Tuesday, December 29, 2009

2009, as I barely recall it!

As I noted a few weeks ago – we’ve reached not only the end of another year, but the conclusion of the entire first decade of the new millennium. (Wow, time flies when you’re living vicariously via a series of online websites!)

This week, nearly every newspaper columnist in America is writing a column along essentially the same themes: either the year in review, or the decade in review. I chose the year in review because it would require too much mental energy for me to go back and try to recall the entire decade. I’m too old for that level of remembering.

Frankly, I’m actually too old to remember a whole year, so I’m just including the highlights that I DO happen to recall at this exact moment, which is almost certainly a different set of highlights than the ones I will recall a couple hours from now.

Here are the highlights, as I hazily recall them:

Global Warming
-- There was a major meeting of all the world’s leaders in Copenhagen, to determine how to handle this looming crisis. US leaders committed $100 billion of our money, although they admitted having no idea where it would come from, or what it would be used for. Then, they returned to the nation’s capital to face the coldest, snowiest winter blizzard in history.

Swine Flu was given a new name: H1N1
– The Surgeon General told us to cough into our sleeves to prevent the spread of the virus, resulting in millions of neck injuries when old people like me expelled ferocious sneezes while our necks were craned sideways trying to reach our shoulder sleeves. The Surgeon General also advised us to forego traditional handshakes in favor of the germ-free “fist bump”. The fist bump, it turns out, only looks cool when young, urban street toughs do it. When the rest of us try it, we look sorta dorky.

The Recession -- The nation has been mired in a deep recession for the entire year. As for me, I started the year with basically no money, and ended with basically no money. When you didn’t really have any money to start with, you hardly notice a recession.

Tiger Woods
-- Somebody asked me a few weeks ago if I had been keeping up with Tiger Woods. I told him, no, at my age, it wasn’t really possible… but if I was his age and had his money, I’m pretty sure I could have kept up with him.

South Carolina On The Map
-- Wow! Mark Sanford’s “Appalachian Trail” and Joe Wilson’s “You lie” have brought us to the Big Time. Those who believe we have merely been subjected to ridicule by their actions are unaware of the modern axiom of marketing: “Celebrity is the coin of the realm”! Trust me: Mark Sanford and Joe Wilson are both marketable commodities: They are ‘brands” in the current-terms of media-speak.

Nobel Peace Prize
-- Get one free with every oil change!

Health Care Debate -- The Health Care Debate obviously consumed much of the attention of the nation for the entire year. Only thing is, it wasn’t really a health care debate: It was a government debate, dealing primarily with how much individual freedom and liberty the American people are willing to surrender in exchange for more government control and intervention. And it was a money debate, like many other government debates, trying to control how the money-pie gets sliced up. If it had actually been a health care debate, we would have heard discussions of words like “electrocardiogram”, “macular degeneration”, “paracentric chromosome inversion”, and “deoxyhemoglobin”… or at least words like “biopsy”, “osteoporosis” and “white blood count”. But instead, the words and phrases we heard during the health care debate, according a glossary from Reuters News Service, were “public option”, “Cadillac health plans”, “exchanges”, “single payer”, “trigger”, “opt-out”, “opt-in”, “bending the cost curve”, and “age rating.”

My Weight
-- For the umpteenth year in a row, I’m ending the year on a high note: I’m a Big, Fat, Giant, Hippo-Pig-Whale!!! My weight has finally exceeded even my massive ego!!! But, here’s good news: It’s time for out annual Kick-Off-The-New-Year-With-A-Weight-Loss-Contest competition. (If you’d like to join our pound-shedding adventure, email me at RodShealy@aol.com. By the way, in recognition of The Recession, I’m pretty sure our buy in will be $25 per person, instead of our traditional $100.)

Baby Boomers -- This was the year that baby boomers started reaching retirement age en masse, a trend which will continue for over a decade. Retirement will never be the same.

What I Got for Christmas
– For me, December 25th, 2009, marked exactly the 500th day since I underwent brain surgery back on Aug. 11, 2008. At that time, I was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor, and initially given a dire prognosis. The tumor was a recurrence of the same cancer – melanoma – from 25 years earlier. My odds of still being here for Christmas, 2009, were slim. (Being here was a great Christmas Gift! Knowing that I’ve made it 500 days is a Blessing Beyond Belief!!!)

