Saturday, August 7, 2021

The gray divorcée

First in, who knows, maybe a series of short stories about being GenX in slightly alternate universes.


Steve’s dad had played one season of pro baseball for a minor league farm team. He was very quick to tell everyone that it was, like, the least professional thing you could do in baseball and still get paid. But everyone knew it was false modesty because Steve’s dad was a giant tool and it was really the only thing he’d ever done that was in any way interesting. 

He slept in on Sundays when Steve and his mom and little brother went to church. I know, because it was our church, too. He wanted to umpire in the local Little League leagues, but he refused to take the required two-hour training course because he shouldn’t have to because, you know. He sold some kind of stuff that got used in building commercial buildings. Maybe siding or insulation or something. I was never sure. He travelled on business a lot. Chicago, New Orleans, Dallas. He’d bring back some snow globe with the city skyline or other lame-ass shit from airport gift shops. 

Steve told us, his friends, he was pretty sure his dad saw prostitutes when he was travelling. He’d overheard his dad say something about it during poker night one time when he, Steve, had to get up and get a ginger ale for a stomach ache. 

“But he may just be making shit up,” Steve told us at his 12th birthday sleepover. “He does that to seem cool or dangerous to his friends or whatever.”

In 1978, at twelve, the idea of somebody’s dad seeing a prostitute was on par with somebody’s dad being an actual intergalactic alien captain of a spaceship.

But that was what was in my head at Katy O’Reilly’s birthday party later that summer. Steve’s dad seeing prostitutes in Chicago, New Orleans or Dallas. With a snow globe waiting on the cheap, bedside table in a motel decorated in 1960’s goldenrod or celery. A snow globe from somewhere that didn’t have snow. Waiting to come back to suburban Boston and sit on the back of the dresser in Steve’s bedroom. Waiting to be dusted twice a month until it got thrown out when Steve cleaned up his room before going to U Penn. 

Steve’s birthday, like mine, was right near the beginning of summer vacation and that was cool. Get out of school and have a couple parties and sleepovers. Boom. Good times. Katy was a year older than us and her birthday was in early August and her oldest little brother was a year younger which is why we were invited to her party because her mother and our mothers were friends and Katy’s mom wanted to pad out that particular birthday because one of Katy’s actual friends had moved away and another had stopped being her friend for some reason. 

There was Katy, who we liked, and then her four little brothers, all of whom were various flavors of terrible. The next one, the one we were supposed to pretend to be friends with, was Mike. I think. Maybe Matt. It was an “M” name, because he insisted on being called “Big Mike” (or “Big Matt”) at some point when he was around eight. That lasted exactly three minutes before somebody was like, “So, you’re ‘BM?’” Which was, and still is, hilarious. 

So his nickname was “BM,” which he hated, even though he told people it stood for “Big Mike” (or “Big Matt”). 

Katy was cool, though. And I felt honestly bad about the losing a friend thing. That was an age when there was a realignment of friendships from grade school to what would eventually be the major high school cliques. People just stopped being your friend for no goddamn reason. It had happened to me already, and I knew the girl that had stopped being Katy’s friend and it was about some “who likes which kind of dancing” bullshit. Ballet vs. jazz at the local dance academy. Whatever.

Anyway, I liked Katy and, by extension, her mom. And, Steve’s dad was, at least in my mind, a criminal on par with Hitler (or at least Goebbels) for having (maybe) gone to a prostitute while on a business trip and he was kind of gross, regardless, and so that’s why I made him color blind.

If you didn’t go to birthday parties for kids in the 70’s, I’m happy for you. It was a terribly awkward time between the Boomers’ childhoods -- when kids were kids in ways that, for us, seemed forced and goofy -- and when they, the Boomers, had their own kids and parties became a lot more about whatever Disney or Marvel or Star Wars merchandise and characters or sports teams were favorites. 

For example, even at parties for twelve and thirteen-year-olds, GenX kids’ parents still often did games like “Pin the Tail on the Donkey” (I shit you not) or “Musical Chairs.” Which hadn’t really been fun since we were like seven. We were forced to wear conical hats and blow through those noise-makers that roll up. And, as I said in the case of Steve and me and some of our friends, they often invited a bunch of not-quite-friends based on parents’ ideas of who should be invited to a party, not just the birthday kid themselves.

I don’t blame our parents. They were all Silent Generation kids and as lost between Greatest and Boomers as we’d be lost between Boomers and Millennials. All our ideas about What is the Right Way to Do Things were filtered through the memories of adults who either didn’t want us to become adults or expected us to act like they had when they were kids... twenty years earlier. 

Since it was August, it was a picnic party, which is better. You can do some outside things like horseshoes or lawn darts and it’s picnic food like hot dogs and burgers and stuff, which is better than what you get fed indoors at a kid’s birthday party in February, which is much more like real food and might even include a vegetable other than baked beans or saur kraut or corn.

Except this was the year they decided, since it was so hot, to try doing some “fun, wet games.” 

For fuck sake.

If you don’t have an actual swimming pool, don’t have kids bring a bathing suit and a change of clothes. Especially if you’ve invited 30+ kids that aren’t really friends in order to cover some kind of perceived social gaffe that would happen if you actually just invited people your kid wanted at the party. 

Twenty minutes of eating decent picnic junk and then (I continue to shit you not) pin-the-tail and a pinata full of generic candy nobody ever likes (root beer barrels?) and then the cake and the singing and then, “OK everybody! Get changed for the water-sports!”

Yes. “Water sports.” 

It was the 70’s. Calm down. Nobody thought what you’re thinking right now. Zero out of everybody. This was way before the internet and most of us didn’t hear or read the word “dildo” even until we were sixteen and got ahold of a Penthouse and read the letters and, even then, we had to ask somebody’s older brother who ended up getting it spectacularly wrong.

So... half an hour wasted while we all waited our turns to change in the bathrooms. Half an hour of the boys standing around holding a towel and a suit and doing nothing while the un-conditioned air of the basement rumpus room made us all conscious of whose sweat was now puberty sweat. Half an hour of looking at friends and not-quite-friends and who-the-fuck-is-that-kid, all coming out wearing bathing suits that were either way to small because mom hadn’t gotten around to going to Sears for a new one, or too big because she had and it needed to last through next summer. 

The girls (there were more of them) got to change a couple at a time in the larger, master bathroom upstairs where it was cooler. 

I will not discuss the bathing suits of girls at that age. It was confusing enough at the time. 

The slip-n-slide was fun, at most once, for most of us. Until the ground got muddy and it sank down and the New England soil expressed its eternal rockiness and started poking us in the junk and one of the younger kids slid too far and scraped a bunch of skin off on the grass. 

Then we threw water balloons at each other based on “teams” which lasted about zero seconds until it because a free-for-all. The original round of two water balloons for each player lasted a hot minute, and then we waited around while somebody’s dad filled them up at the faucet, breaking every third one by overfilling, and that was another half hour of standing around in our bathing suits being awkward and looking at what was left of the cake but that we’d been told we couldn’t have because Katy’s aunt and her young kids were coming over tonight and we need to save some for them.

Last on the agenda was a squirt gun battle using tiny, old-school squirt guns that we’d all been provided from some “party pack.” The girls got to pick first. Mostly they picked based on color. Then the guys got to choose their guns from three styles that kind of looked like a Nazi pistol, a cowboy gun or an alien zapper. No matter the color or style, they all held about ten squirts of water, then it was back to one of the buckets to fight over who got to fill up next. 

To be fair, though, that was the funnest part of the party. Running around like idiots in the hot, August afternoon. Kinda high on sugar and being outside in a bathing suit and being allowed -- nay, encouraged! -- to squirt people with guns. Some of the parents even got into it and if they had a gun you knew it was OK to squirt them and they were all really into it in the fun way that decent adults at a kid’s party know how to be and they weren’t dicks about being squirted while wearing their street clothes.

