Friday, December 28, 2018

Celebrating New Year’s Eve

So what are you doing on Monday night to celebrate New Year’s Eve? Going to Times Square? Attending some fancy party with tuxedos and evening gowns? Or are you going to see if you can somehow stay awake until 10:30 p.m.? Yeah, that’s more my style.

New Year’s Eve is a weird holiday. It’s the only holiday on the calendar which features alcohol consumption as an important part of the proper celebration — not counting, of course, St. Patrick’s Day. (Or the way I used to approach holidays when I was in my 20s, which was to feature alcohol consumption as an important part of the proper celebration of EVERYTHING. “Hey, today is Flag Day! Let’s make some Bloody Mary’s for breakfast to celebrate!” or “Hey, today is that famous holiday, August 17th! Let’s break out a bottle of Jack Daniel’s to celebrate!”)

If you think I exaggerate, how many other holidays have articles in the newspaper each year offering tips on how to cure a hangover? Or how many other evenings of the year are referred to as “amateur night,” when people who aren’t used to drinking and driving will be menacing the highways? (As opposed to other nights of the year when you’ll encounter, presumably, only professional drunk drivers.)

My wife and I attend a party each year at the house of friends. It’s always a great time, but our biggest problem is trying to figure out how to leave the party before 11 p.m., so we only get a poor night’s sleep rather than a horrible night’s sleep. You see, if we leave before 11, we’ll be home and in bed well before midnight, which means we lose only about two hours of a normal night’s sleep. But if we stay at the party until midnight to ring in the New Year, which we’ve done a couple times in the past, then we don’t get out of there until about 1:30 a.m. This is because the host waits until midnight to break out the desserts, and if you think I’m leaving a party at the exact moment dessert is being served, then to paraphrase Bugs Bunny, “You don’t know me very well, do you?”

So, if we stay there past midnight, that means we’ll lose out on about four hours of a normal night’s sleep, which definitely puts it into the “horrible” category. Now, I can hear some of you asking a question. (Yes, I can hear you right through the newspaper — it’s a new technology the newspaper industry is using to spy on users, just like Facebook does.) You’re asking, “Well, why don’t you just sleep in late on New Year’s Day?”

Oh child, dear naïve child. You have no idea what it’s like living in Geezerville. When a person slides through middle-age and becomes a card-carrying senior, it no longer matters when you go to sleep. You always wake up at the exact same time every morning. For me, it’s 5 a.m.

If I go to sleep at 9 p.m., I wake up at 5 a.m. If I go to sleep at 11 p.m., I wake up at 5 a.m. If I go to sleep at 4:55 a.m., I wake up after a refreshing five minutes of sleep. (Two months after the fact, I’ve finally caught up on sleep after that insane 18-inning, 3:30 a.m., Red Sox World Series game.)

My wife and I are looking forward to attending the New Year’s Eve party. We just have to figure out how to sneak out early without being called wimps by our friends. On the other hand, if the host breaks out the desserts at 10:30, I’m sure I’ll stick around for a while longer.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

The Late Night Reflections of St. Joseph

My name is Joseph Bar-Jacob. It is now about midnight and my wife Mary and the newborn baby are asleep. I’m exhausted, but I’m still overwhelmed by what has happened, and so I can’t possibly doze right now.

It’s so very quiet. I can hear the livestock breathing softly as they sleep. But it wasn’t so peaceful in this stable a short while ago. Every shepherd from every nearby hill was here. They claimed that a host of angels lit up the sky and announced the birth of this remarkable baby boy. I did not witness that, but I’m not surprised it occurred, since everything about this child is a miracle.

It seems like a lifetime ago when this all began. I’ll never forget that day. Sweet young Mary—the woman I was scheduled to marry, the woman I planned to build a family with—told me she was pregnant. Well, I knew I wasn’t the father, and although I was devastated, I told her parents that I would quietly end our betrothal pact, to avoid scandal.

However, Mary insisted she had not betrayed me. She said an angel of God had appeared to her and the child within her was conceived by the Spirit of God and was destined to be the ruler of all Israel.