As I reported at Thanksgiving, I was fortunate to be accepted into an innovative cancer research program at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida, for a long-term trial in which I am currently participating. It’s a field of cancer research -- finding better ways to boost the body’s natural abilities to fight cancer -- which appears very promising for the future.

From time to time, as I promised back in August, 2008, I have updated readers on my progress. (See http://doingthefirst.blogspot.com/2009/11/much-to-be-thankful-for.html)
Within the next few weeks, I should have new scans, and a new update for you.

In the meantime, I continue to be thankful for my family and friends whose strong support has kept me positive and optimistic; and for the many, many people who said a prayer for me… and caused the miracle that allowed me to be here for Christmas, 2009.

Happy New Year! I’ll see you in 2010… and a whole new decade!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Has it been that long already?

Ten years. It’s hard to believe it’s been that long already! But it has.

We survived the first decade of the new millennium!

As I was beginning to think about my annual Christmas gift-giving a few days ago, the thought occurred to me that we have, indeed, made it to the end of the first decade of the 2000’s! Well, almost. Another few days.

The new millennium was a big deal, you probably recall. It was the Mother of all New Years celebrations.

Do you remember where you were? I remember where I was. (I also remember where I was supposed to be.)

Some of you are probably wondering how thinking about my annual Christmas gift-giving caused me to think about the end of the decade. You’ve probably jumped to the conclusion that it’s been 10 years since I purchased a decent gift for anyone. Wrong. It’s been much longer.

Actually, I was contemplating, as I do most years, simply ordering custom-made T-shirts for my close friends and family members. For some reason, however, I always demure, usually over the same nonsensical notion: “What if they, for some unknown reason, don’t WANT a T-Shirt with my picture on it?” Silly me. What a foolish notion. Of course they would adore their own Rod-Boy T-Shirt!

But, again this year, I passed on the original concept, and started thinking instead about a T-Shirt with a Meaningful Slogan on it. The slogan that kept running through my mind, given the state of the economy and all, was “I Survived 2009”… which I thought would make a pretty swell T-Shirt.

And then it hit me: We’ve not only survived 2009! We’ve all survived this entire decade: January 1st, 2000 – December 31st, 2009. Ten whole years of the new millennium have slipped right by.

Do you remember computer geeks throughout the world preparing all of us for Y2K, the computer calamity that could have crippled the world if we had not been ready for it?

There was also an ongoing controversy over exactly when the new millennium actually began: Jan 1st,2000, or Jan. 1st 2001. While the 2001 advocates were technically, mathematically correct, it really didn’t matter, because the rest of the world was set to celebrate the onset of 2000.

I remember wondering in this newspaper column what name we would give to the decade. How would we refer to it? All the other decades were easy to say: The 90’s. The 80’s. The 70’s, 60’s and 50’s. Would we call it the 00’s, I wondered. Here it is ten years later, and I still don’t know what we call the decade we’re about to complete.

I can tell its been a long time, because 10 years ago, I actually had learned how to spell the word “millennium”, since it was used frequently during the big build up to Y2K. Now, however, I find myself needing to look up the correct spelling to write this column!

A lot can happen in 10 years. We went from Clinton, to Bush, to Obama during the period. Technology happened so fast that no one can really keep track of it anymore. We went from a booming economy to a recession. And speaking of “booming”, we baby-boomers all slid quietly into middle age. Okay, upper-middle age, maybe.

In the history books, I suppose, the period will be defined largely by the events of that day 20 months and 11 days into the decade: 9/11/2001. That day changed history. That day changed lives. And that day suddenly brought a sudden end to the excited euphoria and wondrous innocence that had ushered in The New Millennium. Just that quickly, the New Millennium came of age.

All in all, it’s been a heckuva decade. And it’s almost over… if you’re using the Jan. 1, 2000 calendar.

For the rest of the family, I’ve decided once again against the T-Shirts for Christmas.

But I think I will order one for myself:

Jan. 1, 2000 – Dec. 31, 2009: I Survived the First Decade of the New Millennium!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Overlooked traditions and under-appreciated icons

There must be hundreds of traditions of Christmas. Many of these customs have become so popular that merely mentioning the word conjures up vivid holiday images:

Reindeer. Holly. Mistletoe. Wreaths. Stockings. Elves. Sleigh bells. Jingle Bells. Silver Bells. Snowmen. Candy Canes. Fruit Cake. Caroling. Egg Nog. Candles. Icicles. Sugar Plums. Figgy Pudding. Poinsettas. Ornaments.

