Friday, December 23, 2011

Resolutions for the End of Days

Given the official countdown of the Mayan calendar to the End of Time, I’m thinking New Year’s Resolutions for 2012 rise to a level of urgency heretofore unseen.  We have fewer than 365 days now to make our resolutions and get ‘em done. 

We’ve had plenty of warnings and false starts.  We’ve enjoyed reprieve after reprieve what with a new, New Year coming after every old New Year in which we promised but did not deliver.  I confess, I’ve grown complacent.  But no more.  I really mean it this time. 

Commitment-phobes, put your heads down.  No teasing.  Don’t string yourself along.  Don’t say it unless you mean it.  This year’s resolutions may be your last!  You don’t want to wake up careening into deep space on a chunk of newly exploded earth singing, “Is that all there is?” now do you? 

Case in point:  This time last year I resolved to make a pie.  More than that, I resolved to make a pie with flaky crust.  Now I still have a few days to make good on my professed goal, but I find it sad to acknowledge in the last week of December that my convictions were so weak as to rate no effort.  No attempt.  No crust.  No pie. 

Which begs the question as to why I didn’t achieve my, er, fitness goal.  I didn’t make or eat a single pie, and yet I remain hovering near the same pull of gravity as I was this time last year.  What’s up with that? 

OK, yes, I did enjoy assorted portions of pies over the months, but so few, so few!  How could such a dearth of indulgence result in such a flop of resolution?  Of course, I didn’t make a firm note of my actual radius and circumference in January of 2011, so who can say with certainty?  Perhaps I have made progress and can’t take credit.   

I hereby resolve to keep better records as I hurtle toward my demise in 2012. 

And yes.  Yes.  I continue to resolve to improve my degree of fitness.  (I do love the euphemism.  And degrees of euphemisms.)  I’m working with a trainer now and she concurs that I am totally buff under this protective layer of … Tempurpedic foam?   

Therefore, I resolve to stick with my training in 2012 in hopes of seeing some sinew burst through when I clutch a flagpole in my frantic effort to stay on the planet a few moments longer as time runs out and the snooze alarm quits working. 

But this last call for resolutions begs for something striking, something bold.  No ordinary promise will be sufficient for taking into the ever after.  We must do something BIG.  Like mountain climbing.  Or spelunking.  Maybe speed dating!  (I’ll have to check with my husband.  Not sure he’ll buy into the end-of-the-world rationale on that last one.) 

Maybe I’ll resolve to fly in a glider.  It’s not the skydiving I’ve toyed with over the years, but I’d consider it a respectable step in that direction.  I can probably talk my sister-in-law into going with me.  We’ll plan it for mid-December, close to the end, so if it doesn’t go well, we won’t have lost too many of the end days.  

And I’m going to have that Elvis party I’ve chattered idly about over the years.  Count on it.  I went on line today and found blue suede shoes, aviator sunglasses with sideburns attached, even gold-studded white jumpsuits complete with flared legs, stand-up collars and red scarves.  That’s right.  I’ll be Elvis, not Priscilla.  Though there are some pretty cool Priscilla wigs online too.   

Elvis’s birthday is January 8th, as I’m sure you know.  I don’t think I can pull together a soirĂ©e befitting the occasion that fast.  So my attitude is that we can celebrate the King’s birthday any time we want.  Given that it might be the last birthday party on the planet serving peanut butter and bananas, I could schedule it for December 22nd, 2012, the actual last day, according to the Mayas.  

My husband will also be Elvis.  He’ll look good.  I’m hoping for a houseful of Elvises, some Priscillas and Colonels…I’m getting a karaoke machine and singing the whole playlist.  I already know the words. 

Lawdy, Miss Clawdy!  What a way to go!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Christmas Love Story

We women have ruined men where Christmas shopping goes.  We’ve taken shopping out of their hands; and we’ll even argue in defense of our mistake, saying they just mess it up anyway.  Which is true, after all. 

But I have a suspicion that men may have tricked us into this arrangement.  It may be just like my brother’s inability to vacuum adequately.  When we were kids and Mom asked him to plug in the Kirby, he always did; but when he finished the stripes were too far apart.  The carpet looked like a lawn mowed by Mr. Magoo.   

Next time, Mom would come around to me on the sly asking if I’d run the vacuum.  Glenn just couldn’t do a very good job, she’d say. 

I actually took some pride and self-righteous satisfaction in my vacuuming until I caught Glenn smirking like Tom Sawyer when he complimented me on my skill with the upright. 

In like manner, we women take the full Christmas list of family, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances whom we feel compelled to buy for.  We stew and strategize.  We plan an efficient route of travels between local merchants and malls.  We make forays to and from the car while employing all the recommended security advisories – keys between fingers, head on a swivel, walking briskly, checking the backseat before we get in.  We wrap and ribbon, and sometimes wrap again to mail on schedule for a timely arrival of the gifts to HIS family back east. 

