Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Best of 2008


Okay, let me clarify at the beginning that this is my own personal list. Included here are things I did, saw, read, watched, heard etc...Not everything here may have originated in 2008, but this was the first time I became aware of it. 


Best Movie (I saw in a movie theater):




Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Also the only movie I saw in a theater this year. I saw it twice. Back to back showings. Not because the movie was so fantastic, but because I was so confused. It made a lot more sense the second time. You see, I'm the world's biggest Indiana Jones fan, and I have been waiting for this movie for many (MANY) years. I knew all about it. I knew it would be different, and I was prepared for anything -- so I thought. The film was such a departure from the other movies, that it left me dazed. I must have still had a very confused look on my face when we got home, because my wife sent me back to see the last show of the night, to clear things up. Having now watched it several times on DVD as well I have made my peace with this movie (and I'm even holding out hope for number 5). It's actually a pretty fun movie. It used to be said that The Temple of Doom was the odd man out, in the Indiana Jones saga, but my considered opinion now is that it's Raiders of the Lost Ark.


The Best Movie I Saw. Period.




Batman: The Dark Knight.
I just got this movie as a Christmas present, and watched it for the first time Christmas night. 
WOW! Everything I've heard about the film was correct. This is not your father's Batman. I loved the first movie (Batman Begins). I love the psychology of the story -- why would a man dress up as a bat, and go out to fight crime? This film picks right up where the last one left off. It's gritty, and dark (ALMOST too dark), and Heath Ledger's performance is a tour de force. I haven't seen such a disturbing villain since Silence of the Lambs. I hope, in the next installments they don't try to bring someone else in as the joker. 


The Best Television:




Michael Phelps wins eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympic Games. For the first week of the games, we were glued to the set every night, for every swim. There was a hero, there was drama, there was heart, there were tears, there was comedy, there was inspiration -- everything you want from a good television show. Just like Extreme Makeover, Home Edition, only no one's house got torn down. In fact, I was so inspired that I wrote a letter to our local newspaper, which was subsequently chosen as the letter of the month,  which caused the paper to write a little article about me, which was noticed by the wife of my boss, who cut out the article and posted it by the time clock, which subsequently caused many of my co-workers to believe that I had died. 


Best Song I Heard:





Little Wonders, by Rob Thomas
This song was around before 2008, but I didn't hear it until last January, on the blog of Pam, my sister-in-law. It's a song from the soundtrack to the movie "Meet the Robinsons." It's about living in the moment, and appreciating all of the wonderful little blessings in our lives that really make up our lives. I came across this song at a point where it felt like the world was coming down, around my ears. It gave me perspective, and it gave me hope. I love this song.

Best News:




Well, I suppose that some would consider the election of Barak Obama as the best news of the year. But I didn't vote for him -- though I do wish him well. So for me, the best news of the year were the gas prices  -- at the end of the year. See, I drive a Ford Bronco, which gets about twelve miles to the gallon, and I drive about 250 miles a week, just for work, so in the summer, when gas hit almost four dollars a gallon (at the same time I went from an 800 dollar  rent payment to a 1500 dollar mortgage payment) I was in over my head, and going down for the third time. Today, we're paying 1.35 per gallon here -- I know it won't last, but I can be grateful while it does (little wonders). 


Best Show:




Les Miserables at Tuacahn.
My wife and I usually go to several plays and concerts throughout the year. In September, for our 14th anniversary, we decided to see the production of Les Miserables, at the Tuacahn Theater, in St. George, Utah. We had both seen the traditional "broadway"version of the show several years earlier. But Tuacahn is different than other venues. Tuachan is an outdoor amphitheater built right into the red desert rock of southern Utah -- and is billed as Broadway in the Desert. All productions there utilize the terrain in the telling of their story. It was our first trip to Tuacahn, and it was fantastic! There were bats flying around the night sky -- right through the scenes. Very cool. If you ever get the chance to see anything at Tuacahn, go!


Best Book:




I read a lot of books throughout the year, and I read a lot of books that I have already read (The Work and the Glory series, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Christmas Carol, Charles Kuralt's America, Tom Sawyer, etc...). The best book I read this year was one that I had read a 
couple of times before, but not for several years: Walt Disney, An American Original.
This is an amazing biography, of an amazing man. I read it again as we were preparing to go to Disneyland last spring, because there is a lot of the early history of Disneyland contained in the narrative. The book ends with Walt's death, and by that point you realize how much he accomplished, and how much he was still planning, right up until the end (he had planned to create the ideal community -- a plan which ultimately became the EPCOT center at Walt Disney World). I HIGHLY recommend this book to any Disney fan.


