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Christmas Message

[Note: We're headed out for Paris and Mali for two weeks. This will mean an almost certain two-week break in this column, with the next edition posted January 9. There's a slim chance of Jan. 2, but that's the day after we get off, and with jet lag and all, I wouldn't count on it.]

In the fine old tradition of journalists who recycle their holiday messages year after year, here's the 12th  rerun of my Christmas message since Dec. 21, 1998 (with a few slight modifications).

Season's greetings to one and all. Apologies to those of you who feel oppressed by the season. I know Christians, atheists and Jews who feel the seasonal oppression in equal parts. Oppression and depression. I'm sorry. This message isn't going to cheer you up, much.

This is a time of year that has inspired some of the most brilliant writing in the English language. It ranges from Dickens' A Christmas Carol (which single-handedly revived the celebration of Christmas as a major holiday in the English-speaking world), to the sturdy newspaper editorial entitled Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus. In more modern times, we have, among other things, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and the unforgettable Bill Murray as Scrooge in the Dickens adaptation, Scrooged. (Not to mention Olive, The Other Reindeer. Never seen it. Love the pun).

Alas, like so many of us, the muse seems to have taken off early. I briefly considered, as I do every year, throwing in some of Dylan Thomas' A Child's Christmas In Wales which Fr. Harrison West and I recited several times at Benson High School assemblies (long before he was Fr. West). But then I decided just to do a quick Christmas column.

What is Christmas about? It can be about the birth of Jesus, but for most of us it isn't. It's about many things.

Christmas is about singing (or listening to) Christmas carols. My favorite annual Christmas party, bar none, is the Christmas Caroling party held annually by our best friends. They're Jewish, and so are many of the party goers. Joyful voices raised together. Doesn't matter if they're not in tune. Doesn't matter if some of the lyrics are Christian claptrap. Jingle Bells, White Christmas and Jingle Bell Rock, along with the rest of the secular Christmas liturgy are just plain fun. I wince a little sometimes when we sing the later verses of God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, or Good King Wenceslas" (Question: speaking of  muses, why is it that the muse flees most lyricists somewhere between the first and second verses?) Besides, I get to do "Five Golden Rings" every year when we sing The 12 Days Of Christmas.

Christmas is about family and friends. It is about Egg Nog (or fat-free "Holiday Nog") and all the rest of the seasonal food. It is about the children.

It's about traveling, at the worst travel time of year, to be with your family. This year, we are headed to Mali via Paris, to visit Marlow at the village where she is volunteering for the Peace Corps, then back to Paris for five days (12 days for her).  We leave on the 19th, and return on the 1st, just in time to go back to work (or school) on the 3rd). 

Christmas is about family traditions when you're a kid, and the blending of family traditions when you marry. In childhood, my family stayed at home on Christmas, my wife was always a Christmas runaway. My lights went up the Saturday after Thanksgiving each year and came down the Saturday after New Years. Vicki's went up on Christmas Eve and came down on Boxing Day. There are fewer lights this year, because we didn't host the staff Christmas party and we knew we were going to be gone for the heart of the season. There aren't as many lights as when the girls were little. That's OK.

We've had artificial trees for years. Marlow asked for a big real tree her freshman year at college, so we put a 14-footer in the library in 1999; then Rae asked for one and got it in 2003. This year -- just a little tabletop tree with Chinese decorations. But it's a fancy artificial tree, with two kinds of lights and a remote control, modeled after a White Vermont Spruce. We bought it in January 2008, at an after-Christmas sale in an artificial tree store.

Christmas is about giving thanks. Thanksgiving is the official holiday to give thanks for our good fortune, but nothing says you can't do that at Christmas as well. Every Christmas morning when I wake up with my health, my wife, my children, my brother and my father as part of this world, I count my blessings. Mine are beyond counting. I hope yours are too. I have adult-onset diabetes, but there are lots of worse diseases in the world. Mine, at least, is under control. I almost died in a car crash in January 2007, but I'm still alive. My wacky ticker made me faint, and now I have a defibrillator / pacemaker. Beats the alternative.