Except Steve’s dad, of course. Who hung back out of range while sipping a Dr. Pepper, eyeing the remains of the cake as much as any kid there. 

And eyeing Mrs. O’Reilly. Katy’s mom. 

She was getting what I now, as an adult, recognize as “a few minutes of peace” while the kids were all actually having fun and she wasn’t prepping for the next activity. She was sitting on the bench of the picnic table that the cake was on, keeping watch on it, and us. I was waiting in line for the bucket to fill my purple, alien-style squirt gun and so was pretty close to the picnic table and she caught me looking at the cake and gave me a fun, “Oh-no-you-don’t” smile. She knew I knew I wasn’t going to sneak a piece, but it was fun to think about being a little bad and it was all part of the fun to get caught a little. I smiled back and patted my stomach to show how full I was and shook my head and made the, “No, no” gesture like I was a grown-ass person refusing another bite, and she laughed.

I was at the age when cute girls and pretty women had become something I was aware of, even if not involved with. She was a pretty lady. Laughing, she was beautiful.

She was also divorced. Which, while not as weird as an alien UFO captain or a travelling business dad hooking up for money in a HoJo’s, was still pretty rare in suburban Boston in the 70’s. Now? Nobody cares. I mean, the families obviously care. The kids care. But nobody “judges” per se. Divorce is simply an unfortunate reality in the 21st century, not a moral failing or social catastrophe. 

Katy’s dad had left a few years after the last of the brothers was born. At that age, I had no idea why. I had overheard from my mom that “he sends her plenty of money, but isn’t ever coming back.” Years later I found out he had both a terrible drug addiction problem and a terrible girlfriend problem who encouraged it. 

So I’m standing there, shivering slightly and somewhat deliciously as hose water evaporated off my back and arms, hearing the shouts of kids and grown-ups, getting impatient for my turn at the bucket and I become aware of a warming sensation as if someone to my left had opened an enormous oven.

Now, if you were born after about 1980, you probably aren’t aware of how warlockery was completely not-talked-about until Vatican III and (some say coincidentally) George Clooney’s famous PSA about his own challenges with natural magick. It’s perfectly normal now to take your kid for preternatural testing at five and then get them into a program and the right medication. But like divorce -- and autism and being queer and abortion and confederate-psychosis -- we were still suffering under a variety of Victorian-like blinders and gags when it came to having helpful, transparent discussions about areas that were considered, by mainstream Protestant America, anathema. 

Of course I’d heard of warlocks. But in the same way that I’d heard of faeries or international spies or atheists. They existed somewhere between the world of, “We know that’s just a story” -- like Santa Claus -- and “there’s something to this, but nobody really knows,” like hypnosis. 

I’d certainly never known anyone who themselves was a warlock. Or who admitted it. There were stories about a couple people “back in the old country” or a distant uncle. But, again, at that point in time, the mid 70’s, it would have been like being gay in public.

There were the few famous people who claimed warlockery for themselves -- William Holden and Ralph Ellison, of course -- but as the Parson’s Test hadn’t been developed, a lot of that was shrugged off as superstition. I mean, I had a great-aunt who claimed that she’d been healed of endometriosis by crystals and a distant cousin who was a snake-handling Methodist Bishop-Flagellate. But we just nodded politely and then rolled our eyes at anyone who claimed actual manifestations of any religious beliefs, didn’t we? Religion was for moral instruction, holiday traditions and covered-dish suppers. Not... power.

Until it happens to you, of course.

I still don’t know exactly how to describe it. I’ve been unspelled for more than 20 years now, of course, since I began treatment. But for those first few years, until I got up the nerve to talk about it, drunk, with close friends in college, there was simply no reference point for a normal, white, middle-class boy to talk about having random magickal powers. 

But there I was. Wet and filled with cake and hot dogs and potato-salad and the air next to me seemed to grow solid and filled with hints of vectors and averages and points of reference. As if someone had spilled a bibliography written in glass shards onto a disco floor.

Steve’s dad was leaning in a bit close to Katy’s mom and I could tell she was uncomfortable and he brushed a bit of hair away from her cheek where it had fallen out of her sensible, casual-fun-type ponytail. 

“Lovely,” I heard him say, though I shouldn’t have been able to. He was a bit too far away, there was some breeze, and the ambient noises of the water fight were quite intrusive. But the expanding sphere of not-quite-invisible lines and shapes gathered his words and brought them to me.

They also delivered a world of knowledge about Katy’s mom’s state-of-mind. How tired she was of raising the children on her own. How tired she was of being in a situation she hadn’t chosen. How happy she was that her kids were having some fun for once. 

How much she wanted to murder Steve’s dad.

It almost went that way. They talk about controlling warlockery as if it’s a game or a puzzle. Like, if you’re good at it you can just call up some spells. People have asked me to “do tricks” and “make stuff happen” and all the absolutely hurtful, rude garbage that, even now in the 2020’s, is still bandied about by douchebags. I once had a really good run of luck at a card game at a friend’s frat house in college and he, being a bit drunk, mumbled something about, “Well, that’s a warlock for you.” He apologized profusely later, but it was hard to get over and get back to our previous level of friendship after that.

Her casual-yet-serious thought manifested in the web of not-just-air that was forming around me. I could see it happening as if it was a TV show I’d watched just the day before...

Steve’s dad inhaling hard as he laughs at his own joke. That wasp over there taking off a few moments earlier than it had intended. Getting sucked into Steve’s dad’s throat and stinging him there, on the inside. Throat closing up. Steve’s dad trying to yell but nothing comes out, or goes in. People yelling to call an ambulance. Adults pushing their way closer to see. Kids standing around, water pistols dripping, both confused and completely drawn in to something extraordinary happening on the grass by the folded up slip-n-slide...

Steve’s dad said, still brushing at Katy’s mom’s hair, “What color is this? It’s lovely. From a bottle, at your age, I assume? Reddish blonde? Blonde-ish red? Reddish-blonde-ish?”

That was the joke. His own joke, the one he was about to laugh at. Hard, with a big gulp of air at the end and...

There goes the wasp. A bit early, yup. A slow, spiral up and closer to the cake and...

I still don’t know if I did it on purpose. At other points, when I’ve suffered a spell, I seem to have had some limited control. Only like you might decide, after tripping, that you’ll take the weight on your elbows instead of palms. You can’t “not fall,” but maybe you can manage to not break your wrist. 

In this case, though it was closer to control than anything else I’d ever experience in the future. Maybe because I had no idea what it was, what I was doing, or the limits. No expectations or fears, just the moment. And in that moment, my very strong, very focused thought was:

It’s auburn, you dick. Are you color blind?

And before he could laugh and inhale the wasp, Steve’s dad sat up very straight and blinked a few times. The wasp flew past where his face had been and landed on the cake, as it would have had it taken off when it was “meant” to. 

(Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash)

No inhale of the bug. No internal stabbing and anaphylactic swelling. No bright pink cheeks and bulging eyes. No knocking off a pitcher of Kool-Aid as he fell to the grass. None of what I’d


But we still got a show. 

“Fuck!” he yelled. “Oh, fuck!”

1970’s poolside with a bunch of kids? Not cool. The “F-Word” was still a big no-no in general. You could maybe get away with being caught whispering a, “bullshit” or “kiss my ass.” But a full-on, grown-up, outside-voice-yelling, “Fuck!”

It drew some notice.

The crowd was similar to the one in my vision. Adults pushing past the kids to get Steve’s dad to both shut up and tell us what was wrong. He was babbling about having a stroke or an aneurysm or “eye clot” or something. 

They peeled him away and took him inside and, a bit later, one the moms drove him to Branston Memorial Hospital. A bit later Steve’s mom showed up and picked him up, after he’d dried and dressed, and they went to see him there.

