Thursday, December 31, 2015

Adventures Wearing ‘The Special Suit’

I’m reasonably sure no one below the age of 10 reads my essays, so what I am about to reveal is safe. Actually, based on email feedback, along with hand-written notes delivered by the US Postal Service — yes, the Postal Service still exists! Who knew? — I don’t think many people below the age of 70 read my stuff.

Anyway, here goes: the weekend before Christmas I was tricked into playing Santa Claus at a church pancake breakfast. The way they tricked me into doing it was especially devious. They said, “Bill, we need someone to play Santa. Will you do it?”

Can you believe such a fiendish ploy? They came right out and asked me! What could I do, say, “Sorry, I’ll be out of town that day”? No, of course not. So I was stuck doing it.

Later, when I told my wife, she said, “We’re schedule to be out of town that day.” Oh great, now I had to cancel my out of town plans. Those church people can be really sneaky.

Some of my friends heard that I was schedule to be Saint Nick. Their encouraging comments were quite helpful, such as, “Oh, they want a sarcastic Santa this year?” “Really? Without even doing a criminal background check?” and, “Please don’t traumatize the children!”

When the day finally arrived, I donned the Santa outfit, complete with wig, beard, black boots, white gloves, and a pillow stuffed under the red jacket. When I was completely dressed, I looked at myself in the mirror and thought, “Wow, this is quite an honor to wear The Special Suit. I can’t let those kids down.”

My second thought was, “Holy mackerel, this is so hot! I’m already sweating like LeBron James in the 4th quarter!”

One of the women who assisted me in getting dressed thought the pillow made me look like Dolly Parton. So she proceeded to adjust the shape of the pillow by repeatedly punching me in the chest. As she flailed away, she looked kind of like Mike Tyson working out on the heavy bag. (And she hit like Tyson, too! My ribs are still sore.)

To be honest, it was quite humbling to have a bunch of wide-eyed youngsters sit on my lap and tell me what they wanted for Christmas. I did not blurt out nearly as many snarky comments as everyone (including me) assumed I would. But don’t worry, parents, when they told me what they wanted for Christmas, I didn’t promise anything! I simply said I would do my best and that they’d be surprised and happy on Christmas morning. Then I turned the tables and said to the kids, “But you have to do me a favor: make sure you leave out some cookies for me, and some carrots for the reindeer.” (I was going to say, “Quid pro quo, Clarice,” but I figured not too many five-year-olds are familiar with dialog from “The Silence of the Lambs,” so I let it slide.)

There was one moment that was very special. A little boy about six or seven years old, whose father passed away earlier in the year, told me what he wanted for Christmas: “I want a coffee mug, to give to my dad in Heaven.”

Oh my, the kids aren’t supposed to make Santa cry. I’m sure his father looked down at this scene with eyes just as misty as mine. 

Well, all in all, I think it went rather well, although I lost about 15 pounds sweating in that Santa suit. Unfortunately, next year I will be unable to reprise my role, as I’ll be out of town that day hyping my new best-selling book: “The Santa Suit Diet.”

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

How to Be a Good Boss

Over the years I’ve worked for some interesting bosses. And I am using, of course, the definition of the word interesting that means, “Was once a Marine drill sergeant but got dismissed from the Corps for being TOO nasty.”

Some bosses were nasty right to your face, while others were even worse. They’d smile and be friendly in person, but then gossip behind your back, saying all kinds of nasty stuff about you to the other employees. At one particular company, after a while everybody hated everybody else. It was not a fun place to work, but it would’ve been a great place for a psychologist to study and write a best-selling book about workplace dysfunction.

Some bosses were honest — painfully honest. (“Really?” an employee would mumble after being chewed out. “I realize I made a mistake on the sales report, but did he have to tell me I’m ugly, too?”)

With one boss, there was a surefire method to determine if he was lying: his mouth was moving.

For a time in the distant past, I was a boss. The official title was Production Supervisor, and I was in charge of a bunch of people I used to work with. That was as awkward as listening to Kim Kardashian be a contestant on “Jeopardy.” Each Monday morning I’d walk into the plant and hear a former friend say, “Oh, big man’s wearing a tie now. Thinks he’s so important. Too good for us peons now.”

It was an exhausting situation. I exerted myself so much smiling and being friendly with the employees in person, that I barely had enough energy to gossip about them behind their backs.

I have a theory about the relationship between bosses and employees. Now, it’s not like I’ve done a psychological study and written a best-selling book about workplace dysfunction. But I have been in the workforce for 36 years, so I’ve observed a few things along the way. (Most important observation: the toilet paper in the men’s room always runs out by Thursday morning. Someone should keep an eye on that. Just sayin’.)

