A brief reflection

better person

As the end of 2013 approaches, I have had, much like many others, moments of reflection poking their way into my daily thoughts. Many people on the various social media have posted about accomplishments and goals, hoping to share their ups and downs with others or hold themselves accountable for future actions.

As for me, I think there’s something magical about the winding down of one year and the revving up of a new one. Even though there’s only one second that splits December 31 from January 1, it feels as if those two dates have a chasm between them. I always picture it as a long journey from the very bottom right-hand corner of the calendar all the way up and around to the topmost left corner; with that visual in my mind, it doesn’t seem feasible that I can exhale December air, and in the very next breath, inhale January air.

What is it about the start of a new calendar year that gives the feeling “anything is possible”? Is there something about January that makes it easier to start a diet, rather than trying on December 9th or November 28th or July 5th? Why don’t people make Memorial Day resolutions? “I will eat less hot dogs and more salads during the summer months” or “I vow to take time each day to sit under the tree in my backyard and read for an hour” would be terrific resolutions, in my opinion.

Something about the words “New Year” gives the feeling that goals are within reach of the common man; that the overindulgence and undisciplined nature of the holiday season will be nudged back in line; that wrongs can and will be righted; that a slate is being wiped clean.

I suppose I’m not much different than anyone else: I like to use each new year as a springboard for a fresh start. If nothing else, it provides me with a reason to sit down and make a list of what worked for me and what didn’t during the previous twelve months. My list usually consists of sub-lists because I am what would be considered a “list person.” I love lists. I love making them and I love crossing things off them. I rarely get things crossed off, but I love it all the same, and the lack of accomplishments has not in any way diminished my desire to make more lists.

Regardless of the pitifully small percentage of items that actually end up completed on my lists, I find I function better with one. I have a track record of distractibility and will often enter a room, forget why I went there, and return to the previous room in hopes of a memory trigger. I leave things sitting out so I don’t forget about them, even though I’d prefer to have them put away. I can only multi-task to a certain degree; for instance, I can sit and blink while drinking coffee but will completely forget I have something on the stove if I go to another room without turning on the kitchen timer to remind me to come back. I once caused a (thankfully minor-ish) flood on the kitchen floor because I placed my glass in the fridge door water dispenser to fill it and stepped into the pantry “just for a second” to grab something. I found what I was looking for, took it to another room, and proceeded to start another task…until my husband walked into the kitchen, saw a floor full of water, and asked what the heck was going on. Huh. To be fair, a list probably wouldn’t have helped me there, but standing still for thirty seconds might have. And on a completely unrelated note, may I just say thank goodness for teapots that whistle.

Back to the lists…  (I told you I was distractible.)

My lists for the new year used to be general, and focused solely on the physical. Always, always they started with the ever-present “Lose Weight.” As I got older, the goal became more specific with a certain number of pounds, frequency/types of exercise, or changing food habits. Changing one habit per month seemed to be successful because it didn’t set me up for complete all-or-nothing failure.

Lately, however, my lists encompass more than just the physical. Spiritual goals for growth were added. Two years in a row, I read through my Bible in a year. One year, I focused on all the Biblical ways to be a better wife; another year, I did a different word study each month on things I thought I needed to know and improve upon; yet another, I worked on memorization of verses.

Other types of goals on my list were focused outward: to organize my house, room by room; to donate to the food pantry once per month; to practice any one of the musical instruments in our house (there are a lot of them!) a minimum of ten minutes a day, with one particular instrument as the “main” one that received more practice time than the others at least five days per week; to make more time for spontaneity with friends; to have meals planned out a week at a time; to do something kind and unselfish (big or small) for someone in my family each day; to figure out a way to help financially, either by earning money or cutting expenses.

Some of the goals worked well, others were a bust, and the rest worked for awhile. (Some people see a list of New Year’s resolutions as a to-do list for the first week of January, and there’s a reason for that.) Still, as a result, I’m not half bad at the ukulele, though still mostly bad at the mandolin; I managed to make three months’ worth of meals before having to repeat any of them (seriously! I have a lot of good recipes); every so often I was able to do something nice for Tim before he did it for me—and that was a tough one, since he’s pretty quick on doing nice things for me long before I even have a coherent thought; I started copy editing and am now earning a small income for the extras and emergency needs that crop up from time to time.

The unmet goals were a bummer all around. I wasn’t able to fit in as much bike riding this summer as I did last year, with only a couple hundred miles on my wheels compared to the previous summer’s 1000+. Not only did I miss the enjoyment of riding, but my health & weight goals took a hit because of it. The house still needs another layer or three of clutter taken out, though to be fair, much of the space is taken up by books and guitars, so I’m going to have to focus on the non-musical clutter since we all know there will undoubtedly be more guitars, drums, etc., coming in the door throughout the year. And if you’d poll my friends, I’m pretty sure they’ll tell you I absolutely sucked at the spontaneity thing.

