Give ’em a real holiday

The Thinker by Rodin

I don’t know if you have noticed, but real holidays have been slowly disappearing. It’s getting almost impossible to find a holiday that is, well, a holiday. If you are thinking that a holiday is the same thing as having a paid day off during the week to shop, Madison Avenue blesses you. If you are thinking a holiday is a day where you stay home and your employer pays for it, and everything that represents the hassle of normal life pretty much shuts down then, like the Grinch, you have some idea of the true meaning of a holiday. A holiday is a day when life generally stops. It’s like being retired for a day. It’s a mental health day.

It’s hard to believe but this is the way it used to be. On Memorial Day during the decades following the Civil War, when it was better known as Decoration Day, the only work-like activity was decorating the graves of civil war soldiers and with about 700,000 of them there were plenty to decorate. The big event of the day was watching the parade down Main Street, but that was about it. If you felt ambitious, maybe you went back home and roasted some ears of corn or hamburger steaks on a grill in the backyard. Our Civil War seems almost trivial compared to the twenty million or so who died in the First World War. No surprise then that Veterans Day (when it was better known as Armistice Day) was also often a day for quiet contemplation and for expressing genuine gratitude for the freedoms we enjoy due to our veterans. Veterans Day might have also been focused around a parade down Main Street, where the populace would applaud or take off their hats as proud veterans marched past.

Today, most employers do not even give the day as a holiday. World War I is so 1919. The last American soldier that served in the Great War died a few years back. Instead, pretty much all our holidays have been co-opted to honor our real national religion: capitalism. Even Martin Luther King has been used by Madison Avenue as an excuse to sell stuff in what is otherwise a dead retail month. King did move mountains, but his legacy now is principally about moving mountains of mattresses, sheets, pillowcases and appliances.

Supporting this seemingly insatiable need to shop are millions of retail workers, who are virtually the worst paid people in the country. (Migrant workers may be worse off.) With a few exceptions, if you work retail not only are you working inconvenient hours, you are likely not even making close to a living wage. In fact, you are likely a part timer because few retail stores want to hire you full time. Then they might have to pay you benefits or overtime, which are expensive. If you haven’t compared the cost of living with retail workers’ income, you can trust me on this: you cannot earn even poverty line wages working retail. If you support yourself working retail, even with two or more jobs you are probably eligible for food stamps.

If all this were not enough for retail workers, then there are your hours, which are likely to be constantly shifting. If you work part time for our largest retail employer (Wal-Mart) expect to be batted around like a ping pong ball. You may work forty hours one week and four hours the next. Expect to be straightening store shelves at 2 a.m. and maybe back for more at 6 a.m. You may even be locked in the store overnight.

You sure would appreciate a real holiday where for just a couple of days a year you can just zone out while someone else helps pay your bills. But apparently even a couple of holidays a year are a couple too many for retail workers. Thanksgiving is no longer sacrosanct. That’s right, retail worker. No turkey with stuffing for you, not that you could afford turkey anyhow with organic turkeys going at $4.09 a pound this year. Better to keep your Thanksgiving meal modest: maybe a dozen Krispy Kremes for dinner instead. You will need all that sugar because increasingly Thanksgiving has become just another shopping day, which means retail worker drones like you will be hustling in the aisles and at the registers. Black Friday is giving way to Black Thursday.

With so many scuzzy retail chains out there, it is hard to pick from the worst of the worst, but any retail chain that is open on Thanksgiving is, by definition, among the worst of the worst. These include Wal-Mart (opening at 9 PM), KMart (open Thanksgiving for the last ten years straight), Old Navy and BooksaMillion. I know about BooksaMillion personally because my daughter had the misfortune to work there for a year. There they were on Thanksgiving at 9 AM as usual, fluorescent lights all ablaze and the parking lot virtually empty. This was of course some years ago. Today, increasingly you are thinking that even on Thanksgiving there will be some stores open at the local shopping center. If it’s BooksAMillion, you can practically count on it. And if you are an employee working on Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving dinner means bringing some substandard turkey loaf to heat up in the microwave in the break room during your doubtless too short break.