We went back to playing... but perhaps with slightly somber tones to our yelling and respectful postures to our water-sports (shut up). 

It was a couple weeks until Steve told us that his dad had gotten a bunch of tests and, yeah, they think maybe it was a minor stroke because the only thing that happened was that he was now color blind.

“So everything he sees is like in a black-and-white TV show?”

Steve nodded, swapping a pudding cup from his lunch for my Fig Newtons. A regular trade.

“Yeah.” He shrugged. “I don’t see why it’s such a big deal, but he’s super freaked out and won’t stop talking about it.”

I paused, half-way through peeling off the foil lid, and asked, “What is there to talk about?”

Steve shook his head. “Yeah, I know. Right? I mean... It happened. I get it. It’s not great. But I guess they said he could have been paralyzed or real-blind or something a lot worse. Now he won’t stop yelling about how he can’t match his ties with his suits and shirts.”

I nodded and started in on the pudding. 

“You could pin labels on them?”

Steve pointed at me and shook his finger, saying, “That’s exactly what I told him! And he got wicked pissed at me!”

We both shook our heads, finishing our pudding and Fig Newtons.

I guess I’m glad I didn’t kill him.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

On the 10th anniversary of my dad's death

 Today is the 10th anniversary of my dad’s death.  

He was born January 21, 1939, so he lived just over 72 years. I think he said to me once something about a good man’s time on earth being an allotted 3-score-and-10, so he hit that mark. You can read his obituary if you’d like, but like most obituaries, it captures a person’s life the same way a train schedule captures the excitement and mystery of a cross-country journey by rail: not at all. 

Dad, in fact, loved trains. He wrote a poem about them when he was young; in high school or college, I think. It was called something like, “Roar On! Mighty Engine!” in the mode of Walt Whitman. I read it a couple times when I knew where it was located in his home in Tennessee, but I’m not sure where it is now. Probably with mom in her stuff. It’s not that important to me among the many gifts, both worldly and abstract that he left me. Dad was very much better than me at a lot of things--poetry was not one of  them.

Back to trains... We took three overnight train trips to see mom’s parents in Florida when we were a youngish family. I think the first was when I was eight and the last was when I was 17. We’d take the coach car to Pennsylvania Station and then switch to a sleeper. We had two of those little cabin cars with the wall between them slid back to make one larger (though not large) room. We played games, ate snacks, watched the East Coast slide by and generally had about as much fun as two kids can have at that age. Sleeping on a train, eating on a train, playing Rook in the club car with strangers’ kids, all the while knowing that you’re heading to Florida to go to Disney World and that swamp garden place with the alligators and that other place with the water ski tricks. Yes, I could look up their names, but verisimilitude requires that I write them down as I remember not remembering them.

Dad and I also took a train coach to see my brother at college once in Philadelphia. John was performing in a rock concert and it worked out in our schedules to go down, spend a night, and come back and the train seemed like a fun adventure. It was. 

Dad brought a bugle so that, after the concert, while the crowd of college students were applauding for an encore, he could stand up and blow a bugle call to help make it clear that he, too, wanted more.

On that trip we re-captured a bit of the adventure and a lot of nostalgia all at once. I remember that, at the time, I was reading a biography of the explorer Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton and I’d tell dad some of the things about Burton’s much more grand adventures as we had our own more personal, relaxed journey. 

I don’t believe I ever saw dad read a book that wasn’t related to his profession or to theology. That was another difference between us. He enjoyed a good sci-fi or fantasy movie... he enjoyed a good movie or TV show of any kind, really. But he was not a “big reader” in the sense of doing so for pleasure. I didn’t realize this until after he passed and I’m glad I didn’t, because I probably would have asked him about it and I don’t know if he would have taken it as a suggestion of a flaw. I wouldn’t have meant it that way, of course. But as an English Major, and writer, reading was obviously core to my entire mental landscape, and I think it might have brought him up a bit short to think too closely on the matter. He did read, as I said, quite a lot of professional, medical texts and he also read a lot of theology. Maybe that would have gotten him over that hump. Or maybe I’m imagining something he wouldn’t have given, as he would have said, “a fat rat’s ass” about.

I’ve had 10 years to think about him like this: in stasis. Where there are no new memories of our time together... except of course there are. Because, as I’ve said many times about memories of important moments and people and places in the past, we don’t remember them the same way we remember phone numbers or what time a show starts or where the remote control is: we visit them. And for the last 10 years I’ve been visiting dad and sharing new thoughts of my own.

Chief among those are my experiences with my own son, Dan, of course.

Dad was a gifted musician who could play almost any instrument by picking it up and “farting around with it” for a half hour. Usually that meant figuring out how to play “Lady of Spain” on it until he was asked to stop, please and thank you. He had a high tenor voice that seemed to come from a much younger man from a much earlier time. He’d used it once on the Ed Sullivan show when he was with the University of Rochester Yellow Jackets. He sang songs around the house that were either sacred or quite ridiculous; camp songs, songs from his days with the Glee Club, songs from old comedy radio shows like Spike Jones or Sid Caesar. Being a singer myself and someone who has had great joy plonking around with a variety of instruments, I always envied his tenor (I’m a baritone/bass) and his easy instrumental ability.

He was also, I think, an actual genius. Like... as people and schools measure those things. I’m fine with where I fall on the smart scale. This isn’t me being unduly modest. Those of you who know me well know I don’t do false modesty. But if I’m smart, he was the next thing. He connected ideas more quickly than I did, remembered concepts (and words in Latin and Greek) from 30 years prior in an instant, and had a facility for new scientific concepts (and dropping the old ones, mostly) that is enviable in anyone who wants to keep current as a physician.

I mention those two things -- his music and his brain -- in relation to Dan because Dan is better at them than I am, too. And while I have no real regrets about my relationship with my father, I do wish the two of them had had more time together. Time as adults, because by watching Dan grow into an adult, I begin to understand my dead father, as an adult, better. 

Which, frankly, is odd as hell. 

I watch Dan do and learn and say smarter things than I am capable of. And, in his time with the OSU Marching Band, grow into a musician surpassing anything I’d be able to do. All of which is what parents want, of course. For our kids to “do better, be better, be more” than we are or were. 

We say, “I don’t care what you do for work or who you marry, or not, I just want you to be happy.” But I’m not sure that’s entirely true. We don’t want our children to be happy if it means they screw over a lot of other people. And we don’t want them to be shallow-happy. Or to require a great sacrifice of ideals. We want their happiness to be framed in a variety of ways that indicate both a good foundation and the ability to make positive changes.

When we were expecting Dan and discussing what fears we had about being parents, the only one Chris and I really had was that, somehow, he would grow up to be unkind. We believed (I still do) that we could deal with a lot of different parental challenges, but being parents to a cruel child -- somehow failing, either through neglect or accident -- to impart the ideals of kindness... that would be something that would have given us real, true sorrow. So far, that hasn’t happened (unless he’s hiding it very well). 

And I think it hasn’t happened in my life, either, and I think that if he’d articulated his dreams or plans or fears for me, dad might have said something similar. Because kindness ends up being a stand-in for a lot of other values and goals. 

Finances, property, grades, degrees, global climate change, politics... there’s a lot of stuff for parents to worry about on a day-to-day basis. Lots of stones on either side of the “Am I A Good Parent?” scale when you “fart around with it” for a week or month or year. But how do you measure yourself over a generation? 

Maybe you only stop and think about it every decade or so, or it’ll make you (as he would have said, as a psychiatrist) “bug fuck crazy.”

So: ten years after his death, while we can’t know what’s in another’s heart, I would have no fear or shame in showing dad mine. Because, as I’ve thought about him while watching Dan go from being a boy to a man, I’ve realized that what I want for my son is what, I think, dad wanted for me: to be kind. Both to others, and to myself. 

