Sunday, December 31, 2006

Some Final Thoughts on 2006

As the final minutes tick away on 2006, I thought I'd sit down and try to record a few of my thoughts on the past year.

At the start of the year, I was in a period of transition. I had begun a new job at a [EDITED FOR SECURITY AND PRIVACY REASONS] on December 30th of 2005, marking the first time in over a year that I had had a regular 40-hour a week desk job. It was also a job in an entirely new industry for me, so I was learning the ropes basically from the bottom of the barrel. I was also continuing to work, at that time, at [EDITED FOR SECURITY AND PRIVACY REASONS], waiting tables on the weekend. By February, that simply proved too stressful, so I finally quit the restaurant and started working solely at the [EDITED FOR SECURITY AND PRIVACY REASONS].

During the first half of the year, [EDITED FOR SECURITY AND PRIVACY REASONS] and I were preparing for the impending birth of our second daughter, trying to figure out how we were going to make ends meet, and waiting to hear from the various graduate schools I had applied to the previous fall (I was hoping to enter graduate school in Creative Writing). We were sort of in a holding period for the first four months or so of the year, pending the outcome of those applications. We knew we could be moving anywhere from Memphis to Tucson, or not going anywhere at all.

It seemed to take forever for those responses to start coming back, and when they did, it was nothing but disappointment after disappointment. Despite applying to nine different programs, I didn't get accepted anywhere. The consensus from the various programs seemed to be that I was a fine writer with solid test scores, but simply wasn't writing the sort of fiction that the programs were looking for. In retrospect, considering the "commercial" nature of my fiction, I suppose this isn't so shocking. Most graduate school fiction programs, I would think, would be focusing on literary fiction, not commercial fiction. I had known that going in, but I had figured it was worth a shot.

Be that as it may, I was mightily disappointed by not getting accepted anywhere. I had more or less convinced myself that I would at least get in somewhere. When that didn't happen, [EDITED FOR SECURITY AND PRIVACY REASONS] and I were left at a crossroads. We had been planning for so long on moving in the summer of 2006, that once we were left with no where to go, we didn't know quite what to do. I had started the job at the [EDITED FOR SECURITY AND PRIVACY REASONS] under the assumption that it would just be a temporary job. Now I was faced with staying there for at least another year, and attempting to get into graduate school in 2007.

That just wasn't very appealing to me or [EDITED FOR SECURITY AND PRIVACY REASONS]. So we began very seriously considering a move to [EDITED FOR SECURITY AND PRIVACY REASONS]. We had talked of moving down there ever since college. In fact, we had initially planned on moving there when we got married, but ended up backing out at the last minute (this being back in 1997), and staying in this area instead. Now it was nine years down the road, and we figured if we were ever going to go, now was the time. We wanted a change of scenery, and we had been expecting, for so long, to be moving, that it just seemed to make sense for us to go down there. Mom and Dad would be close to help out with the new baby, and from our searches on the Internet it appeared that housing was cheaper and the job market was better than here in [EDITED FOR SECURITY AND PRIVACY REASONS].

We made all the preparations - we looked for houses, jobs, daycares. [EDITED FOR SECURITY AND PRIVACY REASONS] began the process of learning how to transfer her [EDITED FOR SECURITY AND PRIVACY REASONS] from [EDITED FOR SECURITY AND PRIVACY REASONS] to [EDITED FOR SECURITY AND PRIVACY REASONS], and my Mom began finding out about some reputable daycares for our daughters.

In the end, as we had in 1997, we ended up changing our minds. After our second daughter was born in May, and we had all the stress that goes along with having a new baby in the house, the very idea of picking up and moving just seemed absurd. We also realized that no matter what we did once we got there, we were going to have to live with my parents for at least a little while, and we realized that was going to be stressful on everyone involved. We simply decided that it was more stress than it was worth, and ultimately it didn't make sense, because if I applied again for graduate school, and got accepted, we'd very likely be moving again the following year.

Once we had decided to stay in [EDITED FOR SECURITY AND PRIVACY REASONS], I had to face a second dilemma - what to do about my job situation. As I said above, I had never planned on staying with the [EDITED FOR SECURITY AND PRIVACY REASONS] more than just a few months. I had figured it would be a sort of "transition" between waiting tables and starting graduate school. I didn't want to wait tables anymore, and I needed better money. So it was originally intended to simply function as a stop gap for a few months, until we moved and I started school. Now that I wasn't going to school, and we weren't moving, I needed to find a new job.

As I had done the previous year, when I had been unemployed, I began sending out resume after resume. Most of them were for various [EDITED FOR SECURITY AND PRIVACY REASONS] around town, but a number of them were also in completely new industries. I applied for everything from merchandising to customer service to marketing.

I couldn't get so much as a phone call from anybody.

