The Best of 2011…Is Yet to Come

"Opportunity for Reflection"

First of all, happy Gregorian 2012 to everyone!

In this season of endings and beginnings, I’ve been thinking instead about continuity and the hope that it offers us. After all, just a few weeks ago many of us were celebrating the winter solstice, that annual moment when Earth’s perpetual journey around the Sun begins to favor daylight over darkness. We could say with scientific certainty that brighter days were ahead. Ecologically, this is also the time when seeds stir in the earth and prepare for the upcoming growth seasons, even though their first green shoots are still a few months off. We celebrated that cycle of life along with the turning wheel of the seasons—the ongoing recurrence of natural patterns over time.

From the winter solstice, fast-forward a few weeks and the focus shifts to the close of the calendar year, a somewhat arbitrary and historically variable marker. After all, if you so desired, you could celebrate New Year’s Eve throughout the year, as long as you researched all of the lesser-known calendar-flips (Happy Gudi Padwa, everyone!) in addition to the more well-established date-changers, such as Rosh Hashanah and the Chinese Spring Festival. For much of the world, however, the calendar established by Pope Gregory XIII holds sway, making us all followers of the Catholic tradition, if only for a short time. This might explain all of those confessions of guilt and penitent vows of self-renewal associated with New Year’s resolutions. (Religious history purists can make what they want of the fact that January 1 also marks the supposed anniversary of Jesus’s circumcision. Perhaps that explains the noisemaker tradition?)

In western culture, the end of the calendar year has also become a time of retrospective judgment. “Best of” lists vie with “Worst of” lists for our consideration. Many of these seem contrived solely to boost sales at the end of the fourth business quarter (or second, if your company uses the July-to-June model). It’s probably no coincidence that the holiday season segues so seamlessly into the “awards season.”

For a long time, I was a huge fan of year-end best-of lists. Reading them was like sneaking a peek at the teacher’s edition of some cultural textbook: Had I chosen the right movies to watch? Did I memorize the words to the most worthy songs? Would reading the highest-rated books provide clues to help propel my own to the top of the list some day? One of my friends, a film studies major, regularly sent out a detailed report of his top-rated movies from the previous year, and I learned a great deal about cinema while studying his reviews and rationales. For weeks afterward, I sought out the films he had mentioned—no small feat, given the obscurity of some of them and the occasional lack of comprehensible subtitles.

Then, one year during graduate school, it all went sour. A film critic published his “Best of the Year” list in the city’s newspaper. There were just a few slight problems. First of all, he hadn’t screened all of the movies that had been released that year (but then again, who could?). Perhaps more importantly, he confessed that he hadn’t yet seen some of the films topping the box office charts or other critics’ “best of” lists. Furthermore, several of the movies that he mentioned were well over a year old, and the reviewer admitted to having only SEEN them during the course of that calendar year. In short, his list was a sham.

A subsequent exchange of letters between the reviewer and me was quite instructive and forever changed both our minds about end-of-year pronouncements. During our conversation, we noted that a movie often takes years to produce and premiere. The film itself is, in turn, based on a screenplay that may have been written and developed for several years prior to that. By extension, some films are based on pre-existing stories and novels (and, in more recent times, comics and board games). Those original artistic creations themselves might have required years of germination. The date stamped on such a film (or novel or musical composition) masks years of hard work and risks becoming, as dates sometimes do, misleading and meaningless.

Based on these musings, I will go out on a limb and suggest that Jane Austen did not fret over the fact that Pride and Prejudice was not named “Best Novel of 1799,” the year in which she completed the first draft of the manuscript. In fact, she would have to endure another fifteen “not-best-of” years before the book was even published. This should serve as an inspiration to all of us who labor on long-term projects like novels, child-rearing, and the deployment of particle accelerators. Some things just take time. To appropriate T.S. Eliot, those of us who craft lengthy books should measure out our lives with coffee spoons and printer cartridges, not calendar pages.

So, for many who look upon the start of a new year as a time to “take stock and start anew,” I counsel patience and perseverance instead. There is no reason to pause at this specified instant and judge what we did or did not achieve in 2011. Opportunities for reflection will no doubt come in 2012, and we can decide for ourselves which moments and contexts best serve our current endeavors.

In the meantime, here’s looking forward—perhaps far forward—to those future years in which the seeds we planted all these past years bear fruit.

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Saying Goodbye to Santa Claus

Spoiler Alert: Santa’s “Big Secret” revealed in this blog entry.

Exhibit One: Me with Santa Claus at home in the 1960s, proof positive that he exists.

Now that Santa has flown in, tucked gifts under trees both hither and yon, and headed back to the North Pole for some well-deserved R&R, I feel it’s time to take a look at one of America’s biggest myths and think about how it may have affected us as a nation…or not.