Problems in the workplace always boil down to one simple dynamic: the employees think the boss is a jerk, and the boss thinks the employees are jerks. So there is one simple solution to this problem: replace all the employees with robots, replace all the bosses with software programs, and send the company profits to the unknown investors in New York, London, or Beijing.

No wait, on second thought, there may be a few flaws in my proposed solution. I’ll have to work on it some more.

All workplace unhappiness would cease to exist if only bosses behaved like the greatest boss in the history of mankind. This amazing boss was named Mrs. Emily Gale, and she lived in Kansas in the 1930s. You may know her better as “Auntie Em.”

The most skillful episode of corporate management took place early in the movie “The Wizard of Oz.” Auntie Em went out toward the barn to check on the employees, named Hickory, Hunk, and Zeke. (There’s a trivia question that will win you a free beer every time.)

When she found them not doing their assigned duties, Auntie Em made sure everyone knew who was in charge. She said, “I know three shiftless farm hands that’ll be out of a job before they know it!”

But then, before the employees could feel oppressed and get discouraged, which of course would lead to more shiftlessness when the boss was not around, Auntie Em said the magic words: “Here, can’t work on an empty stomach. Have some crullers.” 

If only Auntie Em was my boss today. Wouldn’t that be great?

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Joy of Jesus

This weekend (Jan. 2nd and 3rd) is the feast of the Epiphany, where the church celebrates the incarnation and manifestation of God to the world in the person of Jesus Christ. Representing “the world” in Matthew’s Gospel reading are the Magi, the mysterious visitors from the east, often called the Wise Men or “The Three Kings” (not to be confused with “The Four Tops” or “The Five Satins”).

The Bible explains that the Magi followed a mysterious star, which moved ahead of them and finally stopped over the place where the child Jesus was. We read: “They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother.”

The Three Wise Men were the very first Gentiles, that is, non-Jews, to be “overjoyed” at being in the presence of Jesus. I’m not sure the Magi understood exactly who Jesus was, or why they felt so much joy, but they could not deny there was something special about being in His presence.

Maybe later on the Magi learned that the reason God became incarnate, the reason He took on human flesh and walked the earth, was to reconcile sinful mankind back to Himself. The bitterness of sin and death which had infected humanity since Eden was finally being vanquished. The huge gulf separating holy God and sinful man was finally being bridged.

If there has ever been a good reason to be “overjoyed,” this is it.

But we must not make the mistake of thinking the joy of Jesus was only available during his brief 33 years on earth. He is God, don’t forget. Although His physical body ascended back into Heaven when His mission was completed, He still lives and reigns and is present in the hearts of all believers.

The joy of being unconditionally loved, the joy of being totally forgiven, is available to each one of us right now. The joy of knowing that our lives have meaning and that the Creator of the Universe has prepared a spectacular heavenly home for us is well within our reach. All we need to do is surrender our prideful, stubborn will and let Jesus’ spirit guide us from the inside out.

Unfortunately, far too many people, even church-going believers, would rather be in complete control of their lives. The spirit of our modern age, which urges people to “take charge” and “make it happen” and “look out for Number One,” is more attractive than the Gospel message, which urges people to “die to self” and “be humble” and “give rather than receive.”

So, in an attempt to find fulfillment on their own, many folks pack their lives with lots of fleeting pleasures, but no lasting peace. They have lots of toys, but no tranquility; lots of money, but no meaning; lots of responsibility, but no rest; lots of success, but no satisfaction.

All the while, true peace, fulfillment, and joy stare them right in the face, in the person of Jesus, who pleads, “Come unto me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

Twenty centuries ago the Magi were filled with the joy of Jesus. They came unto Him and their lives were forever changed. That same joy is still present; it is available to all who also come unto Him and have their lives forever changed. 

The joy of Jesus is the greatest Christmas gift the world has ever seen. It is the gift of a loving God who cares so much about mankind that He sent His only Son to save the world. Joy to the World, the Lord is come. Let’s pray that earth will receive her King.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Feast of the Holy Heart Attack

Tradition has it that St. Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, died before Our Lord reached adulthood. He is nowhere mentioned in Scripture during Jesus’ ministry and since he was probably much older than Mary, most scholars theorize that Joseph passed away while Jesus was still a youth.

Well, no reason to theorize anymore. St. Joseph definitely died when Jesus was young. The proof is found in this week’s gospel reading. This Sunday, December 27th, is called the “Feast of the Holy Family,” but it really should be called the “Feast of the Holy Heart Attack.”

We read this week the only biblical record of Jesus as a boy. He was twelve years old and the whole family traveled to Jerusalem for the Passover feast. When it was all over, we read, “After they had completed [the feast], as they were returning, the boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it.”