Yes, oh yes.  We’re good.  W. O. M. A. N.  Sing it again.  The men just couldn’t handle it. 

They shop only for us.  God love ‘em. 

My husband and I have an excellent system that takes all the thinking, er, guesswork out of the equation for him.  It would be an awful lot for him, or any husband, to pay careful attention to things his wife admires and comments on in the course of the year, making a mental note, taking private pleasure in planning a surprise for her of something he knows she’ll love.  

Nope.  We put that fairytale to rest about the fourth year of our marriage.  That was the year I was just finishing up with the homemade peanut butter cups on Christmas Eve when he jerked and jumped out of his recliner like a reanimated C3PO.  “Oh my!  We’re approaching the deadline for shopping R2!” he seemed to say in that adorable, befuddled manner.  “We’d best get going!”  

Out the door he went, rubbing his head and patting his pockets.  “I’m going to the hardware store, Honey,” he said, certain he’d duped me completely.   

He was gone a long, long time, came in after dark, apparently empty-handed.  But next morning, parked beside the tree with a bow taped to its handle, was my Hoky.  My very own Hoky.  It’s like a rotary-blade manual-push lawn mower, but for hardwood floors and carpet!  He surprised me after all. 

The following year we devised the system.  Actually, I devised it.  As the season approaches, I scan the catalogs that arrive in the mail.  I circle items I love, but would not buy for myself – this sweater, that pinky ring, these plush boots, that chunky necklace.  I tear out the pages and save them until Black Friday, when I give him the sheaf of papers and say something coy like, “Honey, any one of these things would make such a lovely Christmas gift.” 

I believe I see relief in his eyes, and gratitude, as he accepts the pages like Moses receiving the tablets.  He turns away, shoulders hunched, as though to hide them from my prying eyes.  We never speak of the exchange again. 

I always give him lots to choose from, so I never know what he might select.  But he can’t go wrong.  That’s the beauty of it.  It’s a sure-fire surprise, and a guaranteed happy ending to his stressful holiday season.   

He almost always buys a couple of items from the lineup.  And he’s even taken to doing his own wrapping, usually on Christmas morning.  He’s careful not to square the corners too well, and the tape often gets bunched up and crumply.  It’s his trademark.  Wouldn’t want to get too good at it.   

Am I enabling him?  Yeah, probably.  He could do it on his own if I put my foot down and tapped my toe.  But what’s the fun in that?  

We have a win-win in the real world.  It's even romantic in its own way.  We should all be so lucky. 

Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The War's Ended ~ Where's the Celebration?

When you go to the Washington Post’s online newspaper, you encounter tabs across the top of their home page:  Politics, Sports, Entertainment, National, World.  Click that “World” tab and you get a drop down menu with pages for your purusal including:  Africa, the Americas, Europe, Middle East, and War Zones. 

It clarifies so much, doesn’t it?  The need for a tab, a page, an entire section of the Washington Post called “War Zones.” 

I clicked on the War Zones tab, scanned the Wall Street Journal and Politico, flipped through the San Francisco Chronicle, my local newspapers, even checked Al Jazeera English, to read what I could about the celebration of the end of the war in Iraq.   

After almost 9 years and more than 1 million United States soldiers cycling through combat assignments, President Obama put a period at the end of the run-on sentence of this war.  The path of the Iraq war began with George W. Bush and the search for weapons of mass destruction; zigzagged its way through to the capture of Saddam Hussein; was redefined in terms of security and “peace keeping” during civil insurgencies; incorporated ferreting out al-Qaida; ultimately settling into the nation building we commit to whenever we leave a conquered country, or a quagmire that sucks at our feet. 

To be sure, there’s hope for a better life for the Iraqi people.  The fact that so many Iraqis just risked their lives to vote in free elections that would have been impossible before this war is testimony to a growth of enlightenment.  We deserve credit for that.  The human right and the inborn urge to be free have asserted themselves, thanks to us.  Iraq’s Prime Minister, Nouri al Maliki represents a more inclusive government, though some are dubious of his facility as a leader, his long-term intentions, and our continued ability to influence him away from Iran.   

The Iraq war left nearly 4,500 US soldiers dead and more than 100,000 Iraqis killed.  Severe, life-changing injuries to bodies and minds on both sides defy enumeration.  And to be pragmatic, if crass, US taxpayers laid out nearly $1trillion for this war.  That’s 1,000 x $1billion.  We spent $1billion one thousand times on this war.   