Now I was doubly devastated. Not only had Mary betrayed me, but she was telling outlandish lies. But then the dream came. Late one night while I was sound asleep, an angel of God came to me in a dream. It was no ordinary dream; it was quite real. Although I remained asleep, the message was vivid, as if I were wide awake. The angel told me to fear not, and that I should take Mary as my wife because what was conceived in her was from the Holy Spirit.

The next day I went to Mary and told her I believed her. She was so relieved. I also said that the angel had told me the child’s name, the name she also had been told, but had never mentioned to anyone. We looked into each other’s eyes, paused for a moment, then said in unison: “Jesus.”

The following months were a whirlwind. I prepared my home for the new baby. Mary left to visit her kinswomen Elizabeth. Then the Roman census was announced, and we had to travel here to Bethlehem. And then yesterday, Mary’s time arrived, but there was no place for us to stay. So, I tried to make her as comfortable as possible in this cramped cave with all these animals. Mary never complained, and when the boy was born early this evening, it was the most breathtaking event I have ever witnessed.

But I feel so unworthy. Why did God give me this awesome responsibility? I have no wealth, I have no education. I could not even find a respectable place for this miracle child to be born. How can I possibly raise this boy properly? He is the Son of the Most High, and I am nothing. How can I ever meet God’s expectations?

I would never tell Mary this, but I am frightened. I am almost out of money, and I’m not sure I can buy even a little food for us tomorrow. I trust that God will provide—somehow—but I just wish He would let me know what to expect.

Well, I’m finally getting drowsy, so I should try to sleep.

Wait, what’s that noise? I’d better go look. Oh my, it’s a small caravan of camels, with three obviously rich men riding, and many servants walking alongside. And they’re coming this way! Oh, I wonder if there is any chance they might share a little food with us. That would be so helpful.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Memories of Christmas Trees Past

Today’s topic is Christmas trees. Since it’s less than a week until Christmas Day, that makes sense. At this time of year, if today’s topic was Groundhog Day flowers or Labor Day bushes or Thanksgiving shrubs, that would be weird. We’ll save those topics for the appropriate months: March, July, and Thursday.

Anyway, according to the Internet, the tradition of Christmas trees originated in Germany in the 16th century. As we all know, if it’s on the Internet it MUST be true. Back in the 16th century (which I think means the 1500s — I always get that confused) devout Christians in what is now known as Germany (and back then was known as Arizona) brought decorated pine trees into their homes. I suspect a lot of schnapps and beer were involved.

Regardless of the intoxicants required to get this activity started, decorated Christmas trees have now become a cherished tradition. Christmas trees can be found in many nations around the world, including China, South Africa, Germany (formerly Arizona), and the good ol’ U.S. of A. (According to the Internet, the words “good ol’” are part of the official name of our country, even though compared to many other nations, we’re still a rambunctious teenager of a country.)

Personally, I have many fond memories of Christmas Trees Past (which was the first ghost to appear in Charles Dickens’ holiday classic, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”). I also have one horrible memory about Christmas trees, a memory dredged up recently by my darling sister on her fabulous blog:

We had a family tradition in my family (the best place to have family traditions) of always getting a live Christmas tree. And not just a live cut tree as opposed to an artificial tree. No, my dad’s thinking was a cut tree will just end up as trash in a few weeks, so instead, he insisted on digging up the tree — roots, dirt, and all — so it could be planted in the springtime and become part of our yard’s landscaping. Since my dad’s first two children were sons, he had a couple of built-in farm laborers, who were ready and nowhere near willing to dig up a pine tree.

Oh, one other thing: in my family the tradition was to get our tree on Christmas Eve. I don’t know if that was a Catholic thing, or a New Haven thing, or a schnapps and beer procrastination thing, but as you probably know, here in Connecticut on your average December 24th, the ground has the same hardness as concrete, except with a much greater chance of producing sparks when your steel shovel hits a rock.

There are a lot of poignant, heart-warming scenes displayed on holiday cards this time of year. For some reason, Hallmark has yet to include this particular poignant scene: two skinny boys, ages 11 and 10, standing on opposite sides of a lopsided pine tree, chipping away at the frozen tundra with old and bent shovels, icy tears streaming down their cheeks, each wishing they could convert to Judaism, at least for one day out of the year.