Greatest Blessing:
Getting into our own home. Finally, after 14 years of marriage, I was able to place my wife under a roof of her own. When she agreed to marry me, I promised her so much more than I have been able to deliver. Many people have suffered much hardship this year, and for us things have been tight, but really we have had a remarkable year. I would be ungrateful not to acknowledge the wonderful blessings that we have received in 2008.


Best Trip:




We went several places this year, but nothing touches the trip to Disneyland with my mom and brother last Spring. My mom, who finally sold the house that she had paid on for thirty years, decided that once in her life, she wanted to treat her kids and grandkids to a special trip. We spent five days in southern California. We went to Universal Studios, and Sea World, but the highlight was, undoubtedly, the three days we spent at the Happiest Place on Earth. Sharon and I hadn't been there in twelve years (when California Adventure was a parking lot), and our kids had never been there. It was even better than I remembered it -- why does Disneyland feel like home? Highlight -- Matthew, my son, getting to face off against Darth Maul, at the Jedi Training Academy. I don't know who was more psyched, him or me. It was a trip that all of us will remember all of our lives. 


Best Picture I Took:




This was hard. Each picture I take is personal, so I guess I shouldn't say the best, but instead, my favorite: You know it had to be a picture of my kids (at least some of them). I won't bore you (any more than I have to) with the whole story of how this came to be hanging on my wall -- but if you really want to know, go here. 


Photostory Friday, created and hosted by Cecily and Mamageek, has been a wonderful outlet for me both to show some pictures and to write about them. And through Photostory I have met so many wonderful new friends. I don't know if this little piece about my girls is the nest thing I did all year -- but it certainly got the most response. Thank you. 

Looking ahead:
I, and my family were greatly blessed in so many ways this year. I'm so grateful to the new friends I have met through the blogging community. I very much appreciate the wonderfully nice things you have had to say to me, and I hope that I have been as good a friend to you all, as you have been to me. Thank You. 

I hope that 2009 finds all of our lives even more richly blessed. 

I pray for peace, and I pray for happiness.

I pray for strength and humility. 

For each of us. 

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Encore! Encore! Part Deux...

When Good Metaphors Go Bad

Ok, let's talk about lyrics. 

I am a fan of words. Pound for pound, words are the most powerful thing in the universe -- that's called hyperbole, kids.  Words are at their most potent when teamed with other words. We call that a sentence. There are many famous sentences out there. 

We hold these truths to be self evident...

Let there be light. 

Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury...signifying nothing (meow). 

Sometimes we really want to describe something profound -- to give it more depth and meaning. In such a case, we often turn to metaphor. That's one of those words that you vaguely recall from high school English. A metaphor is when you describe something by, essentially, describing something else.  This is a device often used in poetry and song writing. A metaphor is useful for portraying ideas, by wrapping them in a physical object. 

One of my favorite song metaphors is from the Peter Gabriel song "Biko." Without getting too extensive, the song is about Steven Biko, an African man killed by the white authorities of South Africa, in 1977. It happened during the dreadful apartheid era. The death of Steven Biko helped to bring on a revolution in thought and action. 

The line from the song is "You can blow out a candle, but you can't blow out a fire. Once the flame begins to catch, the wind will blow higher." 

That line is so full of meaning. and it needs no explanation -- unless you have no understanding of the way fire works. 

And then there is my favorite stupid metaphor (in a song). No, it's not "Pour some sugar on me in the name of love," though that does get an honorable mention. No, the award goes to...




Jon Bon Jovi, for the song "Bed of Roses." Let me preface my comments by saying, musically, this is a pretty cool sounding song. You have to hand it to Jon Bon Jovi, the man sings PASSIONATELY. One might even say it's melodramatic. I desperately want to like this song. The problem is, I can't help myself. I listen to the words. 

Most of the words to this song are easy to understand. He longs to be with the woman that he loves, but he's stuck being who he is -- a fabulously famous, and filthy rich rock singer, adored by millions, with apparently no control over his life. Hey, we've all been there. So, he's writing this love letter at the piano. He's hung over (a bottle of vodka lodged in his head -- I hope that's a metaphor), and there's a scary blonde in his bed. Apparently this is not the woman he is writing the song for.  Again, we understand him. We too have scary blondes in our bed. 




But then he lays this line on us..."With an iron clad fist, I wake up and french kiss the morning." 