But first, in the spirit of the holiday season, I offer a nostalgic visit to my hometown in Massachusetts circa 1970. Picture plastic candles in each street-facing window and a lacquered pinecone wreath adorned with a festive red felt bow on the front door. If you peer in through the spray-on snow frosting the windows, you can see me carefully filling a plastic garbage bag with dozens of gifts. My parents watch, slightly puzzled but mostly silent, as I pull on my snow boots and mittens, then leave the house, bag slung over my shoulder.

A week or so earlier, I had learned a shocking truth that rocked my little world—a secret that had been kept by nearly every adult I had ever met. They had lied to me, these adults. People whom I had trusted entirely, including the local minister and my own parents, had taken part in an international conspiracy and perpetrated a myth, a fantasy, a fiction. The story included a conveniently distant setting, a saintly protagonist (whom I had met in person on several occasions), and a desirable plotline that evoked grand themes of peace, good will, and generosity. To cover their tracks, my parents had even planted evidence: sleigh bells jangled as sound effects in the wee hours of Christmas morning; cookie crumbs and half-drunk tumblers of milk left on the metal TV table set up alongside the chimney.

All of this was an elaborate scheme that blurred the lines between fiction and nonfiction, between fantasy and reality. Young and gullible, I was easily duped. Of course there was a Santa. Of course reindeer flew. Why even question the physics of how, in one single night, a rather rotund man could pilot a craft to every single household around the world and leave presents for all the good boys and girls—and still have time to toss back some cookies and sip some milk in each abode?

In asking me to believe in such fantastic things, my parents taught me an important lesson that would be vital to my budding literary ambitions: how to suspend disbelief. In doing so, however, they taught a corollary lesson: how to suspend belief. In other words, in order to suspend my disbelief in Santa Claus, I also had to suspend my belief in many of the lessons learned in grade school (science, geography, math, etc.).

In some ways, then, the revelation that Santa Claus was a fabrication probably came as something of a relief to me. The dissonance between fantasy and fact, between what I was being told to believe and what I was learning to be true, lessened. That psychological summary may be a bit too deep to ascribe to an eight-year-old’s consciousness, so let me state it another way: Santa or no, the presents were still there on Christmas morning, and so all was well with the world.

Luckily for me, my parents didn’t serve up the revelation about Santa Claus with a simple “Sorry, kid, but that’s just the way it is.” They discussed the importance of symbolism and how this extended to the Santa myth, claiming that while Santa himself may not be real, the spirit of giving that he represents lives on in the hearts and souls of all those who have heard his story. Any fan of the famous “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus” newspaper editorial might have accused my parents of plagiarism, but I could tell they were sincere.

Still: Such power in a fictional tale! Suddenly, my dreams of becoming a fiction writer one day became a vastly more important, almost religious endeavor. See how the power of a story, even a fictional story like Santa Claus, could have such great positive effect on the real human world!

And so I headed off into the night with my makeshift Santa sack. Inside I had placed carefully wrapped toys and books for the kids, and on the second and third winters’ visits, some ribbon candy for the adults in each household. I carried on the tradition until, one year, something unexpected happened. Some families had wrapped and readied gifts and treats for me. Somewhat embarrassed by their assumption that I expected something in return, I ended the Christmas Eve tradition that same year.

For years, I forgot about this bit of personal history. I was recently reminded of it by an article about a Vermont teacher accused of being unprofessional and irresponsible for spilling the beans about Santa in a fifth-grade classroom. The teacher had asked students to list names of famous people in American history. In order to keep the lesson focused on facts, the teacher felt compelled to leave figures such as Winnie the Pooh, Harry Potter, and Santa Claus off the list. (I could not tell from the article if she allowed the also-mentioned Jeff Foxworthy and Justin Bieber to remain on the list, but that’s another discussion for another time.)

(The full article is here:

http://www.reformer.com/ci_19576402?IADID=Search-www.reformer.com-www.reformer.com)

The mother who raised the “unprofessional” and “irresponsible” charges against the teacher went on to say that teaching about Santa Claus was like teaching about religion: the topic is best set aside with recommendations to ask one’s parents about such things. That seems fair enough…until I thought about the goals of education in general.

Since a good part of my day job (writing and editing educational materials) relies on the various state standards developed by school boards (many of them quite conservative) around the country, I know that “learning to distinguish between fantasy and reality” is a pretty important benchmark in the lower grades. (Keep in mind that the instance noted above took place in a fifth-grade classroom.) In other words, children are required to differentiate between nonfiction and fiction (fairy tales, myths, legends, and the like). Teachers are required to provide students with the skills and strategies to do this. By fifth grade, then, your average American student should have the reasoning skills to figure out the Santa thing on her/his own. Any parent who disagrees risks spotlighting their children as slow learners—perhaps along with themselves.

