Exit 224. I need to be patient with myself.

It’s time for another hiatus.

Life is just overwhelming right now.  I’ve been really busy with the usual work responsibilities.  My schedule got disrupted a couple weeks ago, with two days of school canceled because of smoke blowing down from the recent fire in Butte County.  (Just so you know, I’m about 100 miles from any areas that were actively burning, so I was never in imminent danger.  But the fire was so big and the wind so strong that smoke spread all over Jefferson and northern and central California.)  Although those two days gave me plenty of time to relax and prepare for my trip to visit my family for Thanksgiving, it also gave me more work to do this last week to adjust for having missed those two days.  I also have a lot to do around the house.  Laundry and dishes pile up so quickly, and I have a few home repairs I need to address as soon as possible.  Life definitely isn’t all work; I’ve been making time for fun too.  It’s December, which means lots of fun holiday events with friends, in addition to the usual game night group and my Dungeons & Dragons game.  The UC Davis football team is also in the playoffs at their level (NCAA Division I-FCS) for the first time since the school’s athletic program moved up to that level in 2004.  We won, and going to that game was totally worth it, but it also took up half of my day.  (There are eight teams still alive in the FCS playoffs, and there won’t be any more home games for UC Davis, so I won’t have any more games to go to this year.)

I need to take time for myself sometimes.  I need to be patient with myself that I can’t get everything done.  And I need to realize that sometimes it’s okay to spend money to get something repaired, rather than trying to do half of the things myself, and not doing a good job of it, and letting the other half of the things go until they cause worse problems down the road.  That’s especially true now that money isn’t as tight since I’m not barely scraping by on a private school salary anymore.

So in the interest of not trying to do too much, I’m going to take a few weeks off from this blog.  Whatever holidays you might be celebrating during this time of year, I hope they go well, and I’ll see all of you in 2019.

Exit 181. The one time out of the year.

Last night, I was at Christmas Eve Mass at the Catholic church where I grew up.  I was thinking about how Christmas is the one time out of the year when I still attend Catholic Mass, despite having left Catholicism for evangelical Christianity at age 20, and I thought, that would be a good thing to write about this week.  But in looking at old posts about Christmas on this site, I realized I already addressed the topic two years ago (click here to read).  In that post, I focused primarily on how all the prayers and rituals of the Catholic Mass are so much more meaningful to me as an adult, now that I know more about the Bible and the history of Judaism and Christianity.

There is another question I did not answer… why do I still attend Catholic Mass on Christmas, instead of attending my own church or a church more like the ones I have attended as an adult?  Part of the reason is practical.  I am always visiting my family on Christmas, and my mom, grandma, and some combination of other relatives who are here or visiting always attend Mass on Christmas.  This year, we attended Mass on Christmas Eve because my mom does the Scripture readings at church, and that was the time that she was asked to read for.  Depending on when exactly I come to see my family, I am occasionally able to attend Christmas service at my own church as well.  This year, the church I’d been attending the last two years had an early Christmas service last Thursday, and I was going to go there as well, but I decided not to at the last minute for reasons that this isn’t the time to get into here.

I guess the other reason I haven’t stopped going to Mass on Christmas Day is because I haven’t felt a need to.  I’m worshiping Jesus and celebrating his birth with my family.  The fact that this particular group of worshipers has other views regarding transubstantiation, for example, really isn’t that big of a deal to me.

I’m going to keep this short this week and emerge from my old bedroom to see what the family is doing.  (We already opened presents last night.)  Merry Christmas to all of you.

Exit 178. So why don’t we get it?

I took a week off.  Sorry.

A few days ago, I was with some friends trying to get into the Christmas spirit.  We watched all three of the Santa Clause movies.  I had only seen the first one, and it had been many years.  The main character, Scott (played by Tim Allen), does not always see eye-to-eye with his ex-wife and her new husband, and their conflict is starting to affect their son, Charlie.  Santa Claus dies on Scott’s property, accidentally falling off the roof.  Because of a clause in a contract (get it, it’s a play on words; the name Santa Claus is not actually spelled with an E), Scott has to become the new Santa Claus.  The following winter, when Scott’s appearance begins to change into that of a fat old man, the stepfather becomes convinced that he is suffering from some massive delusion of being Santa Claus and gets his custody taken away.  But this is a family-oriented Disney movie, so there is a happy ending, of course.

