Friday, December 29, 2006

Seriously, Now

Right before Christmas, George Barna released a report on the "12 Most Significant Religious Findings from 2006 Surveys." I could comment on all 12, but I'm trying to use a bit of restraint here. Here's just one of his findings:
Most Americans have a period of time during their teen years when they are actively engaged in a church youth group. However, Barna’s tracking of young people showed that most of them had disengaged from organized religion during their twenties.

Well, of course. The study apparently didn't ask the respondents why they left the church, though a few commentators offered their expert opinion. But no one mentioned the two main reasons young people "disengage" from organized religion, based on my most unscientific observations: 1) It's as boring as all get-out; and 2) They discovered they've been lied to for years -- often unintentionally, but still, the distrust runs deep. Jesus didn't harp on the things the church had harped on for their entire lives, in His holy name no less. The twentysomethings I know, and they are legion, have no problem with God or Jesus. Just don't get them started on church.


Thursday, December 28, 2006

Mea Culpa: Dampening Spirits

I’m guessing it was in December of 1973 that I covered a Christmas parade for The Asbury Park Press. As one of the newest reporters in the city newsroom, I pulled the lamest assignments, and on this day it was Belmar’s annual holiday procession. Having attended the Philadelphia New Year's Day Mummers Parade every year as a child, often in well-below-freezing temperatures, I truly hated parades. But I soldiered on and did my journalistic duty on this miserable, rainy day at the Jersey Shore. The story that ran in The Press the following day, however, assured our readers that the wet and cold weather didn’t “dampen the spirits” of either the spectators or the marchers. I thought I was being so creative by using that phrase, and maybe 33 years ago I was, but I doubt it. I suspect that even by 1973, that expression was already hackneyed.

So how come, over the past 33 years, this worn-out phrase has been used so often on the air and in print? I just heard it again on The Weather Channel, my default station when I need to feed my inner nerd. Am I to blame? Did I unwittingly resurrect a dying expression all those years ago? Maybe if I—and the 4,372 other reporters who assured the public that no spirits were dampened by foul weather that year—had hesitated a minute longer before filing our stories, the expression would have died a natural death in 1973, and we wouldn’t have been subjected to it for lo! these many years. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

This drives me nuts, and I really don’t need any more stimuli in that regard. What about you? What jaded phrases would you like to see expunged from the record?

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Aaron Sorkin for President!

...Featuring Tommy Schlamme as Vice President and John Wells as Chief of Staff, with the writing team for The West Wing filling the remaining senior staff positions. Could we possibly do any better than this? I think not.

I want these people in the White House. I want them scripting our executive branch. I even want them making critical decisions that affect our national security. As long as they enlist Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert as trusted outside advisers, that is. And as long as they run as Independents.

Mine was a West Wing Christmas, or rather pre-Christmas. Since I haven't figured out yet how to read and knit at the same time, I multitasked with President Bartlet et al in the background as I knit up all those fabulous gifts I gave. Watching the episodes in order, back-to-back, all the way through Season 4 reminded me why I wanted Aaron Sorkin to run for president in 2004.

If you're not a fan of the show, oh well. If you are, maybe we can get Aaron to give up his Studio 60 gig and serve his country.

We could do a whole lot worse—and have.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Wonder of Wonder

Afraid that our inner light will be extinguished or our inner darkness exposed, we hide our true identities from each other.—Parker J. Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness

"Wonder" may not be what Palmer had in mind when he wrote about our inner light being extinguished, but I think there's a lot of stuff wrapped up in that package—faith, awe, mystery, wonder. They're all elements of our inner light, the light we're afraid to show to others for fear of it being extinguished. It's a wonder any of us have even a shred of wonder left.

Having a childlike sense of wonder sounds like a positive attribute, and it is. It's an attribute that I can finally own and expose and cultivate. But back when I cared a whole lot more about what others thought of me, I let lots of people rob me of that sense of wonder. They felt threatened by it, I now think. It was hip to be cynical; carrying around a sense of wonder opened you up to accusations of being an intellectual lightweight—ironic, of course, because wonder fuels intellectual curiosity.

