Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Things I forgot to write this year

As I was preparing to write this, my final column of 2008, I pulled out my notes from the year and realized there were a few things I had intended to write about, but simply forgot.

Actually, I didn’t totally forget, because I’m thinking of them now. Let’s just say I didn’t forget… I simply ran out of weeks. There are only 52 weeks in a year, and if I have more than 52 topics, I’m out of luck. (Probably even fewer, because I use about half of the weeks dribbling about some nonsense that just happened to cross my mind, or reminiscing about the way things were when I was a kid.)

Anyway, I thought – this being the Christmas season and all, as my special Christmas gift to you – I would quickly run through some of the points I intended to write about, but didn’t get around to.

-- Absent-mindedness is not such a bad thing, I have learned. True, you occasionally forget something important… but you also forget a LOT of stuff that you’re better off not remembering!

-- Don’t you hate it when you call customer service, and you get a recording telling you that you’ll be on “hold” for five minutes until the next representative is available? Know what I do? After they answer, I always make a point to put THEM on hold a few times… you know, maybe to go warm up my coffee, or just to stretch my legs which have gotten stiff from sitting there waiting for them to answer!!!

-- There are an awful lot of people originally from Up North who have moved to the Pimento State. I think my favorite transplants are the ones from places like Michigan and Ohio in the Mid-West. They seem to blend in rather nicely. But, you can’t really say that about the ones from New York and Massachusetts. Seems like they’re always trying to change things to “the way we did it Up North.” (They can complain about us all they want to, but you don’t hear about anybody retiring and moving North!)

-- At my house, I have three different kinds of exercise machines in various rooms. I have found that no matter what part of the house they’re in, they all make excellent clothes racks.

-- The older I become, the more I forget the names of people… but the less embarrassed I am about it. When acquaintances challenge me on forgetting their names, I have a great comeback:
“I’m old!”

-- I have recently learned that there’s nothing less romantic than flossing in bed.

-- Paying for TV and buying water. These are concepts which I scoffed at when I first heard them predicted many years ago. Now I freely fork over hard-earned cash for both. What has happened to me?

-- And speaking of TV, the conversion from analog to digital is now only weeks away. I haven’t given it much thought until recently. I’m not an engineer or computer expert, so I really don’t fully understand the technological reasons for the required changeover. However, a couple of questions have arisen in my mind, which I’m hopeful have already been raised and answered before Congress mandated the change-over.

Here’s the most concerning question: If all of our TV communications are now digital – and analog no longer exists – wouldn’t our entire nationwide communications network be at risk of being “hacked”? Couldn’t technology-savvy enemies of our nation easily disrupt, or even hijack, our broadcasts via the Internet, which they cannot do with analog signals? Probably not. Probably I’m just wondering out loud, and the great minds in Washington have figured that problem out a long time ago. Anyway, I hope so.

-- Did I ever tell you that I keep one contact lens in, and one out, so I can see far away or close up? Of course, near or far, everything’s a little fuzzy this way. So, if you see me on the street, and I seem not to recognize you… you’ll know why!!!

“I’m old!”

-- Technology is taking over my life. There was a time when – if I had a question – I would look it up in the encyclopedia or almanac. Nowadays, I usually just google it. I’m now officially a Facebook user. (For the un-enlightened, that’s a “social network” website on the Internet.) And I currently have over 500 emails waiting to be read. (Actually, most of them have already been glanced at, but I’m waiting on some “spare time” to go back and read them thoroughly.)

-- Do you realize that – when the clock strikes midnight on New Years Eve – we will officially be in the 10th year of the New Century and the New Millennium? Could it have been that long already? (I guess time flies when you’re fighting terrorism and heading into a global recession.)

I can tell it’s been a long time since we heralded in Y2K on January 1, 2000, because back then, I had learned how to spell “millennium”, and today, as I’m writing this column… I had to look it up!

On Dictionary.com, of course.

Suddenly, its coming back to me. I didn’t FORGET to write about these things… I skipped them on purpose! Oh well, too late now.

I am, however, currently forgetting to write my special 2008 Christmas Week Holiday Greetings column!

So let me just quickly leave you with a few of my original Christmas thoughts:

“Have a holly, jolly Christmas. May all your Christmases be bright. Santa Claus is coming to town. Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow. We wish you a merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Although it’s been said many times, many ways, Merry Christmas to you. Jump in bed and cover your head ‘cause Santa Claus comes tonight. Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Feliz Navidad. Fa la la la la, la la la la!”


You’re always welcome to let me know you agree, disagree, can’t make sense of, or simply don’t care about anything I’ve written here… or about any other topic that happens to be on your mind. You can email me directly at: RodShealy@aol.com.