(Sound of needle scratching across record. Sound of train derailing, Sound of stunned silence -- my apologies to Simon and Garfunkel). 

Excuse me? You did what? And how?!?

Actually, to give Bon Jovi credit, he sings this line with such conviction, that at first we buy it. Yes! I too have awoken in the pre-dawn hours, my forearm completely encased in metal, and bestowed a lusty smooch upon the...at this point the mental image kicks in...and I begin to scratch my head (with the non-metallic hand). I understand what he is saying. He's hung over. But I get that from the context of the line, not from the line itself. I cannot find meaning for the iron clad fist, and I cannot get the image of him making out, passionately I suppose, with the ethereal morning, out of my head. 




So, there you have it. The dumbest, intentionally serious, metaphor I have ever heard. 

Oh, there is one other dumb line in the song -- "I want to be just as close as, the Holy Ghost is." This is not hard to understand, it's just hard to believe that after the scary blonde, the bottle of vodka lodged in his head, and whatever it was he did to the morning, that he would be anywhere near where the Holy Ghost was. 

Monday, December 29, 2008

Encore! Encore!


For the next two days, I'm going to repost some old entries from several months ago (aka back when no one was reading my blog).

Then, to close out the year, on Wednesday I'll give you my list of "Bests" for 2008. 

You're on the edge of your seat aren't you?


SOMEWHERE, WALT IS SMILING...

A rant and a rave...

This is going to be a bit awkward -- I'm about to gush.

About a Disney movie.

A Disney Princess movie.




The movie is Enchanted, and I'm...well...enchanted. Let me start by saying that I am a big fan of Walt Disney -- the man. He is one of my heroes. Walt Disney was a man with a dream, and he made it come true, then he proceeded to try and make other people's dreams come true, as well. He was a man concerned about the details. It was the quality of the product that set Disney -- the man, and his company -- apart from the crowd. And that reputation meant everything to Walt Disney. So, when I see what has happened to Walt Disney -- the conglomerate -- I think Walt must be rolling over in his grave. 

Until late in his life, Walt Disney was not comfortably wealthy, despite the success of so many of his ventures. Why? Because he nearly bankrupted his company several times, in pursuit of excellence. Maybe that's not the best business sense, but he did it for you and me -- those who would buy his product. Ultimately, he set the standard for excellence. 




So, what happened? 

Disney has always come in waves of success. The last wave started in 1990, with The Little Mermaid, and crested in 1994 with The Lion King. There were a few decent movies after that, but the decline was obvious. 

Now, let me digress for a moment to say that I only consider Pixar movies to be a Disney product in the broadest sense -- they were, in the beginning, a separate company. Nearly everything Pixar has done has been a home run. It's okay that Disney doesn't knock them out of the park every time, but in the pursuit of nothing more than cheap money, the company -- under Michael Eisner -- finally broke Walt's cardinal rule -- NO SEQUELS!

Walt's first major success was The Three Pigs. It was a runaway hit. The world clamored for more pigs, and at first Walt acquiesced. He made several different versions of the story, but realized quickly that none of them were bringing in the kind of attention that the first movie did. From then on, his motto was "You can't top pigs with pigs." And he never made another sequel. 

Instead, he moved on to bigger and better things -- Snow White, Cinderella, Pinocchio. So, when the company bearing his name began to produce sequels -- it began with The Rescuers Down Under, and descended rapidly into straight to video garbage like Cinderella 2, Peter Pan 2, etc...I wanted to gag. Nearly every Disney classic -- with the exception, as far as I can tell, of Snow White, Pinocchio and Sleeping Beauty -- now has at least one sequel, made for just one reason -- to get gullible people to shell out good money for a cheap product, that masquerades as a Walt Disney movie. 

So, on to my real reason for writing here: Enchanted is the best thing Disney has produced in a VERY LOOOOONG time. I was so affected by this movie, that it's a little startling to me. It's the story of Giselle, a cartoon Disney Princess, in the tradition of Ariel, from The Little Mermaid, Belle, from Beauty and the Beast, as well as classic Disney heroines like Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora. She spends her days singing to her furry woodland friends, and waiting to be swept off her feet by the obligatory Prince, at which point they will be married and share true love's first kiss, and live happily ever after. 

Giselle runs afoul of the wicked stepmother -- of course -- and before she can live happily ever after, finds herself banished to reality -- modern day New York City, no longer a cartoon princess, but a flesh and blood human being. I don't want to give the movie away, but suffice it to say through the course of the story, Giselle experiences the ups and downs of life, and love, as a human being. There are constant references and homages -- both subtle and obvious -- to many of the preceding Disney films, as well as other cinematic treasures like The Sound of Music. In fact, each time you watch it, you'll see more. 