BUT…

But. There’s always a “but” in there. I count on it, in fact, to make things better. The “but” in this case is that January is only a couple days away. Top-left of the calendar. Fresh start. Revised goals. Clean slate.

New list.

Life lessons from Christmas movies

Our family owns a lot of Christmas movies. We began collecting our favorites when the kids were little and have gradually replaced the good ones with their DVD or Blu-Ray versions over the years, and we’re faithful about hiding them away after the Christmas tree comes down so we don’t get sick of them.

We’re not keen on all Christmas movies; there are some stinkers out there, and just because it has “Christmas” in or near the title doesn’t mean I want to own it. You won’t get me to even pick up something that has the words “The Christmas Shoes” on it, because that song was touching the first time I heard it and never again after that. Never. I don’t like Christmas “sequels,” either, like Rudolph’s Shiny New Year or Frosty Returns. Ironically, we own Frosty Returns because it came bundled with a bunch of other Christmas classics (because nobody would have shelled out for it otherwise), but no one in our house has ever wanted to watch it.

We have what I consider classics, both old and newer, ranging from A Charlie Brown Christmas and The Year Without a Santa Claus to Jingle All the Way and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Toss in the über-classics like It’s a Wonderful Life and White Christmas and you’ve got a well-rounded collection to accompany the hot cocoa on a snowy night. I think we own somewhere around twenty-five Christmas movies (yes, we’re one of the families who considers Die Hard a Christmas-ish movie…on the fringes of the category, but still within the borderline), and we make it through most of them each December.

The other night, the whole family was home (a rare occasion these days), so we watched two movies back to back: The Santa Clause, followed by Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. As I watched Rudolph and the gang, the thought struck me that just about everyone in that movie is a jerk, including Santa. What kind of Santa tells a parent he should be ashamed of himself for producing a defective child? Indeed, what kind of parent forces a kid to hide whatever it is that makes that kid unique? The coach, well…no offense to nice coaches out there, but that guy reminded me of every gym teacher I ever had in school, belittling the non-conformists and encouraging others to do the same.

Hermey & Rudolph

I happened to have my laptop open at the time, so I posted a comment on Facebook about how the message of Rudolph’s tale seemed to be that it was OK to treat someone in an awful manner unless they could do something for you. I couldn’t believe how many of my friends felt the same way about this movie; more than one person admitted to never having liked Rudolph, and one person didn’t even like the singing snowman. Harsh. The sheer volume of comments and the varied viewpoints had me laughing out loud. Some of them are just too good not to share. I commented, “Even that dumb king on the Island of Misfit Toys is a jerk…Rudolph & Hermey say, ‘So can we stay here with you?’ and King Moonracer answers, ‘No. But when you go back, here’s what you can do for me…'” and this is what I got in return:

Moonracer was like a petty dictator of a failing nation. “Get off my land and come back with aid! You can’t use my country as a base but GIMME GIMME GIMME!” 

You can bet those misfit toys got nothin’ for air defense except a squirt gun that squirts jelly!

The entire “Island of Misfit Toys” is about what happens when people just sit around and bemoan their fate instead of striking out, as Rudolph did, to make something of himself. The toys were pathetic and just expected King Moonracer to feed them and shelter them until the Big Santa arrived with more handouts. 

I don’t believe the Misfit Toys ever asked to be placed on the island!! How were they to escape when the boat wouldn’t float??

Santa is like the Grand Wizard of the North Pole KKK. He was hating on everyone. I was waiting for him to berate minorities and the mentally disabled after tearing Rudolph and his dad a new one for having a red nose.

The abominable snowman still gives me nightmares.

As I was telling my husband about the responses, he began to imitate the whiny Charlie-in-the-Box, “‘Oh, boo hoo. My name isn’t Jack.’ Well, what the heck is stopping you from telling people a different name when they ask? Can’t your middle name be Jack, like C. Jack Box?”

I guess I’d never realized how many people don’t care for the Rudolph movie. I don’t think I’ll ever view it in the same way again. Maybe I’ll never even bother to watch it again, or will only put it on so I can make fun of it—sort of my own Christmas version of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Now that sounds like fun.

That holiday feeling

We’ve got that holiday feeling

That happy holiday feeling

Our favorite holiday of the year

When I was a kid, I used to love listening to my parents’ Christmas albums. My dad loved Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, and to this day, I still think Herb’s “Christmas Album” is one of the best ever.

I have a thing for the old Christmas songs. Once again, I’m going to reference a post by Elle Todd in which she talks about current artists butchering her Christmas favorites. (Honest—I do come up with my own ideas, but she sneaks into my brain and steals them somehow…I’ll look into it for a future post. But you’ll probably read about it on her blog first, of course. Rats.)

Back to the point—or points, really, since I have a few things I want to say about this whole Christmas thing.

