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Saturday, November 29, 2014

Haunted Holidays

I am a firm believer that Ebenezer Scrooge wasn't the only person, whether fictional or real, whose holidays were haunted. I think that times that are full of intense emotions and memories create their own "ghosts," feelings that attach themselves to the holidays in question whether we want them to or not.

A good example for me is Thanksgiving. I love the idea of Thanksgiving, and I think that remembering and celebrating this American (and yes, I include non-USA Americans who celebrate Thanksgiving holidays as well) holiday is a wonderful thing. There are similar holidays celebrated throughout the world, and throughout history. To me, there is something both simple and profound in having a special holiday dedicated to gratitude for what we have in our lives. 

I know that over the centuries, Thanksgiving has changed from its origins of days of fasting and days of thanksgiving which were tied to the cycles of availability of food depending on whether it was just before, or right after, the harvest. Oftentimes the food harvested the previous fall would be running very low before the next harvest was due, and it was natural to celebrate the bounty of crops at harvest time. With the ready availability of food regardless of the season, modern Thanksgiving celebrations often don't have the same simple meanings they once did.

Thanksgiving dinner wasn't something I was all that aware of until I lived with Gram. I don't know if my parents celebrated this American holiday after they moved here; if they did, I have no memory of them doing so. And I have no memory of family Thanksgiving celebrations from the year or so that I lived with Alice. But Gram was the hostess of the annual Thanksgiving feast. When November rolled around, we did extra cleaning of the whole house, especially the large room in the basement which was the only place in the house with enough room for all of the family to eat together. At that time, with Gram's children, their children and one spouse, and Liz and yours truly, the group numbered seventeen.

Gram would order a huge fresh turkey from the grocery, and it was usually stuffed and in the oven by about 5:30 in the morning. One of my jobs was working on the relish trays full of cheese-stuffed celery, olives, and other vegetables. Every family brought one or more side dishes and desserts, and the meal was served buffet-style, usually at about 2:30 in the afternoon. I will freely admit that I looked forward to some of these dishes far before the holiday, because many of them were only made once a year. One of my favorites was my Aunt Jackie's fruit salad, and I loved the huge roaster full of Alice's rice, as well as the mashed potatoes and gravy, Sheryl's cranberry-orange relish, and Aunt Roberta's brownies and the bowl of amazingly thick whipped cream she always brought to put on top of pumpkin pie. As someone who has never been fond of pumpkin pie, I thought it was terribly unfair that you had to eat pumpkin pie to get whipped cream. I got bold one year and bravely put some on top of my brownie. I didn't get in any trouble for it, so I never looked back. After that, I never missed my Thanksgiving dessert slathered with whipped cream.

Over the years, the number of people grew. In my unique position as both an outsider and a sort of family member, I was able to observe all of the happenings and behaviors over the years. I remember one year when I quietly carried many of the plates upstairs to the kitchen and washed and dried them by myself because I didn't want Gram's Currier and Ives plates to be treated carelessly and broken. Before anyone knew it, I had put most of the plates away in their special spots in various cupboards.

I also remember turning the heat down low and opening the doors and windows on the main floor of the house, because the sheer numbers of people in the house made it so warm. People would come sit in the living room for quiet or to chat, and complain of the cold, shutting the doors and turning up the heat. Before long, I had to undo their handiwork because the people downstairs were getting sick from the heat. 

One of the things that I noticed in my early years was that many people would not eat or drink anything all day because they knew that they would be feasting later. Most of the time, these same people would eat and eat until they felt sick with the amount of food in their stomachs. I resolved one year in my early teens that I would always leave the table before I got in that state, and have been fairly true to my word. After all, it's not a holiday in celebration of gluttony, it's a holiday in celebration of gratitude. Over the years, there were other forms of excess that made me start to dread the holiday. There were always the same people who drank way too much and either hurt themselves on the way to their cars or homes, or broke one thing or another. And in true fashion, as the liquor flowed, the noise level rose.

As the family grew, things became more complicated. When everyone had finished packing up leftovers in Gram's dishes, we often had a lack of bowls and plates for months afterward. And the dish washing took hours. So I made suggestions to Gram to make everyone's life easier. It was me who suggested switching to eating dinner off of large, sturdy paper plates, as well as using plastic zipper bags for leftovers. And eventually the group became so large that we started renting the clubhouse of a nearby condominium complex. Instead of Gram having to cook a twenty-five pound turkey, two women from the next generation would each make a turkey for the feast.