And, if reading it once just wasn’t enough for you, read it again online – along with previous columns -- at my modern-technology Electronic Internet blog: www.doingthefirst.blogspot.com (And, if you’d like to look at me while you’re reading… you can look me up on Facebook!)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Gifts of Christmas Past

Every time I hear the opening line of Silver Bells – “City sidewalks, busy sidewalks” – my mind goes back to a time when there actually were busy sidewalks at Christmastime… back to The Time Before Malls!

I have vivid memories of family shopping excursions on the streets of Downtown Columbia during the holiday season. Looking back, it’s likely that they were not “family shopping excursions” at all… just the kids tagging along because the adults didn’t have anywhere else to park the kids.

Main Street in Columbia was dressed in holiday style every December. There were decorations strung across the streets, the giant State House tree shimmering at the end of the street, and, of course, the window displays in the stores. My favorite was always Belk. They had massive Christmas displays that still linger in my mind… like the manger scene up on the catwalk… or the actual working model trains in the window displays.

These days, it doesn’t seem possible that a 9 year-old kid could be left alone on Main Street of a major city, darting back and forth from store to store and block to block, with only the instructions to “meet at the Eckerd’s lunch counter in two hours”. If, after nearly 50 years, my memory is correct, there was Belk, Eckerd, J.C. Penny, Tapps, Berry on Main, Woolworth, Kresse, McCory, J.B. White, and about a hundred other shops and stores. (The official names were “Belk”, “J.C. Penny”, “J. B. White”, and “Eckerd”… but we for some reason always pluralized the names to “Belks, Pennys, Whites and Eckards”.)

Off we’d go, in various directions, into a sea of Christmas shoppers from throughout the Midlands who had all converged on the same six-block hub.

Of course, I usually wasn’t actually doing any SHOPPING on Main Street in Columbia. Mainly, I was just looking and wishing and dreaming. It was wonderful!

My personal holiday gift shopping would come later on Main Street in Lexington, my hometown, just 13 miles away from Columbia. Lexington’s Main Street was also quite a festive place, with Session’s and Harman’s Drugs and Taylors Hardware and the Western Auto all on the same block!!! Most of my actual purchases came from what I considered to be the epicenter of the Lexington shopping district: Dodd’s Dime Store! (And, usually, at a more appropriate time for Christmas shopping: Christmas Eve -- or maybe the day before -- a fine holiday tradition I continue to this day!!!)

I still recall what was likely the first time I went shopping at Dodd’s by myself with my own money. (It was bicycling distance from my home, only about a mile further down Main Street.)

At the age of probably eight years old, with my own money earned from chores during the Christmas vacation, I located what I was certain to be the perfect Christmas gift for my Mom: a 25-cent arrangement of plastic flowers which I was absolutely certain she would adore!

And, sure enough, I was right! When she opened my gift on Christmas morning, she couldn’t stop oohing and ahhing! She was thrilled with my gift! Completely overwhelmed, based on her reaction!

My gift-giving prowess continued through the years. By the time my kid brother Shawn came along, Mom and Dad were in the habit of showering us with goodies on Christmas. And since he was about a dozen years younger than the three older kids, he really racked up on the Santa loot. At about age three, he got a ton of gifts: Hot Wheels, Big Wheels, a drum-set, games and toys galore.

From his older brother, his gift was a roll of Scotch tape… which he proceeded to play with for the rest of the day while virtually ignoring all of his big Santa Claus gifts!!!

I recall that, when I was age 11 or 12, my older sister Sherry -- who was already old enough to have a real, part-time job -- gave my sister Cric and me each a transistor radio! Now THAT was a major gift! As far as I was concerned, it might as well have been a car or a yacht or a house. They all cost the same amount to me: LOTS! It was at that moment when I first began to really understand the value of having a job, and to develop the work ethic that would stick with me until… well, I guess last weekend!

Of course, the most unusual gift any of us received came on Christmas, 1967, when each of us three older kids received a note in the toe of our stockings announcing the Shealy family would soon be adding a fifth and final child: Lorri, the youngest, who sure enough came along a few months later! (I also recall getting new shoelaces in the stocking, which I badly needed. And, every year since I can recall, everybody’s stocking had a flashlight. At our house, Santa had a very practical side!)

At the Shealy home, Christmas was a happy time. We were blessed, and we knew it.
That’s why Dad, every Christmas, took it upon himself to try to make Christmas a little brighter for some other family. Long before there were Toy Drives or Adopt-a-Family programs, he would quietly find a family each year that was not financially able to provide gifts, and deliver a couple of packages for each of the kids. He did it without fanfare or acknowledgement. He never really even told us kids what he was doing. He was simply trying to share our blessings.