Here is what should be open on Thanksgiving: gas stations, hospitals, hotels, homeless shelters, police and fire stations and that’s about it. You say you need to run down to the local Food Lion on turkey day because you need an extra jar of turkey gravy? Too bad for you. You should have thought about that by Wednesday night. It’s a holiday, stupid! It’s a day to spend with people who are important to you or, if you prefer, a day to vegetate at home with a bad turkey loaf roasted in your oven in an aluminum container, instant potatoes from a box and some gravy from a package. If you can muster any such feelings because if you work retail, it’s a day to be thankful. Instead you may be at some register somewhere or prepping the store for opening at midnight on Black Friday. See, only privileged people with money to buy stuff get to have holidays. For retail workers, be glad to have a crappy job. At least you have flexible hours, if flexible means hours at the convenience of your employer.

Perhaps as part of any reforms coming out of the Occupy Wall Street movement, one of them will be laws to redefine holidays so they resemble, well, holidays. Imagine how much more blissful we could be if we all knew that on a holiday we would get the day off (or at least be compensated extra for it if we could not). Imagine if most holidays were like Christmas (which is doubtless itself under retail attack) and life just sort of stopped. Who could not use more mental health days? I know I could, but from my retail days I know who could use them even more: the millions of suffering, hassled, stressed and underpaid retail workers of our country. I say we need a law to shut down all retail stores on Thanksgiving by law. Give everyone including our retail workers a real holiday with pay on Thanksgiving.

Let’s throw those bums a bone

The Thinker by Rodin

Merry Christmas to you, particularly if you happen to be Christian. Presumably, the birth of Jesus means more to you than it does to me. Because I do not believe in Jesus’s  divinity, I cannot claim to be a Christian, except perhaps in spirit. Like most Americans, I participate in many aspects of Christmas anyhow. I am not beyond festooning my house with Christmas lights, putting up a Christmas tree and even putting an angel on its top. Aside from the usual presents under our tree for loved ones who rarely need nor want what I buy them, I was a real Santa Claus this year. It did not involved donning a red suit, but it did involve spending about $100 on presents for a 3 year old girl named Jaylee, for whom I am a Secret Santa. I won’t meet her but she will get things she really wants but which her family cannot afford, including a Dora the Explorer doll and a three wheel scooter. We also spent a few hundred dollars on food for the homeless that we donated to a nearly empty community food bank.

Nuclear moneyed families will use the occasion of the season to tune into various holiday TV specials, some of which are actually religious. Most of these turns out to be feel-good shows, like the latest Hallmark holiday special starring my heartthrob Jewel Staite. In it, apparently two people and a motherless boy find love, not in Jesus, but in each other. Many of these specials are animated, and many are frankly dreadful to watch, even for children. Many contain more saccharine than saccharine itself. Most people would say that A Charlie Brown Christmas is the holiday special that most closely evokes the religious aspects of Christmas. For me, How the Grinch stole Christmas is most appropriate for our modern times. It is clear that Jesus was no fan of the rich. The Grinch epitomizes the soulless, possession-obsessed, anti-poor overlords about to overrun our House of Representatives, people so soulless they cannot wait to cut unemployment benefits and food stamps, even for their own constituents.

If ever there were a time when we needed more of the true Christmas spirit, 2010 would be it. Food banks are bare. Homeless shelters are overflowing. The only way to get Congress to extend unemployment benefits is to continue to borrow obscene amounts of money to give tax cuts to millionaires who don’t need the money and have been living on government largess for much of the last decade. 99’ers (those unemployed for 99 weeks or more) are now out of luck and will get not even coal in their stockings, which at least would provide a little heat. Instead, they will likely soon be found standing in a cold queue for a cot in their local homeless shelter. Letting them eat cake is clearly too rich for them, but apparently cheaper than buying them fruits and vegetables. With their food stamps benefits exhausted and their food pantries empty, their next dinner may come courtesy of the dumpster behind the local Wendy’s restaurant. To add to their misery, Lord, it’s cold out there, at least here in northern Virginia. We’ve gone weeks without seeing forty degrees and today we are getting gusts of wind up to forty miles an hour. It has only occasionally crept above the freezing point.