And as I’ve visited him in memory -- sitting next to him on the train and talking about the fantasy books I wrote (that he probably wouldn’t have read) and Dan’s time in TBDBITL (that he would have loved), I think he’d be pleased with how the Ward Havens journey progresses in that manner.

PS: Maybe he would have listened to the audiobook version. :-) 

Sunday, January 12, 2020

How do I decide which parts of the Bible I believe in, since there are contradictions

In a FB group I'm in, I was asked the question, "How do I decide which parts of the Bible I believe in, since there are contradictions." It's a long answer, but one I haven't typed out before. If you're interested, here it is.

For many thousands of years, people received all their information, of all kinds, through oral learning. Not just "oral traditions" of culture, history, music, art, etc. But EVERYTHING. That's very, very hard for us as a post-literate culture to understand. By post-literate, I mean that we are people who are MANY generations removed from those generations who began relying on the written word to define everything we are, everything we learn, everything we know. We do not know who we are without written words and their modern electronic media equivalents. We do not learn about anything without redress to "a 
medium," meaning "the thing between."

About the only thing we learn to do without media today is speak, and even that, in many countries, is relegated to a mix of people and machines (See: Blues Clues, et al).
Before that, there were no media; no "things between" people and everything they learned. You learned everything you knew from another person. How to do your job, where things are, where you came from, what you eat, how to cook, how to fix things, what the world looks like, what other people are called. Everything.

That is very, very, very hard for us to grok.

A LOT of the stories in the Old Testament came through that period of time from many different cultures. They are stories that had many different purposes. Some of them were meant to be morality tales. Some of them were meant to be histories of the world, inasmuch as people like to know, in a general sense, "Where do we come from?" Origin tales. Some were bloodlines that help people maintain a sense of "us as a people." All the "begats" are there for that reason.

Side note: For the Jewish people it is VERY INTERESTING that the "begats" in many cases were for regular people, NOT JUST ROYALTY. In a lot of cultures, the only people who deserved to have their names written down were the kings, queens, etc. You have lists of regular folks in the OT. I just find that interesting. Anyway...

At different points in history, different parts of these stories were written down by different people for different reasons. So now you have literate/literary "lock-in" based on the desires/needs of the person, people or cultures who are doing the writing down at that time.

This is horribly important.

A story has been told, person-to-person, family-to-family, tribe-to-tribe, without any kind of lock-in for generations. Possibly hundreds of years. It has crossed borders of language, culture and need. It has been changed to meet circumstance because the needs of the story have changed. For example, you don't teach kids about how to conserve water in a culture where water isn't scarce. You don't teach about the importance of defending against intruders if you live in a place/time where there aren't enemies, etc. It's usually much more subtle than that, but there is simply NO WAY TO KNOW if the story that grandpa is telling you is the same one his grandpa told him because it was never, ever written down before and you don't care and he doesn't care and he probably would say it's the same even if it's different because we know that's how memory works. So...

We now, at some point, have literary lock-in of a story that, for centuries, was fluid.

We do that, at different times, to a bunch of other stories from a bunch of other traditions. We put them together in a collection that, at some point in history when we have enough literary people to decide, "This itself is THE THING" becomes a medium.
That thing, the Old Testament, is now locked in. And because we (humans) are still relatively new at being literate -- we are literate, not post-literate at this point -- we do not understand that "the medium is the message." We do not have media studies, because we don't have a few dozen generations of literate people to look at and go, "Hmmm...

This is a thing that happens when you do this." We have less than 1% of the population with the ability to read, and they (the rich and theological) are the ones in charge, and so of course they lock-in the stuff that keeps them in charge.

Today we look at that and say, "How evil! They were in control and they did this to keep their power monopoly!"

Well, they did it, yes. But they had no more idea that that was what they were doing than the Romans did that lead was making them insane.

They had been handed something and had been told, "This is the truth," the same as the folks who'd been given the oral tradition had. If your grandpa says, "This is true," you believe them. If your priest says,

"This is true," you believe him. Isn't it better to write it all down so that it doesn't change and if grandpa or the priest dies, you can have a book to pass along all that wonderful truth?

Of course it is.

Except it's not just "wonderful," it's also insanely different and has all kinds of knock-on effects that we wouldn't understand for, well... 1,500 years or so.

Same thing, to a certain degree for the New Testament. I mean, we had a slightly more literate society at the time. And we had a written tradition at that point for a lot of the OT. But you had a dude who was nowhere near important enough to be documented in real time by anything like a literary scholar. So we have most written accounts of his life trailing Jesus' time by about 100 yeas. Or, roughly 3 generations of people growing up and hearing, "Hey, let me tell you about this Jesus guy."

And then a bunch of people interpreting and passing that stuff along.

So, with that background...

Most modern Christians I know interpret the OT the way I describe it above: a set of stories told for various purposes, over time, and locked-in at various times for various reasons by various groups. If there is "truth" in them, it is the same kind of "truth" you get from Aesop's Fables, which is an important distinction between "truth" and "fact."

I have no doubt -- zero -- that there was not a literal Adam and Eve.

I also have no doubt that a story about the difference between animals who behave "automatically" within a natural framework and humans who have moral choices is useful.

When it comes to the teachings of Jesus, I tell the same thing to my atheist friends as I do to my biblical inerrancy friends: If Jesus is the son of God, then his teachings are true. And if his teachings are true, then it doesn't matter if he is the son of God, because his teachings will be useful.

That often is good for at least 5 seconds of puzzled eyebrows.

I have spent more than 40 years debating my faith with myself and others, and, again and again, keep coming to the same conclusion:

I don't really care -- for the sake of discussion of the texts -- if Jesus was real or even if God is. I mean, personally I do. I think he was, based on the reading I've done and my own experiences. I think God is, based on how I feel, but I'm not going to go to the mat and unfriend people based on those beliefs.

What I have found, though, is that the way Jesus lived and the things he taught about mercy, grace and love are useful shortcuts for getting shit done in a very friendly, helpful way that makes me -- and other people I've spent time with -- feel better about a lot of stuff.

So, for me, the Bible is less about "fact" above), and more about "truth."

So when people point out that there are contradictions, I understand that that's a pain in the ass. Yeah, you have to have some flexibility and an open mind and it doesn't help that a lot of the main denominations don't have either of those. It doesn't help that certain people yell, "If you don't believe in these contradictions, you'll spend eternity suffering in one of them!"

I see the Bible less like a history book or a science book and more like a cookbook. There are recipes. In some cases, there are multiple recipes for the same thing. And, at some points in history, we should be fine simply saying, "You know what? The recipes for apple pie in Deuteronomy were written before we invented sugar, so let's mostly not use them anymore."

Most of the recipes that Jesus gave us are about loving each other, looking out for the poor, not being a dick, looking at our own sins before pointing out others', the power of grace/mercy/forgiveness and how, frankly, a bunch of the older recipes aren't as healthy as we thought they were. When he says, "I come not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it," I take this to mean that, yeah... you can live off the shitty old recipes... if you want. But mine are a lot more healthy and, frankly, more fun and easy.

You know, he even says, "Take my yolk upon you..." ;-)

Anyway. That's how I am able to process a bunch of writings that are full of contradictions and still come up with what I think is a consistent faith.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

65 cures for 8 major holiday maladies

Christmas is supposed to be about joy and giving and family and fun and hope. That sometimes doesn't happen for us. Partly because we focus on the wrong things, partly because joy is a habit that must be practiced and learned. So, firstly... do you suffer from any of these eight classic holiday maladies?