I think there are other perfectly-good traditions which have sadly been overlooked. They’re just as much a part of the Holiday Season, but for some reason, they’ve never made it to the big time.

This week, I’d like to correct that oversight. I want to mention a few of the other traditions of the holidays.

Here they are: Rod-Boy’s list of Overlooked and Under-Appreciated Traditions, Customs, and Icons of The Christmas Season:

The Attic. Twice-a-year, I visit the attic: Once to bring down the Christmas stuff, and once to take it back up for another ten-and-a-half months. Basically, these are the only two times of the year I ever see the inside of my attic. So why isn’t the attic a symbol of Christmas, just like the tinsel that’s scattered about all over the attic floor?

Hearing relatives snore. This, too, seems to happen at only one time of the year: the holiday season! Maybe its Thanksgiving afternoon, maybe Christmas, or maybe even New Years Day… but at my house, it’s a pretty good bet that at some point during the holidays, I’m going to get to hear at least one relative snore. (And it’s a REAL safe bet that my relatives are gonna get to!!!)

Lbs. – Gaining weight! Happens every year…because of all the goodies! But we focus on the yummy instead of the tummy. Truth in advertising: Wouldn’t it be better just to go ahead and anoint “blubber rolls” as an official custom of The Season. (And, by the way, can anyone tell me how “lbs” is an abbreviation for “pounds”?)

Batteries and extension cords. Tis the season of bright lights, musical toys, and dancing Santa bears. They all require batteries or extension cords to supply their kilowatt needs. I cannot recall a single holiday season in which I purchased neither batteries nor extension cords.

Those hideous holiday sweaters. (I personally also have holiday suspenders, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.) Starting with the color combination – bright green and bright red -- holiday sweaters are, by design, unflattering. In my case, however, it tends to be an improvement over my normal attire. Every year, friends and family alike encourage me to keep wearing my Christmas sweaters for an additional few months. As a bonus, they do tend to distract attention away from the holiday blubber roll… so you’ll understand when you see me wearing a Holiday Sweater in August.

Musically-gifted animals: Barking dogs and singing chipmunks on the radio. At Christmastime, apparently anything goes on the AM/FM airwaves. When the animals aren’t chirping their versions of the songs, we’re often singing about them, like the songs about an airplane-flying dog and, of course, the antlered Rangifer tarandus with a glowing nose.

Assembly instruction sheets. These don’t really affect my holidays anymore: it’s been a couple of decades since I had kids in the toy-assembly age range. And since I don’t, I can smile fondly at the memories… especially the ones at 3am on Christmas Eve… and the ones where they left two bolts and a hex-nut out of the package… and, I’ll tell you what tickles me most… the fact that, nowadays, I’m pretty sure all the toys are made in China, so the assembly instruction sheets are now written in a close imitation of the English language. Ho, ho, ho!!! That’s gotta be fun through those bleary 3am eyes!!! Assembly instruction sheets are a jolly good Christmas tradition… when you’re not the one doing the assembly!!!

Re-gifting. I think re-gifting has been given a bad rap. I see it as a noble tradition. Suppose you get a gift, put it on the shelf for 50 years, and then give it away. You would be parting with a precious heirloom. When I re-gift, I think of it the same way: parting with a precious heirloom, except this is better, because it’s still in like-new condition!!!!

Scotch Tape and scissors. I think this under-appreciated tradition is pretty much self-explanatory. (We’d all have a pretty hard time ripping the gift wrap to shreds it there was no such thing as Scotch Tape, wouldn’t we.)

Wondering if we’re going to have a White Christmas this year. A wonderful tradition, not to be confused with actually HAVING a White Christmas. I’ve never experienced the actual White Christmas…. because I’ve lived my entire life in Lexington County, South Carolina, where we can usually wear shorts or flip-flops on Christmas Eve. But that doesn’t seem to stop every person I know from wondering aloud, each and every year, if we’re going to have a White Christmas. GET A CLUE. It’s South Carolina!!!! Still, what a warm and wonderful holiday tradition, just to wonder aloud, so that all your friends can “ooooh” and “ahhhhh” and “I hope so!” like they’ve never even heard of the Weather Channel.