Another thing that made me stress out about the holiday was the gossip that inevitably began during the meal (sometimes even before!) and lasted until Christmas brought new grist for the gossip mill. Since I lived with Gram, I was aware of gossip from all sides. One daughter would call and complain, and then the other would call with her litany of hateful comments. I don't ever remember Aunt Roberta calling with any gossip, and that is a credit to her. By the time Christmas rolled around, I was so weary of hearing about who sat with whom, and what they looked like in their dreadful clothes, the idiotic things they said during the dinner, how poorly they disciplined their children - the lists, and the complaining, went on and on. When Christmas rolled around, there were new things for them to be angry about, like whose house Gram went to for Christmas dinner or where she spent Christmas Eve, who wore what, said what, ate what, gave what gifts...you get the picture.

After Gram died and I found myself without a family, I had an odd combination of feelings about Thanksgiving. Although there was a bit of loneliness associated with not having family with whom I could celebrate, there was also an odd sense of relief and freedom. I wouldn't have to worry about who was angry because I didn't sit with them, and I didn't have to watch over anyone or worry about anyone. There was no gossip to listen to for weeks. But there also was no Gram, no delicious dishes that I waited for all year, no people eager to catch up on what was going on in my life.

I've only recently started feeling better about Thanksgiving. There have been a few times that Trent and I have gone to a simple holiday dinner at a nearby restaurant, and there have been times when I cooked the feast myself. There have also been times when we have been invited to join large family feasts of dear friends, and it's difficult for them to understand that even though I love them, the idea of attending a large family dinner on Thanksgiving makes me cringe. The ghosts of my previous holidays return once again to torture me during the holiday season, promising to visit again the next year.

This year our friends Marie and Thayne invited us over for Thanksgiving dinner. It was just the four of us, and together we prepared a a wonderful meal full of traditional favorites, and a dish or two that we created on the spur of the moment. We watched Nathan the bloodhound win Best in Show on tv and had a lovely time. I'm hoping that over time I will be able to exorcise the stressful Spirits of Holidays past. And still remember to leave the table before I'm way too full.

I wish you all happy holidays, no matter what time of year they occur. May they be full of love, good company, and delicious foods, and very short on stress.


Friday, November 21, 2014

How Much Does It Take?

Trent and I have enjoyed playing a fun game lately. We'll be driving down the street, for example, and one of us will say, "When we win the $10,000 a week for life sweepstakes, we're going to hire that landscaping company to design our yard." "When we win $5000 a week for life, we're going to travel all around the world." We both think it's good to have dreams, even if they're pipe dreams (AKA unattainable hopes or dreams). We aren't living in a fantasy, by any means. We know that the chances of us becoming wealthy are remote to non-existent. Our feet are firmly rooted in reality and we know that our fate is likely to be one of simply getting by. This is fine because, although we aren't living high off the hog, we are sheltered, clothed, and fed, which means that we are well and truly blessed.

There certainly is something bewitching in the idea of being set for life. Being able to go wherever you wish, whenever you wish, having a home and a vacation home (mine would be in my family's village in Hungary), and having whatever you wish with no struggles, all sounds fabulous. But is it really necessary for one's happiness? I remember telling my Grammie many years ago that I knew what being rich meant. If you were able to pay all of your bills and buy food and have enough money left over to do things on the spur of the moment like go out to dinner and a movie, or take a trip once in a while, you were truly rich. I am happy to say that all these years later, I still know this to be true. 

This also begs the question - how much does it take? What is true wealth? I recently told our friends that it doesn't take millions of dollars to change someone's life completely. While I certainly would be thrilled (heck, I'd be over the moon!) to suddenly have a million dollars at my disposal, the amount of money that it would take to change my life is, by comparison to more grandiose dreams, relatively small. And isn't that a wonderful thing? A thousand dollars might change the life of a poor family in India or Africa or even the USA. Someone who lives near you right now might be that person who would be able to get and hold a better job if they had a thousand dollars to put toward the purchase of a used car. A mother in India might be able to start a home-based business with the same amount, and feed her family as well as those of one or two workers. Another family in the USA might be able to pay off their debts and put a down payment on a home, all for twenty-five thousand dollars.

