No Gifts, Please. (This Means You!)

Do not buy me a gift.  Ever.  Please.

 

I don’t do gifts well.  Perhaps this means that something deep in my psyche is irreparably warped.  But it is what it is.

Just the thought of receiving a gift gives me a headache.  I will either have to take care of it, pay taxes on it, or feel guilty –  first while it sits in a drawer, unused and collecting dust, and then later when I give it to Goodwill or toss it unceremoniously into the trash.

In other words, you’re wasting your money and my time.

Call me ungrateful or whatever the modern term for that sentiment might be.  But don’t waste your energy on one as unappreciative as I am.

Courtesy demands that I thank you profusely for your gift, even as I’m thinking about how to get rid of it.  I learned in childhood that polite society requires that we be good liars.

I am not a materialistic person.  I am not impressed by things.  If there is something that I want enough, I’ll go buy it.  Most of the time, I don’t bother.  Let’s face it, everything is junk these days, usually made in China.

Even your best intentions will blow up in my face.  So stay away with your boxes, bows, ribbons and gift cards.

As a case in point, consider the gifts that my parents bestowed upon me for Hanukkah and for my birthday.

Hanukkah:  My mother sent me a nice Hanukkah card with a $50 gift card to Barnes & Noble tucked inside.  This seems innocent enough, generous even, and certainly thoughtful of my bibliophile tendencies. Well… Let’s examine the effects of the law of unintended consequences, shall we?

First, both the envelope and the inside of the card was addressed to me only, not to my wife (who, I might add, enjoys books as well).  More than likely, Mom did this because my wife is not Jewish and does not  celebrate Hanukkah.  (Psst… I don’t celebrate any December holiday, Mom.) But did my mother send my wife a Christmas card?  Nope.  Has she ever said “merry Christmas” to my wife in our 21 years of marriage?  Nope.  It’s not like Mom has never sent Christmas cards to her Christian friends back east.  As for us, we don’t send any variety of holiday cards to anyone.  Perhaps we should try sending Mom a Hanukkah card and see if she sends anything back?  I don’t know.  Let’s just say that the whole thing justifiably pissed off my wife royally.  I deeply wish she hadn’t sent me any kind of gift.

Oh, wait, that’s not all.  When I finally got around to visiting a Barnes & Noble this month (we don’t have one in our immediate area and had to drive out of town), I found that the books that interest me most (economics and American history) cost twice what I could buy them for on Amazon!  I purchased one book and some desserts from the café, and the card is nearly depleted.  What a waste.

Please, Mom, no gifts.  Signed, your ungrateful brat of a son.

So, let’s talk about my birthday.  Mom bought me a shirt-and-tie pre-packaged combo at a big box store.  Wrong size!  “You can’t win for losing,” said Mom deflatedly when I broke the news to her.  Fine, no big deal.  We tried to exchange the shirt for something in the right size.

First, we learned that the store didn’t have any shirt in stock in my size.  No worries, we’ll just buy a new wallet and tie instead.  No dice!  The store will not accept any returns or exchanges without the original receipt.  And even if we had said receipt, a friendly employee informed us, they wouldn’t take the shirt back because Mom had removed the UPC from the packaging.  Now I have the unenviable task of asking Mom what she would like us to do with the shirt.  Should we give it back to her? Donate it?  Truly a lose-lose situation.

Is this a good time to mention an acquaintance’s restaurant gift card that has been gathering dust for months?  Or the cute game that I think is languishing in a drawer somewhere in this house?

Listen up, everyone.  No.  Gifts.  Please!  This means you, well-intentioned relatives and friends!

Save your money and save our time and energy.  Everyone wins!

The Certainty of Death and Christmas

An interesting article about death cafés, some of which host workshops at which participants write their own obituaries, recently appeared in The Washington Post. Now, I’ve heard of internet cafés and cat cafés, but this was the first I’d heard of a destination where one can get a steaming mug of java along with a side of pondering one’s own mortality.