But the headlines of the past few days have been striking, whether on the front pages of major print news sources, online publications, or cable and network news teasers:  An alleged pedophile at Penn State waived his right to a preliminary hearing; Federal fines issued to Chuck E Cheese for violations of Child Labor Laws; GOP blah, blah, blah; NTSB recommends a total ban on cell phone use while driving; Time magazine announces “The Protester” as its Person of the Year; oh, and President Obama put an end to the war in Iraq. 

That’s it?  That story blends? 

Where’s the parade?  I want marching bands!  Fireworks!  Times Square!  Ticker tape!  I want to express my joy and relief in the streets with the ecstatic masses.  I want to kiss a soldier for a picture that will live a long, long time.  The war is over!  The war is ended!  Our soldiers are coming home! 

Maybe there will be some of this today, the day of my deadline, before this column reaches your doorstep.  Maybe today, when President Obama speaks to US troops returning home to Ft. Bragg, representing the last few thousand waiting their turn to board transports home, maybe at that moment spontaneous celebrations will explode across the country.  Our joy cannot be contained, can it? 

At the very least, the Washington Post will have to update its menus.  Their webpage manager will have to take Iraq off the War Zones drop down.  Iraq will now be part of the regular Middle East section, reporting recovery, growth, success, achievement.  Right? 

The now-staunched drain on our budget will become be a boon to the economy, right?  One thousand times a billion dollars can now be diverted to health care for low-income children, salaries for teachers and firefighters, scholarships and Pell grants for university students.  Certainly we’ll soon see improved medical services for veterans…right? 

I’ll meet you on Main Street with my party hat and an American flag.  We have a lot to celebrate. 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

US Post Office ~ Darned If They Do...

I’m trying to muster up some nostalgia for the US Postal Service.  It’s not dead yet, but it is staggering around, clutching its chest.  The handwriting is on the cyber wall:  The check’s not in the mail. 

Depending on who you talk to, the US Postal Service lost as much as $7 billion dollars this year.  Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe says they can’t wait around to take corrective action, though one wonders if the loss was sudden, or if he just now noticed that $7 billion slipped through the PO’s fingers.   

Its decline has been steep in recent years.  The USPS reported delivering 216 billion pieces of mail in 2006, and only 177 billion pieces in 2010.  Sounds about right:  I get almost half my junk mail electronically now.  What with e-banking and e-shopping, e-soliciting and e-advertising, the need for hard copies of almost everything has plummeted.  That saves plenty o’ reams o’ paper.   

The cost cutting measures under consideration at USPS include closing some 3700 post offices and half its processing centers around the country.  We’re warned that these closures will result in slower delivery of letters.  I don’t think this is going to bother me too much.  Ever since I switched to on-line streaming with Netflix, I’ve quit looking for the speedy turnaround of hard copy mail.  In fact, it kind of creeped me out when that distinctive red envelop reappeared in my mailbox even if I’d only turned my head to sneeze. 

And let’s say delivery of letters goes from one day to two or three days, it’s still pretty impressive.  What a bargain, for one thing.  I’ve written a letter to my girlfriend in North Carolina.  Will you pick it up at my house Monday, please, and drop it into her mailbox on the east coast on Wednesday?  Oh and here’s 45cents for your trouble.   

Reports are that the PO could wipe out its entire $14 billion deficit by raising first class rates to 63cents per ounce.  Whoa, you might say.  Another 15cents, just like that?  No way.  But consider mailing across country at FedEx’s $8.66 for one-day service, or UPS 2-day air service at $19.72. 

What’s more, the Post Office is an icon of mainstream living in the United States.  When I was a kid, I saved up my box tops and sent away in the mail for a Detective Dick Tracy decoder ring.  The “sending away” constituted a mystery in itself since I couldn’t comprehend what General Mills was and the 6 weeks return time comprised half the summer.  But even if the ring itself remains a letdown parallel to sugar-free chocolate, its delivery by mail was magic. 

As a supplement to the book mobile my mom subscribed me to the Weekly Reader delivered by US mail.  The miracle of having grown-up mail arrive with my own little girl name on it thrilled me.  

The USPS made possible my childhood membership in the Audubon Society.  Full color glossy pictures of exotic birds made me a nerd before I understood the implications.  Thanks Mom.  No, I mean it, thanks.  Birds still provide elegance and fascination. 

The US mail afforded an early sense of adulthood:  My first gas and electric bill – not exactly ecstasy, but a validation.  Kind of like that first book of pre-printed checks.  I have a bank account.  So I must have money.  I have bills, therefore I am. 

Of course the "yippee!" drained out of that scenario in short order.   

In 2011, I maintain hand-written correspondence with the 95-year-old mother of a friend of mine, and with my husband’s second cousin in Scotland.  It’s a lovely, sort of Victorian sensation, quaint, almost genteel, to discover their letters in the box.  Sure, sometimes I think it might be nice to trade emails with them.  But if something were to happen to either of them, I won’t be holding my HP touchscreen monitor to conjure up their memories. 