I'm glad that I am able to both dream extravagantly and realize that a far smaller amount would make me rich, indeed. Yes, if the famous "Prize Patrol" comes knocking at my door, I will gladly and promptly answer. But I don't need to be as wealthy as Warren Buffett, or Jimmy Buffett for that matter, to be comfortable. A more modest form of substance would suit me just fine.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Smoked

It's that time of year again. Halloween is over, Veterans' Day has passed, and it's not yet Thanksgiving. The snow has begun to fly, making me think of a short piece of poetry I heard the comedian Nipsey Russell recite on television years ago: 

"Spring has sprung,
Fall has fell,
Winter has come,
And it's colder than usual."

The time of year I am referring to specifically, though, is what seems to be commonly known nowadays as open enrollment. That is a short way of saying that it's the time of year when we have to decide whether we wish to make any changes to our various forms of health, dental, vision, and related insurances. It also is the time of year when we learn what increases we may need to plan for in our monthly insurance premiums. If you think I am here to launch into a rant about the cost of insurance, fear not; I am not going to complain about that at this time. In fact, we were pleased and relieved that our cost went up by such a tiny amount this year. Yippee!

Trent needed to call the Benefits department to process our annual enrollment for our insurance today. We could have just skipped making the call; the packet sent out every years advises us that we can do so. Our choices from last year will automatically be used for next year. But we just can't do that around this household, because I am a worrier. I like to avoid unpleasant surprises, so we call every year to make the same choices we made the previous year. Some of you may be shaking your heads at this, and I don't mind. I'd rather make an unnecessary call and err on the side of caution. It's a good thing, really. When there are two family members with various health problems, and one of them is a transplant patient, that sort of caution makes sense. I will freely admit that I would love to feel relaxed enough to just forego the call. I really don't see myself turning into that type of person soon.

This year, though, couldn't possibly have been the year that we adopted that attitude. The employer that provides the insurance has begun a new policy for 2015. We received a letter from them a couple of months ago describing what would be coming, and I think it is the wave of the future. The company has determined that employees who use tobacco have a greater chance of having more, and more expensive, health problems than non-tobacco users. Beginning January first, all tobacco users, and any family members covered on their insurance who use tobacco, will pay a monthly premium of over fifty dollars per tobacco user. (I will say, on the company's behalf, that they are also providing help to employees and their family members who want to quit using tobacco. You'll notice I haven't used the word smoking, because the policy covers all forms of tobacco usage.) We had to actively enroll in our benefits this year in order to answer the question of whether or not either of us used any tobacco products. If we didn't take any action, we would automatically be charged the monthly premium.

Neither one of us smokes, so we wanted to make sure that we aren't charged for this. The reporting of tobacco usage is currently on the honor system, but I envisioned requests for confirmation going out to managers about whether the employees answered honestly. This certainly might happen in the future, resulting in people potentially losing their jobs because lying about something like this could be considered a code of ethics violation. 

This also makes me wonder about what lies in the future. Will employees be required to submit to some sort of examination or testing in the future to confirm their tobacco-use status? Will tobacco use have an impact on the hiring process? Let's take it a step further, shall we? How about weight, something that is a problem for me. Will there come a time when people are charged monthly because their weight is too high? Will employees be required to have a BMI within a certain range? How about alcohol consumption? Maybe I am over-thinking this. One person may say that tobacco use is a choice, but another might say that a person's weight is also a choice. Using that type of logic, all sorts of behaviors could come under scrutiny. We shall see. I'm not going to worry about it, though. I'm just going to spend my time trying to be the happiest, healthiest person I can be.


Please feel free to share your thoughts on this subject in the comments section below, or on any post containing a link that brought you here. I am curious about how others might interpret this possible trend. Do you think a tobacco-use surcharge is fair? Do you think it will lead to mandatory verification processes? Does this open the door for charges for additional habits/behaviors/conditions? Do you view this as a punitive charge, or a positive move? I am eager to hear your opinions!



Monday, November 10, 2014

Kidspeak

No, Kidspeak is not a new cable channel or tv program aimed at children. It's just a description I came up with to describe the fun ways kids express themselves as they are learning our wonderful and sometimes confusing language. My cousin Carole had a couple of good examples of kidspeak. Even though she spoke very clearly and expressed herself well from an early age, she had a couple of words that tripped her up when she was quite young. In her kidspeak, waffles and tunnels became awfuls and tungels. To this day, she claims that she did not pronounce the word waffles incorrectly, she was just telling everyone how she felt about them. I'll allow it, with a smile on my face.