I managed to get one interview out of all those applications, and it was for a merchandising job with a contractor inside Home Depot. The job consisted of point of sale merchandising...basically setting up the displays and products to help sell them. It also included daily inventories and such. A fairly basic job, one that would allow me to work on my own without direct supervision - right up my alley. It also had flexible hours - I could come in anytime I wanted (as early as 4 a.m.), and once I had put in my eight hours, I could leave. So I could have conceivably worked something like 6:00 to 2:00 and been home before [EDITED FOR SECURITY AND PRIVACY REASONS] every afternoon. Unfortunately the pay was less than I was making at the [EDITED FOR SECURITY AND PRIVACY REASONS], and it simply wasn't something I could do.

By late August, just as we were getting ready to put the new baby in daycare, and take on all the extra expenses associated with two kids in daycare instead of just one, I was facing the necessity of having to get a second job. I was dreading it and didn't want to do it, but there was no other choice. Then, the very week before we were due to start the kids in daycare, I got an unexpected raise, and [EDITED FOR SECURITY AND PRIVACY REASONS] yearly raise also came through that same week. My raise, as I said, was unexpected, and hers was higher than we had expected. Because of that, I was able to avoid having to get that second job - at least for the time being.

With some of the financial pressure relieved, I was able to start considering other options for my future. By that time, I had begun to second guess my desire to go to graduate school. Even if I could get in the second time around, I wasn't sure any longer if teaching Creative Writing at the collegiate level was really something I wanted to do. What I really wanted to do was write, not teach writing.

But if I didn't go to graduate school, I had to do something. Working as a [EDITED FOR SECURITY AND PRIVACY REASONS] for the rest of my life (or until I could get a book published) was unthinkable. So I began to consider going to school to be an MRI/CT tech. My mother, who runs a [EDITED FOR SECURITY AND PRIVACY REASONS], and a good friend who is a 5th year radiology resident, had both been encouraging me for quite some time to take that route. The pay is excellent, the job security is unmatched, the demand is high, the benefits are great, and the hours are flexible. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it would be a good way for me to make enough money to support my family, have enough free time to pursue my writing, and also have a job that would allow me a way to offer a viable service to the community and to help people.

In the end, I decided to take this route. So in September, I enrolled in an X-ray tech program at a local technical college. This is a 15-month program, and once I am through with it, I will be able to start working as an X-ray tech, while I continue on into the second half of the program, getting trained to operate MRI's and other digital diagnostic machines.

The last part of 2006 was quite stressful. I was adjusting to being in school full time (four nights a week, three and a half hours each night) and working full time, Monday through Friday. My weekends consisted of juggling time for myself, time with my family, and study time. There wasn't much time to breathe or to slow down. Monday through Thursday, especially, I felt like all I did was go to work, go to school, and sleep. When the quarter ended in mid-December, I was very thankful for the break.

Despite the stress, I excelled in my classes, quickly gaining a reputation as the "smart one." That was definitely a new experience for me - I've always considered myself fairly intelligent, and I think those who know me would agree, but I never "excelled" in school before. I always did just enough to get by, but never "applied" myself (God, how many times did I hear teachers and professors say that - "He just doesn't apply himself..."). I graduated from [EDITED FOR SECURITY AND PRIVACY REASONS] with a 2.96, and I had about the same in high school. I was never a straight-A student by any means. Be that as it may, I did get straight A's this fall. In fact, I didn't make less than an A on any project, paper, homework, or test in any class all quarter.

It's now 11:38 and the confetti will be flying in 22 minutes in Times Square. As I look back on 2006, I see it as sort of a transition year - my first full year back with [EDITED FOR SECURITY AND PRIVACY REASONS] after a two year separation and divorce, a new job, a new baby, and taking classes again for the first time in nine years. All of those were great things, but they were all things that brought an inordinate amount of stress too.

But as I look ahead to 2007, I want to focus on the here and now. Happiness is not something you attain or strive to reach. It's a choice. It's equally available to the poor, the rich, the sick, the healthy, the fat, the skinny, the attractive, the ugly, the successful, and the unsuccessful. It's not some far off finish line, to be reached when certain parameters, goals, and dreams have been fulfilled. It's available here and now, for whoever chooses to grab it. It's a choice.

So as I go into 2007, I intend to focus on my family, my schoolwork, and my health. I hope to exercise more often, eat better, continue on my path of sobriety (which, thankfully, I have been on for several months now), and get back into my meditation and yoga routines. But whether I manage to fulfill all those goals or not, I am going to choose happiness. Even when the money is tight and I come in from a long day at work and school, and [EDITED FOR SECURITY AND PRIVACY REASONS] is demanding food and drink and the house is a mess, and even when I'm sitting at work thinking about how terrible it feels to be a 31-year-old [EDITED FOR SECURITY AND PRIVACY REASONS] making less than [EDITED FOR SECURITY AND PRIVACY REASONS] per year, I'm going to remember that happiness is a choice, and I am going to choose happiness.