And that was the danger that Enchanted faced. This movie could have been SOO bad! It could have descended into wink and nod parody. It could have been a joke, something along the lines of the drek that passes for entertainment on the Disney Channel (I'm sorry, but even the vaunted High School Musical wouldn't have cut it as a theatrical release). But, Enchanted works, and here's the reason why: Amy Adams. 

The rest of the cast -- Patrick Dempsey as Robert, the love interest, James Marsden as Prince Edward/comic relief, and Susan Sarandon as Narissa, the evil queen -- are superb. But Amy Adams, as Giselle, sparkles! From beginning to end you believe that Giselle is a cartoon princess, brought to life. More than portraying a cartoon princess in the flesh -- you can see that at Disney on Ice -- Amy Adams' task is to give life to a character who begins as two-dimensional in every way -- not just the way she is drawn, but in her understanding of life and love -- and show the transformation to a fully three-dimensional person.  She does it, and does it with a refreshing, wide eyed, innocence. She really is the embodiment of the character.

 


I'm a romantic at heart. I'm not afraid of happily ever after, but my reaction to this movie has been a little shocking, even to myself. Here's what happened: There's a feeling that we get only a couple of times in our lives. It's that wonderful feeling that starts somewhere near the heart, and spreads out to your whole being. It's the way we feel when we begin to fall in love with someone. I got that feeling when I watched this movie -- not through the whole thing, but at one particular point. 




There is a scene, near the end, where all of the characters are at a ball, and Giselle and Robert are dancing (it's a beautiful homage to the waltzing scene in Beauty and the Beast), and they look into each other's eyes, and realize, for the first time, that this is really where they belong. They are falling in love. And I bought it. 

I got that feeling. 

I was feeling what the characters were supposed to be feeling. That does not happen to me -- not to that degree - when I watch movies. It was so starling to me, that I said out loud (to an empty room) "What is happening to me?" 




That moment is the highlight of the movie to me -- it makes the story (this story about a cartoon princess) personal to me. The only thing that could ruin the experience for me would be if they made a sequel. I loved the characters. I love watching the movie.




This movie. This story. I don't need to know what else happens to them.




Happily ever after is a good ending. 

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Photostory Friday: The kind of dad I am

PhotoStory Friday
Hosted by Cecily and MamaGeek





I don't know if this post says more about the kind of father I am, or the kind of son Matt is. 

Me: "Matt, go stick your tongue to a metal pole, so I can take a picture of it."

Matt: "Okay."




Actually, I dedicate this Photostory Friday to our favorite expatriate in England, J the Grockle, who, after I posted the Leg Lamp Story, practically TRIPLE DOG DARED me to take this picture. 




By the way, his tongue didn't actually stick. 
I tried it first -- I'm not THAT kind of dad. 

I hope everyone is having a Merry Christmas!!

I gotta get back to Guitar Hero!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

One boy's Christmas


The neighborhood was blanketed in snow, a winter wonderland. The snowman in the yard was wearing my mittens and my nine foot long scarf. He was a foot taller than me. The record player in our house played endless renditions of Frosty the Snowman, as well as selections by the Ray Conniff Singers. Our neighborhood was a new development, so the tallest trees on the block were in the front rooms of the houses.




 
Our Christmas tree that year was twelve feet tall -- though, in my mind's eye it looks more like thirty. Actually, we had twelve foot tall trees every year -- we weren't rich, we just had high ceilings (only once did we break with tradition and buy a beautiful eight foot tree; it turned out it was so pretty because it had been spray painted). It was 1977, and I was five years old, and the world was a big, wonderful, magical place.

 My world at that time did not extend much beyond my own driveway, though I had spent most of the previous summer in a galaxy far, far away. But now Christmas had come, and my mind was filled with images of flying reindeer and talking snowmen, and a jolly fat elf, with an amazingly accommodating sack of toys. I knew the rules -- no crying, no pouting. I knew that Santa Claus would only come when I was asleep. 

Asleep?!?

How could any sane person expect a five year old boy to sleep, on the eve of the greatest day the world had ever known? I was finally old enough to appreciate the significance of what was about to happen at my house. 

I never doubted. But I did wonder. 

How did Santa Claus get to all of those homes in one night? And how would he get all of those big toys down our very small chimney? What made reindeer fly and snowmen sing? There was really only one answer: magic. And that was good enough for me. I was a true believer. 