Not that we, especially us purported Christians, really will care all that much. We will comfort ourselves with the fantasy that through ensuring that our citizens are miserable, we are providing the virtue of self-reliance, all at no cost to our wallets. We are teaching them to fish, so to speak, although many of them are reeled in like fish. Our legislators whine that we cannot afford to put them on Medicaid or give them emergency housing. The social safety net is so yesterday. The homeless can spend their days shuttling between the dumpsters at Wendy’s, the line at the homeless shelter and the emergency room for their pneumonia, which is fine with us because none of these are on our commutes. Out of sight, out of mind.

Surely, all this recession-fed self-reliance and austerity will eventually bear fruit, although so far in Ireland, Greece, England and elsewhere the evidence that austerity has any advantages beyond making the less moneyed more vulnerable and scared cannot be found. All this is necessary because we have been living beyond our modest means, but also because while the rich like being rich a lot, they like being richer even more, and have no qualms if it is done by making the middle class impoverished. It’s good to be a creditor and if you threaten to stop loaning money, even first world countries get scared and start cutting spending.

It would be great if the so called Christians and humanitarians among us would practice what we profess. In two days, we celebrate the birth of Jesus who implored those of us with possessions to give them to the poor. There is little sign that the rich will do so, unless they can be bribed to write it off on their taxes. With the top one percent of the country owning over 42 percent of the national wealth (as of 2007), the rich can afford to pay much more to feed, house and cloth our abundant poor. Much of our national misery is self-inflicted because wealth redistribution is now anathema. It has to be voluntary, but the rich at least cannot seem to summon the will to pony up some small measure of their vast treasure at this miserable time. In short, the vast majority of them are apparently as Christian as Attila the Hun.

So Merry Christmas to all of you who are food, sleep and/or shelter deprived. With luck, the winter won’t leave your old coat too threadbare. As for the rest of us, while raising that glass of eggnog, let’s acknowledge our true feelings about the poor and the homeless, as found in this Bob Rivers’s parody of the of tune “Home for the Holidays”:

Oh there’s food for the homeless on the holidays
‘Cause no matter how filthy and uncombed
If your down on your luck, you can really graze
For the holidays we throw those bums a bone

I met a man who drank and smelled of pee
He was headin’ for the local mission for some homemade pumpkin pie
Pan-handlin’ folks are always hangin’ round by the discount liquor store
And they’re not too brand specific
Gee a buck would be terrific

But there’s food for the homeless on the holidays
There’s a turkey just like Mama made at home
If they pine for redemption from their heathen ways
Come the holidays we’ll throw those bums a bone

Take a piss in your pants til you smell like you’re from France
Put some vino in a crumpled paper sack
Though you’re smellin’ like a beast you’ll treated to a feast
want second? Come right back!

There’s lots of food for the homeless on the holidays
Have some pumpkin pie and ham with provolone
We don’t care if they eat dog food on the other days
When you call a cardboard box your home sweet home
For the holidays we’ll toss those bums a bone

White Christmas

The Thinker by Rodin

Our unofficial snowfall from the storm that began a week ago was twenty-one inches. The storm set a December record for recorded snowfalls in the Washington D.C. metropolitan region. Typically, if we get massive snowfalls they arrive in February, often at inconvenient times like Presidents Day Weekend. Many of us Washingtonians were caught with our snow pants down this time, counting too much on global warming and figuring our rarely used snow shovels would carry us through whatever mild dusting we could get.

In the last week, the snow has not so much melted as collapsed under its own weight. It is now about half its size. A snowplow finally came down our street on Monday, threw some sand on the streets but could not be bothered to actually plow to the curb. Since then, it has retired to wherever snowplows go. While this approach keeps our taxes low, it also means that to get your car onto the street you must shovel six feet or more into the street. I knew there was some point to all that weight lifting I was doing. Shoveling snow turned out to be excellent cardiovascular exercise. My arms were stiff as a board three hours later, but my back was intact and I felt only winded. Our street is still a mess of half cleared pavement and packed ice and snow. Driving down the street is like driving over a washboard.

The upside is the first genuine White Christmas in my thirty years of living in this area. The streets are mostly clear of snow but at least a dozen inches of snow solidly cover the ground, and most roofs are still covered with snow. The snow looks likely to hang around through the New Year.