That’s my list. Now back to the attic for the clogging reindeers. (I just hope I haven’t misplaced those precious heirlooms.)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Christmas Story that really happened

I think it’s hard for most of us to wrap our minds around The Christmas Story.

I’m not talking about the “Christmas Story” that we watch on TV every year… the one with Ralphie, who wants a Red Ryder BB Gun for Christmas, but keeps being told “you’ll shoot your eye out”. You know the one… he learns cusswords from his Dad, so his Mom washes his mouth out with soap; the gang dares a kid to touch his tongue to a frozen lamppost; the neighbor’s dogs eat the turkey; and Ralphie’s Dad wins a fragile, Major Award. It’s a cute movie.

I think most of us CAN relate to that Christmas Story.

It’s the other Christmas Story we have a hard time really relating to: The original one, with Baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes, laid in a manger.

We all know the story. We cherish the story. And the faith many of us carry with us for our entire life is based on that story.

Still, we have a hard time letting the reality of it sink in. It was so long ago, so far way.

I have developed my own theory about how the human mind treats fantastic, amazing, or incredible events from long ago or far away.

I had to develop my own theory, because I never really studied psychology. Okay. There was the one class in high school when I was a senior, but I mostly slept through it because I had gotten up early every morning to drive a school bus. And there was one course in college, but I dropped it because… well, the professor was too weird. It was the 70’s.

Consequently, I have no real formal schooling in psychology, nor have I read much about the topic on my own… so I’m left to develop my own theories, which, frankly, may have already been theorized by others. Or totally disproven as nonsense. I don’t know. I guess I should have stuck around and listened to my hippie professor.
My theory, however, holds that the human mind has a way of storing topics which humans can’t really grasp or deal with. The mind simply treats it the same as it treats story-book material, I believe. I gave it a name: “sub-fictionalization”.
Dinosaurs and cavemen, for instance. They were very real, of course, but I believe our mind often treats these topics like fiction. We think of them the way we think of a good movie or Disneyworld.

Similarly, we’re incapable of truly grasping other galaxies which are millions of years older than ours. So our brain simply files it in the “story book” folder as a way of coping with it.

Terrible disasters and wars and unspeakable atrocities perhaps fit into the same categories. If we weren’t there, and didn’t see it with our own eyes, or live it in person, the events just get filed away along with the “fiction”. It’s a good story, sorta like a Dickens novel. The Crusades happened. So did the Napoleanic Wars. And the Black Plague and the Holocaust. But since we weren’t there, we’ve only heard the stories.

The entire Bible, despite being the most authoritative historical account ever produced, is processed by the brain as simply a collection of stories. The ark and the flood, the lions den, the belly of the whale, are stored like fairy tales. Angels, along with cavemen and dinosaurs, are “sub-fictionalized”. (Remember, that’s my made-up word to go along with my made-up theory.)

After a while, we have a hard time separating miracles from monsters: miracles that really happened form the monsters that are the invention of a writer.

And, because it was so long ago and far away, the original Christmas Story, I fear, falls right into same category. We hear it. We learn it. We recite it. We make it the central focus of our annual calendar and the rituals of our lives.

But our brain still may have it filed along side Snow White and Pinnochio.

To make The Christmas Story even more difficult for us to grasp as truth, not fiction, we’ve built an entire holiday culture around it which WAS invented by the human mind: flying reindeer, elves that make toys, Frosty the Snowman, and, of course, Santa, up on the roof top.

All of which makes the wonder of that original Christmas Story fade back into our storybook file, along with The Night Before Christmas, Ebenezer Scrooge, and Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.

Except, there’s a really important difference: that Original Christmas Story really did happen. Sure, it was long ago, and far away… but it’s still just as real as if it had happened last week in Myrtle Beach.

A Baby named Jesus really was born of a virgin. He really was the Only Son of the Creator of our entire world. He really was born in a manger.

Angels really did appear to shepherds watching their flocks of sheep. A star really appeared, guiding visitors from distant lands to visit the Christ Child.

He really turned water into wine. He really fed a multitude of people with two fish and five loaves.

He really healed the sick, the lame, and the blind, simply by willing it. He really brought the dead back to life.

He really walked on water.