The songs I like most are either old or sound old. It’s that old-style vocal quality that makes me fond of the sound of Harry Connick, Jr., or Michael Bublé (Mister Bubble, as we call him around our house, since nobody appreciates him but me). If I’m listening to “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” it needs to be Andy Williams. “Santa Baby” must be done by Eartha Kitt…and I have no idea why anyone would listen to the other truly awful versions available, although Mister Bubble’s version of “Santa Buddy” is a pretty good alternative. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is best done by Al Hirt and Ann Margret. The list goes on.

Because my dad was also a huge Barbra Streisand fan, we had every one of her albums, including her Christmas one. As a child, I loved to sing along with it, using the never-lit candlestick in our dining room as my microphone. Picture an eight year old who thinks she has Barbra’s pipes, belting Christmas songs at the top of her lungs when no one else is home. I laugh at the memory of it now, but was deadly serious about sounding like Babs at the time.

As an adult, though, I began to wonder why a Jewish person would have recorded a Christmas album. Isn’t Jesus, after all, the big stumbling block between Christians and Jews? Why would someone who doesn’t believe in Jesus as the Messiah sing songs like “Silent Night” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem”?

The only answer I could come up with involved money. Barbra knew enough—or had an agent who knew enough—to capitalize on the commercialization of Christmas, even back then.

I’m not sure if it’s because things are truly getting worse, or if it’s because I’m getting less tolerant of it, but I’ve noticed more of a frantic feel to the holidays over the past few years. Sales start earlier and earlier (as I mentioned in my Black Friday post), causing us to feel as if we’re already behind before we’ve even begun. Thoughtful gifts have been pushed aside by the idea that “thoughtful” is not enough: “big” is what’s required to impress people (if you don’t believe me, listen to the Valentine’s Day ads a couple months from now as they tell men their single heartfelt flower is pathetically cheap, and “only” a dozen roses is too cliché). Time for relaxation and reflection is trampled on by the constant stream of parties which, of course, can only be thrown in during this time of year when people are already pressed for time.

I want to enjoy my Christmas. I don’t want to be so burnt-out on the whole package that Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are just one more harried obligation. I remember an incident a few years ago when, upon arriving at my in-laws’ house for Christmas Eve, I placed our tray of homemade cookies and candies on the table. One of my sisters-in-law glanced at them and said, “They look delicious, but oh my gosh, I am so sick of cookies and junk after all the parties we’ve been to all month.”

Needless to say, I was pretty bummed to hear my efforts were wasted on at least one family member. I knew it wasn’t a personal insult to me (and my always-kind sister-in-law would probably have felt bad, had she known how her innocent comment had made me feel), but the whole experience made me sad that all the preliminaries of the Christmas “season” have worn us down so much that we can’t see the holiday for the fun day or two that it brings. I’m not advocating a boycott on parties and cookies until Christmas Eve morning or anything, but I suppose I’m just calling for a bit of discretion and restraint in what is deemed “necessary” for holiday cheer.

The “happy holiday feeling” Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme sang about so cheerfully (and cheesily, but I love it anyway) seems to have been replaced by…something else. For some, it’s depression; for others, it’s irritation (like me, fighting my way through holiday shoppers because I need groceries); still others feel anger at the political correctness and shout, “Don’t you DARE say ‘Happy Holidays’ to me, you heathen!” at befuddled cashiers. I’ll bet those same people just loved the Holiday Wintertainment Parade in “Jingle All the Way,” with dancing menorahs hand-in-hand with Santas and snow queens.

It’s hard to fight the urge to have “enough” gifts bought, rather than thoughtful gifts which fit the recipient’s personality. I’d rather have one gift that let me know it was me the giver was thinking about while shopping than a pile of things that were “on sale, so I got one for everybody.” Yes, I’ve had that happen on multiple occasions.

I have a friend who calls herself a terrible gift-giver because she can never think of gifts on-demand when a birthday or holiday comes along. However, the reality is that she’s an incredible gift-giver because she doesn’t give according to what the calendar says. If she sees something she knows a friend will enjoy, she buys it and gives it. Right then. No waiting. She’s given me some terrific gifts over the years based on things I’ve mentioned in passing, like buying me a sewing machine when she knew mine was beginning to act unpredictably; or a bunch of really cool kitchen items she noticed me oohing and ahhing over in a Pampered Chef catalog; or a check, tucked into a passport wallet, to help cover my costs on a short-term missions trip. She’s not rich, but she pays attention to people around her and acts with generosity.

Another friend, an author I work with, recently sent me a coffee mug that was perfect for my editor’s sense of OCD correctness. That mug was me, through and through, and she knew it when she found it. I smile whenever I use it, and not just because it’s filled with coffee.

This year, once again, I’m going to cut back a little more on the buying and focus a little more on the giving. Christmas, for me, celebrates the birth of my Savior, so it’s obvious to me where my personal focus should lie. To others who don’t believe as I do, though, I still believe the “holiday feeling” should be about giving and helping, rather than spending and taking.

Try it. You never know: you might like it.