Two more movies with these characters were made some time later.  The second movie focuses on the search for a Mrs. Claus and Charlie being put on the Naughty List for being a rebellious teenager.  But it was the third movie that really got me thinking.  Scott has now been Santa for twelve years, and he and Mrs. Claus are expecting a baby.  Jack Frost, tired of being forgotten among the other holidays, tricks Scott into magically going back in time and not putting on the Santa suit the night that Santa fell off the roof.  Jack puts on the Santa suit instead, and Scott returns to a world very different from the one he left.

Early in the movie, when Jack Frost first mentioned the existence of a way to turn back time so that Scott never became Santa Claus, I turned to my friends and said, “Which movie came first, this one or Shrek Forever After?  Because they basically have the same plot.”  (For the record, Santa Clause 3 did.)  Scott finds out that in this alternate timeline, Jack Frost has turned the formerly secret Santa’s workshop into a very public amusement park, where tourists bring their children every Christmas.  The elves are now bored and cynical employees, the reindeer are attractions in a petting zoo, and parents are reminded to spend more money to show their blatantly ungrateful children that they supposedly love them.  Upon seeing the portrayal of this horrible alternate timeline, I said, “I want to add to what I said earlier.  Both Santa Clause 3 and Shrek 4 are basically the same plot as Back To The Future Part II.”

But alternate timelines where a greedy and selfish person becomes powerful and turns something wonderful into something ugly didn’t start when Biff Tannen stole the DeLorean.  Forty-two years before Back To The Future Part II, something similar happened in It’s A Wonderful Life, when George Bailey sees an alternate Bedford Falls in a world where he had never been born.  And, without the alternate universe aspect, stories of greedy and selfish individuals making the world a miserable place have probably been around as long as storytelling itself.

So why don’t we get it?  Why are there so many greedy and selfish people if there are so many stories like this out there?  And for that matter, why are so many wealthy people in the film industry making movies that show the dangers of greed while acting greedy and selfish themselves in their personal lives?

For one thing, usually greedy people are making others’ lives miserable, not their own.  The greedy villains in these movies always have their empires toppled in the end, but real-life selfish people probably just don’t think it will happen to them.  And all of this really comes down to the fact that human beings are broken and fallen and just generally capable of all sorts of destructive behavior.

I’ve been there before.  There were Christmases in my childhood when I threw a tantrum over the one gift I didn’t get.  I’m not proud of those moments.  I still have times as an adult when I lack gratitude.  I have so much that so many in the world would love to have, but the mention of the one thing I don’t have makes me just as pissy as the bratty children at Jack Frost’s North Pole.

I can’t change the world by myself.  I cannot singlehandedly fight all the influences that feed people’s greed and selfishness.  The burden is too great to bear.

But I can do my best.  And I can change myself.  And both of those are better than doing nothing.

Exit 84. Things I hate about Christmas that everyone else loves.

It’s December.  That means everyone is thinking and talking about Christmas.  No, wait, December means I’m finally thinking and talking about Christmas, along with everyone else who has been thinking and talking about Christmas since early November.

I have a love-hate relationship with Christmas.  I love the thought that God loves us enough to send his Son, Jesus Christ, to Earth in human form to show us the way back to Him.  I love having two weeks off from work (or, as I’ve come to call it, a 16-day weekend).  I love getting to visit my family.  I love Christmas caroling, which wasn’t part of my traditional childhood Christmas, but in recent years I’ve been a few times with church groups, and since 2013 a friend whose family has a big Christmas caroling event in their neighborhood has been inviting me to this event.  (By the way, why is knocking on strangers’ doors and singing only acceptable at Christmas time?  Why don’t we go caroling for any other holidays?  Why not, say, Independence Day caroling?  I think I’m going to do that next July, walk around and knock on people’s doors and sing the Star Spangled Banner and America the Beautiful.  Who else is in?)