Now, we have to cut Mary and Joseph a little slack. In today’s culture it would be unthinkable for parents to leave a big city without knowing the exact whereabouts of their child. But back in those days people traveled in big groups of neighbors, friends, and relatives. As the caravan was getting ready to leave the city, Jesus was probably right there with the group. When they set out for the trip home, his parents, no doubt, were certain the boy was still among them.

Plus, we have to remember that Jesus was twelve. As we all know, all teens and pre-teens, even sinless and perfect ones, would rather be eaten by wolves than to be seen in public with their parents. Even in ancient Palestine it was surely the epitome of uncool to be within a hundred cubits of mom and dad, especially when some of your buddies were around. Mary probably held Joseph’s hand and said, “Don’t worry, dear, it’s just a phase he’s going through.”

So they left the city, and as the reading explains, “Thinking that he was in the caravan, they journeyed for a day and looked for him among their relatives.”

They had been walking for a whole day! They had put a fair number of miles between themselves and Jerusalem. Mary and Joseph tried to be calm at first, casually approaching their relatives. “Hi Uncle Max. Nice donkey. Hey, uh, by the way, have you seen Jesus lately? No? OK. Problem? No, no, of course not. We just, uh, haven’t seen him in while.”

Just think of what was going through their minds as they went from person to person, only to hear the same reply: “Jesus? No, I haven’t seen him. Maybe he’s with the Schwartz boys.”

The Bible says, “Not finding him, they returned to Jerusalem to look for him.” With all due respect to God’s holy Scripture: what a wimpy, emotionless sentence! Can you just imagine how absolutely panic-stricken they must have been? Their precious son, the miraculous gift God had given them a dozen years earlier, was missing!

They had to travel all the way back to the city (an uphill journey), and there were no CD players or satellite radio stations to drown out their thoughts. The only sounds they heard were sandals hurriedly slapping against the ground, hearts frantically pounding in their chests, and unspeakable fears silently screaming in their heads.

I know that when my daughters were younger, when one of them was “unaccounted for,” even for a few minutes, I could feel my heart and entire central nervous system begin to buzz with 50,000 volts of adrenaline. The fear and panic would well up from within. And that’s just with a “missing for a few minutes” episode. Mary and Joseph had no idea of Jesus’ fate for three full days!

During those three days, I wonder how many times Joseph replayed in his head the amazing events surrounding Jesus’ birth. The appearance of angels, the vivid dreams, the remarkable escape from danger, the undeniable hand of God so amazingly present at every turn. I wonder if Joseph wondered why God had not protected them this time. Or how could he possibly go on living if it turned out he failed in his sacred mission of raising and nurturing the boy.

When they finally found Jesus safe and sound in the temple, dazzling the priests and teachers with his wisdom, Joseph, who by custom should have done the talking, could not. It was Mary who cried out, “Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” Many translations of the Bible use the word “sorrow” instead of “great anxiety,” indicating that they already may have begun to grieve and mourn their loss.

I know this is pure conjecture, but my guess is before this episode occurred, St. Joseph was a robust carpenter in the prime of life with wavy black hair blowing in the breeze. When it was over, however, he had become a frail man with frequent chest pains and thin gray hair falling out in bunches. 

Raising kids is never easy. Even if the parents are saints, and even if the kid is the Savior of the world.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Ho Ho Ho! And Happy Easter

Ah, it’s Christmas Eve. This is a perfect time to give some thought to…Easter.

Easter?! What are you talking about? This is Christmas. Mistletoe, and Ho Ho Ho, and presents wrapped in bright red bows. Why in the world would someone want to talk about Easter mere hours away from Christmas Day?

Well, Christmas is the only time of year when many people acknowledge that there is, or was, a historical person named Jesus. No doubt Santa and Rudolph and Frosty and the website and the UPS delivery man have moved up in the polls and are now the main attractions of the season, but some manger scenes still can be found here and there, each containing a little baby Jesus statue.

Yep, it’s Jesus in those crèches all right, and that’s a good thing. But He’s just a baby, and babies are tiny and helpless. Since many people only think about Jesus at this time of year, in their minds He exists in a kind of perpetual infancy. He never grows up, He never gains wisdom, He never performs miracles, He never challenges us to confront our sinful ways and get our act together with God. And He never hangs from a cross.

The Jesus of Christmas is cute, He’s cuddly, He is 100-percent non-threatening. The Jesus of Christmas does not make people uncomfortable.

Here at Christmastime, we should ask ourselves, What is the real meaning of this holiday? Is it simply an annual stimulus to the retail sector of the national economy? Is it a convenient excuse to spend a few weeks saturating ourselves with food, alcohol, and credit card debt?