One year, though, on Christmas morning, he invited me to go along with him to deliver those gifts… and I suppose that is when I learned what Christmas is truly about. It’s one Christmas memory that I’ll never forget… and a gift that will stay with me forever.

Great parents and caring families, it turns out, are the very best gifts of all!

Here’s hoping your Christmas is filled with wonderful gifts for you and yours.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Christmas in a simpler time

Invariably during the holiday season, my mind skitters back to Christmas celebrations from a much simpler time. (Everything seemed simpler when we were kids!)

Even before children are old enough to understand the hoopla, I suspect they are drawn to Christmas by the excitement in the air. I don’t really remember any Christmases from my pre-school years, although I THINK I remember them because of the home movies I saw over and over again.

My early school years are when the memories actually kick in. Back then, I liked Christmas mainly because there was no school for two whole weeks. They could have parked Ground Hog Day in the middle of two weeks vacation from school, and it would have been a big hit with me. I would have gladly decorated a tree and sung Ground Hog Carols if it resulted 14 in consecutive days with no school in the middle of winter.

Of course, getting TOYS was pretty cool, too.

As a lad of four, five, six, seven, or eight, during the late 50’s or early 60’s, my Christmas wants were pretty simple: anything in cowboy. A cap gun. A holster. A cowboy hat. Cowboy boots. Or a hobby horse, which, as you may recall, was a stick with an imitation horse-head on the end.

It’s not that we were so easy to please back then… It’s just that we didn’t know much else except Cowboys and Indians! There were no Transformers or action figures. There were no Ataris or X-Boxes. Just a back yard, and enough vivid imagination keep us occupied for hours playing Cowboys and Indians, sometimes all alone!

During the 60’s, the advertising industry teamed up with the Saturday Morning Cartoon industry to start TELLING kids what toys they wanted for Christmas: Mr. Potato Head, GI Joe, Easy Bake Oven, Rock’em Sock’em Robot, Etch-A-Sketch… they all looked better than simple plastics on TV. It never occurred to us that Super-ball, Twister, and Slinky were nothing more than a hard rubber ball, a printed piece of plastic, and a coil of wire.

And the games!!!! Candyland. Chutes and Ladders. Operation. Parchesi. Sorry. Mystery Date Game. And that old standard… Monopoly.

Another thing different about Christmas these days are the Holiday movies. Back then, there were only three: Rudolf, Frosty, and Charlie Brown, as I recall. That’s because we didn’t have cable TV, nor the multitude of channel selections that we have today. There was no such thing as a “movie channel”. So each of those movies was aired ONCE ONLY during the holiday season, along with the annual Bing Crosby show and a handful of other specials.

For some reason, the smells of the holidays during my childhood seem to linger in my memory banks. There was something special about coming in out of the cool, crisp winter air into a toasty den, with the smells of a cedar Christmas tree and firewood crackling blending with freshly baked cookies and pies. The grand finale for the olfactory senses was the Christmas dinner… all kinds of good things to eat at Grandmama’s house.

Here’s an interesting tidbit: At my house, we never once left milk and cookies for Santa, as tradition called for us to do. Even while maintaining the existence of Santa, Mom and Dad told us that the “cookies and milk” bit was a myth. (In truth, they were far too frugal in those days to let perfectly good milk and cookies sit out half the night and go to waste!)

The Shealy Family Christmas Tree was always something to behold. Shiny, shimmering ornaments that showed up year after year. Never-mind that they were mostly just painted plastic…. to us they were valuable antique heirlooms! (One I specifically remember was stuffed with Angel Hair!) Strands of garland. Silver and gold tinsel hanging from every branch. And string after string of colored lights.

There were only two kinds of Christmas lights to choose from: indoor and outdoor. Both consisted bright, multi-colored bulbs, but the outdoor variety was larger to withstand the elements.

I don’t recall ever going to a “Christmas tree lot” as a child. Why bother when there were acres and acres of woods all around? We simply walked into the woods and found a little cedar tree. (Sometimes they even grew in the highway right-of-ways!)

And if the tree was a little skimpy to start with, you would never know it after the decorating process was complete, with 4 strands of garland, 59 ornaments, 144 multi-colored lights, 2,918 individual pieces of tinsel… and one star splendidly adorning the top of the tree! By the time the Big Day arrived, the tree would be finished off with a mountain of colorfully wrapped gifts underneath – about a gazillion in all.

Then came the mid 60’s, and the carefully-decorated cedar tree was replaced by a silver, aluminum “tree”, with a spotlight and color-wheel which revolved to give the appearance of a different color tree every few seconds!