  1. PETER PANIC: You mourn your carefree youth, symbolized by Christmas, since the holiday can serve as a metaphor for All Things Wonderful About Childhood. Christmas, therefore, makes you feel old and worn out. Symptoms: overindulgence in youthful activities (snowball fights, hot cocoa, mistletoe shenanigans) and/or a disturbingly fey insistence that you only be given "fun stuff" as gifts.
  2. GNOSHTALGIA: You believe that Christmas Joy can best be achieved through gustatory means; that is, by cooking and baking everything possible and feeding it to everyone possible as often as possible as much as possible. Symptoms: asking friends to borrow space in their fridge for cookie dough balls; giving treats to everyone who stops by your house no matter the reason (UPS man, census taker, bill collector); carrying fudge in your purse or glove compartment "just in case;' knowing more than one recipe for fruit cake by heart. "Gnoshstalgia" is often opposed by...
  3. YULEMIA: You are completely unable to enjoy any holiday food at all, ever. Can manifest as health or weight concerns ("These things are nothing but butter and sugar!"), or as a negative reaction to the extended holiday season food orgy ("You people have been feeding me candy and pie and cookies since Halloween!"), or as resentment of the idea that "food is love" and, therefore, if you don't eat someone's goodies, you don't like them ("OK! OK! I'll have another piece of fruitcake). Symptoms: carrying fudge (that you took but have no intention of eating) in your purse or glove compartment.
  4. GRINFERIORITY COMPLEX: You aren't as full of cheer as you once were (or as you recall having been), and you feel vaguely guilty about not being in the appropriate spirit. Which makes you feel worse, since feeling guilty is also bad. Symptoms: a spiraling, self-reinforcing chain of negativity eventually leads you to ignore Christmas as much as possible, which really doesn't make you feel any better, but at least doesn't remind you of how lousy you feel.
  5. POSTAL TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER: The compulsive need to mail or deliver all kinds of presents, cards, family update letters, cakes, cookies, pies, fruit baskets, mix tapes, recipe books, decorations and other holiday items. In some part your mind, you are "spreading holiday cheer," but in reality you are doing it to check things off against some cosmic list of "everything that needs to get done." Symptoms: you begin planning your holiday mailing schedule and collecting boxes in August, and you start shopping for next year before this Christmas has actually arrived.
  6. ANGORAPHOBIA: Fear of buying someone something they're allergic to, that doesn't fit, that's age inappropriate... i.e., "the wrong gift." Symptoms: all you ever get people are gift cards.
  7. BUY-POLAR DISORDER: You strictly measure the monetary value of gifts you receive and scrupulously attempt to return gifts of equal or slightly greater value. Symptoms: you visit Web sites to investigate the costs of gifts received.
  8. MALLUCINATIONS: You are preoccupied with finding bargains for gifts. You will turn away from the purchase of something on your list because you are sure you saw it somewhere else for less. Symptoms: you end up doing all your shopping last minute, buying things that make no sense (or gift cards), because you couldn't force yourself to pay "full price."

Obviously, I'm being tongue-in-cheek here. And I mean absolutely no disrespect to people with actual, clinical mental health problems. But, at the same time, there is often a grain of truth in satire. And I bet you see yourself in at least one of these diagnoses. I know I do.

So how do we get back to something more fun, more joyful, more about the heart and less about the wallet? I don't know. But I like to try. So here's my list of ways that sometimes help.

Merry Christmas.