But there are also some things I absolutely detest about this holiday season.  I don’t mean to be negative, but it seems like in recent years, I’ve found more and more things that I hate about Christmas that everyone else loves.  We’ll start with what is traditionally called the start of the Christmas season:

  1. The Friday of Thanksgiving week.  I refuse to call it by the name used by the media, since the media and the retail industry lie about the origin of the name, in order to legitimize the practice.  But seriously, my idea of a wonderful Friday of Thanksgiving week is to sit around and be with my family and friends, eating leftovers and avoiding stress and crowds.  I realize that some families turn shopping into a family outing; if that’s your thing, more power to you.  I’m not going to advocate making it illegal for stores to open before a certain hour, nor will I boycott stores whose practices on this matter I don’t agree with.  I will, however, boycott them on that one day.
  2. The movie “A Christmas Story.”  I think this is one of those movies that I would like a lot better had I first seen it as a kid.  I would have been seven years old when the movie was first released, but I saw it for the first time in my mid-20s.  My friends who were watching it couldn’t believe that I had never seen it, and never even heard of it.  I’m always a little sensitive about things that remind me of how sheltered I was as a kid, and how I don’t share a lot of the collective life experiences of my peers, so this movie and its ongoing popularity have been a constant reminder of that.  But more importantly, I just didn’t really think it was all that special.  Maybe just not my kind of story, or maybe it’s the kind of story that just isn’t all that great when it isn’t tied to memories of childhood.  Regardless, though, it isn’t as bad as…
  3. The movie “Elf.”  Will Ferrell is one of those actors that either you love him or you hate him.  I’m one of the few people who are neutral toward Will Ferrell in principle.  But I really didn’t enjoy this movie.  The movie was just way too much of strangers being mean to poor Buddy, just because he doesn’t understand New York City culture.  That just hit home too much for me.  Social outcasts are one of the few groups that it’s still okay to make fun of, and that just isn’t right.
  4. The song “Last Christmas” by Wham!, or any of twelve billion other pop stars who have covered it.  It’s repetitive and banal.  But, again, at least the lyrics are something I can kind of relate to.  Heartbreak isn’t something I normally associate with Christmas, but it’s something I associate with many other times of year.  Last year I made it until something like December 17 before hearing this song, but this year I heard it on November 12.  Ugh.  I can’t decide which is worse, though, Last Christmas or…
  5. The song “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” by… I don’t even know who, and it has also been covered many times.  Because rape.  “Say, what’s in this drink?”  It’s ROOFIES!  GET AWAY FROM THAT CREEP NOW!
  6. Anything Christmas-related before December 1, or at least before Thanksgiving.  Growing up, I thought everyone hated it just as much as I did when stores started playing Christmas music and putting out their Christmas displays in October or August or February or whenever they do them now.  Then I discovered that some people love Christmas so much that they listen to Christmas music year round.  I’m not anti-Christmas, but if we start celebrating Christmas year-round, the season loses some of the things that make it special.  It’s the same reason why I have mixed feelings about the expansion of regional restaurant chains beyond their original reason.  It’s great that you can get In-N-Out Burger in Texas or Culver’s in Arizona now, but it makes the West Coast a little less special when you don’t have to be there to eat In-N-Out, and it makes the Midwest a little less special when you don’t have to be there to eat Culver’s.  (I still haven’t eaten at a Culver’s since 2005, when the westernmost location was in Colorado or Wyoming or somewhere like that… mmm.)  Same thing… it makes December a little less special when Christmas encroaches into November (especially since I love Thanksgiving) and October.

But it’s December now, so I can enjoy the Christmas season.  And it’s never too early in the year to remember that Jesus Christ gave up heavenly glory to be born to a lowly family of humans and show us the way to God.  Merry Christmas.

Exit 75. Everything cleared up at just the right time.

I didn’t get a chance to write anything this week.  I have a lot of thoughts running around in my head, and I’m not sure how much of it I want to share with the world.  So I’m posting something I wrote in December 2010, which seems timely again because it’s about a lunar eclipse, which we just saw recently

Monday night [December 20, 2010], there was a total lunar eclipse. I’ve been looking forward to this since June, when I stayed up very late to watch a partial lunar eclipse. (For those of you non-astronomy buffs, this is the one where the full moon turns red.) But as the day of the eclipse approached, I started to think that I was going to miss it. It rained hard all weekend, and it was supposed to continue raining well into this week. It rained during the night, and most of Monday was cloudy, although it only rained briefly, and lightly for the most part.