On Christmas Eve, after reading the Christmas Story, and A Visit from St. Nicholas, and after making sure that the stockings were hung (by the chimney with care, naturally), I lay in my room (the one with the green shag carpeting -- which I loved -- remember, it was 1977) and looked out my window. I remember, vividly, how bright the stars and the snow were, and how they lit up the winter night. My heart pounded in my ears, and I felt kind of twitchy. I strained to listen for sleigh bells, or at least some prancing and pawing of little hooves on the roof. I wondered if Santa really knew whether or not I was asleep. What if I just closed my eyes for a second...

My next clear memory is coming down the stairs in to the living room, lit brightly with sunlight, and filled with gifts -- which, to my five year old eyes, seemed to cover every square inch of the room. There was a toy piano, and a Snoopy Stunt Motorcycle set. 




There were Star Wars toys; the foundation of a massive, and ultimately doomed collection (anyone else golf the heads off of Luke, Han and the rest?). 




And, in the middle of everything, there was a horse -- a Wonder Horse. It was a magnificent, chestnut colored steed, with a flowing white mane and tail, ready to ride as far as his springs and my imagination would take us (as long as I kept the gas tank full, which I imagined was on the rear end of my horse. I was a suburban kid). 





Other Christmases of my life tend to blur into one another, but the memory of that Christmas morning is burned into my memory forever. I could not believe my eyes! He had come! Sometime during the night, while I slept, Santa Claus had come down our chimney, and dumped a sleighfull of toys on to our living room floor. What other explanation was there? The house was bare, and suddenly it overflowed with Yuletide abundance. It was magic, it had to be!





The next year, when I was six, the magic went away. An older relative explained the "truth" to me. It's funny how monumental days like that stick out in your memory -- it was the same day that I learned to blow bubbles with bubble gum. But some dreams die hard, and I was a reluctant realist. As I grew older, and supposedly wiser to the ways of the world, it was not easy to let go. Then along came a miracle. 




Three actually. 

Wonder in the eyes of a child seems like an old cliche -- until you have kids, that is. Everything is new to them, everything is wonderful. Children greet the world with wide eyed amazement. So, when it came time to introduce my kids to the joys of Christmas, I was pleased to find that, even in today's increasingly cynical world, kids are still kids. They know that reindeer can fly. They know that the North Pole can not only sustain life, but an entire colony of elves, busily engaged in making toys for all the good children of the world. They do not doubt. Doubts come later, when they are older, and "wiser." I found what I had lost all those Christmases ago -- joy in simple faith. 

I know many things now that I didn't know as a five year old boy. I know that Christmas is about more than Santa Claus and snowmen. I know that a greater happiness comes from giving than receiving. Christmas is much more satisfying as a parent than it ever was as a child. And I know that the most important event that we celebrate at Christmas is the birth of a child, who would be reborn thirty three years later -- the greatest gift of all.

 

I know that a story about one five year old boy's Christmas in 1977, is not very important, but it is a beautifully sweet memory for me. Life was simple, and faith was easy. 

I wish every child at least one Christmas just like it. 




Merry Christmas. 

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Lessons Learned

Tough times come to us all, and this year has been especially tough on many of us, but as the saying goes "Every cloud has a silver lining." Personally, I believe we learn our greatest lessons through adversity. 

Not that I'm wishing adversity on anyone.

We learn to come together in times of crisis, and to be more considerate of one another. In a world that operates at the speed of light, we have learned to slow down, take a deep breath, and absorb life. We have learned again, what we knew as children - that the joy of life is in the details. We have learned that life is fragile, but lives, bound together by commitment and love are strong. And we have learned that helping those who cannot help themselves is a source of immense satisfaction and joy.

Those in need, whether of substance or understanding, are always among us, but to paraphrase the alms collector in Ebenezer Scrooge's office: At Christmas time, "Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices." There are many outstanding passages in Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," but the following may be my favorite:



"But you were always a good man of business, Jacob," faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.
"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing his hands again. "Mankind was my business! The common welfare was my business! Charity, mercy, forbearance and benevolence were all my business! The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water, in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"



Jacob Marley, knowing the folly of his own life, visits Ebenezer Scrooge in the hope of turning him from a similar fate. We know the ending to this story, but I have often wondered if, by giving such a gift, Jacob Marley found redemption as well. I hope so. 