It is now 11:50 p.m. in [EDITED FOR SECURITY AND PRIVACY REASONS]. Earlier in the evening, at exactly 7:00 p.m., I got a text from my parents, who are vacationing right now in England, the strip of land that manages to run through the time zone we call Greenwich Mean Time. HAPPY NEW YEAR! the text said.

Let's hope so.

Better yet, let's choose so.

Friday, December 29, 2006

The Murder of Thomas Becket

On this day, December 29, in the year 1170, Thomas Becket was murdered inside Canterbury Cathedral.

He was murdered at this spot.

He had been at odds with King Henry II for several years.

When Henry made a comment (or a series of comments) before his knights about wishing to be rid of the nuisance priest, his knights took his comments as an order to assassinate Becket.

In later years, an apologetic Henry publicly asked for penance before Becket’s shrine. The stairs leading up to the shrine were trodden by so many pilgrims that the stone became worn.

An excellent novel that takes place during the 12th century, and includes a fictionalization of Becket’s murder and the events leading up to it, is Ken Follett's book The Pillars of the Earth. You’ll notice this book in my Must Read Books list. It’s one of my all time favorites. Reading it was sort of like watching the movie was so engrossing that you didn’t realize how long it was.

Today should be an extraordinarily slow day at work, so I’ll try to see if I can’t write a poem or two to post on The Writing Desk for your reading enjoyment.

P.S. – I spent much of yesterday attempting to get my blogs a bit more traffic from the web. I submitted them for indexing on the major search engines, and I set up feeds for both blogs. You may notice a bunch of new buttons on the sidebars of Serene Musings and The Writing Desk. For any of you who have personalized Yahoo! or Google homepages, you can now add my blog feeds to your homepage. Simply click on the button, then follow the instructions. By doing so, you can have a tab on your Yahoo! or Google homepage with my blogs, and it will show the updated headlines of any new posts that I put up. I also have buttons for Google Reader, MSN, and several other homepage websites, in case you use any of those.

You may also notice a counter now at the bottom of both my blogs. Now I’ll be able to see just how much traffic I’m getting (of course, right now, the majority of those views are from me going to my pages to add buttons and links).

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Westminster Abbey and a New Car

Well, it’s one of those days where I want to write about something deep, philosophical, and relevant, but I can’t think of anything.

I got on Wikipedia to read up on Today in History, but nothing there really sparked my interest all that much. The only thing of note was that today is the 941st anniversary of the consecration of Westminster Abbey, in 1065. It was built by Edward the Confessor, and he had planned to be buried in it after he died. It was consecrated on December 28, 1065, and he died just a few weeks later in January of 1066. Little did he know the impact on history that his death would have!

Mom and Dad are traveling today to England. I don’t know if they’re going to visit the Abbey this time around or not. They’ve been there in the past.

On a different note, I took delivery of my new vehicle yesterday. Joan drove it down from Cincinnati. I am really excited to finally have a full-sized car. It’s the first full-sized vehicle Melanie and I have ever owned. I listened to a CD on the way to work this morning, and it was sublime! Who would have thought that something so simple and ordinary could evoke smiles on a Thursday morning drive to work? When we leased that little truck right after we got married, it did have a CD player in it (actually, it was a 6-CD changer), so this isn’t the first vehicle I’ve owned with a CD player in it. But it is the first one I’ve owned with an in-dash CD player. Melanie’s SUV has an in-dash CD player, but I never drive that, unless we’re all going somewhere together.

Now we have to complete the buying process. It’s pretty convoluted. First, we have to get the insurance switched over (which Melanie, thankfully, has already taken care of). Then we have to wait for the title to arrive. Then we have to wait for the lien to get officially removed from my old car. Then we have to sell that old car. Then we have to get the application for a license signed and notarized, including getting it signed by Gerald (since he owned the car previously). Then we have to take the application, proof of insurance, and the title to the licensing place, and pay 400 dollars for the taxes (which is why we have to sell my old car first – so we have the money for the taxes). So anyway, it’s just a long, convoluted process.

But it’s worth it!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Egypt and England: A Comparison

Just to give you an idea of how unimaginably long the ancient Egyptian civilization flourished as a unified nation, consider this:

A man named Narmer was Egypt’s first king. He was a warrior who took control of the Upper and Lower Kingdoms of Egypt, and combined the various Egyptian provinces into one unified kingdom. He is widely considered the first Egyptian Pharaoh, and he established what is known as the 1st Dynasty of Egyptian rulers. He lived and ruled around 3100 B.C.E.

The pyramids at Giza were built during the 4th Dynasty, roughly 2500 B.C.E., or 600 years after Narmer. The last pharaoh of the 6th Dynasty, Pepi II, took the throne at age 6, and is believed to have lived to at least the age of 100. His official reign of 94 years is still the longest monarchical reign in recorded history. When he died, however, his dynasty ended (he had, no doubt, outlived all his heirs), and thus the “Old Kingdom” of Egyptian history came to an end. The next five dynasties existed during the period known as the First Intermediate Period – an era characterized by decentralized governments, weak rulers, famines, wars, invasions, etc. Very little is known of the history of this period, which lasted from roughly 2200 to 2000 B.C.E.