  1. Make a family calendar. What I mean is a yearly calendar. One with the days of the week across the top and a different page for each month. You know. You've got one on your kitchen wall or in your cube at work. You can get them at bookstores in about a million styles and themes. Horses, cars, pin-up girls, trains, Civil War battles, cartoons, food. You name it, there's a calendar. Don't buy one! Make one for your family. Then fill it in with all the important family dates; birthdays, anniversaries, etc. If you like, go to the library and ask to see a copy of "Chase's Book of Annual Events" and add birthdays of famous people you admire. Or the dates of stupid holidays like (I'm not kidding), "Answer Your Cat's Questions Day" (January 22) or "Yell 'Fudge' at the Cobras in North America Day" (June 2). When you give this to someone, they'll think of you every day. Or make it for your own house with the help of family and friends. Either way, it's a way to insert Christmas thoughts and joy into every day of the year.
  2. Create your own ornaments. Why is your Christmas tree covered with random, generic, glittery balls? You just went and bought a tree... and put it in your house. How fun is that? That's excellent weirdness, isn't it? I mean, we all do it and it's such an embedded part of our Christmas culture... but, come on! Once a year, for a couple weeks, you put a tree in your living room. Step outside the moment for a moment and realize that in this age of technology and cleanliness and logic... well, that's just pretty odd. In a great, special, odd, different way. So... celebrate the uniqueness of your Christmas tree! Celebrate the oddity of having a big ol' spruce or balsam soaking up sugar water in your family room. Celebrate the strange and beautiful by decorating it in strange and beautiful ways. My favorite, as a kid, was to take a styrofoam shape (bell, star, even a simple ball), and stick a bajillion sequins to it with pins. If you make it with fun and love, it will increase the Christmas joy. And that's shiner than any sparkly bauble you can get at Walmart.
  3. Lego nativity scene. Really, that should be all I need to say for this one. If I have to explain it to you, you're thinking too hard. C'mon. Lego nativity scene.
  4. Toys from tots. There are many organizations that gather up toys for kids who don’t have them. And that’s fantastic. But kids also love to make and give stuff around the holiday season, and may not have the resources. Organize an effort to provide a crafty sort of event where all the necessary parts and instructions for making neat holiday stuff are available to a group of kids who otherwise wouldn’t have access. My bet is that if you or your organization provided the stuff and the supervision, your local public library could help you find a place to do it. Or have your church sponsor the event for another organization that works with kids who need a hand. You can combine this one with a visit to a nursing home, too. Bring along whatever great stuff the kids make and have them decorate the home. For bonus points, give each kid a box or bag with enough of the craft bits to make another one or two of whatever you're making. That way they can do it again for someone they care about, or to decorate their own space. Or they can teach a friend or sibling. Do not award prizes. Try not to be too preachy, either. Nothing spoils a good, crafty experience like paying for it by sitting through a sermon. Give everybody a print-out of the Christmas story to read later, or have a nice (short) prayer at the beginning. But don't turn your religion into a "pause from our sponsor." That's not the message you want to send. Cookies are nice, too. Don't forget the cookies.
  5. Make a truly edible gingerbread house. I don't know about you, but gingerbread houses make me nuts! Why? Because they're made of food -- beautiful, delicious cookies and candy -- and you can never, EVER, **EVER** EAT ONE!!! How spiteful is that? I mean, if you want to make a pretty house that you can't eat, make it out of colored glass or sharp, shiny stones or... I don't know... colored pencils. That would be fine. I'd never look at a Crayon House and think, "Why won't they let me eat it?" But, nooooo.... Every gob-smacked gingerbread house I’ve ever seen has been “hands off” (and more importantly, “teeth off”). Feh! Where’s the fun? I mean… C’mon! How cool would it be to make one of these things, and then take the gloves off? Cry, "Havoc!" and let slip the toddlers of war! Release the viscous children! Attack, children! Attack! Devour the house! Bwa-ha-ha! I don’t care if you stick six graham crackers together with peanut butter and put one gum-drop on top for a chimney. Do it, and then let the kids get all Godzilla on it. Or chomp down yerself. You know you want to.
  6. Decorate somebody else’s space. Carefully. Tastefully. Always within the bounds of office rules/etiquette and the law/fire-code. But how nice would it be to enter your office (cube…) and find a wee, unexpected holiday trinket? Totally anonymous. Or to come home and have a strange, lovely wreath hanging on your lamp-post? Put a small, stuffed penguin with a Santa hat on someone’s dashboard today.
  7. Group shoebox calendar. Warning: takes planning. Everybody in your gang (family, office, church-group, etc.) brings in enough shoeboxes to make 25. Everybody puts something in them to help decorate the common space. Wrap them (and keep the innards secret), then randomly assign numbers 1-25 to them. Or more or less if you’re doing a non-religious thing. Do 31 and make it a “New Year’s Calendar.” Whatever. Then, on each day, get together as a group, open the appropriate box (take turns, now) and use it to brighten the day and make the place niftier.
  8. Bad Mojo Wreath Voodo. OK… this one will probably not go down well for many church youth groups… but it’s meant with a sense of humor, so chill out. Have everyone in your gang (family, group) write something that bugs them on a piece of colored paper that matches (or not) the cheapest, driest, most flamable wreath you can find. Decorate the wreath with the slips of nastiness. On the day of celebration, burn (or otherwise destroy in a more work-friendly manner) the Wreath of Spite. Celebrate the destruction and release of the things that bug you.
  9. Holiday bird-feeder. I like bird-feeders. So do my squirrels. Oh, well… But mostly they either look like weird plastic contraptions or little A-frame tenements. Help a bird out. Decorate a special bird-house/feeder for the holidays.
  10. Odd snow sculpture. We all make the snowmen. Yes, yes. Lovely snowmen. Do it up different this year. Make a snow carving of your company’s logo. Never mind. Don’t do that. How about a UF-SNOW? Unidentified Freezing Snowcraft? Or a guy climbing up your front tree? Or a giant hand? Don’t be overly critical of your work… just get some friends together and get stupid with the snow.
  11. Tissue paper wreath. This is an easy project, dredged up from my days as a summer camp arts & crafts director. It’s simple, quiet and can keep little hands busy for hours. Take a coat-hanger and bend it out so that the triangle part is round. Keep the hook the way it is, please. Now, cut colored tissue paper (or white, if you’re a freak) into strips about 2″ wide and 10-12″ long. Fold each strip around the now-round part of the hanger, and twist the ends together like a, well… a twist tie. That makes the paper cling to the hanger, eh? Do that about a thousand more times. It looks cruddy until you start really filling it out, then it looks fun and festive. Please do not use electric lights with wreaths made from paper.
  12. Crayondles. Make some candles out of old crayons. How? I don't know. Ask Google.
  13. Advent destructo-calendar. Rather than pop little toys/charms out of an advent calendar every day in December before Christmas, instead build a model or print a picture of something you’d like to be done with. Kind of a pre-New-Year’s-resolution game. Then divide the thing up into 25 (or 31 if you want to do the New Year gig), and on every day in December, pull that sucker down!
  14. Holiday spaz origami. People get so bent out of shape (ha) about making perfect, tasteful little origami things. That’s way to obsessive for holiday time. Get some colorful paper and start folding, cutting and pasting things together. Make a mess… but make it a glittery, shiny mess. Find order in the chaos. Or not. Enjoy the 2D-becomes-3D magic. Discover what shapes lurk in a crumpled up ball of tinfoil. Make little birds out of the covers of old magazines and spray paint them gold and put ‘em on the tree. Don’t overthink it. You’ll discover more shapes and more new models if you just, well… get spazzy.
  15. Lights on other stuff. People always put lights on their house. Now, I love that, and I don’t want to discourage it. But one year, back when we were living with my folks in Boston, we put lights around our lamp post. Got more compliments on that. You got a mailbox? Light ‘er up! Koi pond? Let it glow! Heck, why not just try a new pattern of lights. Like, just hang them all randomly out an attic window so it looks like your house is puking lights. Maybe not. Then again, what the heck.
  16. Rewrite “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Let’s face it, hollering, “Fiiiiive gooolden riiings!” is way fun. Way, way fun. You can not resist, so don’t hold back. But what’s even more fun, is hollering your own family version that only you and the clan know. Because, really… doesn’t singing about how your true love gave to you… “eight maids a milking” make you a bit… uncomfortable? I mean… dude gives people for Christmas? That ain’t right. Bob and Doug McKenzie not withstanding, your own version will be more fun. My son, just this morning, was singing, “Fiiiiive gooolden delicious!” Hilarious.
  17. Indoor snow-ball fights. We spent two years of my childhood in California, after having lived in Boston, and with parents who grew up in New York. Snow ball fights are a required element of winter joy. Indoor? Substitute aluminum foil balls, rolled-up socks, styrofoam (messy), newspaper wads, etc. instead of snow. The point is to throw things. Banzai!
  18. Mall caroling. It’s hard to find places to carol. Outside can get very cold. And, with kids in tow… well, it’s tough. Check with a couple local malls and arrange for a time to invite anyone who’d like to participate to meet, get song books, and walk around the mall singing. See if you can arrange for an accordion player. Seriously. It adds to the cheer. If you want to charge a couple bucks to participate and also collect donations from listeners and then give the money to a local toys-for-tots charity, that makes the whole deal more righteous, and more palatable to certain civic types.