I think kidspeak happens for several reasons. When children are learning to speak, they aren't able to pronounce complicated words until they've had a lot more experience. We can't really expect a child who has just gotten through the mama-dada phase to be able to pronounce something like Salisbury steak, can we? Add to that the fact that all of us sometimes hear things a little differently than what's said, and you have more potential for words getting tangled up a bit. 

A coworker of mine from days of yore had a hysterical experience with this type of kidspeak. She had two daughters who were in the early years of elementary school, and received a telephone call requesting a teacher's meeting regarding the younger one. She was a bit surprised, but made arrangements to meet with the teacher. Sandy took it in stride when the teacher told her that her daughter and a boy in her class had been, shall we say, comparing what sort of equipment they had while they were on the playground after lunch. After dinner that evening, she calmly asked her daughter about what had happened at school that day. Her daughter told her about her classes and lunch, and nothing else. Sandy gently prodded, asking about what happened during recess. Her daughter answered, "You mean when I showed Danny my wenis?"

Well, when Sandy heard her say wenis, she started laughing hysterically, which of course made her little girl cry. She thought mommy was making fun of her, but that wasn't the case. It was just too cute and funny for her to contain herself. Sandy managed to calm both herself and her daughter down, and explained that boys have something that sounds like wenis, and girls have something that doesn't. She briefly told her the correct words and let her know that this was a private part of her body. It proved to be a great opportunity to educate and protect her daughter, and all went well. There were no more calls from the teacher. I wonder, though, if she had a moment like the boy in Kindergarten Cop, informing the other kids that boys and girls have different parts, and what they were called.

I think another thing that contributes to kidspeak is that some words or phrases just don't seem to follow logical rules. I learned this from an argument a conversation I had with my niece Becky when she was a very little girl. She had hit the chatterbox stage, and was telling me about something that had happened the previous day. The conversation began with Becky saying, "Last day, we went to the store." I replied with something like, "Don't you mean yesterday?" We went back and forth for a few minutes with me trying to help her understand that the right way to say it was yesterday, and her being visibly disgusted that I was so stupid that I didn't understand that it happened last day.

We finally dropped it, but after giving it some thought I realized the simple and beautiful logic of why she had said last day. If the previous evening was called last night, it only made sense that the previous day should be called last day. Clear and sensible, and unfortunately just not the way it goes. We never talked about yesterday or last day again because I couldn't argue with the train of thought that had brought her to that destination. Just like her beloved bloneycheese sandwiches, they were a brief and charming part of her childhood. Becky might occasionally say bloneycheese just for fun, but last day is gone, just like the tungles and awfuls and wenises. Unless, of course, somebody needs a fun story that starts with, "Well, back when you were a kid..."


Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Madness Continues

It's over for now. We are safe for at least a year, I hope. Election Day was Tuesday, and even before Wednesday, my life had changed. I noticed as I was watching television Tuesday evening that it was radically different from the night before. Yes, I realize that the programs on the Tuesday night schedule are different from the programs on Monday or Wednesday nights. I'm talking about the commercial breaks. What a joy to be rid of the ghastly campaign commercials! Trent and I have been talking recently about how vile campaign commercials have become in the last dozen or more years. I remember the days when a candidate for public office would be featured in a commercial that told you about the issues the candidate felt were important. "This is me; these are the things I believe in. If you believe in them too, please vote for me this November."

As the King sang in The King and I, "world have changed a lot." Every time you turn on the television in the campaign season, it's another episode of the blame game. Instead of hearing, "Hi, I'm Jane Jones, and I want to improve your life by being your Senator. I believe we should raise the minimum wage to stimulate the economy. I also believe in x, y, and z. I'd appreciate your vote this November." Instead, the commercials are something like this: "Joan Johnson voted for higher taxes. Joan Johnson thinks old people should make less money. Joan Johnson hates you. Vote for Jane Jones."

And it's not just the tv ads. Every day in the last few weeks leading up to the election, our mailbox was stuffed with full-color political ads printed on thick, glossy (read: expensive) paper. Most days there were two or three from the same candidate. And not just on that day, either. Every single day, there were multiple mailers from the same candidates, all in the same spiteful vein as the television commercials. All I could think when I saw all of these mailers was how much money was spent on them, and where else it might have been used. Well, that and how quickly I could get rid of them.