If the Postal Service closes its doors, I’ll miss my mailman, er, letter carrier.  We’ve gotten acquainted since I retired.  He’s a nice man.  It’s impressive how much he knows about our town’s history by virtue of his years crisscrossing the neighborhoods.

These reminiscences are premature, of course.  Since Congress has to approve any recuperative actions before they’re implemented, it’s unlikely we’ll see any change at all in our lifetimes.  But inaction creates a catch-22:  no cost cutting leads to bankruptcy, and full circle back to nostalgia.  

Oh, the irony.   

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Dinosaurs Loved Thanksgiving

Back when I was a high school principal, my blood pressure spiked, for about 13 years.  But that’s not what I want to write about. 

One of the things that used to work my nerves back then was holidays.  Not actually the holidays themselves, but the school days off.  No, I loved the days off, so let me try again to get closer to the object of my administrative vexation:  Over the years I observed that parents and therefore their students, even teachers and staff padded their holidays:  If we had a Monday holiday, absences shot up the on prior Friday.   

When Thanksgiving break comprised Thursday and Friday, folks took off that Wednesday.  Then, when the District conceded Wednesday, absences Monday and Tuesday skyrocketed.  In the latest stage of progressive excess, when Thanksgiving break became a full five days plus two weekends for nine, students and staff tacked on a Friday travel day!   

Proverbs crowded my crabby, principal’s mind:  inches and miles, slopes in bad weather.  Cat’s away…oh, never mind. 

What I’m really getting to is Black Thursday Night.  Must we have Black Thursday Night?  Black Friday sidled up next to Thanksgiving long ago, establishing an uncomfortable cohabitation of the holiday weekend – pure gratitude bumping up next to pure materialism.  Awkward, but separate and distinct.  Acceptable perhaps, as necessary and reasonable. 

But Black Thursday Night intrudes on Thanksgiving, the gentlest of holidays, except maybe Arbor Day.  Black Thursday Night seized the perfectly good tradition and milestone of Black Friday and stretched it out of shape.  Both Thanksgiving and the start of the shopping season are now distorted.  They don’t resemble themselves anymore and my ACE inhibitors can’t quell my exasperation. 

So, I’m casting about for someone or something to blame:  Even though retailers are the frontline perpetrators, it’s hard to impugn them in these economic times.  They’re laden with anxiety and struggling to survive.  They’ve been waiting to get into the black for long months of slow and slower. They say competition from 24/7, 365-days-a-year internet shopping caused them to throw open their doors on a day once sacrosanct from crass acquisitiveness.   

Brick and mortar retailers cite internet vendors’ encroachment into their formerly secure territory as justification for the creeping growth of their hours of operation.  But cyber sellers only identified and capitalized on the shift of tech-minded shoppers.  In 2011, even Luddites are browsing online!   

So “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens,” as Abraham Lincoln put it when he established the national holiday in 1863, has shrunk again.  That’s right, again; Black Thursday Night is not the first finger to be pulled from the dyke protecting our reflective and peaceful respite.
In fact, it was Franklin Roosevelt who first tampered with the ideal by moving Thanksgiving from the last Thursday, to the fourth Thursday in November in an overt attempt to lengthen the holiday shopping season and bolster retail sales during the Depression. Maybe we should get it over with and move it to the first Thursday after Halloween.
Black Thursday Night, effectively the holiday’s demise as a no-shopping interlude, stems from a steady retreat from wide spread blue laws that once banned shopping not only on Thanksgiving and other major holidays, but also on Sundays.  Today Massachusetts and Rhode Island are the only remaining states to restrict shopping on Thanksgiving.
Black Thursday Night steals a little bit of beauty from Thanksgiving.  It dilutes the meaning and intent.  Thousands of petitioners agreed with Anthony Hardwick, the hourly employee who asked Target to abandon its plans to join the merchandizing blitz.  His efforts were heartening, but alas.  The levy is tumbling down. 
The frenetic and cutthroat environment created by these midnight sprees seems to contribute to the awful episodes making headlines around the country:  Parking lot robberies, shootings, and stabbings; shoppers trampling each other to get at advertised loss leaders; a grandpa accused of shoplifting during the chaotic rush for discounted merchandise; a mother pepper spraying other shoppers to gain an advantage in the surge to buy an Xbox. 
This battle is lost already.  I know.  As Pogo surmised so long ago, “I have seen the enemy, and he is us.” 
We comprise the herd.  We’re the peers who apply the pressure and give into it.  We’re the extinct species whose passing we lament.
I guess I’ll just take another pill.