One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six...

Bad Teacher Day

An old friend of mine, now a teacher, wrote to say she was having a "bad teacher" day. Here is what I wrote her back:

I was going to write "depends on what you mean by a bad teacher day," but the fact is, under any definition, the answer is yes.

I have had days when I questioned my competence as a teacher. I have days when I did not react appropriately to student provocations. I have said things to my students I wish I had not said. I have had days when, at the end of the day, I realized that I taught either badly, or not at all. If I know in advance it's going to be a bad day, I've been known to warn the students now and then. While it is (probably) unprofessional to bring your personal life to school, a tragedy, a bad night's sleep, or an argument with a loved one can all affect your teaching. And as one of my credential teachers once reminded us proto-teachers, "Remember, you make the weather" in the classroom. When you are happy and energetic, your students respond in kind (usually). When you are sad or depressed and droopy, the students feed that back to you as well.

I am sorry to hear you are having such a week, but I presume you are heading into a two-week break. If you want to describe specifics, I am interested.

I get through the bad days by

* remembering the good days

* remembering the old Kurt Vonnegut line, "This too will pass."

* remembering "Where there is life there is hope." As long as I am still alive, there is a chance I/the situation will improve.

* the worst day teaching is better than the average day of journalism. This is an adaptation of "the worst day fishing is better than the best day working." I cannot honestly say the worst day teaching is better than the best day of journalism, because the best day of journalism was pretty amazing. But (especially after rereading my journals), I can confidently state that a) it is better than the average day and b) there were a lot of average days and only a few good ones.

Political Briefs

Mission Impossible

4 stars out of 5
I didn't see it in 3-D, but what I did see was amazing special effects and stunts, a lot of things blowing up, and Tom Cruise acting his little heart out. There was some plot in there, and a director and some screen writers, but as they say in Hollywood, it was all up there on the screen. Oscar bait? I think not. Two breath-taking hours? Literally, yes.

Dry land octopus, Wifi network names, silly cat picture, pun dog, Carroll on the silly season, Dan Grobstein File

Octopus crawling on dry land. Also, a friend reports two new wireless networks in her apartment building: Piglet's Stock Options and Lazy Lima Beans. Odd wifi network names are now officially a meme. Actually, by the time a meme gets to me, it is usually deceased, so... The same probably goes for silly cat picture, and  the condescending literary pun dog.

My friend Chuck Carroll sends this along. I agreed to include his characterizations, although I do not, of course, care much for his designation of the President as Liar-in-Chief, and I do think he's a little hard on Lenny Bernstein. Still, as Voltaire actually wrote (not the quote attributed to him, but what he actually wrote): "I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write." Especially if it is amusing and topical.
        The Silly Season is upon us.  We must endure another 11 months until the next general election.  I don’t know if I can stand all the reruns of the Republican Mean Girls Show (the Debates), the incessant dronings of our Liar-in-Chief, a Congress that has retired on the job and a fiscal policy that would destroy the planet Jupiter.
        At times like these, I go to our highest source of inspiration: The Internet.

 “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedy.” 
        [Ernest Benn, recovered British Liberal]
 “A liberal is a man or a woman or a child who looks forward to a better day, a more tranquil night, and a bright, infinite future.” 
        [Leonard Bernstein. While a musical genius, Bernstein was a communist who was supported his entire life by Rich Liberals ]
“Conservative, n:  A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal who wishes to replace them with others.” 
        [Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary. Bierce famously wandered off into a Mexican desert, never to be seen again. Would that some of our politicians would follow him.]
“An election is coming. Universal peace is declared, and the foxes have a sincere interest in prolonging the lives of the poultry.” 
        [George Eliot, Felix Holt, Chapter 5. My favorite writer in college.]
 “Politics is God’s way of telling you you have too much time on your hands.” 
        [A client on Sonoma Coast, 1982]

Dan Grobstein File

Political Briefs

Political Briefs

Tinfoil Hats, Dan Grobstein File

Leave it to those wacky kids at MIT: Tinfoil Hat study

Dan Grobstein File