Powerful rulers and a re-establishment of a strong central government helped usher in the Middle Kingdom, a period which saw an increase in the production of history, art, and architecture. This period of relative stability lasted until about 1700 B.C.E., when a race of Asiatic people began to invade Egypt. They are known as the Hyksos, and they ushered in a period of unrest and civil war, ruling Egypt as foreigners, and establishing what is now called the Second Intermediate Period in Egyptian History. The Hyksos primarily controlled Lower Egypt (the northern half of Egypt), while a weaker Egyptian king ruled from Thebes in the south. In time, the Hyksos came to control all of Egypt, with the Theban rulers either pledging allegiance to the Hyksos, or ruling in exile.

Beginning in roughly 1550 B.C.E., the Hyksos were finally defeated and driven out of Egypt by a pharaoh named Kamose, who was a native Egyptian and a member of the ruling Theban family. His successor, Ahmose I, established the 18th Dynasty, which marks the beginning of what is known as the New Kingdom. The New Kingdom lasted until roughly 1050 B.C.E., and is considered the Golden Age of ancient Egypt. These were the centuries in which Egypt was its most powerful, controlling not only its own borders, but many of the tribes and civilizations throughout North Africa and the Middle East. The production of art, literature, history, and architecture boomed during this period, and this period saw the reigns of such powerful and well-known kings as Akhenaten (who abolished the traditional gods in favor of single god), the powerful Queen Hatshepsut, who called herself a king, built many monuments, and even wore the traditional false beard of the pharaohs, Ramesses II, and King Tut.

The Third Intermediate Period ushered in yet another period of decentralization of government and civil war. It lasted about 400 years, until the beginning of the Late Period, starting in 650 B.C.E. The 26th Dynasty ruled during this time, and proved to be the last of the native Egyptian rulers of Egypt. After that, beginning in about 525 B.C.E., the Persians conquered Egypt and ruled for several hundred years, up until the invasion of Egypt by Alexander the Great in about 338 B.C.E. After that, the Greeks ruled Egypt until 30 B.C.E., when Cleopatra VII committed suicide and the Romans took control under Octavius.

Now, having taken that brief trip through 3,000 years of ancient Egyptian history (and that only took us up to the time of Jesus!), let’s compare that long establishment of civilization and culture with our own current establishment of civilization and culture.

Since much of America was settled by Anglos from the UK, and most Americans today can trace their lineage back to the British Isles, I am going to focus this comparison on British history.

The English Narmer is a man by the name of Alfred. Alfred lived in the mid- to late-9th century (he died in 899 C.E.). Prior to his time, the British isles had been divided up into a series of petty kingdoms and principalities, with the majority of the population descended from a group of people from northern Germania who had been called the Angles. The Angles were referred to as a tribe in northern Germania as early as 98 C.E. in the writings of the historian Tacitus. This tribe of people made their way to the British isles, where they eventually settled and established a number of small city-states and provinces. By the time of Alfred, Angleland (or, England), was made up of the provinces of Northumbria, East Anglia, Mercia, Kent, Sussex, Wessex, and Essex. Each of these provinces had their own ruling families and kings, and they were intermittently at war and peace with each other.

It was not unlike the Pre-Dynastic Period of Egyptian history, when Egypt was divided into provinces and ruled by a series of chieftains and warrior kings, warring and making peace, but never unifying under one central leader.

Into this world came the English Narmer, Alfred. Alfred was the brother of the West Saxon king, Ethelred. Beginning in roughly 860 C.E., Danish invaders began to land in northern England, in the kingdom of Northumbria. Called Vikings by the English, the Danes slowly began to make their way across the British mainland, plundering and either deposing or buying the allegiance of the various provincial kings. Northumbria fell first, followed by East Anglia and Mercia. As king of Wessex, Ethelred and his brother Alfred fought alongside the Mercians against the Danes, but retreated back to Wessex after Mercia fell.

In 870, the Vikings came to plunder Wessex. Alfred – who led his brother’s army – fought as many as 9 battles that year against the Danish invaders, and succeeded in keeping them out of Wessex.

In 871, Ethelred died, and although he had two sons, both were still children, and so Alfred was able to take the throne of Wessex. Over the next several years, Alfred continued to fight the Danes, and ultimately made peace with them in 878, splitting England into two halves – with Alfred controlling the southeast, and the Danes controlling the northeast, including London. For several years there was peace, with the British island (excluding Wales and Scotland) comprised of two provinces – England and Danelaw.

However, the Vikings were not satisfied with only half of England, and by the mid-880’s, they began attacking English towns and villages. Alfred struck back with force, capturing London in 886, and ultimately driving the Vikings out of England by 896. He died in 899 as the first king of a unified England. He had first pronounced himself Rex Anglorum – King of the English – after capturing London.