In many ways once the frantic rush of holiday preparations are behind me, this is the best part of the year. At work, so many people are on leave that the building is half (or more) empty. I walk largely alone down darkened corridors, even in the afternoon. The usual hundred or so emails that clog my inbox are down to about twenty. Work feels more like a vacation. I find time to do things I don’t usually have time for: reading back issues of IEEE Computer and slogging through a book on software testing. For me, these sorts of activities are almost fun. It is far more interesting than budgets, supervising employees, reviewing travel authorizations and working on requirements. Now I too join the vacationing crowd, with plenty of leisure at home until I return to work on January 4th.

The presents under our tree were fewer this year, in part due to snow that made shopping the last week before Christmas a living hell. I tried on Christmas Eve to make a final run at a Barnes & Noble. I should not have bothered. Cars were queued a dozen long waiting for a free parking space. Heaps of snow occupied other parking spaces. Still, our Christmas was cheerful enough. There was ample time today to enjoy the first DVD in my new set of Horatio Hornblower episodes.

Mostly this holiday season I am struck by how fortunate I am in a time when so many people are hurting. I am in my peak earning years with little likelihood of unemployment. Even if unemployment were to strike, I have ample money and decent job skills that should see me through bad times. Overall, we are doing exceptionally well. Most of the medical issues that bedeviled my family and me are behind us with a few exceptions. One that still bedevils me is the tarsal tunnel in my right foot. This hopefully will be solved on January 14 when I undergo tarsal tunnel surgery along with nerve release surgery from this guy at Georgetown University Hospital. Then I get to enjoy a couple weeks at home recuperating, where my largest problem will be keeping the stitches on my ankle from rupturing for three weeks. Whatever work I can do will have to be done at home. Our cat Arthur will be quite happy.

Until then, I look forward to leisure and clearing the detritus out of our house and off my desk. I hope your holidays are happy too.

Bah! Humbug!

The Thinker by Rodin

I hope none of my relatives is reading this.

Well, okay, I do not mind if my immediate family is reading this. I make this assumption with every blog entry, even though I suspect only one or two of them bother to check out this blog on even a semi regular basis. I do not diss my siblings and father. I love them in all their uniqueness, brilliance and quirkiness. No, I mean I hope that all those other relatives out there are not reading this. You know, the ones who are tangentially family but you hardly ever go out of your way to meet. In other words, the kind to whom you feel obligated to send Christmas cards.

Our stack of sixty or so Christmas cards went out in today’s mail. In most of them was our obligatory Christmas newsletter. In years past, we attempted to write little notes in each of them. Those days are gone. The list has gotten too large. So to those friends from yesterday that we rarely visit along with the numerous aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces and in laws out there, I don’t mean to be disrespectful but we really do not care about you or your life. However, we feel just enough attached to you through a blood, a legal relationship or a distant past association to send you our Christmas newsletter anyhow. It assuages the feeling of guilt that we have essentially abandoned you from our lives.

We do not write you. Moreover, you do not write us either. We both seem to like it that way. There was a time when email was new, we garnered your email address, and you got ours. We traded a couple emails. Then we both discovered that we really had nothing to say to each other. Maybe it was not quite that. We had things to say, we just could not be bothered to take the time to actually write them down to you personally. Since that time, you have disappeared from our email address list. We still have, however, your snail mail address. As long as we get a card from you, we feel obligated to send one back. We are strange that way.

This means that you will get our holiday newsletter. We will nest it inside our funny but by now expected and somewhat irreverent holiday card. (Of course, we think a card with a cartoon on the card of Santa’s butt crack on it is funny, and so should you.) If we are really organized, which we have not been for about a decade now, we will have had a family picture taken in November and enclose a recent snapshot too. Those days are gone. They are not going to happen again.

However, I do have this blog. Most likely in some previous newsletter along with putting our email address in it, I put the URL to my blog. Perhaps one or two of my relatives took the time to read it. Nevertheless, I bet they did not bookmark it. Leave me a comment if you did. Just as I really do not want to know the intimate little details of your life by reading your blog (which you probably do not have) you do not want to know mine. Not that Occam’s Razor is really a personal blog. It has delusions of grandeur. Regardless, I do not really matter to you so my blog does not matter to you. Unless you are a lot like me, it will not tickle your fancy.

There was a time when our expectations around Christmas were much higher. There were years when we sent presents to our many nieces and nephews. (My siblings were smart enough to know I would not bother to give them anything, since they do not send me anything.) Gradually the nieces and nephews grew old enough where we stopped buying them presents too. We had no idea what they needed and only got clues from pestering their parents. Thank goodness, that phase is behind us.

