Monthly ArchiveDecember 2011



Commentary 30 Dec 2011 01:29 pm

A willing heart for the new year

This week’s column, and the last of 2011 …

As one year closes and the next begins, conversation turns to resolutions and the changes necessary to make us feel shiny and new in 2012.

Some people say nature does this for us already. A widely held belief is that our cells replace themselves every seven years, meaning that regardless of our chronological age, at any given time our bodies are about as old as we were when we first learned how to ride a bike and that fart jokes were the apex of humor.

The truth is more complex — about cell rebirth, that is, not flatulence, which really is the wise old man at the summit of the comedy mountain. It turns out that many of our cells do slough off and regenerate, but some — heart and bone and brain — have only a limited capability in this regard, if at all.

Of the three, the brain is the most important when it comes to feeling new. I know plenty of people housed in vital, healthy bodies who are nevertheless imprisoned inside inflexible brains. It’s like having a brand new sports car but driving it from the trunk.

The secret to staying young is far less about keeping a fit body (but that’s important, too) than maintaining a youthful brain. I don’t mean that you must cram your head full of puzzles and trivia to stave off dementia, although those aren’t necessarily bad pursuits. Instead, you should focus on staying flexible in temperament and entertaining ambiguity.

Stop being so certain all the time. Consider the other side. If you’re a Tea Partier, seek to understand the Occupy movement, or vice versa. If you hate sappy, sentimental movies, grab yourself a box of tissues and pop in “The Notebook.” If you’re a longhair fan of Beethoven, give punk rock or screamo a go. If the worker at the cubicle down the way puzzles or annoys you, invite him to lunch.

Don’t enter into these pursuits with nose in the air and teeth gritted, as if bathing in polluted waters. Go with a willing heart — and brain.

Playwright John Patrick Shanley says doubt is essential to advancement. “When a man feels unsteady,” he writes, “when hard-won knowledge evaporates before his eyes, he’s on the verge of growth.”

Sometimes, our metaphors get us all loused up. We visualize the year that is passing as an old man, and the new one as an innocent babe. This is all wrong. In reality, the New Year is the rickety ancient, his mind already packed with preconceived notions and grudges that carry over from the year before.

Our goal should be to grow progressively younger in spirit as the year goes on — to be more childlike (in the best meaning of the word) in December than we were in January. At what point in life are we happier than when we are babies — laughing with abandon when something is funny, crying just as vociferously when something is not, forgetting one day’s troubles by the time the next day begins? It’s only with age that we learn to repress, hold grudges and set ourselves on destructive paths.

Maybe the most depressing part of New Year’s — even worse than that old Scottish drinking song and the spectacle of so many people staying up too late and imbibing prodigious amounts of alcohol — is the realization that many people see change as something tied to the calendar.

Next year I’ll lose weight, go back to school, find a way out of debt, clean out the trunk of my car. Next semester I’ll stop smoking and start studying. Come summer, I’ll finally read “War and Peace.” But these promises are self-deluding at best, destructive at worst.

I don’t know the percentage of people who keep New Year’s resolutions, but I know it’s pretty dismal. While New Year’s can be a fresh start, so can April 10 or Dec. 29. So can right now.

When anybody asks me my New Year’s resolution, my reply is always the same: to be less judgmental and more tolerant. Truthfully, however, that’s my resolution every day. People who know me well may notice I’ve made progress in this regard. I’m less cynical in my 40s than I was in my 20s, which has nothing to do with age and everything to do with effort. The fact that I’m still three times as cynical as most other people tells me I have a long way to go.

My mission — should I choose to accept it — is to stay mentally young, to entertain all sides of an issue and accept a multiplicity of opinions.

It’s my own version of cell regeneration, and I’ll be practicing it again this year. Join me, won’t you?

Commentary 22 Dec 2011 09:58 am

Merry … uh, Happy … er, Season’s …

This week’s column …

Back in the old days, when everything you needed to know about Christmas you could learn from studying Coca-Cola ads featuring Santa Claus, wishing friends and neighbors holiday cheer was much easier.

You said Merry Christmas, and that was that.

But then people started making up new holidays, like Hanukkah and New Year’s, and the situation became more difficult.

For a long time, I still said Merry Christmas, when I said anything at all. Sometimes I simply growled, and people left me alone to slurp my eggnog and gnaw my candy cane in peace. When I did offer the traditional holiday cheer, I was content that people mentally filled in the blanks with all the not-quite-ready-for-prime-time celebrations that didn’t make the main marquee.