A line of kings followed Alfred, known today as the “West Saxon” kings. They ruled England until the first decade of the 1000’s when the Vikings returned. In ancient Egyptian language, this might be called the “First Intermediate Period.”

The Vikings defeated Ethelred II (earning him the nickname “Ethelred the Unready”), and took control of England, beginning with Canute in 1016 C.E. Canute married Ethelred’s widow, and their two sons ultimately succeed him to the throne.

In 1042, Ethelred II’s son Edward returned from exile in Normandy. He was beloved by the West Saxon population of England, and was ultimately named successor to his half brother Harthacanute (Harthacanute was the second son of Edward’s mother and Canute). Edward became known as Edward the Confessor, and his reign re-established West Saxon control of the throne of England.

In 1066, Edward died without a child. Prior to his death, he had publicly named his grand nephew, Edgar, as his heir. However, Harold Godwinson, the earl of Wessex, was the second most powerful man in England after Edward, and claimed (through his earldom in Wessex) to be descended from Alfred (he was also Edward’s brother-in-law). So upon Edward’s death, he claimed the throne.

However, William, Duke of Normandy, had his eyes on the throne of England (he was the grand nephew of Edward’s mother – the same one who had been married to both Ethelred II and Canute), and he claimed that Edward had promised the throne to him during a trip to England some years earlier (if this is true, it was never made public...English records show only Edgar as the named heir of Edward). William also claimed that Harold had pledged his support to William’s kingship during a shipwreck in 1064, in which William had aided Harold. Harold denied this.

Thus, the stage was set for the Battle of Hastings, which occurred in October of 1066. William’s army won, Harold was killed, and William became King of England.

All of these events, from Alfred to William, took place over the course of about 200 years. By ancient Egyptian standards, we are still nearly 400 years from the building of the Great Pyramids at Giza.

William was succeeded by his son, William Rufus, and his second son, Henry. Henry had no sons, and since there was no precedent, at the time, for a woman to claim the throne of England, Stephen, the French Count of Blois, claimed the throne (Stephen was the grandson of William the Conqueror by his mother). Matilda, the daughter of King Henry, and granddaughter of William the Conqueror, also claimed the throne, thus setting the stage for what we might call the “Second Intermediate Period” in English history.

After a series of civil wars, ransoms, and vacillating allegiances from the various English nobles, Stephen managed to hang on to the crown, but only by publicly naming Matilda’s son Henry as his heir. Thus, Stephen became the only English king from the House of Blois.

Henry II established the Plantagenet dynasty, which produced such kings as Richard the Lionheart, Edward I (the king demonized in the film “Braveheart”), and Edward III.

Richard III proved to be the last Plantagenet king. He usurped the throne from his nephew, Edward V, and most likely had the young king murdered. Richard’s actions led to uprising and civil war, culminating with his death at the Battle of Bosworth Field. He was the last English monarch to be killed in battle.

By ancient Egyptian standards, Richard III died about the time the third pyramid was being built at Giza.

After Richard III, the Tudors took control of the English throne, and this dynasty included Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. The Stuarts followed, then the period of civil war when Charles I was beheaded and Oliver Cromwell established what is known as the Commonwealth (perhaps the Third Intermediate Period?). The Stuarts were restored after the destruction of the Commonwealth, but their line ended with the tragic figure of Queen Anne, who – despite more than fifteen pregnancies – produced no children who lived past the age of 11.

This inability to produce an heir on the part of Queen Anne set the stage for the Hanoverians to take the throne of England. They were the rulers of a German province called Hanover, and were very distantly related to the Stuarts. Under their watch, both the American and French Revolutions occurred, and their direct descendents are still on the throne of England today.

The American Revolution occurred at the point in British history that would have coincided with the end of the Old Kingdom of ancient Egypt, and the beginning of the First Intermediate Period. World War II began at roughly the point in time when the Middle Kingdom pharaohs began to flourish in ancient Egypt.

By Egyptian standards, the Anglo West is still 300 years from the Hyksos invasion, 700 years from the reigns of King Tut and Ramesses II, 1,700 years from Alexander the Great, and 2,000 years from Julius Caesar and Cleopatra.

And 4,000 years from Elizabeth II, Bush II, and 9/11.

Kind of a mind freak, isn’t it?

Friday, December 15, 2006

A Christmas Carol

"The poulterers' shops were still half open, and the fruiterers' were radiant in their glory. There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence."

Over the last few days, I read Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol for the first time. Of course, I have seen the story done on stage a number of times (mostly as a child), and the various movies are a yearly Christmas tradition. (My favorite, as many of you might know, is Albert Finney's portrayal in the early 1970's British musical version "Scrooge." I've already watched it once this year, and may do so again.) But despite being very familiar with the story itself through stage and film, and despite having bought a copy of the book some years back, I had never taken the time to sit down and read the story.

So, having bought a new edition of the book after Christmas last year, I finally sat down a few days ago and began the original story.

It was absolutely sublime!