I'm now fiercely and tenaciously protective of my childlike sense of wonder—because holding on to a sense of wonder is a wonder in itself.

Friday, December 22, 2006

I Take It Personally

Earlier this year one of my publishers tried to set up an author event for me at an independent bookstore in Mount Dora, Florida, just about the most charming city in the entire state. Dickens-Reed was almost as charming as the city, at least until they moved to a new location. The new site was larger and a bit less homey, but still, it was Dickens-Reed, one of the absolute, must-visit stores in a town replete with must-visit stores. It stocked an eclectic blend of new and used books, and unlike so many chain stores, it looked beyond the bestsellers to find a wonderful mix of titles.

When my publisher told me there had been no reply from the store, I was surprised. The owners had always been responsive to requests, even if the response was no.

On a recent visit to Mount Dora, I found out why: the store had closed. I stared at the locked door for so long that my daughter had to come over to me and assure me that the store really was closed and it was time to move on. Surely, I thought, they've just relocated again. They've got to be here somewhere. They can't be gone completely. I had to know, so I asked the owner of a shop across the street where the new location was. He told me that Dickens-Reed had closed for good some months earlier. For good? There was nothing good about this.

I'm still smarting from the news. On one level I realize how crazy that is. It's as if I'm taking a store closing personally. On another level, I'm ready to hunt down and shake some sense into every person who contributed to the store's demise by treating it as if it was just another store. It wasn't. It was Dickens-Reed, for crying out loud.

I do take it personally. And I imagine I'll continue to take it personally whenever a favorite independent store of any kind closes, forcing me to settle for yet another chain store.

I mean, after all -- it was Dickens-Reed, for crying out loud.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Rows? Circles? It Hardly Matters

Here's a truly random topic for this pre-Christmas week: hierarchy, particularly of the corporate variety. What prompted this is a passage in a book by Parker J. Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, which was published by one of my favorite publishers in the whole wide world, Jossey-Bass. Not that I'm sucking up or anything. (They really are a great group of people.)

Palmer tells about a corporation that tried to be more egalitarian by removing hierarchical power charts from the walls and rearranging chairs from rows to circles for interdepartmental meetings. The goal was to send the message that everyone's input and place in the company was valuable. But company executives soon discovered that the circles made little difference; employees carried within themselves a clear understanding of their place in the pecking order, regardless of how the chairs were arranged. Palmer wrote:

We can put the chairs in a circle, but as long as they are occupied by people who have an inner hierarchy, the circle will have a divided life, one more form of "living within the lie": a false community.

That this sense of inner hierarchy extends to our personal lives is without question. We often manifest it -- whether knowingly or not -- when we come into contact with those we know to be above or below us in some unspoken pecking order. I wonder: Can we ever truly let go of this inner hierarchy? If so, how? I don't mean in specific circumstances; most of us can recall times when we were humbled by the wisdom of someone less educated or the generosity of someone less prosperous or the compassion of someone less religious. I mean in a more universal, integrated sense of reaching a point of not even knowing that there is a pecking order. If this isn't achievable, does that mean we are doomed to living within the lie and never experiencing true community?

Monday, December 18, 2006

Another Charlie Brown Christmas

Not the TV show. I'm talking real life here.

A few weeks ago my friend Becky Garrison sent me an email that included a poster from Buy Nothing Christmas. Becky is a contributing editor for The Door ("The World's Pretty Much Only Religious Satire Magazine"), and that should tell you a whole lot about her. Anyway, the group helps people resist the barrage of Christmas come-ons that fuel their addiction to holiday spending. What I appreciate most about their effort is the group's lack of judgmentalism and legalism. They don't expect people to abandon Christmas or gift-giving entirely; the group helps them take incremental steps toward transforming the focus of the holiday season from consumer anxiety to stress-free joy.