If you dig deep enough and get past all the materialistic folderol, you will discover that the true meaning of Christmas can be found outside the walls of Jerusalem where an itinerant, street-preaching rabbi hung naked from a cross beam above the city garbage dump. In other words, the true meaning of Christmas is Easter.

After all, the eternal, almighty God, the Creator of the universe, did not have a part of Himself take on human flesh just because He wanted to try the “See Ancient Palestine on Five Shekels a Day” tour. He became human for one reason: to redeem sinful mankind back to Himself.

Remember the Fall of Man? Remember sinfulness? OK, talking about sin these days generates about as much excitement as the Lawrence Welk Orchestra taking the stage at a hip-hop concert. But can anyone take an honest look around at our present culture and say that immoral and unethical behavior is not a problem?

God knows all too well that we are sinners. And He also knows that our sinfulness has created a huge gulf between His perfect holiness and us. Because He loves us so much, He humbled Himself to become one of us. This unique, supernatural event occurred at the very first Christmas in Bethlehem.

But it was only the first step. He didn’t enter into our time/space material dimension just to dazzle some shepherds and give the Three Wise Men a reason to yell, “Road trip!” He took this first step so that He could eventually take the ultimate step: the cross of Calvary.

When He died on that cross, He was the perfect, atoning sacrifice for all of our sins. And when He rose from the tomb three days later, He conquered death once and for all. Most importantly, He promised that if we put our faith in Him, we can do the same thing. 

This is the true meaning of Christmas. Keep it in mind when you pour that next eggnog, and if you’re gutsy enough, greet your friends and relatives tonight with a joyous, “Happy Easter!”  

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A Christmas Eve Tradition

Christmas Eve is tomorrow, and I already know what will happen. (Not because I’m psychic, but because it happens every 24th of December.)

Tomorrow evening, at approximately 9:05 p.m., I will find myself wandering through the CVS pharmacy. I will walk slowly, my eyes darting to and fro, while my lips move in silent prayer for some acceptable gifts to appear on the shelves. A lone employee will stand by the front door with her arms folded and a scowl on her face, clearly indicating just how thrilled she is to be the shift manager on Christmas Eve.

“Sir,” she’ll call out, failing in her attempt to instill some holiday cheer in her voice, “It’s closing time. It’s PAST closing time. My kids are home waiting for me. Aren’t you going to buy something? ANYTHING?”

Why does this scenario play out each and every year? That’s easy: I’m an idiot.

It began four weeks ago, on Thanksgiving Day. Sitting around the dinner table, the conversation turned to holiday shopping. Gift requests were made, spending limits were set, and trips to the mall were planned.

In the middle of the discussion, one of my relatives boasted, “I’m already FINISHED with my Christmas shopping!” Seven jealous people immediately pummeled her senseless with turkey drumsticks and undercooked turnips.

If you have your Christmas shopping done before Thanksgiving Day, it is, of course, a sign of severe emotional problems. (In my world, procrastination is a virtue.) But I do remember clearly thinking on that day — despite the tryptophan overdose — that it might be a good idea to do my Christmas shopping early for a change. If I could get it done by, say, December 22nd, that would eliminate my usual Christmas Eve panic.

So, later on Thanksgiving Day, after I revived from my turkey-induced coma, I made a list of what I would purchase for my family and friends. I actually thought about going to the mall the next day. But no, as every media outlet on the planet reminds us, the Friday after Thanksgiving is “The Busiest Shopping Day of the Year.” (I think it’s listed in the Constitution. The Second Amendment reads in part, “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the fourth Friday in November shall be designated the busiest shopping day of the year.”)

In early December, I made two attempts to buy some gifts. On the first occasion I couldn’t find a single parking space at the mall. After burning half a tank of gas driving around in circles, I gave up and went back home.

On my other shopping attempt, I did find a parking space, but then proceeded to spend two hours in the electronics department watching the Giants’ football game on a wall of 24 television sets. When I returned home, the only things I had purchased were a cordless drill and a socket wrench. I’m guessing my wife won’t appreciate either in her stocking on Christmas morning.

I still was certain I could get my shopping done during the final weekend before Christmas. However, some unexpected commitments cropped up, I fell asleep on the couch a few times, and the next thing I knew, December 24th was on the doorstep.

Theoretically, it’s possible I could do some shopping tonight. But remember that “procrastination is a virtue” thing? No doubt something will come along this evening and distract me — something very urgent and crucial, such as the television being on. 

So tomorrow night, as I scan the CVS shelves, if it’s similar to last year, the shift manager will slip into the back room to recharge her stun gun. When she emerges with fire in her eyes and 50,000 volts in her hand, it finally will prompt me to make some purchases. And on Christmas morning, as my loved ones gather around the tree, for the 17th year in a row, the gift-giving theme will be “Chia Pets and Slim Jims for everyone!”