As much as I love the film and stage adaptations of the story, the book was just wonderful. So full of color and imagination and description - you could fairly feel the 19th century London cold, the piles of apples and oranges on the street carts, the hawkers calling out to passers-by bundled head-to-toe in woolen coats and boots.

This really is the quintessential Victorian Christmas story. I suppose I'm only about 170 years late in determining that, but now that I have read the story, I can see why it was such an instantaneous hit with readers. It was so successful during his lifetime, in fact, that Dickens began a tradition of writing Christmas stories every year. The edition of A Christmas Carol that I purchased last year has two other Dickens Christmas stories in it as well, although I have not yet dived into those two.

So I highly recommend this book. If you have seen any or most of the various Scrooge movies that have been made over the years, much of the book will be familiar, but there are a few scenes here and there that I have never seen re-enacted in a play or a movie, including a trip out to a mining colony on the coast of England, and a hovering ride over the English Channel to view Christmas on a Navy ship.

Even after all these years of watching movies and plays based upon this story, I was still moved, emotionally, while reading this book, particularly during the scenes with the Cratchit family. And at the end, I almost felt a tear well up when Scrooge showed up on his nephew's doorstep for Christmas Lunch.

I'll end this post with one of the more poignant passages from the book. The Ghost of Christmas Present has just reminded Scrooge of his harsh words about how if the poor are going to die "then they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population." The Ghost told him this after Scrooge expressed concern about whether or not Tiny Tim would die. The Ghost goes on to say the following:

"Man," said the Ghost, "if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child. Oh God! To hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust."

That last line, in particular, strikes a powerful chord. How relevent, 170 years downstream, and in another country, for the self-righteous protestations of the wealthy American!

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Christmas at Sparrows Down

As promised in a recent post (I know you all have been waiting with bated breath), here are some pictures of the Christmas decorum at Sparrows Down.

This nativity scene has been in our family since I was a kid. I guess it's as old or older than I am. Hailey loves to play with it now, just like Elissa and I did when we were kids.

This is what we photographers call a "perspective" shot.

I'm pleased with how my nutcrackers have turned out this year. Last year I put them on top of the wall ledge that runs perpendicular to where the TV is sitting (you can see the ledge on the left side of the shot in the first nutcracker picture). I didn't like them as well there as I do on top of the TV. They are all standing on stacks of National Geographics. Melanie added the garland, which turned out nice, I thought.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Silver-Cloaked Dagger

Ah, the Christmas Bonus! Another silver-cloaked dagger of the capitalist mentality.

~ B.K.C.

I worked for nearly 7 years for a company that engaged in an annual Christmas bonus program.

Each year, we would wait for Christmas with trepidation, wondering if we would get Christmas bonuses this year, making tentative plans for what could be purchased with said bonus, and despairing over what would happen if the bonuses didn't come through.

I got $400 my first year, and $500 each of my second and third years. During the 4th year, I moved up to $600, and by years 5 and 6, I received $1000 each year.

On the eighth day of December, in year 7, I got fired. It was exactly one week before our annual Christmas party, where bonuses were traditionally handed out. By firing me before the Christmas party, they didn't have to give me my Christmas bonus that year. They did this despite knowing I had a 2-year old daughter and had purchased a new house not 3 weeks previously. Why should they care? Business considerations come before personal considerations, after all.

This year will be my first Christmas with my current company. I started on December 30th of last year, so I missed any Christmas-related activities that might have taken place. We have a planned Christmas party on December 21st. I do not know if my current company gives Christmas bonuses or not. I am inclined to think not, but you never know. More than likely, the partners get a bonus but the support staff doesn't. You know how it goes...those who make 6 figures get the bonus, while those who work for an hourly wage get nothing.

But maybe I'm wrong. I guess I'll have to wait and see if I get the silver-cloaked dagger, or if it's just the plain old ax.

Friday, December 08, 2006

A Christmas of Innocence

Some of my best childhood Christmas memories were of the Living Christmas Tree at Walnut Street Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.

The minister of music, Gene Sutherland, would put on a Christmas extravaganza every year that included a 50-foot Christmas tree packed with singers. Starting at the bottom, each row would have successively fewer singers, until the very top row, where a single female singer always stood, like the angel atop the tree.

Typically, there were several weeks of performances, for which practice would start in the early fall. Accompanying an array of Christmas songs would be various stage acts as well, usually incorporating more singers and children.

Since my parents were active in the choir, they were both routinely part of the Living Christmas Tree each year. I don't think my Mom did it every year, but I know my Dad did. Dad was always on the second row from the top - a row of only two people - right below the angel. I always felt that this meant he garnered a position of importance within the hierarchy of the Walnut Street Choir. I was proud to be his son.

My memories of the Living Christmas Tree are warm and cozy - good music, great visual effects, and that latent feeling of excitement that seems to stick in every child's mind throughout the month of December.