Adults almost universally see Christmas as flawed -- somehow a shadow of its purer form. Each year we find ourselves longing for a Christmas that calls to us from some vague and distant memory. It is often the Christmas of our childhood, regardless of the generation. It is not the recovery of the decades we are seeking, but of innocence. 

As we grow into maturity, the wonder and magic of a childhood Christmas gets left along side the pathway of our lives. We plunge ahead, into the larger world, into its darkness and confusion, believing that we are the better for it. Experience and wisdom gained as adults are their own blessings, but innocence is neutral ground, where once we leave, we never can return. 

At Christmas time we find our emotions bittersweet. No matter how many halls we deck, or trees we trim, or carols we sing, there is an emptiness inside, where the joy of a childhood Christmas once was. But Christmas is more than magic and wonder. It is a celebration of selflessness and sacrifice. Christmas is about giving. 




It is a popular Yuletide tradition to decry the growing commercialism of Christmas. It seems each year the push for your Christmas dollar gets louder, starts earlier and costs more. But, without making excuse for brashness and poor taste, it should be remembered that today's highly valued gifts are the modern equivalent of gold, frankincense and myrrh -- rare and precious (and expensive) gifts from long ago. 

Such gifts have their place at Christmas time, but we should recall that the men who bore these gifts, on that early Christmas, came to honor a child with a greater gift. The birth of the Son of God, His life and His teachings, His death and resurrection -- his Atonement -- is a gift without price. It is a gift of sacrifice and service. It has done for us, what we cannot do for ourselves. 

I hope that we can follow this greatest of examples this season. Find a group or a cause or an individual, and give them a priceless gift -- your time, your talents, your understanding, your effort -- in a word, yourself. 




In this life, we miss only that which is lost to us, stolen form us, or given grudgingly. The thing is never missed which is willingly given. Such a gift, whether of money or substance, or of time, is replaced by the warmth of genuine love. You will find that your capacity, both to give and to love, is deeper than you have imagined (remember, when the old Grinch learned to give, "his heart grew three sizes that day").




In the end, even Ebenezer Scrooge discovered this and: 
"He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew...and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. 

May that truly be said of us, and all of us!"

Friday, December 19, 2008

A Decade


It's been ten years since the worst day of my life. 

My dad died December 18, 1998. But, I didn't find out until 7:00 am Saturday morning, December 19. I remember that moment so vividly. It is interesting how time can slow down. It was my uncle Randy on the phone -- my uncle had never called me before -- and I knew, as he began to speak, that something was wrong. He got out the words "I'm afraid I have some bad news..." In a fraction of a second, my mind ran over the possible scenarios. My first thought was that something had happened to my grandmother, but even as that thought came, I immediately knew that if that was the case, this would be my dad on the phone. Then I knew. As he spoke the words, I was already speaking them to myself: "Your dad passed away last night." 

He wasn't sick and this was not expected. The blow was as though someone had fired a cannon ball through the middle of me. I felt hollow and cold. 

My dad and I had never had an adversarial relationship, but neither had we been close -- until the last five years of his life. My marriage in 1994, and the birth of my daughter in 1997 changed him. It changed us. We finally became close. I think it had something to do with having some girls in his life. He had only boys, but he thought of my wife, Sharon, as a daughter, and Jordan absolutely melted him. He LOVED being a grandpa. 

We had spoken on the phone three days before, and we talked as we had rarely talked before. We made plans for Christmas. He had rented a suit, and was looking forward to playing Santa for Jordan. He asked me why, growing up, my brother and I had never woken up my parents on Christmas morning before 7:00 am. I told him it was because we were told not to wake them up before 7:00 am. He said he used to lay there in the early darkness, and wonder why we were not coming in. It was a revealing conversation -- the kind of talk that was coming more and more frequently these days. 

Then came that damned phone call. 

We buried him on the 22nd, to try to put as much distance between Christmas and the grief as possible. That was a crystal clear, and arctic cold day. I was twenty-six, and this was the first funeral I had ever been to (at least that I recalled -- my older brother had passed away when I was two years old). I had to tell my little brother. The funeral service was so hard, I didn't think I would make it. What got me through were the dozens and dozens of my dad's friends who filed past -- some I knew, some I did not -- each of whom told me what a great man and a great friend he was. They told me the wonderful things he had done for them. I was touched beyond words. I hadn't always thought of my dad as a great man. 

I miss my dad terribly, and often when I look at my kids, it breaks my heart. He knew Jordan, but we were going to tell him that Sharon was pregnant with Matthew, for Christmas that year. Matt would have been his only grandson. And I suspect that Emma might have been his favorite of all. None of them know him. None of them remember him. That is the greatest source of pain for me. 