I was driving home during the early stages of the eclipse. I had the moonroof open (glass closed, but the cover pulled back so I could see up), and every few minutes when it was safe to do so I would look up briefly. I could see that the moon was getting darker, but sometimes it was also covered by clouds so that I couldn’t see it very clearly. I figured it would still be worth watching, but that my view would be interrupted by clouds and maybe reduced to a dull red glow at times.

I got home just as totality was beginning. I looked up and saw clouds drifting across the sky… but something amazing was happening. They were all moving away from me. Within less than a minute, I had a completely clear view overhead in all directions. I could see the spectacular red moon very clearly. And not just the moon, but to the south I saw Orion, with Canis Major and Minor behind him, and the Pleiades ahead of him, and behind me to the north Cassiopeia and the Big Dipper. Everything was completely clear. I grabbed a blanket, bundled up, and lay on the back patio for an hour and a half just watching the sky. It stayed clear the whole time… not a cloud in sight. And when I finally did go back inside, after about a fourth of the moon was lit again, I could see clouds in the direction of the Big Dipper, probably ready to come back my way soon. But everything cleared up at just the right time.

Yesterday I went into work to finish up all the paperwork to register for a school activity I was a leader for at the time. I was extremely scatterbrained during finals week and wasn’t on top of getting stuff turned in. Yesterday was the deadline to get it turned in, and in order to do so, I was still waiting for two other things to happen. One of the students hadn’t yet turned in his permission slip. I spoke with his guardian the day before and said that I would need it dropped off at school by noon in order for him to participate. Also, another school employee had forgotten to sign his part of the form. I spoke with him on the phone the day before, asking if he would be at the school any time in the next 24 hours; he said he would, so I put the form in his box and told him to give it back to me when it was done. So I got there and checked my box… the permission slip was there, but the writing competition proctor agreement was not. I went through the motions of copying everything I had and filling out my part of the registration form, hoping that he would show up while I was still there… but when I was done making copies, he still wasn’t there. I didn’t want to keep calling and keep bugging him; even though I would be perfectly willing to go wherever he was at the moment, as long as I could still make it to the office where I had to drop off the paperwork and back to my neighborhood in time for my dentist appointment two and a half hours later, I didn’t want to be annoying about this, especially since it was my lack of responsibility and focus that put me in this situation of rushing around in the first place. So I was sitting in the office, debating whether to call his cell phone vs. call the office and ask if it was okay to register without that form and deliver the form in January… and about a minute later, I see him driving up. I got the form signed, drove it out to where I needed to drop it off, and made it back home in time to have lunch before my appointment. Everything cleared up at just the right time.

Paul writes to the Romans that “at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly” (5:6). In all the details of the Christmas story [remember, I was originally writing this at Christmas time], it’s easy to overlook the fact that this happened at a specific time for a specific reason. Thousands of years had passed since the time of Adam and Eve. Why didn’t he send the Savior sooner? Why did God choose the time of the Roman Empire over any other time in history? I don’t claim to know the mind of God, but he definitely had his reasons. During the time of the Old Testament, his people had a lot of things to learn the hard way. They went through many periods of turning away from God and then turning back. They had good kings and bad kings. They were conquered by other nations and taken into exile. In all those experiences, not only did God’s people experience their need for a Savior, but when God sent Jesus into the time of the Romans, he was able to use that experience to turn expectations upside down and weed out the true believers from the posers. The posers wanted a Messiah who would kick some Roman ass, but instead he sent one who spoke of humility and faith and selflessness. Had Jesus come at a different time, that message might not have had the same impact. Jesus came at just the right time.