  19. Grown-up PJ party. Notice I did not say “adult.” This is not a chance to play spin-the-bottle. This is about getting back to childishness. Come in PJs, bathrobes, bunny-slippers, blankets, etc. Bring your favorite (hopefully holiday related) bed-time story to read aloud to the group. Drink cocoa w/ tiny marshmallows (yes, and some brandy or JD) and have candy canes and graham crackers for snacks. Sit on the floor around the fireplace. Watch all the old Rankin-Bass claymation holiday specials on VHS. Sing a few carols. Play…
  20. Insane White Elephant. The basic principles of a White Elephant gift exchange apply, but anyone who has their gift taken can keep stealing from anyone who hasn’t yet had their gift stolen that turn. The more people playing, the more fun. No “deceased” gifts in this version, either. Until you’ve had a gift stolen on any given turn, it’s in play.
  21. Make-a-wreath party. We used to do this at the church I grew up going to. You show up with the basics of an advent wreath (styrofoam torus and a bunch of evergreen branches), and the host provides all kinds of add-ons; candles and holders, bells, ribbon, holly, berries, etc. Good times, and a wreath to take home, too.
  22. Semi-formal holiday martini party. In the old days (the 1950’s), people dressed up to go to holiday parties. And while this may still hold true for some work-sponsored events, more and more often, work holiday parties are tired, dull affairs. Most of the ones I’ve been to are, anyways. So, on your own, get some friends together and dress all high-class, and drink funky, fun martinis. No reason grown-ups can’t have grown-up fun around the holidays, too.
  23. Remembrance time. Around the table, have family members or friends recount their best (or most interesting) holiday memories. Yes, it’s corny. But corny is good during this time of the year. Embrace the corn.
  24. Tell your faith’s holiday story with sock puppets. You never real own a story until you tell it. I know this, because I played King Nebuchannezzar in a 4th grade production of, “Cool in the Furnace.” I now own The Firey Furnace. Be that as it may… You can hear the Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Yule, Solstice, etc. stories again and again. But until you write out a script, make your own sock puppets for the players, fashion a stage from a major appliance crate and put on a show for the grown-ups… do you really grok the holiday’s true meaning? I think not.
  25. Mix-up the classics. Get the book versions of classic holiday tales like Rudolph, Santa, Frosty, Night Before Christmas, A Christmas Carol, etc. Get some index cards. Write character names, major attributes (”nose glows,” “miser,” “made of snow,” “elf,”) and plot points (”comes down the chimney,” “ridiculed by reindeer,” “just settled down for a long winter’s nape”) on them and keep the categories separate. Now go back and read one of the originals, but when someone (usually a child or me) yells “stop!,” insert a random card from the appropriate face-down pile. So you end up with something like: “Rudolph didn’t like all the other reindeer calling him names, so he…”“Stop!”“… gave Bob Cratchit money to help with Tiny Tim’s legs.” You can keep going with the original story, substituting other zaniness, or switch over to the one from the card. Whichever seems like more fun to you.
  26. Personalize “A Christmas Carol.” Rewrite (or just re-think) the Dickens’ classic and perform it. Text available here for free. The characters and story really lend themselves to satire and revision, and you can do a very short version and people will still get it, because we all know it so well. Film it and put it on YouTube, please, too.
  27. Christmas kids parade. If you’ll have a passel (any more than 2) of kids around at some point, give them all a cheap musical instrument, or a home-made one. Put on some classic holiday music, real loud, and have the kids march around the house banging, blowing, slapping, stomping, etc. Please note that adults and dogs should be encouraged to join the band. This is a good way to blow off steam and sugar after the whelps get their second wind on Christmas morning.
  28. Red and green food party. If your last name begins with A-J, bring red food. If it begins with K-T, bring green food. U-Z? Silver or gold. OK… maybe not.
  29. Poetry party. Get some nice paper and pretty pens. And yellow legal pads for first drafts. Put holiday words on scraps of paper and put ‘em in a hat. “Joy,” “Presents,” “Egg Nog,” “Sledding,” etc. Everybody gets a word and writes a poem, which somebody else gets to take home.
  30. Host starving artists/musicians. Find a local artist (or two) or musician (or three) and invite them to your office, church, Rotary, etc. holiday party. Ask them to play or bring their art for sale, and introduce them around. Art/music are tough businesses. Artists/musicians make cool guests. Extend them a happy holiday hand, and give your friends the gift of culture.
  31. Make your own envelopes. A dear friend of mine (Hi, Susan!) once sent me letters every few months in hand-made envelopes. Hers were made from interesting magazine ads. How cool is that? If you want to get fancy, do a search on the Internet for “make envelopes” and such. But the easiest way is to get the envelopes that go with whatever cards you’re mailing, carefully bust ‘em apart, trace them on funky paper (magazine pictures, wallpaper, wrapping paper…) and then cut, fold and glue (or double-sticky clear tape) them together. People may expect hand-made cards. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. Or hand-made envelopes. Festivisimus!
  32. Photoshop your kid(s) into other (classic) pics. I first saw this done to Raphael’s “The Sistine Madonna, Detail of the Angles” painting. The point is to have fun and take a picture folks will recognize and include people they will recognize. It doesn’t have to be a serious pic, either. I would think that your kid climbing the Empire State Building to put a star on top would be hysterical. Use this instead of a regular picture-of-your-kids card because… well… because it’s goofy.
  33. Gift cards for chores, favors, hugs, etc. These were a big item when I was growing up. Don’t know if other people did them. The idea was to make gift-certificates or gift cards that “entitled the bearer to (1) one doing of the dishes upon presentation of this card.” You can make these intimate for your honey (I won’t get into those variations here, thank you), or appropriate for work. For example, I once gave my boss ten “Andy will now pipe down” certificates. Upon presentation, I was obligated to shut my pie hole. She only ever handed me two. I believe she traded the rest in for some magic beans. Or they may be floating around on eBay… Hmmm….
  34. "Puzzle Party” cards. Take, buy or make a nice picture and turn it into a jigsaw, either yourself or at Kinkos. Mail one piece to each person you’re inviting to the party. When they come, they add their piece. Depending on how corn-ball you are, you can hold forth on how we’re all a part of the holiday panorama of joy, etc. etc. It also serves to increase the guilt factor that motivates people to come to your party, since if they don’t… their piece will be missing. Ha!
  35. “Family News” cards from the future. I love this one. Lots of families I know write a very nice update about what’s been going on over the last year. It’s nice to hear, but… mostly it ends up being, “Dad’s still working and maybe going a bit more stir crazy. Same for mom. The kids are in school and are a year older.” Yawn… I like the idea of fast-forwarding a bit and writing your “Holiday Family News from 2035.” Keep it just as straight-faced and boring, but mention which dimension Mary got lost in on the way to work this time. Talk about how the Martian embassy lost your passport on your 2nd honeymoon cruise, etc. etc. Much more fun. Cloning humor goes over big in this one, too.
  36. Mystery cards. Send a really nice holiday card, maybe include a gift certificate, but with no indication of whom it’s from; no names, no return address, etc. Why? To bug the crap out of somebody you love. And isn’t that what the holiday season is all about?
  37. Return-reply cards. Send people a card with a self-addressed, stamped envelope or postcard inside to send back to you. Put questions on it you’d like answered, like… what do you want for Christmas next year? How the heck are ya? Which holiday movies did you see and like or hate? People love to be interactive. Give the gift that gives something back to you.
  38. Custom mouse pad card. They will throw away the picture of your kids. But if you put that picture on a custom mouse pad… it’s a keepsake.
  39. Origami cards. Do your regular card, but include a piece (or more, if necessary) of origami paper and instructions for making an ornament, decoration, etc. Your local library has holiday origami books, I bet. Again… the point is to do something different… with a little extra un-Grincy flavor.
  40. Library cards. Yes, it’s a pun. Things, for many of us, may be tighter this year. Do a friend a favor and get the instructions on where their nearest, local library is. Put that in a card along with 10 or so recommendations of books to read or movies to watch that you know the library has. For book/video gifts, it’s often the thought or idea that really does count. Use your library’s resources to give the thought without the expense. This is also a very “green” gift, so… that’s good, too!
  41. MadLibs card. Create a card but leave spots for verbs, nouns, place names, etc. Put the spots for them to write those in on the front, with directions not to open the card until they do, and then to read the card with the answers put in. Hilarious hijinx will ensue.
  42. Color-it-Themselves-Cards. Get some card stock for your ink jet printer. It works fine, really. I do it all the time. Create a line drawing, or scan in a picture and then trace the edges. Whatever. What you want, when you’re done, is a card with pictures that look like they’re from a coloring book. Outside, inside, both… go nuts. Then mail it along with a pack of 3-5 tiny colored pencils. When it arrives, your friends/family will have a neat little activity to share with their kids.
  43. Surrogate shopping party. So many of us have someone or several someones on our lists that are impossible to shop for or that we just have a mental block on. Fine. Get together for dinner and share an equal number of those folks with each other, along with a few details and a dollar ceiling per gift. Then release yourselves into a mall with a time limit. Then get back together and share the swag. I guar-ohn-tee that your friends will find stuff for your hard-to-getters that you’d never have thought of. If it ain’t right? Well, ’tis the season to return stuff.