I’m so glad my darling sister stirred up that old memory. And I thought my counseling days were over. I hope I still have Dr. Nussbaum’s phone number.

However, there is some good news. Fifty years after experiencing what it was like to be in a Soviet gulag labor camp, I finally got most of the feeling back in my fingers.

Nowadays, our Christmas tree is made of bright, shiny, green plastic — the exact kind Mary and Joseph had 2,000 years ago (at least according to the Internet).

Merry Christmas! And as Tom Sawyer exclaimed, “God bless us, everyone!”

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

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.” Over 40 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 are 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.

Friday, December 14, 2018

No One Gives Me Any Credit

A couple weeks ago I had a very strange experience. For seven straight days no one would give me any credit. No, I don’t mean that nobody acknowledged when I accomplished something. For example, at work, in reply to this bellowing inquiry, “Who the hell typed up this quotation and forgot to include the freight charges?!” multiple coworkers were always ready to give credit where credit is due and say, “Oh, that was Bill.”

And around the house, if all the dishes and pots and pans are sparkling clean and someone asks, “Who cleaned up the kitchen?” a family member will quickly say, “Dad did it.” (This scenario is mostly theoretical and describes something that may possibly occur in the future. But I’m confident that if and when it does happen someone will give me credit — right after being revived after passing out from shock.)

Anyway, when I say no one would give me any credit, I mean I went seven full days without a credit card. You see, something weird happened with our MasterCard account. Apparently, someone tried to hack into it, but before they could purchase anything, the credit card company detected unusual activity and froze the account. They contacted us and said they needed to cancel those cards and issue us new cards with a new number.

OK, fine, I thought. We certainly don’t want to be victims of identity theft — again. The last time that happened about five years ago, it was rather awkward. Someone stole my credit card number and used it to buy $10,000 worth of merchandise from an X-rated video store in Georgia. At the time the geniuses at MasterCard didn’t think that was unusual activity for me. (So, now you see why I describe that episode using the phrase “rather awkward.”)

Going without a credit card for a week or so didn’t seem like a big deal to me. After all, my wife has a couple of other credit cards. (By the way, she is allowed to have more than one, partly because she is the family C.F.O. and mostly because she is the one person in this marriage with a track record of NOT making impulsive purchases.) So, if we needed to buy something, we could just use one of her other cards. I hardly use my credit card anyway, I reasoned.

But then reality set in. My “reasoned” analysis was disproved by two things: first, my wife, who pays the bills, pointed out that I always use my credit card at least five or six times per week; and second, I experienced severe withdrawal symptoms every time I drove by a Walmart, Target, Staples, or Dick’s sporting goods store.

To make matters worse, all this occurred less than a month after the Red Sox won the World Series, and I’m pretty sure it’s right in the U.S. Constitution that all true fans must show their loyalty by purchasing every new championship hat, shirt, jacket, and commemorative beer mug that hits the store shelves, right?

Also, this happened right after Thanksgiving week, the time when the Christmas shopping season kicks into high gear. When it dawned on me that all of the online retailers I frequent — such as Amazon, and, uh, Amazon, and, um, occasionally Amazon — no longer have a valid credit card on record, I started to panic.

Somehow, I survived those seven painful days. Although during that time period the stock market took a big hit. Probably a coincidence. But now I have a brand new activated MasterCard in my wallet, so I think it’s safe to say the U.S. economy will continue to stay strong, at least until my wife opens the next credit card statement in January.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Christmas Pageant Brings Comfort and Joy

One of the best aspects of the Christmas season is the parish Nativity pageant. It also goes by other names, such as Christmas pageant, Nativity play, or Les Misérables (which describes the parents who have to explain to the pastor why they thought it was a good idea to bring live farm animals into the church sanctuary, one of whom just deposited some steaming tidings of comfort and joy right on the new carpeting).

The format for most Christmas pageants is similar. The younger children in the parish C.C.D. program volunteer to play the parts, oftentimes volunteering just like privates in the army when a sergeant points at them and says, “Congratulations, you just volunteered!”