Some of my childhood Christmas memories are actual memories, but others have been propped up by the photographs which captured those moments. I’m sure I don’t remember Christmas morning when I was two years old… but I know about it because there were a few pictures. Not a lot of pictures, mind you. Back then, we were very selective about our picture-taking because film cost a lot of money, and developing the film cost even more.

Nowadays, with digital cameras and VCR recorders, we can capture image after image… but in those days, picture-taking was reserved for special occasions like Christmas, family-vacations, and the occasional dance or piano recital.

Of course, the most vivid of the Christmas almost-memories were the ones captured on home movies… 8mm filmstrips.

The lighting was bad, and the movies were usually just a collage of 15-second clips… the average length of time of a movie scene, due to the afore-mentioned costs of film and developing. But it only takes a few seconds of these old home movies to capture the simpler times of Christmases past. The freckle-faced two-year old with a blonde crewcut -- and the other people in those movies -- are long gone…. But the memories come back year after year during the holiday season.

Here’s hoping you create your own armload of happy memories this Christmas.

Friday, December 12, 2008

White Christmas

Let me say from the outset that I am not a Scrooge, or a Grinch. I like Christmas. At my office, in fact, I start playing Christmas music earlier than anyone else I know… usually September, occasionally even August.

But there is one traditional Holiday wish with which I disagree. (Try saying that three times real fast: “wish with which, wish with which, wish with which”!)

While the entire rest of the universe appears to be hoping in unison for a “White Christmas”… my preference is, as it always has been, a balmy, sunshiny, warm Palmetto State December day in the 70’s.

This was all brought painfully to my attention last weekend – Thanksgiving weekend to be exact – when we had a couple of days of cold, dreary, rainy almost winter weather… probably made drearier by my favorite team’s drubbing at the hands of arch-rival Clemson (which I am spelling correctly today out of respect for their victory).

Anywho, the cold wet weather during the first serious weekend of the Christmas shopping season made we stop and wonder what to expect weatherwise for the rest of the season, and I got to guessing whether we’ll have a White Christmas this year.

I guesses “No”… and I hope I’m right.

I’ve never actually seen a White Christmas, and probably never will. It’s one of those things like a total eclipse or Haley’s Comet. They only happen every so often, and even then, you have to be at the right place at the right time to see it.

Maybe in parts of Canada, Alaska, and Wisconsin it’s a regular occurrence. But I’ve never been any of those places on Christmas Day, and don’t expect I ever will be.

Growing up in the sunny south, I’m used to a different regular occurrence in December: wearing Bermuda shorts and flip-flops! And if it’s a truly special Christmas, I might even need to add sunglasses to keep the bright sun out of my eyes!!!

I know this puts me at odds with the rest of the world, but I’d rather have a Bright Christmas than a White Christmas!!!

Stop and think for a minute. Ask yourself this question: It’s the busiest travel day of the year, so what can we do to improve the holiday travelling experience? I know!!! Let’s cover all the roads and airports with a foot of snow!!! That’s a great idea!

Even as a kid, I was never in favor of a White Christmas. We didn’t get many snow days, and I didn’t want to use one up on a day when we were already out of school.

As a kid, a snow day was that rarest of special occasions when I could skip school without pretending to be sick! AND… unlike those “fake sick” days, it was perfectly okay to go out and play all day long!

Of course, snow days in the South were a lot different than snow days in the North. First of all, most of the time, it wasn’t really snow, but instead, was snow’s evil twin – “ice”.

And either way, we weren’t equipped for it. We didn’t have the right mittens and boots. Instead, I wore socks on my hands, which kept them warm for about three minutes, and sopping, soaking cold and wet for the rest of the hour until I went back in the house to change “mittens”.

In the South, we also never had the primary piece of snow-recreation equipment: a sled! So we improvised. My favorite improvisation was an old automobile hood turned upside down… which allowed about eleven kids to take a ride down a nice steep hill.

I also tried cross-country skiing once with a pair of waterskis instead of snowskis and a pair of old crutches instead of ski poles.

Yes, snow days are designed for interrupting the education of our children, not for disrupting my favorite holiday.

So let me go on record: I’m NOT dreaming of a White Christmas.

I like the song (although I sing it without the deep, heartfelt meaning that others give it.) I even tolerate the movie. (Though clearly, it’s a second tier holiday movie, not on the same level as Miracle on 34th Street or It’s a Wonderful Life… or even, in my opinion, Christmas Vacation, Elf, or Scrooged.)

But let’s save the actual snowfall for a more convenient time when there’s not so much going on. For no particular reason, I’m voting for January 15th.