I guess my favorite Living Christmas Tree year was 1987 - the only year I was involved in the production. I was asked that year by Gene Sutherland to play a role in one of the stage acts. Basically, I stood on stage with a plastic trumpet, and at the appropriate time in the song, I raised the trumpet up as though to herald the birth of the Christ child. There were 3 trumpeters in the skit, rotated between performances among about 5 guys from the youth group.

As the skit/song that heralded Jesus's birth, this was probably the highlight of the entire program. It was a very powerful song, with a spine-tingling climax, and it always received the most raucous and heart-felt applause. In one performance, a black lady got caught up in the spirit and stood up after the striking of the final chord and spontaneously shouted "Hallelujah!" I know it seems odd - and it's quite funny in retrospect - and yet even now, 18 years down the road, I'm getting chills just thinking about it - that feeling of religious ecstasy which that song brought on, and which was put into words by that spontaneous utterance.

I sort of miss being able to feel that feel so caught up in a religious moment like that, where any doubts and any skepticisms are washed clean away, leaving only certainty, comfort, and spiritual bliss.

When we did the last performance that year, I remember walking out into the parking lot with my Dad afterward, heading out to the car. And I remember walking there in that parking lot, the lightposts casting long, orange shadows across the dark pavement, while my breath condensed on the chilly air, and I remember feeling so utterly depressed - maybe more depressed than I had ever felt in my whole life. I didn't even understand it. I wanted to cry.

The reason I was so depressed is because it was over. All that hard work, all the rehearsals, dressing up in the costume, getting to stand there during that powerful song every night, experiencing the warm camaraderie with the other actors, feeling important because I was part of the show that people were flocking to come see - now it was all over. Finished. The tree would come down and be put away in some storage facility until next year. And I might not even get to be in it again. Maybe this was just a one time thing, and they wouldn't ask me next year.

Well, as it turned out, I wasn't in it the next year, and, in fact, I was never in it again. But that wasn't because I wasn't asked. In March of 1988, my grandfather died after a long bout with cancer. Then in the early summer, we moved to Cincinnati.

Nothing was ever quite the same after that. I remember Christmas of 1988, in our new house, and I do recall that particular Christmas with fondness - in fact, I've long said that Christmas, our first in Cincinnati, was the last Christmas of my childhood. It was the last time I remember having that distinct childhood excitement associated with Christmas. It was the last time I really felt consumed by the season.

I was 13 years old.

But, in retrospect, I think the last real Christmas of my childhood was in 1987. Our last Christmas in Louisville, my first and only experience performing in the Living Christmas Tree, and my last Christmas before starting that long, difficult, awkward road that took me through adolescence and young adulthood.

It was the last Christmas of innocence.

And I think the innocence first began to bleed away that cold night in mid-December, when I walked through that parking lot with my Dad, realizing that the show was over. Little did I know, then, that it wasn't just the show that was ending.

I got to see some Living Christmas Tree performances in later years - we would come back to Louisville to visit my grandparents, and we'd go see the show. I guess the last time would have been sometime in the early 1990's.

On doing a little research today, I discovered that Walnut Street no longer does a Living Christmas Tree performance. I know that Gene Sutherland is long gone (he died some years back), and I suppose his successors didn't continue the tradition. I don't know how many years its been since they quit doing it.

Strangely, on doing an Internet search, I came across a different Walnut Street Baptist Church. This one is somewhere in Arkansas.

And, remarkably enough, they have an active and current Living Christmas Tree program.

I don't quite know why, but somehow that's a comforting coincidence.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Thank God I Don't Have to Thank God

On my way home for lunch today, I drove past a house in our neighborhood that sustained some wind damage this past weekend from an arctic cold front that has moved into our area. The damage consists of a large section of vinyl siding that has come off the side of the house, exposing the insulation and packing material underneath.

As I was driving by, I thought I saw a statue of the Blessed Virgin on the front porch of the house. Upon closer inspection, I realized that whatever had caught my eye was not a statue at all. I think it may have been a shadow. But regardless, for that split second in which I thought they had a statue of Mary on their porch, the thought ran through my mind, “Well, I guess the Blessed Virgin didn’t help keep their house safe during that storm.”

This fleeting notion began a whole train of thought for me about finding the good in bad situations, and thanking God (or whichever god, saint, or prophet you prefer) for those good things we find in bad situations.

Most importantly, I began thinking about whether it’s appropriate and emotionally satisfying to connect the two.

In the scenario above, a good Christian wouldn’t say: “Well, I lost some vinyl siding in the windstorm, so God obviously didn’t protect my house.” A good Christian would say: “Boy, I’m glad a few pieces of vinyl siding is all we lost. God really blessed us.”

But what if it hadn’t been vinyl siding, but rather several broken windows?

“Well, a few windows got broken, but that’s easy to repair. It could have been the whole roof that blew off. God really protected us.”

What if the roof had blown off?

“Well, we lost our roof, but at least our whole house wasn’t taken from us, and we didn’t lose any vital possessions. We can get a new roof. God was really watching out for us.”