According to research done by psychiatrists at Ithaca College and Cornell University in the 1990s, the average American child learns the truth about Santa at age 7 1/2. However, after interviewing 500 elementary-school children, they discovered that “Many children kept up the charade after they knew the truth…because they did not want to disappoint their parents.”

Parents, take a moment to reflect one the meaning of that last clause (no pun intended). Your kids may be duping you into believing that they still believe in Santa. I think back on my own behavior as a pseudo-Santa and wonder if that was, in some warped way, an effort to turn the lies my parents had told me into truths…ergo, my parents had not lied to me after all.

Further, Dr. John Condry, one of the authors of the Ithaca/Cornell study, reported, “Not a single child told us they were unhappy or upset by their parents having lied about Santa Claus. The most common response to finding out the truth was that they felt older and more mature. They now knew something that the younger kids didn’t.”

(You can read more about the study here:
http://www.nytimes.com/1991/11/21/garden/parent-child.html?pagewanted=2&src=pm)

This finding surprised me. “Not a single child”? Parents, take another moment to think about telling your child that he or she cannot have a toy or candy bar that he or she has already selected while you were shopping at the grocery store. When you took the item away, was your child calm and well-mannered about it? Or was the response similar to those submitted for a recent Jimmy Kimmel spot in which the talk show host asked parents to tell their children, “Hey, sorry, I ate all your Halloween candy.” (Permissions permitting, the videotaped results of this rather non-academic study are here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/03/jimmy-kimmels-ate-halloween-candy-challenge_n_1074334.html)

In a 2006 opinion piece in the New York Times, Jaqueline Woolley wrote, “Children do a great job of scientifically evaluating Santa. And adults do a great job of duping them. As we gradually withdraw our support for the myth, and children piece together the truth, their view of Santa aligns with ours. Perhaps it is this kinship with the adult world that prevents children from feeling anger over having been misled.” What is this “kinship with the adult world” of which Woolley writes? Is it the tacit understanding that adults lie, and that it is OK for them to lie (or “support a myth”) on a grand scale?

(The link to the Woolley article is here:
http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/23/opinion/23woolley.html?_r=1&oref=slogin)

Surely someone sees this Santa thing differently. For balance, I turned to a group whose opposition to myths and distortions is part and parcel of their identity: the objectivists. This group is huge these days with Republicans and the Tea Party, both of which have renewed a fervent interest in the writings of Ayn Rand, particularly as it applies to self-determination and self-interest. Surely, the somewhat socialist “give liberally to the poor children of the world” Santa myth (I base that description on the story’s historical roots in relation to Saint Nicholas, who, by the way, was also the patron saint of pawnbrokers) would be anathema to such a group. And it is.

According to Andrew Bernstein, a senior writer of the Ayn Rand Institute, “”Santa Claus is, in literal terms, the anti-Christ. He is about joy, justice, and material gain, not suffering, forgiveness, and denial.” Another quote from the article: “The commercialism of Christmas, its emphasis on ingenuity, pleasure, and gift buying, is the holiday’s best aspect—because it is a celebration, the achievement of life.”

(You can read the full piece, a celebration of the commercialism of Christmas, here:
http://www.aynrand.org/site/News2?news_iv_ctrl=1263&page=NewsArticle&id=7632)

All of this leaves me as puzzled about Santa Claus as I was when I learned the dark secret of his nonexistence. To this day, I give presents that have “From Santa” scrawled on the tag, and I try to mask my own handwriting despite the fact that the recipients know they’re from me. Likewise, I love surprise presents: gifts that appear out of the blue from anonymous sources, those random acts of kindness that rekindle our faith in human generosity. (Special kudos to Ben and Jerry’s for a coupon they once published that granted a free ice cream cone to the person in line behind you at one of their scoop shops. Brilliant.)

The spirit of Santa lives on and is no lie. It survives despite the increases in greed and entitlement—both running rampant through our society today, malignant cancers that question and threaten human compassion and generosity. I’d even argue that the spirit of Santa, despite its secularization over the decades, also maintains its ties to the spirits of nearly every religion, even those that claim independence from mythology or dogma.

In the years ahead, perhaps we can pull that spirit back from fiction and establish it fully as year-round fact. After all, nearly every child longs for Santa to be more than a seasonal fantasy. Maybe it is up to the child within us adults to make it so.

Postscript: I dedicate this blog entry to my father (pictured above as Santa) who passed away in 2011 and was very dearly missed this Christmas season. His many gifts to me continue to resonate throughout my life.

Cursing the Darkness

"Better than Cursing" - a self-portrait from sometime back in the 1980s, when I was experimenting with my first SLR camera.