I was keeping a journal at the time, and the entry, on the day of the funeral, ends with the line "I don't know how I can heal from this." 

But I have. 

The anger and the debilitating sadness are gone. I wish he were still here, and I've thought about him every day for ten years, probably more than I thought of him during his lifetime. During the last conversation I had with my dad, he asked me if I could pick up a few presents for his wife, and he would pay me back. I got a letter in the mail from him, three days after his death. His handwriting was unmistakable. Inside was a letter saying thank you, and a check reimbursing me for the gift shopping. I hadn't intended to charge him, but I never got to tell him so. I never got to say goodbye. I never got to say I love you dad. 

This has affected me in many ways. I learned, as early as the funeral, that life goes on. After the dedication of the grave, we all met back at the church for a luncheon. Three days later it was Christmas. Both events were enjoyable experiences. At first, I felt guilty for being happy, but life is for the living. You have to move forward. I mourned and I cried (I still do), but the joy and love of my little family kept bringing me back from despair. You cannot prepare for a sudden death like this, and I've decided you shouldn't try. Take the gift that is each day of life, and embrace it. Make life meaningful, and love it. 

I believe my dad still lives. I dream about him. Two or three times a year, I have very vivid, lifelike dreams about him. Early on, in these dreams, he seemed very confused about what was going on. He seemed sickly, and distracted, and apologetic. We didn't talk much about what had happened, only that he was gone, and shouldn't be. We were face to face then. Over the years he has grown healthier looking, more at peace. We no longer face each other, but walk side by side. We talk about my kids, and my family. He seems proud. I always wanted to make my dad proud. 

 I have no idea if these dreams mean anything or not. But they mean something to me. 

I miss you and I love you dad. 

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Photostory Friday: Light

PhotoStory Friday
Hosted by Cecily and MamaGeek



It's one of my favorite moments of the Christmas Season: we turn off all of the other lights in the house, and light up the Christmas tree, for the first time. The house is bathed in reds and greens and golds. 




The lights of Christmas are soft and subtle. Candles and stars. They are different from other lights. They seem to illuminate only what is important. They are not exposing, they are revealing. Everything looks prettier, lit by Christmas lights. 

In the early morning hours of December 13, she dons the simple white robe and red sash. Upon her head is placed a crown of candles. She leads a procession of younger children through the darkened homes, bearing light and nourishment, to those within.




She is Santa Lucia. The Queen of Light. 

In Sweden, December 13 is St Lucia's Day. Legend says that Lucia was a Christian martyr of the fourth century. How this beautiful, Sicilian Saint (and in predominantly Lutheran Sweden too) came to be associated with the far, northern lands of Scandinavia, is something of a mystery. But there may be a clue in her name -- Lucia. It is derived from the Latin word Lux, which means Light. 

In the ancient Julian calendar, December 13 was the night of the winter solstice -- the end of the long journey into darkness. The return of the light. Today, in the those northern latitudes, darkness comes in the very early afternoon. 





Light is precious. 

My family is of Swedish decent, and we began keeping the tradition of Santa Lucia when Jordan, my oldest (and inheritor of all the Scandinavian genes) was very small. We modify it slightly. Traditionally, Lucia carries coffee and saffron buns, but we're not coffee drinkers, and have you seen the price of saffron?!? So, it's usually hot chocolate or wassail, and cinnamon rolls or cookies, at our house. 

We also like to tie it in to the larger celebration of Christmas, as well. After all, isn't that really what Christmas is all about:




The Light, which pierces the darkness. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Behold, the Handmaid of the Lord

Mary. A very common name. 

Scholars tell us that in ancient Judea, one in three Jewish women was named Mary, or Miriam in Hebrew. They also tell us that she was young, likely very young. Jewish girls were often married by the age of fourteen. A common woman, with a most uncommon calling. 




I think about Mary a lot this time of year. Though she is a constant presence at Christmas time, our focus is often -- and understandably -- on the Savior. But, what of this most uncommon of ordinary women? In the two millenia since the birth of Jesus, Mary has become the object of much veneration. She is Ave Maria, the Blessed Virgin. She has been a saint and a strength to, literally, billions of people. And rightly so, she was the vessel, the most worthy of women, chosen to play the most important role, in the most important birth in history. What a woman she must have been! But, I think, sometimes, in the adulation of Mary, we lose sight of her humanity. And Mary's humanity is, after all, her most important contribution to the life and mission of Jesus Christ.