Monday, December 21, 2015

Celebrate the REAL Christmas Season

It’s time to buck the trend this Christmas. It is time to resist peer pressure and be counter-cultural. I know that’s a hard thing to do. After all, I’m an expert on going along with peer pressure. I went to high school in the 1970s—also known as “the decade that fashion forgot.” Forty years later my kids still get a kick out of digging out my high school yearbook and laughing at the photos. “Look at those clothes!” they exclaim. “Look at that hair! What were you thinking?!”

Well, what I was thinking at the time was: “This is how everyone else is dressing. This is how everyone else is wearing their hair. I want to go along with the crowd.” And the sad result was bell-bottom pants, platform shoes, a yellow paisley shirt with a collar so large and pointy it could draw blood, and the goofiest Prince Valiant haircut you ever saw. (I’ve made it very clear to my kids that if they so much as snap a single photo of my yearbook with their smart phones and post it on the Internet, they are SO out of my will.)

I understand that following the crowd and not making waves is the easy, safe, and comfortable thing to do. But now it is time to take a stand. And the issue about which we must take a stand is this: the Christmas Season.

According to our modern American culture, the Christmas Season begins the day after Halloween. (Although in the stores it begins around Labor Day.) The Christmas Season slowly percolates during November, and then the moment the turkey dinner is finished on Thanksgiving afternoon, the Christmas Season kicks into high gear. It then continues at a frenetic pace until reaching a smashing crescendo on the morning of December 25th when zillions of presents are unwrapped. But then, by mid-afternoon the Christmas Season is pretty much over, and people start looking forward to the New Year’s holiday. One of my neighbors dismantles his Christmas tree seemingly moments after the last present is opened. I usually see the stripped carcass of a pine tree, save for a few snagged pieces of tinsel, out by the curb in front of his house on the morning of December 26th.

However, the reality of the situation is this: the Christmas Season doesn’t even BEGIN until the evening of December 24th at the Christmas Eve Vigil Mass. All of December before that moment is the all-but-forgotten season of Advent. Then, once Christmas Day arrives, the Christmas season continues for the next twelve days. Other than having to endure the tedious song by the same name, the Twelve Days of Christmas is a wonderful way to prolong the joy of the season, and of course, help us to remember the true reason for the season: Jesus. The twelfth day of Christmas, January 6th, is the feast of Epiphany, also known as Three Kings Day. (The “We Three Kings” song also is kind of tedious. I prefer that other Epiphany song by Jay and the Americans: “This Magi Moment.”)

So this is the time to be counter-cultural. This is the time to buck the trend, resist peer pressure, and celebrate the true Christmas season. Christmas does NOT begin in early Fall and continues for weeks and weeks and weeks before concluding on December 25th. Christmas BEGINS on Christmas Day (or the Christmas Eve Vigil) and continues right through New Year’s and doesn’t end until January 6th. 

This year, don’t get caught up in the culture’s idea of the Christmas Season. It’s shallow and fake. Instead, celebrate the real Christmas Season, the season that focuses on the Lord. After all, ending the Christmas Season just as it really begins is as silly as bell-bottoms, platform shoes, and Prince Valiant haircuts.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Bob Cratchit’s Long Lost Diary

December 26, 1843 - Dear Diary: I scarcely know where to begin! After yesterday’s merry celebration, I arrived quite late at the office this morning and fully expected Mr. Scrooge to discharge me right on the spot. But instead of being angry, he was positively giddy! He hugged me, gave me a substantial raise in salary, ordered me to throw plenty of coal on the fire, shared a snifter of brandy with me in the afternoon, and most surprisingly, offered to help with Tiny Tim’s medical problems. I was sure he was not even aware of Tim’s existence—let alone his poor health. The total transformation in the man is remarkable. This is the most joyous turn of events we could have ever hoped for. Upon hearing the news, Mrs. Cratchit was extremely affectionate this evening for the first time in ages. Possibly another Cratchit on the way? God bless us, everyone!

December 27, 1843 - Dear Diary: Mr. Scrooge instructed me to order a new oil lamp so I might see better at my desk. He also gave me the name and address of one of London’s most prominent surgeons. I assume he wants me to bring Tim there. Due to our lengthy chat over lunch, Mr. Scrooge was late in getting to the Exchange this afternoon and was unable to make a deal when the market price of corn unexpectedly dropped. He stands to lose more than 30 pounds on this transaction. He returned to the office in a bit of a disagreeable mood. There was no brandy today. He did, however, wish me well at closing time and hinted that I might see him at church this Sunday. Now wouldn’t that be extraordinary?