I find the timing of the Post article rather appropriate.  While there is so much outward Christmas cheer to be had, with carols old and new playing everywhere I go, and my grandnieces and grandnephews declaring every piece of schlock touted on YouTube videos as their heart’s desire, it’s easy to ignore the sadness lurking just below the surface for many of us.  We hear annually of the spike in suicides during the holiday season.  The spirit of the season does not resonate for many of us who have suffered losses or who feel lonely, disenfranchised or marginalized.  The mental health challenges that are always with us seem to be accentuated in the month of December.  
In the hustle and bustle of work, family and holiday preparations, it can be easy to overlook our neighbors who are struggling.  Some of them may not make it to the new year.  For those of us who work in social services, it’s harder not to notice.  It’s in your face every day.  We know to expect an uptick in calls about child and elder abuse, an increase in applications for cash aid, and more stories of epic family squabbles than could fill a telenovela.
It’s a good thing that the media and charitable organizations make us more aware of the needy at this time of year.  We don’t want any child to be without gifts on Christmas morning, nor do we want to see impoverished families settling for cereal or soup for Christmas dinner.  So we try to do our part.  We give extra to the food bank; we haul a box of board games over to the toy drive.  And yet, it’s just so little.  We know it’s a drop in the bucket and we only hope that our tiny contribution makes a difference to someone.
But no one rings bells outside Wal-Mart or holds bake sales to benefit those whose suffering extends far beyond the financial.   There are too many whose pain is invisible, who drag themselves through the holiday season like zombies, who pray for January or maybe just to make it through another day.  I regret that the holidays are such a trigger for so many, in the midst of what is supposed to be a season of joy.  And I don’t know what we can do to be of much help.  Lend a listening ear?  Maybe.  Kindness, understanding?  Reaching out instead of pretending it’s not our problem?  I fear I am lapsing into serious cliché here, but that’s an occupational hazard of looking in the mirror, is it not?
I don’t think I’d do a very good job of writing my own obituary at a death café, no matter how strong the coffee.  But I do know that the one line I do not want in my obituary is “He could have done something, but he chose not to.”
Perhaps Dickens got it right when he had the Ghost of Christmas Future pass judgment on old Ebenezer and his self-imposed blindness to the suffering of others.
Carpe diem.

Have a Merry Little Dysfunctional Christmas

Christmas Eve.

We just spent the last two days with family and we will again on Christmas Day.  We have a break in the middle for the purpose of driving up California’s Central Valley to maybe throw a load of laundry in and spend a night sleeping in our own bed before heading north to do it again with another part of the family.

Today is my parents’ 65th wedding anniversary.  We had Shabbat dinner at their house on Friday evening, followed by an informal party on Saturday.  In between, we drove down to the rural area of southern Fresno County to watch my wife’s three year old grandniece open gifts.

Both my sisters, along with two of my nephews, were present for my parents’ big day.  Mom made up the hors d’oeuvres platter, my parents bought the cake at a local supermarket, and one of my sisters did most of the cooking.  She and her husband are pesco-vegetarians, but they accommodated my vegan ways by preparing tofu ratatouille, broccoli, rice and potatoes along with their salmon.  The carnivores in the crowd had meatballs and franks.

One of my sisters lives over in the Bay Area and commutes to her job in the Central Valley.  Working 12-hour shifts in a hospital, she has a crazy schedule and was lucky to get a day off to attend our festivities.  My other sister is a teacher in the suburbs of Boston, while her husband is a tech industry exec in Dallas.  All three of their kids are in Boston; two work in tech, while one is still in college.  After years in Dallas, Sis left her husband behind and decamped for Boston in June, mostly because their anorexic daughter was in and out of the hospital and Sis was worried sick.  Before long, my niece told Sis to buzz off, which, understandably, my sister took hard.  Still, she enjoys the Jewish community and liberal academic environment that Boston has to offer, a far cry from her red-state experiences in Texas.  Back in Dallas, hubby takes care of the house and the cats and is overseas for his job one week each month.  He visits Sis in Boston frequently.  The thought is that, eventually, they’ll buy a house in Boston.  None of us is getting any younger, and hubby is bound to retire sooner or later.  Meanwhile, Sis rents a room in a house owned by a couple she knows.  She complains that the room is drafty and is usually too cold in the New England winter.  But she loves her job and being near friends and her kids.