Yet certain holiday traditions remain sacrosanct. I do not know why we still feel this burden of sending out holiday cards. Our newsletters are dumbed down and happied up too, just like the ones we get. I do not want to hear about their prostate exams so I will not tell them about mine. They do not want to know how much we spend on therapists the last year either. So it is “distill a year into 400 words or less” and keep it rather generic and upbeat. This year was an exception. With an event like my mother’s death there was no way I could not mention it. Next year it will be back to all happy talk.

Of course, if we cared about our distant relations we would probably visit them. Most of them are in Arizona, which is where my wife’s side of the family is located. We were there in 2000 and only went out because my mother in law had come to visit us the year before. We felt guilty about not visiting more often. Since 2000, we have not received any guilt rays from Arizona, perhaps because our presence meant so little the last time. Therefore, we remain happily nested on the east coast, more than a little grateful there are 2500 miles between us.

They are fading away into increasingly distant memories. They are also aging. Little nieces and nephews that were at one time bouncing on our laps or playing with Transformers on the bedroom floors are graduating college. Aunts and in-laws are suffering from the affects of being sixty or seventy something. I find it hard to keep the cast of characters straight in my own mind. Just who is my brother in law married to now? Should I care?

In fact, I do not. These distant relations are consequences of marriage. They are important only in the sense that my wife feels some love or obligation to them. My relationships with them have been largely superficial. If I heard tomorrow that they were run over by a bus, I would not even shed a tear.

Yet somehow, they warrant a holiday card. Others that I spend a whole lot more time with will probably get nothing. I will likely forget to send holiday greetings to the people I work with. My many numerous electronic friends might get an electronic card (very appropriate) if I remember. I probably will not send them any because there are many other holiday activities on my checklist. This year, like every year, they will fall into the second tier that I will not get around to accomplishing. I still have major holiday tasks like buying presents for my own family. Although the holiday lights now adorn parts of our exterior, other time consuming tasks like setting up and decorating the Christmas tree remain to be done. They come with deadlines and firm sanctions for missing them.

I tell myself when it comes to the holidays that I am something of a traditionalist. I do take some pleasure in these holiday traditions. However, I am also a bit put out by them. It is nice to have the house decorated, presents under the tree and freshly baking cookies in the oven. Yet it remains a lot of work. Perhaps I do them out of habit, or of guilt.

I can tell that once our daughter is an adult I will get the pressure from my wife to just skip Christmas altogether. For whatever reason, she does not associate Christmas with pleasurable feelings. Perhaps she has repressed childhood memories of her father saying hurtful things to her. On the other hand, perhaps she remembers many years of meager presents under the tree. For me, the holidays are beginning to feel like a record played one too many times. They are losing their luster.

Perhaps someday, I will celebrate the holidays the way that they are supposed to be celebrated in theory, but so rarely are. Perhaps I will spend them feeding the homeless, helping run a soup kitchen, or visiting old folks in nursing homes. Then perhaps like Charlie Brown I will feel the true spirit of the holidays again.

For now, the psychological pressure to conform to these de facto holiday traditions is too large. However because I care, but also for pragmatic tax reasons, I will make sure some of my favorite charities get sizeable donations before January 1st. It is easier than volunteering.

Grateful

The Thinker by Rodin

It is Christmas Eve: my favorite day of the year. Christmas is always something of a let down. As a child nothing received on Christmas could meet my wild expectations on Christmas Eve. So Christmas Eve is for me a day full of boundless expectation, wonder and hope. It doesn’t hurt that the whole Christmas season reaches its wild crescendo today. The days are very short, the nights are very long and the houses spend their long nights ablaze with colorful electric lights. The Christmas tree (artificial in our case) is up and perfectly decorated. Presents are heaped up beneath and around the tree. Except for my daughter’s room the house is clean.

All this ritual and ceremony and yet I can’t actually claim to be a Christian. It seems there is little of Christ left in Christmas in 2004. After all it doesn’t take much research to discover that Yule celebrations are about as old as mankind itself. Christmas was set up by the Christians to counter the Feast of Saturn, or Saternalia by the Romans. Before the Romans got around to inventing their gods it had many other names. Pagans, Wiccans, Druids and many others celebrated the Winter Solstice. Christianity is but one of the latest traditions to latch on to this special time of year, Kwanzaa being the latest.