December 28, 1843 - Dear Diary: Brought Tim to Dr. Townsend today. He says he can help but the treatments will be rather expensive. He was very puzzled when I instructed him to send the bills to Mr. Scrooge, but I convinced him that Mr. Scrooge is a new man.

December 29, 1843 - Dear Diary: Did not see Mr. Scrooge in church this morning. I thought of him often, especially when the parson spoke of the power of the spirit of Christmas to bring about unexpected change in a man’s heart.

December 30, 1843 - Dear Diary: Mr. Scrooge must have had an unpleasant weekend. He was rather cross all day. He seemed quite agitated when the invoice for the coal shipment arrived.

December 31, 1843 - Dear Diary: Had much end-of-year bookkeeping to finish today. Mr. Scrooge yelled many times for me to work faster. He also complained, “A perfectly profitable year has all but been ruined by one week of reckless spending!” I do hope it was only the pressure of closing out the books which brought about this foul mood.

January 1, 1844 - Dear Diary: The new oil lamp arrived. When I asked that a jar of oil be included in the sale, Mr. Scrooge leapt from behind his desk and bellowed, “MR. CRATCHIT!! It is you who will be using that frivolous lamp. It is you who shall pay for its fuel! Is that quite clear?!” With my new salary, I should be able to manage. I am getting more concerned about Mr. Scrooge’s state of mind, however.

January 2, 1844 - Dear Diary: Pay day. Mr. Scrooge gave me my old wage today. When I reminded him about my new salary, he yelled, “Salary? That was not a salary, Mr. Cratchit. That was, uh, a Christmas bonus, is what it was. Yes, a one-time bonus. Now get back to work before I dock your pay next week!” I am afraid Mr. Scrooge is quickly losing whatever holiday spirit he possessed last week. Mrs. Cratchit was irate at the news. At least Tiny Tim is responding well to Dr. Townsend’s treatments.

January 3, 1844 - Dear Diary: Dr. Townsend’s invoices arrived at the office today. Mr. Scrooge refused to pay them. I quarreled with him most vehemently. He discharged me right on the spot and threw me out into the snow. Before I could relate this terrible news to Mrs. Cratchit, she informed me that yes indeed, another Cratchit is on the way. 

February 7, 1844 - Dear Diary: Our long voyage is finally over. Mrs. Cratchit and the children did not enjoy traveling by sea, but the gorgeous weather here in the Bahamas makes it all worth while.  Good thing I’ve been keeping a second set of books all these years and skimming five pounds each week from Mr. Scrooge’s money box. I suppose we shall miss cold, dreary London—or maybe not!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Christmas Tree Shrinks This Year

When I was young, I remember going to my aunt’s house in December. Her Christmas tree consisted of a little three-foot tall artificial model sitting on an end table. And that was it. I was horrified. “That’s not a Christmas tree!” I exclaimed. “That little thing is an insult to the whole spirit of Christmas!” (At the time I thought the spirit of Christmas was “excess,” as in a popular Christmas carol: “Excess the halls with boughs of holly, Fa la la la-la, la-la la la.”)

An approved Christmas tree, I was certain, required a hike into the woods with a chain saw, where you’d cut down a big, full pine tree at least 10 or 12 feet tall (even if your ceilings were only eight feet high). Then you dragged that sucker back home and erected it in the living room. So what if it was too tall? You’d chop off the top section, which made it appear the tree had penetrated the ceiling into an upstairs bedroom. So what if it was full of spiders and mice and the occasional family of squirrels? That just made the holiday festivities more exciting.

Then you proceeded to decorate the tree with seven sets of blinking lights, four or five-hundred ornaments, and a bushel of tinsel. Finally, you adorned the tree with some holiday treats, such as candy canes, popcorn balls, and canned hams. (Not big ones, of course. It was Christmas, after all. You had to show some respect. So we used the small three-pound canned hams.)

Now that was a Christmas tree! Or at least that’s how I remember it from my childhood. So, why do I recall these long lost memories of the Ghost of Christmas Past? Well, I’m glad I asked me, so I’ll tell you.

This year my wife and I decided to follow the example of my dearly departed aunt: we bought a dinky three-foot artificial tree and plopped it onto an end table. And you know what? It looks fine. It makes our living room look festive enough, and we didn’t have to spend a week chasing mice and squirrels out of the house and putting Calamine lotion on spider bites.

I did discover, however, that even a small three-pound canned ham will tip the tree over, so this year we’ll have to forego that cherished and holy tradition, which dates back to biblical times. (What? You’ve never heard of the canned ham on a Christmas tree tradition? Oh, you haven’t lived!)

