom to ostracize.)

Having children exposed to music is invaluable.  Even if one doesn’t see a value in culture, there is no denying the mathematical component of music education.  The same cross-disciplinary benefits can be had in visual arts (science) dance (biology) and theatre (history, English.)  I would argue that we can no more afford to raise a generation without math, science and language skills than we can, without a cultural education.  Future doctors, business people, public servants and parents, need more than test scores.  They need to understand the world in which they live and those that lived before them.  There is no better vehicle than the arts to make all of that come alive for a child.

I grew up during a glorious time of robust educational resources and an engaged artistically oriented community.  It is because of that great fortune, that I champion the same for children today.  My 5th grade play was The H.M.S. Pinafore.  Are any schools still performing Gilbert & Sullivan?  Do children even “get” the Simpons’ Pirates of Penzance references?  Are any schools still mounting any production that doesn’t involve head microphones, hair extensions and copious amounts of make-up?

Art is substantive.  If we want a generation of people who can discern between quality and clever marketing, we need to expose them to the real thing.  There is nothing wrong with fluff, but it is the peanut butter beneath it where the nourishment lies.  Ideally the arts should be integrated into the curriculum, and not seen as an “elective.”  Until that time however, I will shout from the rooftops with glee that children are learning embroidery!

 
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Posted by on December 7, 2011 in Childhood, Education

 

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Please Have Snow and Mistletoe*

The sand is draining from the hourglass and the flying monkeys are on their way.  A sensible holiday shopper realizes it might be time to panic.  Just a bit.  Perhaps you spent this weekend (with the very best of intentions) perusing the malls and holiday markets?  Perhaps, like me, you awoke slightly exhausted, a bit dehydrated and with a mild pit in your stomach thinking something along the lines of; “I didn’t really buy that dancing troll dressed as Santa, did I?”  Before you indulge in a refreshing bout of robust self flagellation, let’s consider reassigning the blame.

The dancing troll is not (entirely) your fault.  You were probably tired, overheated and improperly fed.  In that weakened state you had trudged through the maize of malls and markets with layouts and repetitive merchandise like Escher drawings.  At every turn you were face to face with that same sequined scarf, knit cap, knock-off Van Cleef & Arpels necklace.  After an hour or so, you could be easily convinced that those items are really all there is.  In your already weakened state, your hopes dulled and dashed by the stunning lack of retail creativity, you found yourself in line, clutching your troll as if it were the bronze medal.

If you don’t want to spend the next few weeks feeling you are settling (and why in the world would anyone ever want to “settle” let alone during such a festive time) I offer you some tips:

  • Prepare.  Sit down with a nice cup of tea and a notepad (virtual or paper) and write a list.  Do not venture out (in December) thinking you will be magically inspired.  You may, but that’s not a plan, it’s luck.
  • Stay away from “Holiday Markets” unless they are specifically artist or craftspeople organized.  Often they are just outdoor malls, which will waste your time and deplete your stamina.
  • Authentic artist/craftspeople markets, antique stores and real vintage flea markets are a veritable pot of gold.  Unique, lovely and often reasonably priced items are just waiting for a good home.
  • Museum, library and arts organizations often have gift shops.  Venture carefully, and preferably with a membership card, as often items can be pricey.  However, you really can find some very special items, and support a favorite institution.
  • Memberships and/or tickets to these institutions can also make lovely gifts.  Do make sure the recipient is a fan and lives in proximity, otherwise you may fall into that “I’m giving to my favorite charity in your name” trap.
  • Food and Drink should always be considered.  A carefully chosen bottle of wine or spirits can be very thoughtful.  Perhaps a bottle of the wine your friends are still talking about which they had in Napa?  Maybe a lovely bottle of sherry to go with those vintage glasses you picked up for your sister at the flea market?  Chocolate lovers make the best gift recipients, don’t they?  There is no shortage of artisanal selections out there.  Strangely, the same can be said for salamis.
  • Music.  Anyone who can hear, enjoys listening to music.  Steer clear of any genre which conjures associated attire (country western, heavy metal) and stick to classics if you are not entirely certain of someone’s preference.
  • Books (electronic or paper) make splendid gifts.  You may want to stay out of the chain stores however, as their displays may lead you to the literary equivalent of a dancing troll.

Remember to bring a snack, stop and sit periodically, and don’t bring a shopping companion.  There are too many distractions as it is.  So have another cup of tea, and go find the troll receipt.  And remember, like most things in life, with gift giving; “I suppose this will do” shouldn’t be the goal.  Happy Holidays!

* and presents by the tree – I’ll Be Home For Christmas (1943)

 
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Posted by on December 5, 2011 in Cultural Critique, Holiday

 

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