There is no present I can receive anymore that is likely to delight me. I have everything I want and amazingly I am satisfied with life. It helps I suppose that my dreams are rather modest. I do not feel the need for a midlife sports car, nor an estate, nor do I secretly crave for to be an executive. I have so much to be grateful for that it is hard for me to think up anything that I truly want. Those things I want are things I cannot really have and which seem corny. For me terrific Christmas presents would include world peace, the end of hunger and respect for our environment. No, I am not kidding. Alas money can’t buy these sorts of presents. Money could not even put John Kerry in the White House. I suppose I could wish for immortality. If not immortality then I could perhaps wish for eternal youth. But I’m not sure I’d want these either. I’m not sure I’d want to inhabit this same body 1000 years from now. The earth as it will be then will be so changed from the one I know now that I suspect living in it would be unbearably sad. Nor do I want to necessarily look like I did at 20 when I am pushing 50, because I don’t want to be thought of as someone quite as naive, headstrong and impoverished as I was then. Nor does the idea of attracting women that young appeal to me because for the most part they shared my naivety and immaturity too. Been there, done that.

Instead I find myself reflecting on how fortunate I am. In many households the loss of one income would be devastating. My wife lost her job at the end of October and it’s nice to know we don’t absolutely need her income. We can survive nicely on my income. I have perhaps the most precious gift of all: good health. Yesterday as a huge rainstorm moved through the area I counted my blessings that we have a roof. As the storm passed and cold wind followed in behind it I counted my blessing that I had indoor heat. Many in this world are not so fortunate. In Iraq families wait in line overnight to fill up their automobiles or for gas to heat their home. Our major “crisis” yesterday was having our Internet service go down for a couple hours. Poor us: we watched a DVD instead.

2004 was still full of personal struggles. Perhaps the most challenging was my parent’s relocation from Michigan to a retirement community in Maryland, all this while my mother’s health declined precipitously. Numerous hospitalizations and weeks spent in nursing homes eventually resulted in something resembling a real recovery. My Mom has been home in her apartment for a couple months now with no subsequent hospitalizations. Her mobility has improved, and with the aid of antidepressants, physical and mental therapy she is a much improved 84 year old lady. When she arrived from Michigan she exclaimed, “I made it! I actually made it!” She expected to die before she left Michigan. Now she gets around slowly, her congestive heart failure is being well treated and she can occasionally make visits. She will be at our house eating Christmas Eve dinner with us tonight. Most importantly some of her old spirit is back. No money can buy such a wonderful present. I had grieved it was gone for good.

I am grateful for my friends. While not large in number they are all dear to me. And I am grateful for my siblings. Though we are geographically separated we are all still very much one family. And I have had opportunities to see all of them over the last year, along with many of my nieces and nephews. I am grateful to have a wife who loves me, and a daughter who is very creative. I am especially grateful for my 18-year-old boy cat Sprite, my best companion in every sense of the word who wants nothing more than the pleasure of my lap and to look into my eyes while I stroke under his chin.

I am grateful for my job. While I could ask for a larger team, I could not ask for a better team, even if half of us are geographically separated. How unusual is it for any manager to have just one employee who gives 150% or more? I have a whole team of people who continuously go the extra mile and dig into the thorniest problems, during and after hours, with nary a complaint. And I am grateful for Susan, my wonderful boss, the best boss I ever had, who somehow manages to make her stressful position fun. But I am also grateful that my job, though often stressful, still gives me sufficient time off to do the things that are meaningful to me. I am grateful that it gives me time to take up my new hobby of bicycling. I am grateful for my many travels up and down the W&OD trail this year. I am grateful to have a job three miles away instead of thirty. I am thus grateful I have at least 90 minutes more on a workday to do with what I want, instead of commute to and from work.

I am grateful that for whatever reason I have left my midlife crisis behind at last. I am grateful that while there are major stresses in my life and there will doubtless be more that I can usually ride above them. I know that every year will have its ups and downs. But I am especially grateful that here, today, I am in a place of peace and contentment.

I hope your Yule time celebrations, in whatever forms they take, bring happiness and comfort to you and to all you love.