In the Land of Long Ago, Merry Christmas was shorthand for “Merry (Advent, Saturnalia, Pancha Ganapati, Kwanzaa, Festivus, Bodhi Day, Boxing Day, Epiphany, New Year’s) Christmas.” This was unfair, but necessary, if only because reciting all those holidays each time you tipped your imaginary hat to passersby would, in fact, leave no time to celebrate the very holidays you found important enough to mention.

Then along came the more democratic Happy Holidays, an elegant solution. Yes, it contains one more syllable than Merry Christmas, which adds up over time to become a significant contributor to idle chatter, but the very inclusiveness inherent in “holidays” was worth it. Nobody was left out.

Sadly, though, the forces of fundamentalism would not rest until they made Happy Holidays feel as thin as a Wall Street executive’s excuses. Saying Happy Holidays, went this line of reasoning, was a cop-out, a capitulation to forces of political correctness that would not allow Merry Christmas to stand.

Suddenly, it became as verboten to say Happy Holidays as it was to say “verboten.” The unwitting yuletide reveler who offered the alliterative greeting was met with either a snide “Merry Christmas,” as if the speaker were looking down at a dung beetle that had the temerity to crawl up her leg, or — worse yet — with a long, tedious lecture on America’s Christian roots.

And corporate America listened. Power brokers in suits gathered in the highest echelons of every company, and the same decision makers who had derided Merry Christmas as too restrictive only a few years before suddenly found Happy Holidays too cavalier in its treatment.

“We must go back to Merry Christmas,” they all said, chewing their cigars simultaneously as they plotted how to wring the last nickel from poor, bleeding Dec. 25. They are, undoubtedly, the same people who find paintings of Santa Claus kneeling beside the manger inspirational.

And so, to paraphrase Charles Dickens’ Scrooge, Happy Holidays was boiled in its own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through its heart.

Today, Merry Christmas has roared back as the greeting of choice, but now when I hear it, I’m not sure if it’s a sincere expression of Yuletide cheer or merely a marketing ploy, part of a vast pendulum that will one day swing back again depending on who has the nation’s collective ear.

Is the person offering the greeting a) an honest believer in Christmas; b) trying not to offend me if I’m an honest believer in Christmas; c) making a wry commentary on the state of political correctness in the 21st century; or d) totally oblivious to the controversy and merely filling verbal space?

That’s a lot of baggage for two little words, which is why I’m no longer saying Merry Christmas. Or Happy Holidays, for that matter.

Instead, I’m skipping ahead to a less-controversial day. Merry Lincoln’s Birthday, everybody. Unless you’re a closet fan of John Wilkes Booth, that is.

Commentary 17 Dec 2011 12:17 am

What’s in a (sur)name?

This week’s column:

I learned recently that I could die 12 years earlier because of my last name.

According to decades-old research by Dr. Trevor Weston of the British Medical Association, people whose surnames begin with the letters S through Z live significantly shorter lives. He blamed it on the stress of often being last in a world that worships alphabetical order.

That makes sense. While those fortunate souls with last names further up the alphabetical food chain get premium meals in lunch lines, front seats on buses and first calls for job openings, we sniveling wretches in the bottom third get the lukewarm leftovers, bus seats next to smelly restrooms and positions left unfilled after the premium work goes to people with last names like Allen or Cobb.

Weston believed members of his S to Z Club also had more than their fair share of heart attacks and ulcers. This is caused, again, by the knowledge that people who won the birth-name coin toss are 10 or 15 yards ahead of them on the football field of life.

According to an article on the Focus magazine website, people whose last names start with a letter near the beginning of the alphabet are also more likely to win a Nobel prize, perhaps because their names are listed first when they work with back-of-the-alphabet-bus collaborators.

For me, the news doesn’t get much better when the argument shifts from surnames to first names. Another study reported in Focus magazine notes that boys with androgynous names overcompensate by acting out at school.

Names don’t get much more androgynous than Chris. Sorry, Mom, but it’s not exactly the power suit in the appellation world. Guys named Robert or James or Benjamin sound like the type who could muscle their way to the front of the line, even with a last name like Zephyr. Chris sounds more like a middle-management type with a pocket protector and a world-class butterfly collection.

Then there’s research indicating that we select professions that jibe with our first names, which explains why Bill works in collections, John takes care of the plumbing, and Dennis drills our cavities.