There are many important parts in the play, none more crucial than St. Joseph. Although he has no lines and does not move from his spot next to the crèche, it takes a very special fourth grade boy to play this part. He must have a dignified appearance; he must refrain from suddenly running over to inspect the steaming pile of comfort and joy deposited by the farm animal, as all the other impulsive fourth-grader shepherds just did; and most of all, he must resist the urge to die of embarrassment while sitting right next to a fourth grade girl playing the part of his wife, who no doubt is infected with a severe case of the dreaded “cooties,” while all his shepherd friends point at him and giggle.

The role of Mary is important, too. Especially if one of the parents, usually the same parent who thought the live farm animals was a good idea, decides it would be wonderfully authentic if the part of Jesus is played by a real live human infant rather than a toy doll. Therefore, the fourth grade girl who plays the part of Mary not only must exude holiness, she has to know how to hold an infant without giving him whiplash, and how to keep her cool when the little tyke starts screaming at the top of his lungs—which definitely was not in the script, but you know how temperamental three-month old show business celebrities are.

When the infant starts screaming and flailing, the actual mother of the child, who has been nervously waiting in the wings wondering how she ever let herself be talked into this, tip-toes out to the center of the action to try and calm her baby. For some reason, adults who need to assist wayward junior thespians during the middle of a performance think if they tip-toe and bend at the waist while on stage then no one in the audience can see them. They are wrong.

The climax of the action occurs when the final three actors make their grand entrance. That’s right, it’s time for the Magi, the Three Kings, bringing their gifts of an empty shoebox wrapped in gold paper, an empty shoebox wrapped in silver paper, and an empty shoebox wrapped in the Sunday comics.

The great thing about parish Nativity pageants is that no matter how much the performance deviates from the script, no matter how much the farm animals or infants or distracted shepherds try to steal scenes by ad-libbing, the show is always a rousing success. This is because the story itself is so compelling: the Creator God of the Universe decided to take on human flesh in order to save mankind, and He did it in the most unexpected and humble manner.

So, make sure you attend your parish’s Nativity pageant this year. And watch out for that steaming pile of comfort and joy.

Friday, December 7, 2018

AARP Hates Birthday Parties

Earlier this year I finally joined AARP (The American Association of Rickety Persons). This makes me an official AARP-er, emphasis on “P-er,” especially at 2 a.m.

One of the main goals of the organization is to keep senior citizens healthy, and they contribute to this goal by sending every member about 75 pounds of mail each day. All that weightlifting certainly builds up elderly muscles, but an unfortunate side effect is a spike in worker’s comp claims by mail carriers.

AARP also likes to keep its members informed with regular email messages, approximately 75 pounds worth each day. (And this is rather hard to do, since emails don’t actually weigh anything.)

I recently received an email from AARP with the subject line — wait, let me rephrase that. I recently received 900 emails from AARP, one of which had a subject line that read: “Find Out What Really Sabotages Weight-Loss Efforts With This Quiz.”

My first thought was: “I already know what sabotages weight-loss efforts — shoveling food into my mouth.” But I was curious, so I clicked on the link and started taking the test. Here’s the very first question:

“It’s your grandson’s first birthday, and your daughter-in-law baked gorgeous cupcakes. You don’t want to offend her, but you also know you should not have one. What’s your strategy?”

I really don’t want to quibble, but I must. I have neither a grandson nor a daughter-in-law. News reports constantly tell us that huge organizations are compiling tons of personal data about everyone. If this is the case, why couldn’t AARP come up with a quiz that was more tailored to my personal situation?

OK, quibble time is over. Here are the four possible cupcake answers: 1) Put one on your plate just to be polite. 2) Tell her they’re beautiful, then politely say, “No thank you.” 3) Eat just the frosting. 4) Eat just the cake.

Well, now I know the quiz was not tailored to my personal situation, because there was no answer number 5: Eat four of the cupcakes and promise not to be a pig tomorrow.

I mean, think about it. This is my beloved (fictional) grandson. How many other times is he going to have a momentous first birthday party? This is the one and only opportunity to share in his joy. And AARP wants me NOT to partake of the gorgeous cupcakes lovingly prepared by my (fictional) daughter-in-law? Are they really in favor of family strife? Do they really want my (fictional) daughter-in-law to resent me for the rest of my life? They should be ashamed of themselves. (By the way, the quiz said answer #2 is correct.)