As I said, it's over for a while. There will be another election in two years, and it will also be preceded by primaries and ads and related madness. I sit down and turn on the telly, glad that I won't have commercials making me lose my mind for a while. Wait, what's that? A Christmas commercial?! It's only the beginning of November, for crying out loud! Halloween was just a few days ago! Don't we still have a couple of holidays before Santa season? My calendar still says that we have Veterans' Day and that other one, what's it called? Oh, right, Thanksgiving. For a moment I feel like I have made the proverbial jump from the frying pan into the fire. I look for something to watch and discover that a certain cable network began their thirty-day Christmas movie marathon on Halloween night. That means Christmas will be over and done before December first. Oh, well, the red decorations everyone has up will tie in marvelously with the Christmas Eve I Love Valentine's Day marathon! 




p.s. I am not a Christmas-hating curmudgeon (the human equivalent of Grumpy Cat). I'd just really like to enjoy the November holidays first. I worry that keeping the music and movies going for two months will make people bored with, or much worse, sick and tired of, Christmas before it even arrives. And I love Christmas too much for that. As far as political advertising, I'm sure I'll be complaining about the name-calling again when the time comes.


Monday, November 3, 2014

Responsibility

Every one of us, through the course of our lives, makes mistakes. The way we react to them, or deal with them, may say a lot about us. I think we have all been around people whose reactions run the gamut from flat-out denial, to shifting the blame to other people or circumstances, or admitting their mistakes and promising to try not to repeat them. I can think of people who fall in various spots on this scale, much to their credit or discredit, as the case may be. I tend to be one of the own-up-to-it types. I am sure that it has something to do with my experiences of punishment as a small child during the time I lived with Alice. If one does anything to try and delay punishment, it will likely end up being much worse. So I've gone in the other direction, I suppose. Better to just say I've made a mistake and get the consequences over and done with.

My friend and chosen-family member Tiffanie had an experience this weekend that made me think about this subject. She was driving home in the very early morning hours after a double shift on her job, when she was the victim of a rear-end accident. She had seen the other vehicle while she'd been driving, and had tried to keep an eye on him because he was driving erratically. The other car ended up behind her, and when the driver rear-ended her, ripping off his front bumper and license plate in the process, he fled the scene of the accident. This makes me wonder why the other driver left rather than stopping, checking on the other driver, calling the police, and so forth. Was he intoxicated and worried about the trouble he would get into as a result? Perhaps he already had several tickets and was afraid to lose his license. Who knows? Since he left his license plate behind, his mistake will undoubtedly catch up with him, along with the added charge of leaving the scene of an accident.

This reminded me of when I was in High School and my friends and classmates were getting their driver's licenses. A boy in my grade level, Billy, had his license, but somehow always managed to end up driving too fast. It can be easy to lose track of how fast you are going when you're a kid. Life is full of distractions, and sometimes your focus gets lost in the shuffle of friends and classes and potential dates and such. Billy had received several tickets and had had several points deducted from the allotment on his license. Unfortunately, he'd reached the point at which one more speeding violation would result in him losing his driver's license.

One day after school, as Billy was driving home, or wherever he was headed at the time, he once again started to drive too fast. A police officer turned on his lights and siren. Yes, he was, as we said in those days, busted. In a split second, Billy chose how he would react to this situation. Instead of pulling over and getting the ticket that would cost him his license, Billy hit the gas pedal. He tried to avoid the humiliation and inconvenience of losing his right to drive by running away from the law. He was just a sixteen-year-old kid, and not thinking logically, or even past the very moment. The officers took chase, and Billy began driving faster. From what we were told at school the next day, it didn't take very long for Billy to lose control over his car and crash. No, Billy didn't realize his fear of losing his license that day. It was far worse. Because of the actions he took trying not to lose his ability to drive, he lost his life that day.

I don't know what reasons the driver that hit Tiffanie had for leaving the scene of the accident the other night, and she'll probably never know. I am just grateful that she wasn't terribly hurt. She experienced some pain, and was very shaken by the experience. I hope that the other driver learned something from the accident. Running from taking responsibility for that kind of mistake ultimately gets you nowhere. And maybe he was shaken enough to realize that he needs to avoid whatever it was that was making him drive so erratically. I think if Billy could talk to him, he'd say a driver's license definitely isn't worth losing everything for.