Back to Charlie Brown, or rather his legendary Christmas tree. Last year we chose to rescue the worst tree on the lot from the shame of being overlooked. Not that that's a metaphor for our own lives or anything. We bought a scrawny little tree, placed it front and center in our home, decked it out for the big day, and felt all warm and good-hearted. But this year a mite infestation cleaned out the area's supply of trees before we even had a chance to get to a lot to buy one. Not to worry. We live on a wooded acre. Surely we could find something to use as a Christmas tree.

Mind you, we live in Florida. "Wooded" is at best a symbolic term. We have lots of live oaks, palmettos, and all manner of scrubby junk that grows in sandy soil. We used to have a half-dozen or so longleaf pines, but we lost them to a series of hurricanes. And besides, they were 50-feet high, and well, longleaf pines -- a bit lacking in the branch-and-needle department.

So we were left with longleaf spawns, which look kind of like branches of real pine trees that somehow got speared upright into the ground. One of these babies is now sitting in a tree stand that's bigger than the tree itself. We just have to figure out how to put a string of lights on it; the branches -- and I use that term loosely -- are too fragile to bear the weight of a normal string of lights. I thought about going to Michael's and getting a string or two of dollhouse lights, but that would defeat the purpose, you know?

We don't remember our Christmas tree from 1985 or 1993 or 2002. But we'll never forget this one. It's a symbol of our Buy Very Little, Lighten Up, Laugh a Lot attitude toward Christmas over the past few years. Who knew? Who knew that a Charlie Brown kind of Christmas would prove to be the best kind of all?

Charles Schulz would be pleased, I'm sure.

Friday, December 15, 2006

My New Hero

A while back an acquaintance mentioned in passing that she regularly attends seminars and workshops designed to help people create wealth. Because I know this woman as a highly spiritual person -- not religious, but spiritual -- my knee-jerk reaction was to ask her, "Why would you want to create wealth?" That goal didn't square with what I knew of her. I didn't ask the question out loud. It probably would have sounded judgmental, but it wasn't. I was genuinely curious about why she would want to focus so much time, attention, and money on "creating wealth" -- a phrase that sounds so, I don't know, stark or chilling, in contrast to "making a living" or "earning money."

Over the following days I wondered if once again I'm the only one who thinks this way. And then yesterday I stumbled on a story on that warmed the very cockles of my heart and gave me reason to hope for the human race once again. "Craigslist Meets the Capitalists" reported that CEO Jim Buckmaster had a devil of a time explaining to a group of hardcore capitalists why Craigslist isn't all that interested in "monetizing" its company. One observer called it a "culture clash of near-epic proportions." I would think so. One analyst said of the meeting: "I think a lot of people are catching their breath right now." I'm one of them, but not because I don't get it. It's because I do get it -- and because now I have a new hero, or group of heroes, the people behind Craigslist.

Craigslist has the distinction of being one of the first websites I ever visited, way back in the mid 1990s. It posts job openings and apartment listings and the like in a number of metro areas. The site charges a modest fee for listings but refuses to accept advertising; it's more interested in serving its clientele than "maximizing profits."

I'm not against maximizing profits, or at least I don't think I am; I wouldn't mind maximizing a few of my own. That's not my point. And I'm not criticizing my acquaintance for wanting to create wealth. I just have this whole other way of looking at the relationship between life and money. My perspective is much closer to the Craigslist philosophy. Buckmaster told the group that maximizing profits simply was not a part of the company's goal; creating wealth is not one of my goals either.

If wealth happens, it happens, but neither Craigslist nor I will go chasing after it. A near-epic culture clash indeed.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

If I Don't Knit It, They Won't Git It

So I'm closing my laptop for the rest of the day and picking up my size 9 bamboo circulars in hopes of getting some gifts finished. I have this feeling I'll end up giving partially completed projects along with photos of what the gifts should look like when they're done. I have way more yarn than discretionary funds; it is truly amazing what you can knit up when you're desperate.