“It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.”

   Around this solstice, when the nights are at their longest, the quote above provides a rich opportunity for reflection. Derived from a Chinese proverb, the quote eventually became the motto of a group called the Christopher Society in 1945. Their mission statement directs the group to “to encourage people of all ages, and from all walks of life, to use their God-given talents to make a positive difference in the world.” Years later, Peter Benenson, the founder of Amnesty International, alluded to the proverb during a Human Rights Day ceremony in 1961. The saying most likely inspired the group’s current logo, a single candle entwined within barbed wire. Most famously, perhaps, the proverb was paraphrased by Adlai Stevenson, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, in a tribute to Eleanor Roosevelt shortly after her death in 1962. “I have lost more than a beloved friend,” Stevenson said. “I have lost an inspiration. She would rather light a candle than curse the darkness, and her glow has warmed the world.”
   We’ve heard many references to light, warmth, and “that special glow” during the holidays. They figure prominently in nearly every secular and religious celebration of the season. Likewise, we’ve also endured a fair share of quips and criticisms of those same sentiments. These aren’t entirely without merit, especially given the escalation of consumerism (and its twin sibling, capitalism) in American culture. You could argue throughout the entire long night over whether to call December 25 Christmas, Xmas, or ¢hri$tma$. Some people seem to make good money doing just that on the cable news networks. For them, it seems, Shakespeare was a prescient pundit when he wrote the line “Now is the winter of our discontent.”
   For many Americans, this is indeed a winter of discontent. Some find themselves in dire circumstances unexpectedly and unwillingly; others seem determined to foster ill will and contempt as if to spite those in search of a spark in the darkness. Cynicism has infected the populace, manifested most conspicuously by vocal members of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements. Our political leaders, present and possibly future, bicker and argue, preferring to snipe at one another in an effort to score points rather than work together on real solutions to the day’s problems. Even literature and music, once places of refuge and sanctuary for me, have become overloaded with sass and snark. (More on this phenomenon in subsequent blog entries.)
   In short, we find ourselves in dark times. What I wish for most of all this holiday season is a cultural solstice of sorts, a return to what truly matters in our lives. For me, this requires action and education on all our parts, the opposites of laziness and ignorance. We should be fostering community and passionate discourse, not demonizing one another and trading cheap shots in some petty game of one-upsmanship. We should, in short, illuminate one another’s lives, and reflect the light cast on us by others in the spirit of giving back and returning favor.
   In closing, I offer up this quote from the New Testament of the Christian Bible. I’d prefer to change the word “armour” to “vestments,” but who am I to edit the work of countless translators and editors before me? I chanced across the line while doing research for this post. Then, when I went to verify the wording in my own Bible, the book opened directly to the proper page. Make of that what you will.
The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. (Romans 13:12)

Thanks Unspoken for Things Unknown

“I never liked turkey,” my mother confessed to me several weeks before her death.

I had just offered to heat up some leftovers from the previous day’s holiday dinner, which she had eaten with seeming enthusiasm. It had been one of those rallying moments that the healthy label “miraculous” but which, as my mother was now pointing out, require some sacrifice from the infirm. Lying there in a hospital bed that dominated the small living room of her and my father’s condo, she had been well aware of the significance of the gesture. Her own mother had come to share the meal, and the hopeful smile on my grandmother’s face was ample reward for swallowing a few bites of turkey.

A day later, however, there was no need to perpetuate the myth. “I only cooked turkey all those years because the family liked it,” my mother continued with the tone of relief that comes only from telling a long-hidden truth. “Mom Basting the Turkey” images flickered through my mind as if inside an old-time kinetoscope. This time, however, the sepia tones of nostalgia were tinted with guilt and grief, a once-bright penny turned green.

There was much that my mother, like countless other mothers of her generation, bore in silence. She had her occasional moments of frustration, especially after treatment after treatment failed to cure her cancer, but mostly she held up a solid front. This was, after all, what one expected from Mother, the traditional archetype. If the holiday season demands anything from us, it demands fealty to both tradition and archetype.

And so, this Thanksgiving, I read and listened as folks shared thanks for the standard list of reasons and recipients. I also read and listened as the opposing side voiced equally generic complaints about the holiday, lacing their mock apple pies with cynicism instead of cinnamon. Same penny, different faces: one side sepia, one side green. 

In the end, I have to say I side more with sepia. Why? Because my mother sacrificed too much all those years to jade her memory—our memories—today. She cooked all those turkeys as a gift to her family, and that memory stands as a tribute to a type of selflessness that can be rather hard to discern amidst today’s scenes of hyperconsumerism. We can certainly question its origins and debate its evolution, but the fact remains that in our household at least, my mother did what she did out of love. “Thanks” is the least I can say in return.