  44. Thought gifts. They say, “It’s the thought that counts.” OK. So, this year, only give thoughts for the holidays. Make this the year that you and yours agree to take whatever your budget for gifts was and either give it to a charity or stick it in a savings vehicle; your call, I’m not preaching here. But for yourselves… take the time to actually say the things you haven’t said. Give “the thought” behind the gift. If you’re a spiritual person, pray or meditate on the subject for a bit. Do it in a card if you like, or via email. Don’t make the logistics as much of a pain as shopping/wrapping/etc. That’s not the point. But all the major religions that are celebrating this time of year have gift-giving as a central notion not as a potlatch per se, but as a metaphor for love, friendship, community, etc.
  45. Gifts for the future of the group. Have everybody get everybody something that will only really “work” when you get back together. Pick a group-y activity like a picnic or game night, and have everyone get/give gifts that will be brought together again each time you do that thing.
  46. Recommendations or reviews. I get lots of gift certificates. And that’s cool. But it still means I need to figure out what I want to get with the thing. If you give someone a gift certificate (especially to a book or music store/site), provide a list of 5 or 10 ideas that you think they’d like. Write little mini-reviews of books you’ve read, movies you’ve seen, etc. that made you think of the person. Make the list fun, funny or serious… but it will add personality and thought to what can seem like a somewhat generic offering.
  47. Make part of the gift yourself. Homemade gifts are special, when they come from adults as well as kids. I recently received a CD from a friend, and it was wrapped in a handkerchief that he’d tie-dyed himself. How cool is that?! If you give someone a coffee machine, create a custom mug for them, too.
  48. Gifts with a story. Write a fictional story about how the gift you’re giving came into your hands. Make it funny, sweet, odd, implausible… whatever. It will make the present more memorable.
  49. Don’t overthink. We spend so much time (well, I don’t, but “we” do) trying to figure out the “perfect gift” for people. Unless you’re sweetie is waiting for a ring, or your 8-year-old will DIE without a particular Lego set… there ain’t no such thing. Part of the fun of gifts is getting something you wouldn’t ever have bought for yourself. If it wasn’t, we’d just give each other money. Bleh. So give something odd and unexpected.
  50. Share kids. Childhood is a big part of the holidays; both our own and our kids’. If you don’t have kids and are friends with someone who does, offer to babysit so that they can go out and shop, and then do one of the craft things above. If you do have kids, and know folks that don’t, invite them over for an event where the kids will play a part. Holidays go better with runts.
  51. Gift from your past. Find something that was highly meaningful to you as a child, or in the past, and give it to someone along with the story. Could be a book or movie or a type of clothing. Could be the board game, “Risk,” if you’re a giant geek like me.
  52. Start a bizarre, personal holiday tradition. I heard somewhere (can’t find it online, sorry… it may be apocryphal) that Amy Grant’s family explodes their Christmas tree after New Year’s Day with fireworks. I’m neither hot nor cold on Ms. Grant, but… that’s flippin’ awesome!!! So many of our holiday traditions are either copped from cultures that really aren’t our own anymore, or have been entirely kidnapped by the media/mercantile world. Why not invent a new ritual that’s just for you and your family? Stuff a sock with toys by the fireplace? Why? I sure as heck don’t know. How about, instead, everybody in your family writes one line of a nativity poem. Or fight some gingerbread man wars. Or make advent candles from last year’s used crayons. At my house, we’ve now been playing street hockey the day after Christmas for several years with all the in-laws. Why? Bob wanted to one year. After three years… It’s a tradition!
  53. Overtip, ridiculously, at least once. Food service is tough work. And around the holidays, it’s even worse. People are out-and-about, running like mad, full o’ holiday spirit, and, often, not very nice to the wait staff. And because we’re spending more than we should on various baubles, bangles and beads… we’re often a bit penurious when it comes to the everyday stuff. Which hurts the folks whose livelihood depends on our largess. So. At least once, between Thanksgiving and New Year, when you get good service and a nice smile with your meal… leave a $20 tip on a $13 lunch meal. Or, what the heck… leave $50 to cover a $22 dinner. Or $100 for a cup o’ joe. Seriously. Don’t make a big deal out of it. Do it, as the scriptures say, “In the dark.” But do it. You’ll make somebody’s whole season.
  54. Start a yearly journal. Very few people keep a journal. I’m a professional writer, and I don’t. I’m supposed to, but I write at work, and I blog, and I write poetry and fiction and, and, and… So I’ve never had a daily journal. But what I do have is a notebook that I take out about once a year. Often around the holidays. And, in my case, I write in it the names of people — everyone I can remember — that I’ve met during the last year or so. And, of course, I go back and read the earlier entries and reflect on how lucky I’ve been to have known so many wonderful people. The names are my “touchstones” to the past. The names are bookmarks in my memory, because people anchor the most important events in my life, I think. Anyway… that’s what’s in my “annual journal” for the most part. Yours, of course, can be anything you want.
  55. Share a resolution. We don’t keep our New Year’s resolutions, for the most part, because we are not really accountable to ourselves. We cheat and look the other way. So share a resolution with a friend or family member; let them hold you accountable, and vice versa.
  56. Share a resolution. No, this is not a repeat. In this case, I mean make a resolution that includes another person. For example, resolve to have a game-night once a week with your family, or to go for a walk 3 days a week with your spouse. Resolve to send an email back-and-forth at least twice a month with a friend you don’t see much anymore. Resolve to cook healthy for me, and I’ll cook healthy for you twice a week. Resolve to help your boss with his annoying habit of not taking minutes/notes at meetings, and he can help you with your attempts at better process management. So many things that we want to accomplish are impossible alone. Resolve to be better together.
  57. Visit someone else’s ceremony. When I was in confirmation class as a young Methodist lad, our pastor took us to a Passover Seder service at one of the nearby Jewish temples. It was a great way to learn about the similarities and differences between my faith and that of my Jewish friends, and to drink wine as a 15-year-old. Find out what and how others are celebrating around this time of the year. You’ll end up experiencing your own traditions more deeply, I guarantee.
  58. Random, pleasant social comments. Pick a number higher than 10. Probably safer if you also keep it under 500. Leave that number of random, lovely Facebook comments, Twitter replies or blog comments. Combat the shrill trollery and nastiness with a touch of good humor and friendliness. No need for it to explicitly say "Happy Holidays." Just be nice to someone online.
  59. Give to a charity you don’t normally connect with. Stretch a bit. If you mostly give at church, find a secular charity that does something you agree with. If you tend towards issues of hunger, try education. I’m not saying don’t do the stuff you usually do… but find out about a new one. When our giving becomes rote, we lose something of the original reason we were moved to give. Get out of your comfort zone and find a new way to share.
  60. Invite someone different to a holiday dinner. Single people or folks that can’t leave a college campus, newly married couples just moved to a new city… there are lots of people who don’t have a nice, large, rowdy chunk of kin to celebrate the holidays with. Bring ‘em along for the ride. You’ll be surprised at home much they enjoy many of the things about your holiday mess that tend to irritate or frustrate you. And that will give you new perspective on your own joy.
  61. The 12 Days of Compliments. Start on any dang day you please, and compliment or thank one person in a way you wouldn’t normally. Really try to think of something specific, honest and meaningful. On the next day, hand out two of these compliments. By day 12, it will have become almost second nature, and that’s a gift for *you* to enjoy all year long.
  62. Share a booth/table with strangers. At least once during the holiday season you will be seated to eat at a restaurant where there’s a line behind you. People still waiting to eat. And if you’re two people, and you are going to be seated at a table for four, turn to the next couple in line and say, “Hey… why don’t we share a table. Not the bill or anything. But we can eat together. Save you a little time, and we all get to meet somebody new.” Use your own words.
  63. Pay the toll for the car behind you. Between December 1 and January 1, every time you go through a toll-booth, use the lane with the guy in the booth, rather than the correct change lane. When you pull up, hand the guy enough money for two tolls and say, “I’m paying for my friend behind me. Wish him a Merry Christmas when he comes through, ok?”
  64. Sing carols (or any songs, really) while doing chores: I sing while I do the dishes. It’s a rule. I have to, or it’s no fun for me. You’ll find, after awhile, that you don’t mind the chores as much.

    And the last one is something hard... but giving gifts isn't always supposed to be easy...
  65. Forgiveness. One of the worst barriers to experiencing spiritual, holiday joy is the sense that we are not worthy. Whether directly or indirectly, too much gift giving is often a substitute for the resolution of actual issues. And one of the issues that really can weigh us down this time of the year is a grudge. Whether you’re holding one against someone else, or they’re mad at you about something… take care of it. If it’s so far in the past that the person is dead, moved on, out-of-touch,etc., then talk to a friend, therapist or confessor of some kind. Get rid of it. I don’t care what your religion is or if you have none. The burden of unforgiveness is a strain on the holidays for us all. That loss will be a great gift to yourself.
I hope you enjoyed reading the list. If you do one or more of them, let me know in the comments. Or not. I enjoyed writing it.

Merry Christmas. And Happy Holidays. Be ye kind, one and all, to each other and to yourself.