Here is one of the other quiz questions: “A few of your friends want to take you out for your birthday, but they tend to have big appetites. What’s the best way to avoid overeating with them?”

And here are the possible answers: 1) Pick a healthy restaurant. 2) Suggest instead an outing that doesn’t involve food, like a round of golf or a movie. 3) Go to a restaurant that has something for everyone — burgers for your friends, salad for you. 4) Any of the above.

The correct answer, according to AARP, is answer number 2: suggest an outing that doesn’t involve food.

So, two out of the nine questions on this cockamamy quiz directly attack the cherished tradition of celebrating birthdays. That’s so sad. These AARP “experts” are actually discouraging us from enjoying our (fictional) grandson’s first birthday — and insulting our (fictional) daughter-in-law in the process. And they’re telling us we can’t let our friends (fictional, in my case) take us out for a birthday lunch party.

Now I know what AARP really stands for: The American Association of Rotten Parties.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

A Special Season

It is early December, which means we have entered a special and festive and joyful season. We are once again in the season of … Advent.

Advent?! Who pays any attention to Advent anymore? Our entire American culture has been going bonkers for the Christmas season since about 2 p.m. on Thanksgiving afternoon. (This doesn’t include the retail industry, of course, which started focusing on Christmas the minute the Back-to-School sales ended on Labor Day weekend.)

Well, if we’re Catholic, we should pay attention to Advent. Advent is an entire season of its own. It’s the season before the season. And just like Christmas, Jesus is the reason for the season. (Actually, Jesus is the reason for ALL seasons.)

The word Advent means “coming.” We await the coming of the Lord, both His first coming, which we celebrate on Christmas Day, and His future Second Coming, which is the theme of the Gospel readings at Sunday Masses during Advent.

If you’re like me, when you attend Sunday Mass during December, you expect the gospel reading to touch on those famous biblical Christmas themes: such as Jesus’ birth in the stable, Santa Claus and Rudolph, the Red Ryder BB gun, Ebenezer Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past, etc. (Hmm, maybe my cultural Christmas themes have been getting mixed up with the real biblical Christmas themes. Might be time for me to crack open a Bible again.)

Anyway, our culture has it all wrong. Nowadays, the Christmas season begins in earnest during halftime of the Detroit Lions football game on Thanksgiving afternoon. Then it continues at a feverish, frantic, and over-indulgent pace right up until the morning of December 25th. And in many people’s minds Christmas is over as soon as the last gift is opened—which in some households occurs at about 5:45 a.m. (The season of “How am I going to pay these bills?” begins in mid-January when the credit card statements arrive in the mail. This is followed in early February by the season of “Did I really spend twelve-hundred bucks on a treadmill for a Christmas gift that’s been used exactly twice and now has served as an expensive coat rack since December 28th?!”)

However, according to the Church calendar, the season of Christmas BEGINS with the Christmas Eve vigil Mass, and then the Twelve Days of Christmas continue until the Feast of Epiphany on or about January 6th. The four-week period leading up to Christmas Day is the season of Advent.

It might be a good idea if we embrace the concept of Advent once again. Let’s be honest: even those of us who love Christmas often find the month of December to be very frantic and frustrating, expensive and exhausting. Wouldn’t it be nice to lead up to December 25th with a sense of calm and serenity, rather than the usual throbbing headache, frazzled nerves, and volcanic heartburn?

Here are some good things about the season of Advent: Number one, candles. An Advent wreath with candles is such a quaint and cozy change of pace compared to those gaudy, blinking-light mechanical reindeer. Also, Advent calendars are pretty cool (especially the ones with chocolate).

Next, there is the music of Advent. OK, you’re right, there aren’t a lot of Advent hymns. But “O Come Devine Messiah” and “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” are so lovely, and much nicer than hearing for the zillionth time “Grandma got run over by a reindeer.”

Finally, during Advent we can invoke the Christmas Procrastination Rule, which states: If you observe the season of Advent during December, you have a legitimate excuse for putting off much of the typical holiday season stressful foolishness.

So, enjoy the true season. Ho, ho, ho, and Merry Advent.