What if the whole house had been blown over?

“Well, we lost our house and possessions, but at least none of us where hurt. We still have our health, family, and loved ones, and material possessions can be replaced. God really took care of us.”

You see how that works? No matter how bad the situation is, religious people can always find away to give the credit to God.

Now, I’m not suggesting that it’s bad, or irresponsible, to look for the silver lining, or to focus on the good in a bad situation. Of course that’s a better, happier way to live, and I would encourage anyone to do this. The question is whether it’s appropriate to bring God into the equation.

I don’t wish to discuss whether God exists or doesn’t exist. That’s material for a different topic. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that some kind of “creator” or “all-loving” deity does exist, whether or not we can ever know this deity. Even assuming that, is it reasonable or appropriate to bring God into the equation in situations like this?

If you simply try to be positive, and look for the good in every bad situation, I would think this would help you to deal better with stressful situations, have a more pleasant outlook on life, and generally get through difficult times more quickly and with less negative side effects.

But if you choose to couple that with your conception of God, and attribute the good things drawn from bad situations to God’s “blessings,” then I would think you would actually decrease your overall happiness, your ability to handle tough situations, and your ability to pick up the pieces and move on.

If you leave God out of it, then you are simply thinking positively, focusing on the good, and learning to see difficult times, and even tragedies, as temporary in nature and not life-shattering or earth-shattering events.

By drawing God into it, and saying things like, “Well, we didn’t lose the house, so God really blessed us,” you are suggesting that God is physically capable of protecting your house, and therefore could have protected your roof too, but chose not to.

I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t make me feel better. In fact, that makes me feel worse. Why didn’t God protect my roof too, as well as my house? No one else’s roof came off. Why did mine? Is God trying to test me? Why would God want to do that? Don’t I have enough stress in my life as it is?

For the intellectually honest person, bringing God into the equation just raises myriad unanswerable questions - which leaves you ultimately either feeling disillusioned, or forced to fall back onto the same old “God works in mysterious ways” argument, which is unsatisfying to start with.

So my feeling is that it is best not to bring God into the scenario. God neither caused the damage to your house, nor prevented it. A storm came through and your house got damaged. End of story. Look on the bright side, find the positives in the bad situation, and begin moving on.

Injecting God into the situation only hinders recovery and healing, because it brings up so many unanswerable questions, and it turns God into some kind of capricious, uncaring wizard, who intercedes in human affairs at his whim, takes apparent pleasure in our suffering, demands our complete faithfulness, and feels the overwhelming urge to continually “test” us to make sure we stay in line.

I don’t want to worship a god like that, and that’s why I am learning not to conceive of God as a whimsical and capricious supernatural genie – which is exactly what the traditional concepts of God imply about God’s nature. Only a whimsical, untrustworthy, insecure deity would be capable of saving my roof, but choose not to.

So I wouldn't thank God that my house was saved. I would just focus on the fact that I only lost my roof, which can be repaired, and this frees me to heal from the tragedy, and to move on in life, working to spread love, be all that I can be, and live my life to the fullest – which is what “thanking God” really means to me.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Happy Monday

I have to give a presentation tonight in class on an emergency medical condition. It's a group probject, so I've got a partner who has been involved too. We're doing it on heart attacks. In preparing for this, I learned that Monday morning is one of the most common times for heart attacks to occur.

Happy Monday!

Anyway. We finished putting up the Christmas stuff this weekend. I've got my nutcrackers lined up atop the television this year. Not the television itself, but the big cabinet that houses the television. I'll take pictures and post them. I also organized the closet in my office, where we keep the Christmas stuff, so it was nice to get that cleaned out.

Hailey really likes the Christmas tree, and she has been playing with it constantly since we put it up last weekend. She's constantly taking the ornaments off and replacing them in other spots. I can remember, as a kid, doing similar things. The other day, I discovered one of Hailey's ponytail holders hanging from a branch. She had clearly placed it there as though it were an ornament.

Our Christmas tree is in bad shape. It's a Wal-Mart special, purchased the first year we lived in our first house. I guess that would have been 2000. The base has broken, and instead of 4 legs, it only has 2. So it's being propped up on one side by 2 National Geographics, a coffee table book on the Great Pyramids, and a hardback of Wilbur Smith's Birds of Prey.

I was able to get Melanie and the kids out of the house for a few hours yesterday, so I binge cleaned and did all the laundry and dishes. It was nice to get the house picked up and get everything caught up. But between that and organizing the closet and getting the rest of the Christmas stuff put up, I was pretty tired. Then I had to finish up my presenation preparation and also study for the test I have in that class tonight. So it was a busy Sunday.

Saturday, we went to Northern Kentucky and had dinner with Melanie's sister and parents. We also drove up to downtown Cincinnati and saw the annual Christmas train display in the Duke Engery building. I hadn't seen that since I was in early high school, so it was kind of neat to see it again. Byron would have loved it (as he always did back then).