In reality, I have this love/hate, joyful/tortured, hopeful/disgusted relationship with Christmas that shockingly rears its beautiful/ugly head every year, just like clockwork. I embrace Christmas, and yet I want it to go away. And again I ask: Am I the only one?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

I Read the News Today, Oh Boy…*

The year: 1970.

The context of the year: The release of the powerful but deeply disturbing movie Joe, starring Peter Boyle Jr., who became Peter Boyle after Sr. went to a better place.

The place: Joe Allen's Pub on W. 46th Street in Manhattan.

The context of the place: One of my favorite hangouts when I was a junior and beyond at Monmouth College in West Long Branch, NJ, now Monmouth U.

The principal players: Peter Boyle Jr. and a friend whose name I forgot minutes after I heard it. My friend Priscilla and I.

So there we were, Priscilla and I, eating burgers or something at a table in this pub known for its clientele of Broadway actors. At the next table were Peter and friend.

Peter's eyes met mine as a smoky cloud wafted between us...

Okay, so maybe the bottom half of Peter's eyes met the bottom half of mine. He was in his cups, as they say, but not in the belligerent sense. Being in my own cups, likewise peacefully, it's somewhat surprising that I recognized him. But I did, and this otherwise nondescript guy at the next table went from being "Why would I ever even notice you?" to "Oh my God, it's Joe!" -- Joe from the movie Joe, that is, not Joe as in Joe Allen.

We talked. I didn't bring up the movie. After all, Joe the character was a hippie-hater, and I was a…a…counterculturalist (I did not like the word hippie, even then). I remember laughing a lot. I don't remember what we talked about. Priscilla and the other guy didn't say much at all. Then Peter invited us to a "party," which we were smart enough, and maybe even sober enough, to know probably meant "party of four."

We declined. Somehow, driving back to the Jersey Shore in our questionable condition seemed the wiser choice. Not a wise choice, just wiser.

Years later, I was especially glad I didn't mention the movie. Peter said in an interview once that the movie haunted him for years because he got so much mail praising Joe's anti-hippie rage. It is a haunting movie, or at least it was in the context of the time.

Today my kids think it's pretty cool that Frank Barone from Everybody Loves Raymond once tried to pick me up in a bar. I don't know. All I know is that for the half-hour** I spent in his presence, he really was a funny guy.

The memory of that night has popped up at random times over the years -- that is, until Raymond. Then it popped up pretty consistently. But never more clearly than today, when I read that Peter Boyle died last night.

It's a good memory, one that I don’t need therapy to recall. I like that kind.

* A bit of Peter Boyle trivia: John Lennon was a good friend and Peter's best man at his wedding, which took place a few years after the encounter at Joe Allen's. Honest.

** A half-hour? Like I have any idea how long I was in that place.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Oh No! IMS in EMAIL!

For the second time in as many weeks, I've received an email in Instant Messaging Shorthand, along the lines of "Met u @ ___...Thx 4 ur help!" If you text-message or IM, you get it right away. If you don't, it takes a while to puzzle out the code. I don't -- life comes at me fast enough without IM, you know? -- and let me tell you, it took way too long to unravel the messages.

As it turned out, one of the senders is disabled -- a legitimate excuse. The other one, though, is able-bodied. Now I don't want to go and get all prim and proper and stickler-teacher-like, but really now.

Here's the thing. If you speak French and English, and you know I speak English but you don't know if I speak French, you wouldn't send me an email in French, would you? It's no different with IM. If you and your friends IM all the time, then it's cool to send emails in IMS. But if you and I have never IM'ed -- and trust me, we haven't -- then you'd email me in plain English, right? Right? One can only hope.

Here's the other thing: both emails were professional in content. Need I comment further? I think not.

Maybe my attitude needs adjusting here. It usually does, here and there. But my mother used to say something that I think applies but sounds so antiquated now: "It's just common courtesy, that's all it is!" (Yes, she was Southern -- can't you just hear that in a Georgia accent?) I think of it when I read the snippy response "That's what the delete button is for!" whenever someone suggests that maybe, just maybe, the story that the sender thought was so bloody cute didn’t need to be sent to everyone in their address book. Maybe, just maybe, the sender could have taken the time to select only those recipients who wouldn't mind getting that bloody cute story.