What was it like to be pregnant with a Holy Child? What was it like to give birth to the Son of God? What was it like to be the mother, and to raise -- for she did more than simply give birth to -- the Savior of all mankind? Only one woman can answer these questions, but I'll tell you what I think...




I think carrying the Child of God in her womb was hard. I think her back hurt, from carrying the weight of a child inside of her. I believe she was anxious and nervous, this being her first pregnancy. I think Mary was probably ready to have the baby, long before the baby was ready to be born. Mary was the mother of at least seven children, and I believe that the birth of Jesus was as painful, and difficult, perhaps more so, as the births of her other children. She was highly blessed of the Lord, but that never means the path will be easy. 

I wonder how aware she was of the shepherds' visit that first night. Was she there to receive them and hear their miraculous story, or was she so overwhelmed and exhausted, that some of those things were a little blurry? I wonder if she ever saw the star, or if being up, often, during the night, to feed her new baby, made those hours of sleep precious, and left little time for stargazing? I think she checked on Jesus constantly as he slept. I believe that the baby Jesus cried. I think he cried when he was hungry. He cried when he was wet, he cried when he was hurting. I think, sometimes, like all other newborn babies, he cried for no apparent reason at all. And, through it all, Mary did what all mothers do -- she fed him, she changed him, she burped and bathed him, she cuddled and sang to him. As Jesus grew older, it was his mother who nurtured him, who cared for his bumps and bruises, who wiped away his tears and kissed his skinned knees. 




Mary knew what few others knew then, that this was the Only Begotten Son of God. His father was divine, but half of his inheritance was mortality. He could suffer. He could die. And, to fulfill his destiny, one day he would. But, from his mother, Jesus would learn of strength and compassion, and of unconditional love. Those are the gifts of a mother. 

When she was told by the angel, of the honor that was to be hers, Mary's response was humble and unequivocal -- "Behold, the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word."

 


I believe, because of the responsibility that she was asked to bear, that Mary must have had some foreknowledge of the mission of her son. But, I wonder if she imagined that she would live to see Jesus heal the sick and raise the dead? Did she know that he would be hated, that he would be betrayed by his friends, that all manner of indignity would be heaped upon him? Did she know that she would live to see the fulfillment of the Atonement? Could she have imagined, as she held her tiny boy that first night in Bethlehem, that three decades from then, she would watch the life spill from her son, upon a cross; and then see him reborn, as a glorified and perfect being? 

God, our Father, gave his Only Begotten Son, as a sacrifice, so that each of us would have the opportunity to return to His presence. Jesus Christ suffered greater than anyone in history, so that through his blood, and by his atonement, we might all be cleansed of sin. 




But, I hope that we never forget that Mary, the mother of the Son of God,  also gave her firstborn son, for the blessing of all mankind. 
 

Sunday, December 14, 2008

It wouldn't be Christmas without...

Christmas is a time of thoughtful reflection. So, this year I want you to take some time and think about what makes Christmas meaningful in your lives. Here are a few of my own thoughts to get you started:




I love to read the Christmas story in the New Testament, but my favorite way to experience the words of the second chapter of Luke, is in the Charlie Brown Christmas special, when Linus takes the stage, to help Charlie Brown
 understand what Christmas is all about. 




I have to read "A Christmas Carol," by Charles Dickens, at least once each season. Usually three or four times. There is so much truth in this story, and do you want to know the greatest truth of all? Ebenezer Scrooge is me, and probably you too. The movie versions are (mostly) great, but you are missing much of the beauty of the story, if you don't read Dickens' own words. 

I love the first time that we turn off all of the lights in the house, and light up the Christmas tree. 




Ralphie's quest for "a Red Ryder, 200 shot, range model, air rifle, with a compass in the stock, and this thing which tells time," reminds me of my own childhood obsessions (Atari, anyone?), and leg lamps have spawned a minor cottage industry for me at Christmas time. 

I think about great food. 

I think about the warmth of a family party on Christmas Eve. 

I think about the joyful, sugar induced, hysterical chaos and anticipation of the Night before Christmas. 

I think of the wonder of that most magical of mornings.

I think how grateful I am that Christmas comes only once a year. 

Then, in the next moment, I wish it could be Christmas everyday. 

I think about how Christmas with my family becomes more meaningful and tender every year. 




I think about a humble stable in Bethlehem, where shone an Everlasting Light, which made all the rest of this possible. 

Your turn.


p.s. Keep checking back, I've got all kinds of things to say about Christmas. And I have absolutely nothing better I could be doing.