Similarly, I would expect more than a few Candys in the bakery, Matts in carpet sales, Landons flying planes and Richards in urology departments.

What professions exist for a Chris? I could be a chauffeur, cheese cutter, chemical engineer, chicken farmer, chiropractor or choirmaster. I suppose my day job as a teacher qualifies as child care, so maybe this name thing has something to it, after all.

The Brits were at it again with a survey that shows names popular with the opposite sex. Royal names topped the chart, so Richard and James (again) were tops with the ladies. The only namesake monarch I could find through painstaking research — defined as five minutes on Google — is Christopher of Bavaria, a 15th-century ruler known for crushing peasant uprisings.

That’s the sort of reputation that makes people wish you’d died 12 years sooner than you did.

Commentary & Family life 08 Dec 2011 10:38 pm

Bruce Lee, I’m not

This week’s column:

My sister’s family has been practicing martial arts together, heading to a dojo to get their kicks.

This pun is the first of several cheap shots at kung fu I will take in this column, despite knowing nothing about it beyond what I learned watching the ’70s series with David Carradine (”When you can snatch these pebbles from my hand, Grasshopper, it is time for you to leave”) and “Kill Bill” volumes one and two.

Which is my way of saying: If you’re looking for a realistic treatment of kung fu, look elsewhere. It’s also my way of saying don’t write, call, or email about how cool the martial arts are and how I’ve done them a disservice, or how they’re not about beating the heck out of your opponent (even though they really are) or karate-chopping through boards with your bare hands (good work if you can get it).

I understand that kung fu/karate/whatever is a tool for self-confidence, poise and physical grace. I understand that my sister, her husband and my nephew enjoy the family time and interaction. I even understand that I probably shouldn’t use “kung fu” and “martial arts” interchangeably.

And my upfront plea of ignorance is especially my way of saying: Please don’t seek me out in some dark, deserted alley and pummel me with fancy footwork because I’ve offended you. It will only make me cry and make you feel as though you’ve violated whatever Asiatic version of the Hippocratic Oath you recited before turning yourself into Chuck Norris. Besides, I make it a point to travel only in well-lit, busy alleys.

See, I’ve never been very good at fighting, not that it’s kept my mouth from getting me into situations that I need my fists to get out of.

Once on the playground in third grade, I offended the resident bully, a kid named Robbie Sumpter, who was more evil than Darth Vader, Doctor Doom and Herman Cain combined. Robbie was one of those kids who probably came out of the womb with a Marlboro clenched between his teeth. Seriously, I believe he had teeth at birth, a full complement of already-yellowed choppers to bite and rend and inflict tetanus on his prey.

I don’t remember what I did to him. Maybe I passed judgment on the size or shape of his mother’s combat boots

Not that it mattered. Robbie would whale on kids if they were wearing plaid shirts, if their hair parted to the left instead of the right, or if they had grape jelly instead of strawberry jelly on their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. In other words, his beat-downs were purely arbitrary. Consequently, Robbie was viewed as a force of nature — like a hurricane or an earthquake — that could strike without warning, shattering illusions about security and self-worth. But he was worse than a hurricane or earthquake because neither of those elemental powers, to my knowledge, has a goal of administering the ultimate wedgie.

Our battle lasted a full three seconds. He punched me once in the stomach, and I crumpled like a piece of paper. Somewhere in my head, the bell signaling the end of the final round was already ringing, about the same time that, back in the real world, Robbie was turning my Fruit of the Looms into a thong. He didn’t even wait around to see if I’d get back up.

Maybe kung fu would have helped me acquit myself better in this epic confrontation, but I doubt it. I think if I’d taken a defensive stance or tried some elaborate footwork like the kind my brother-in-law and nephew demonstrated after Thanksgiving dinner a few weeks back, he would have hurt me even more. Black belt, blue belt, who-the-heck-cares belt. Robbie would be just as likely to beat me with a belt.

Besides, who can remember all that theoretical kung fu training in a real situation? Instead of going into my horse or monkey stance, I might have dropped to the ground and played dead, remembering a split second too late that this technique was what to do when attacked by a grizzly bear, not a juvenile delinquent.

My motto when faced with a fight has always been to run away, or take the beating and file a lawsuit later. I call this the “Discretion is the Better Part of Valor” stance, and it has served me well for decades.