Even though it's faster for some people to write emails in IMS, should they take the time to write in standard English so the recipient won't have to spend time translating, especially when the recipient is me? Yes? No?

So…WDYT? B4 u reply, u shd know that I really, honestly, truly don't IM. I'm just doing what I can to keep the language honest…one email at a time.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Christmas Entrapment

So a South Carolina woman had her son arrested last week for opening a Christmas gift early. His great-grandmother wrapped the Game Boy Advance, put it under the tree, and told the boy not to open it. But he did, and he was charged with petty larceny. This was the second arrest for the 12-year-old, who punched a cop in November.

I love news stories like this one. You can't make this stuff up; nobody would believe it if you tried. But like lots of news stories, this one raises more questions than it answers. Here are just two (there are way too many to list):

How can they charge this kid with petty larceny? I can see why the cops agreed to arrest him, seeing as how he recently took on one of their own, but really now -- it was a gift, and the boy's name was presumably on it. I guess they could argue that it wasn't legitimately his until the 25th. I can just imagine the swarm of lawyers who will be all over this one.

And the second question, my personal favorite: What's up with putting out a Christmas gift so early? My favorite source of weekend news, NPR's fabulously funny news quiz show, "Wait Wait--Don't Tell Me," voiced my very own thoughts about this over the past weekend. Paula Poundstone, one of the show's panelists, wondered what on earth the adults were thinking when they placed a present in full view of a child with behavior problems so far ahead of time, whereupon another panelist quipped, "It almost sounds like entrapment."

Way back when, my parents never put any gifts under the tree until we kids had gone to bed on Christmas Eve. After all, the tags said the gifts were from Santa, who apparently learned penmanship from the same teacher my mother learned it from. And he didn't arrive until we were all fast asleep on the 24th, as we very well knew. Hence, no gifts till Christmas morning.

Over the years, my husband and I gradually relaxed that practice with our own kids as they grew older, which worked particularly well since they never believed Santa was real. Still, we figured putting the gifts out too early would have resulted in anxiety and not joyous anticipation. A day or two was plenty.

So…what's up with putting out gifts so early? Maybe your parents (or you, if you are a parent) put gifts under the tree in early December without any problems at all. I'd love to hear what other people think about this...were the adults in this story clueless ? Do you think they made a serious error in judgment? Or am I the only one?

Friday, December 08, 2006

Am I the Only One?

Sometimes I think I am the only one -- the only one who looks at life and asks, "Huh?" And then 11 p.m. comes around, and all is well with the world. Jon and Stephen and their Comedy Central colleagues and audiences make me feel, if not normal, then at least not alone. I've been out of step with the thinking of most of the people around me for so long that I had to write a whole book about it, Memoir of a Misfit. And then the most amazing thing happened: I started hearing from readers who were so grateful to find another misfit who thinks the way they do. It was incredible! A Canadian forest ranger who spends most of his life in isolation, a young woman who decided not to commit suicide after reading the book, a former evangelical pastor who was convinced no one out there understood him -- those are just a few of the people I heard from. As different as we were on the surface, we were in fact kindred spirits.

Bringing kindred spirits together -- that's what I want to do here. Some of my misfit readers and I keep threatening to hold a reunion and probably scare the daylights out of the city that hosts it. But even as we're chatting about it, we know it won't ever happen. We're scattered so far afield that it's highly unlikely we'll ever get together.

So...if we postmodern misfit kindred spirits are ever going to get together, it will have to be here. And because I know all too well how it feels to be on the outside looking in, you normal people are invited to join in the conversation as well. As long as we're trying to live authentic lives, we're kindred spirits on the most basic level. From there, we can disagree on a whole lot of things. But graciously -- always graciously.

So tell me: Do you ever feel as if you're the only one?