And then, He really did let Himself be nailed to a cross to die, and didn’t try to save Himself as he had others. He really died. And He really rose from the dead.

And He really did it all for us.

It’s a wondrous, incredible, miraculous story. So wondrous, so incredible, so miraculous, that many of us simply file it away in the storybook file, along with the other things we just can’t understand.

But at least once a year, we ought to stop and try to think about that very real story.

The Original Christmas Story.

The one that really happened.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Check Your Calendar

One of the overlooked traditions of the holiday season is the annual arrival of a batch of new calendars for the next year.

I’m always intrigued by the new calendars. Most people, I think, just look at the pictures or advertising messages contained on the calendar, but I like to peruse the actual dates to see if there are any surprises in store.

It occurred to me this week in a moment of melancholy that calendars as we know them are on probably the way to becoming extinct, just like newspapers, phone books, paper money, and a whole host of other products. Thanks to technology, many items which are now printed will someday likely be only transmitted.

Calendar users are already a dying breed, I suspect. I myself keep a calendar book -- called a Daytimer -- in my back pocket to keep track of my upcoming appointments, but few of my peers still do. They all seem to use those berry-named devices. I must admit that the “alarm” function of these gadgets is appealing from time to time. While I am skilled, after decades of practice, at writing appointments on my pocket calendar, I find myself more and more frequently forgetting to actually check it to see if I have any appointments.

Because of my background as a printer -- a trait I share with Benjamin Franklin, along with a big, odd-shaped, balding head -- I probably pay more attention to calendars than most folks -- I’ve probably produced a few million of them in my time -- and therefore can claim a level of expertise on the subject. For instance, I know that there are always 365 days on a calendar, except for leap years, when there are…. I forget how many… I’ll have to check a calendar.

But I do know there are all sorts of calendars, ranging from the aforementioned pocket sized calendar books and wallet sized cards (and refrigerator magnets), to desk calendars, to stand-up calendars, to thick calendars where you turn the page every day, to large colorful decorative wall calendars, with a different picture on every page: -- red barns, snowscapes, covered bridges, sunsets, wheat fields and mountain ranges -- all corresponding to the month on the facing page. For instance, you show me a picture of leaves changing colors, and I can almost guarantee that you’re looking at September or October.

For decades, banks and insurance companies have given out free calendars to their customers. It was better than a card. It was an actual GIFT!

My favorite calendars of all time were the community birthday calendars sold by the Jaycees in my hometown of Lexington when I was a kid. Back then, Lexington was a small town, and everybody sorta knew everybody, so it was interesting to see a lot of their names listed on their birthdays.

Nowadays, you can buy calendars adorned with just about any topic you want: dogs, cats, classic cars, rock stars, sports teams, gourmet foods, and, of course, swimsuit models. Or, you can go to Kinko’s and get your own face -- or your relatives -- plastered onto a custom made calendar.

I don’t know who invented calendars, or when, but I’m pretty sure it was some really smart guy a lot of centuries ago. The Chinese seem to have an entirely different calendar, which doesn’t surprise me, since they have a WAY different style of writing, with little pictures instead of letters.

I think the Caesars had something to do with the invention of our current calendar, since Julius, Augustus, and Octavius all have months named after them. For years, I have been lobbying to have the name of the month of August -- named after Augustus Caesar, of little relevance to any currently living human being -- changed to the month of Elvis.

But, the problem is, I don’t know who exactly would be in charge of changing the name of a month. Congress, I don’t think, has ever weighed in on the topic. We just took the months, days, and dates invented by these ancient smart people, and stuck with ‘em, year after year, decade after decade, century after century, and… apparently, millennium after millennium.

I guess NOT tinkering with it is the best plan, because if we start, who know what we’ll end up with. If we change “August” to “Elvis”, what’s to stop us from changing “October” to “Obama”? Could changing “February” to “Favre-uary” be far behind?

Where would it end? “April” to “Oprah”? “May” to “Miley”? “December” to “DonaldTrumptember”?

Not that it matters, because I’m pretty sure technology will soon prevail, and the calendars of the past will go the way of rotary dial phones, analog TV, and 45 RPM records.

We’ll still be able to find calendars hanging on walls… but mostly as nostalgic decorations, the way you might now see an old wooden crank phone hanging in someone’s den.

The times, they are a changing. And you don’t need a calendar to know it.