I am reminded of my parents, who were also separated for a number of years due to their careers.  My mother worked in places like Rhode Island and Utica NY while Dad stayed in the house in the suburbs of New York City, making a long drive to visit Mom once or twice each week.

What a way to live, huh?  I know that, these days, you have to go wherever the job is, but I always think in terms of wife and husband moving together.  Then again, I think of marriage as involving shared finances as well as a shared residence.  Yet my parents have kept their finances separate for decades.  I used to think this was unusual, but now I’m starting to hear that it’s not so uncommon.  Blech!

The funny thing about my family, that was really brought home to me during our visit this week, is that we have next no nothing in common.  From a common origin, my sisters and I have shot off in totally different directions in terms of geography, family and career.  I’m glad that I don’t see my sisters very often, as I can’t imagine us getting along for more than a few hours every year or so.  We simply have different worldviews, and I sometimes wonder whether we’re really from different planets.  Certainly I couldn’t ever see calling one of them to ask for advice on a problem.  For the most part, I prefer to have as little to do with them as possible.

The disjointedness of our lives became embarrassingly apparent as my sister from Boston attempted to encourage conversation as we all sat together in my parents’ family room on Saturday.  There were long pregnant pauses, during which three or four of us would be occupied by apparently fascinating things on our phones, the rest of us absorbed in our own thoughts or staring off into space.  Hospital Sis was sprawled out on the couch, nearly asleep.  Boston Sis would offer conversation starters such as “Who has an interesting story about their job?” or “Who has done something interesting lately?” or “Has anyone seen any good movies or TV shows recently?”  Most of these overtures fell flat after a minute or two, leaving us in physical proximity, but as emotionally distant from one another as we usually are geographically.

When it was time for dinner, we had to rustle up my wife and Hospital Sis, both of whom were fast asleep.  Mom decided to wake up Sis by tickling her, which devolved into loud accusations of rudeness from both sides, along with threats never to visit again.  Typical for us, I’m afraid.  As Trump is so fond of saying, “Sad!”  I don’t know why we bother to put on this dog and pony show, regardless of the occasion.  Mom is a firm believer that “blood is thicker than water,” that families must stick together regardless of the profound differences between their members.  Uh, enjoy?

Finally, when the cake and ice cream was served after dinner (no vegan desserts available, although I declined the offer of an orange), Hospital Sis resorted to web searching on her phone for a site full of courtroom jokes.  Some of them were quite funny, primarily at the expense of inept attorneys, and we all laughed at them.  Then Dad began to tell the same racist and dirty jokes that he’s told since I was a kid.

Soon, my wife and I drifted off to the family room to visit with my nephew, who told us stories about his life in the Bay Area.  Everyone else remained in the living room, from whence I could hear my mother telling family stories about her parents’ emigration from Europe to America, the same stories she’s told dozens of times, year after year.

I’m not coldhearted enough to say no to my parents when they want all of their children present on the occasion of their 65th anniversary.  Sixty-five years of fussing and fighting, yelling and cursing at each other.  I know I’m not unique in this respect.  As Tolstoy famously wrote, “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

As if to prove the truth of Tolstoy’s observation, my wife’s niece called us on FaceTime while we were at my parents’ house.  She is 20 years old, has a 5 year old daughter, and can’t figure out what she wants in life.  I attempted to give her advice along the lines of being true to herself, as she thinks she led a guy on, who she now wants to let down easy, or maybe not.  Respect yourself and insist that he respect you was my recommendation.  We had the call on speaker, and I think we put on quite a show for my own family.

As if to add a punch line to a decidedly unfunny joke, we stopped for coffee on the way home today and proceeded to drive over a nearly invisible concrete divider at the entrance to a parking lot, blowing out one of our tires.  Right in front of a tire shop, I might add — a tire shop that was closed for Christmas Eve.

This makes two months in a row.  Last time, it was on a desolate stretch of interstate in the middle of the Arizona desert on the way to the Grand Canyon.  At least this time we had friends nearby who came to our rescue while the Triple A tow truck hauled off our vehicle to the only open tire shop in the area, about 15 minutes down the road.  We had one hour until the shop closed, just enough time for them to take off the flat and install a new tire, to the tune of $165.

Uh, merry Christmas?