As for Robbie Sumpter, that is, of course, not his real name. In case he’s still lurking out there, maybe reading this when a stray newspaper blows across the park bench he calls home, I want the record to show that this entire column is a goof, and that I’m really a third-degree black belt whose hands are registered as deadly weapons with state and local authorities.

And if you believe that, I’ve got a nice little dojo for sale — cheap.

Commentary 02 Dec 2011 08:31 pm

Christmas is going to the dogs

This week’s column, as seen in The Alliance Review:

This whole bad economy situation is vastly overblown.

My assessment is not based on the Gross National Product or a survey of the hardcore unemployed lurking outside bars, on park benches or on Facebook. Instead, it comes from a recent trip to an area retail establishment that had an entire section dedicated to holiday gifts for dogs.

Look, I’m no Scrooge when it comes to pooches. Several canines have been part of my life, and each has found a little something from Santa under the tree. Usually, it’s a rawhide bone or a squeaky toy, something to keep my four-legged friend quietly occupied while family members open gifts and I sit quietly in the corner, tallying damages to my credit card and sobbing pitifully.

This latest batch of doggy gifts, however, was — to borrow a phrase from youth culture that possibly no youth has ever used in an actual, you know, conversation — off the chain. In other words, it beggars the imagination that anybody would waste hard-earned shekels to “surprise” a dog with the following:

Pugz: Shoes for Dogs. Made of “faux leather and faux wool” these put the “Ugh!” in Ugs for animals. The box depicts what appears to be a beagle wearing fur-lined brown booties. For $19.99, you’re promised “adjustable hook and loop straps to secure fit” and paws that are “warm and dry.”

What it doesn’t say, though, is that because dogs paws aren’t as long as human feet, your dog will look less like a little person in boots and more like a piƱata with leg warmers.

The Whoa Buddy! Blanket. It “protects your furniture, acts like a barrier, and keeps pets off counters.” As such, it’s more of a gift for desperate pet owners than for pets, especially since most (and by most, I mean all) dogs like to get onto furniture and counters, something I’m convinced is drilled into their walnut-sized brains by sadistic breeders and pet store owners who receive kickbacks from home decorators and countertop installers.

One side of the blanket is fleece, while the other “mimics the sound and feel of aluminum foil, a natural pet deterrent.” Really? In my experience, aluminum foil is a natural pet magnet. Neighborhood dogs come running faster than the Bumpus hounds to turkey when they hear it, so how will this keep any animal off a sofa?

Best of all is the picture on the box, which shows an entire couch swallowed by a draping Whoa Buddy! blanket. I can imagine Mr. and Mrs. Joe Average, sitting on their new sofa cover, trying to hear the TV and each other above the obnoxious crinkling noises every time they move. Whoa Buddy! is No Buddy! to me.

Also from the fine folks at Whoa Buddy! is a dog bowl with “specially designed nubs to make your dog work harder for his food.” A slower pace at the Alpo (or whatever) “helps reduce choking, vomiting, gas and bloating,” all of which are lovely sentiments for the holiday season.

The Potty Patch is a 17-by-27-inch section of artificial grass that stretches over a litter box-like contraption. The idea here is that dogs can relieve themselves whenever they want without tearing owners away from “Dancing with the Stars” or “The Dr. Phil Show.” The box notes that it is for dogs under 17 pounds. Apparently, an 18-pound animal would create flash flood conditions in the living room.

Why anybody would want to encourage a dog to do its business indoors is beyond me, but the Potty Patch is endorsed by the American Kennel Club, which only goes to prove that even a reputable organization has its price in these desperate days.

Spot “Seek-A-Treat” asks “How smart is your dog?” You can find out with this Shuffle Bone Dog IQ Puzzle that allows owners to hide treats behind sliding doors for dogs to open and find. For $19.99 (apparently the price the market will bear for such foolishness), it promises “mental stimulation,” which you can also foster by covering it with the Whoa Buddy! blanket and timing how long before your dog chews both to shreds.

I don’t believe we should do anything to encourage smarter dogs that could one day band together and take over the world, becoming our canine overlords and subjecting us to the degradation of having our noses rubbed in our pee and beatings with a newspaper.

On the other hand, if dogs ruled (and cats drooled), they would then be responsible for the rotten economy and could possibly buy their two-legged pets gifts from an entire section of human toys at area retail establishments. It would serve them right.

Other than a small switch from Santa Claus to Santa Paws, nobody would even know the difference.