The only problem is our children. When they traveled home the other day to visit, they were horrified. “That’s not a Christmas tree!” they exclaimed. “That little thing is an insult to the whole spirit of Christmas!”

Trying to be calm and wise (neither of which I do very well), I said to them, “What exactly is the spirit of Christmas?”

The immediately burst into song: “Excess the halls with boughs of holly, Fa la la la-la, la-la la la.”

So, even though my children are as disappointed by my wimpy tree as I was decades ago by my aunt’s wimpy tree, I’m now convinced this little hunk of made-in-China green plastic does a fine job of filling our home with the Christmas spirit.

We have other decorations in the room, of course. And by far the best decoration is that quaint item suspended above the archway leading into the living room. In keeping with tradition, whenever your sweetheart walks into the room and pauses in the archway, you jump up, point above her head, and then embrace her in a big smooch. There is nothing that says “Merry Christmas” quite like a kiss under the canned ham.

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Joy of Christmas Music

One of the most amazing aspects of the Christmas season is the music. There are so many Christmas carols, it’s hard even to count them all. If you took all the music associated with the other 47 holidays on the calendar — including National Doughnut Day and Take Your Goldfish to Work Day — and added them all up, the total number of songs wouldn’t even come close to the number of Christmas carols recorded by Andy Williams alone during 1966.

It’s no contest. All of our other holidays combined have, at most, 100 different songs (and that’s if we include everything John Philip Sousa ever wrote under the category “Fourth of July”).

Christmas has literally thousands of different songs, with new ones coming out each year. Maybe that’s why retail stores blare Christmas carols over the PA system beginning on November 1st. They need two full months to play every song. No, that can’t be right. I was in Target the other day for only 30 minutes, but I heard my favorite religious carol, “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer,” at least four times. I guess some stores like to repeat the really heart-warming holiday songs.

Adding to this glut of Christmas tunes is the fact every single person in the music industry—including every studio engineer and every record company parking lot attendant—feels compelled to release a Christmas album. Is there anything more poignant than hearing Lady Gaga screech out her version of “Away in a Manger,” or Kanye West’s special hip-hop interpretation of “We Three Dogs of Orient Be”? (First verse: “We three dogs of Orient be / Bearing bling to give to J.C.”)

To be serious for just a moment, which is very difficult for me to do, there are some secular Christmas songs that are very poignant and nostalgic, such as “White Christmas” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Here are a couple of fun facts, brought to us by those know-it-alls at Google: the lyrics for “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” were written by Kim Gannon during World War II, and sung from the point of view of a soldier far from home. Record companies rejected the song as too gloomy, but Gannon had a chance to sing it for Bing Crosby, who decided to record it. The song ended up being the flip side of Crosby’s “White Christmas” record. (How’d you like to own an original copy of that vinyl disk?) It became Bing’s fifth gold record, and by December of 1944 the song was the most requested number by military personnel at USO shows.

On the other hand, there are some downright awful secular Christmas songs. “Santa Baby” and the Grandma-Reindeer number come to mind. (In case you couldn’t tell, I was kidding earlier when I said that one is my favorite religious carol.)

However, as people of faith, despite the popularity of many secular Christmas songs, this is our golden opportunity to play overtly religious carols. We all know those angry folks at the Freedom From Happiness Foundation (or whatever it’s called) are working overtime to remove religious Christmas carols from school concerts. But there’s nothing stopping us from playing that music in our homes, in our cars, or on our computers at work.

And if, like me, you consider Bing Crosby to be the Voice of Christmas, Der Bingle recorded some terrific classics, such as “Silent Night,” “The First Noel,” and “Adeste Fideles” (O Come All Ye Faithful).

So enjoy this amazing time of year with so many incredible and memorable musical choices. But try to emphasize the tunes that proclaim the true meaning of this season: Christ is born! 

And definitely try to include my all-time favorite Christmas carol, the one that brings a tear to my eye every time: “O Holy Night” by Andy Williams. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Friday, December 11, 2015

The ‘Wait, What?!’ of the Week, December 11, 2015

Since the terrorist attack occurred last week in San Bernardino, the New York Daily News has published a couple of page-one headlines that were simply unhinged. But the newspaper reached a new low last Saturday when a regular columnist, Linda Stasi, wrote that one of the murdered victims was just as bad as the murderers and deserved to be killed.

Wait. What?! Did she really say that?! Well, here is how her column began: “They were two hate-filled, bigoted municipal employees interacting in one department. Now 13 innocent people are dead in unspeakable carnage.”

We know that 14 victims were murdered. But she says only 13 were “innocent.” So who is this other non-innocent municipal employee, besides Syed Farook, the shooter? His name was Nicholas Thalasinos. And his crime, according to Ms. Stasi? He was “an anti-government, anti-Islam, pro-NRA, rabidly anti-Planned Parenthood kinda guy.” In other words, he had opinions and beliefs that differed from Ms. Stasi and the liberal progressive wing of American politics. (His beliefs, by the way, minus the inflammatory adverbs, are held by, oh, about half the country.)