I made a list of goals at the beginning of 2010. Yesterday morning, as I was riding my bike, thinking about how I was coming very close to my goal of biking 1000 miles, I got to thinking about other goals that I had not yet accomplished. One of them, the one I had code-named Phobos in that original post, remained unaccomplished; this was probably the most difficult of all the things I had hoped to do in 2010. I was almost out of time, and I didn’t know if I’d get the chance to do this. (Well, I suppose i could do this any time, but the nature of this activity is such that certain situations are more likely to lead to a more positive outcome than others.) Last night started out kind of disappointing. But then a window of opportunity seemed to open up… and just before it closed, I took the chance.  It was a very awkward conversation that did not lead to the desired outcome, but I tried, and that was really the point of Mission Phobos.*

Everything cleared up at just the right time.

[*In case you’re curious, “Mission Phobos” was to ask a total stranger on a date.  The very act of asking that night led to a very awkward response, we never went on a date, and we really didn’t speak again.  But I tried.  I set the same goal for myself in 2009, and it did happen; it didn’t last to the end of the second date, and the girl is happily engaged now in 2015, but we’re still on Facebooking terms.]

Exit 34. I have mixed feelings about Christmas.

I have mixed feelings about Christmas.  I tell people it is both my favorite holiday and my least favorite holiday.

I love Christmas because of the reminders of, and opportunities to reflect on, how the Word of God became flesh and lived among us to show us the way to eternal life.  I hate Christmas because of the hectic rush to buy gifts and all the extra responsibilities that come up this time of year that keep me away from buying gifts.  I love the idea of giving.  I hate the way parents try to buy their children’s love through gifts.  I love the inviting celebration of O Come All Ye Faithful, I love the solemn reflection of Silent Night, I love the lighthearted fun and childhood memories of Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer, and I love the second verse of What Child Is This because you get to say “ass” in church.  I hate the sultry creepiness of Santa Baby, the repetitive irritation of Last Christmas, and the date rape of Baby It’s Cold Outside.

It seems that as the years have gone on, I have found myself more and more in a rush to do things at the last minute.  The last time I wrote Christmas cards was 2008.  In 2009, the school where I worked at the time moved their schedule three weeks back, starting earlier and ending earlier, so that first semester finals would happen just before winter break instead of mid-January.  While this makes sense from the perspective of having a break between the semesters rather than having a break just before the end of the semester, it meant that I had to prepare and grade finals at the same time that I would be making all my holiday plans, and the annual routine of writing Christmas cards fell by the wayside at that point.  I have not written Christmas cards since.  It was around that same time that I started having more of a social life, and getting invited to more holiday-related social events, which took up many weekends and some weeknights during December, leaving me with no time to shop until around December 23, when I’d finally be off work.  And as I mentioned a couple weeks ago, there is an annual conference for math teachers that I often attend the weekend after Thanksgiving, which cuts even more into what little time I have for holiday shopping and card writing.

The result this year was a perfect storm of circumstances that made me more out of touch with the holidays than ever.  I didn’t have finals to prepare, since I’m now teaching younger students and we don’t have finals per se, but I’m learning a new curriculum this year, and that always makes things more time consuming.  I had some home maintenance issues to deal with that took up several hours, and I haven’t dealt with all of them yet.  Not only was I spending every spare moment working, but when I did have a couple hours to unwind, I was so tired that I didn’t feel like doing anything.

To make things worse, I’m horrible at giving gifts.  I’m just not good at picking out things that people would like.  Gift giving in my family was always like grocery shopping.  You make a list, and people buy stuff off the list.  In the past, when I’ve tried getting something for someone that they didn’t ask for, it ends up unused collecting dust on a shelf.  This has happened multiple times with my family and gifts I’ve given.

I don’t like feeling this way.  Christmas should be a time of joy and celebration, not a time of stress and exasperation.  And I’m not sure what I can do about it.  I can’t change the fact that December is a very busy time for me.  I suppose in the future, I can make a conscious effort to be more organized and get shopping done before Thanksgiving.  And I’m thinking of changing my Christmas card list to, say, a Flag Day card list, just because in June I actually have time to write people about what I’ve been doing for the last year.

For this year, though, I’m going to do the best I can.  I’m still going to Christmas parties.  I’m going to do the best I can with buying gifts for my family, even though they might end up being gift cards and IOUs.  And I’m going to try not to be stressed.

Merry Christmas, friends.