Well, what actual unlawful behaviors did Mr. Thalasinos engage in, behaviors which in Ms. Stasi’s view meant he deserved to be killed? Did he shoot up a Planned Parenthood clinic? Did he fire-bomb a mosque? How many people exactly did he murder? Here is what he did: he posted his opinions on Facebook and talked about his views at work.

Oh horrors! In the Daily News columnist’s twisted little mind, expressing views she does not agree with is so awful she cannot bring herself to consider Mr. Thalasinos an “innocent” victim. And if he’s not innocent, that means she really believes he had it coming.

It would be one thing if Ms. Stasi’s views were simply an anonymous online rant in the comment section of an obscure website. But she writes for a newspaper that is—er, I mean, that used to be—considered important. And she is not alone in her view. If you haven’t noticed, there is now a strong movement in our country to stomp on the First Amendment and silence all politically incorrect dissent. It’s not just on college campuses. And I’m sure when Ms. Stasi attended an Upper West Side cocktail party last Saturday evening, everyone in the room congratulated her for her brilliant moral equivalency: the so-call “bigoted” victim was just as bad as the bigoted shooter. 

Welcome to Fascist America, folks, where Thought Crimes will be punished. I suspect when Ms. Stasi read Orwell’s novel “1984” in school, she considered it to be a feel-good how-to manual.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Rabbit Ears in a High-Tech World

The other day I was at lunch with some business associates. Since the topic of commercial rooftop air conditioning equipment is so breathtakingly scintillating, we decided to change the subject for a while to avoid getting emotionally overwhelmed. So we started talking about the telecommunication providers at our respective homes.

You’re probably familiar with some of these companies: “Hey-hey and Flee,” “Crox,” “Bombast,” Squish-TV,” “Floptimum,” “Hex-finity,” and the new folks in our state, “Runt-deer.” (Or at least that’s what the company names sound like. If I use their real names, I’m afraid I’ll either get sued, or my service provider will secretly alter my Internet connection so the only website I’ll be able to access is, which of course, will require me to jump off a bridge.)

Our discussion was like a poker game, with each guy taking his turn to raise the ante. “Oh yeah?” one guy said. “Bombast charges me $240 per month, and the download speed is so slow my daughter thinks the name of our favorite Netflix show is ‘Buffering’.”

“That’s nothing,” the next guy offered. “We’re now over $300 per month with Hey-hey and Flee, and that doesn’t include the extra charges if we exceed our monthly data plan. And my wife’s new iPhone 6 seems to gobble up giga-bites like Orson Welles at a Sunday brunch buffet.”

Most of the guys at the table looked at each other and shrugged in confusion. After an awkward pause, I said, “Whoa, an Orson Welles joke? Not bad. But you realize everybody here, besides you and me, are only in their 30s and early 40s, so they have no clue what you’re talking about.”

The guy replied, “I always thought that line was funny, ever since I was a kid and heard Charlie Callas say it at a Dean Martin roast.”

Now the other guys really looked confused. “Charlie Callas? Dean Martin?”

I leaned toward the fellow and subtly whispered, “You’d better stick to references from this century, or these other guys will forcibly put us in a nursing home.”

One of the other men at the table turned to me and said, “So Bill, what’s your horror story? How bad is your Internet and cable company gouging you?”

I replied, “Pretty bad, but we don’t have cable.”

The guy said, “Oh, so you watch TV on the Internet, with Netflix or Hulu?”

I said, “Well, actually, our Internet speed with Runt-deer is so slow, we can’t do that.” And then, in a moment of complete stupidity, I kept talking and said, “But we get a few local channels with our rabbit ears antenna.”

Oh no, did I actually utter the phrase “rabbit ears” in front of a bunch of tech-savvy young men? If you think mentioning Orson Welles or Charlie Callas will cause people to think you’re old, you ain’t seen nothing until you say the words “rabbit ears.”

Everyone at the table stared at me in disbelief. Finally, one guy asked very slowly and nervously, “Do you churn your own butter?”

I quickly tried to explain that disconnecting the cable years ago was something we did when our kids were young, and as a result they developed skills quite rare here in the 21st century, such as the ability to read books and speak in complete sentences. 

However, the guys were having none of it. We finished our lunch in uncomfortable silence. On the bright side, the nursing home they forcibly checked me into is rather nice. And I hear that later today Charlie Callas and Dean Martin are coming here to visit. I don’t know yet if Orson Welles is available to join them.