 

 

Ready for Christmas 2015

I am looking forward to just three days of work this week followed by a four-day holiday weekend.  Our shopping is done, and yesterday we finished the wrapping.

Wrapped Gifts

Our staging area in the corner of the kitchen with some of the gifts for the nieces and nephews.

Meanwhile, at work, we are eating ourselves into a coma, courtesy of an annual event officially known as A Taste of the Holidays but which most of us refer to by its nickname, Waddle Week.  On Friday alone, I stuffed myself with fried potatoes, chips and salsa, popcorn, and fresh blackberries and raspberries.  For me at least, the pièce de résistance was the vegan cupcakes prepared by one of my coworkers.  Thank you so much, May!

All this followed our holiday luncheon on Thursday.  Although I checked in advance and knew there would not be any vegan food, I brought my own and had a grand old time eating, chatting and participating in a gift exchange with my cohorts.

While last year’s Christmas was fairly subdued at work, this year we held a holiday decorating contest that turned the entire floor into a raucous, delightful amalgam of holiday-related themes.  I present just a few for your holiday enjoyment.

International Gingerbread Lane

1

3

4

Holiday Movie Marathon

7

8

9

Candyland

10

O Christmas Tree – Our secretary’s handiwork and winner of the door contest.  Go, Linda!

Karen's Door

My cubicle wall.  Clearly, I lack the artistic abilities of my coworkers!

Peace

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!  Thanks for reading and for another wonderful year on A Map of California.

 

The Joy of Receiving

For quite some time now, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants has hosted a website, feedthepig.org, that is devoted to promoting savings and planning for retirement and other personal financial goals. I have a vague recollection of hearing about this site some years ago, but it again came to my attention recently due to a billboard posted in our neighborhood. The message on the sign (and I paraphrase) read “Be the rich uncle that you always wished you had.”

This is wrong on so many levels that I don’t know where to begin. It calls up a visceral reaction in my gut that makes me want to scream.

Allow me to start by saying that I do believe in the importance of saving a portion of one’s income “for a rainy day.” I get it that the AICPA is trying to encourage Americans to save, something that very few of us do on a regular basis. I see this as a laudable goal, but I also think they are utter fools if they believe that billboards like this one will change anyone’s habits.

Giving and saving are two things that are near and dear to our hearts. My wife and I tithe 10% of our income to worthy causes, such as our local food banks, and to family members in need, of which there are unfortunately more than a few at this time. At the holidays, we always end up giving extra, which is something we plan for during the year. And, yes, we do save our pennies. Literally. We have a canister for collection of stray pennies and a “change up” for collection of nickels, dimes and quarters. In summary, the message of the importance of savings is not lost on us. Nevertheless, I find the AICPA’s sign offensive.

I realize that we are entering that time of year known as the season of giving, but I believe that signs like the one I saw posted fail to acknowledge the important of receiving. Remember that in order to give, someone has to receive. I was reminded of this recently when we tried to give a few bucks to our niece. She is only 19 years old and having a rough time of it, what with having a 3 year old daughter and a job that recently cut her hours back to three days per week. Nevertheless, I could see that we were making her very uncomfortable by trying to press a twenty into her hand. We knew she needed it and she knew she needed it, but that doesn’t change how awful we feel when we’re reduced to a position in which we need to rely on the charity of others. We all want to be self-sufficient. Years ago, I saw a poster emblazoned with the logo “poverty sucks.” ‘Nuff said.

Squirming is a natural reaction when on the receiving end of largesse. I think this goes beyond the sadness that is bound to accompany acknowledgment that we are in need. It is indicative of the fact that Mom and Dad never taught us how to receive gracefully. Most of us were taught “to give is better than to receive.” The moral imperative of this statement aside, certainly it is preferable to be in a financial position to give rather than to be in such straits that we need to put our hands out. But it is not possible for us to give unless someone is willing to receive. Giving and receiving are two sides of the same coin, and I cannot put that coin into your hand unless you are willing to receive it.

I know what it is like to get laid off, to be unemployed for a year and to have to spend down savings and rely on family and Food Stamps to get by. I know what it is like to stand in line for hours to receive a U.S. Department of Agriculture food handout. I’ve been there, folks. And if this economy doesn’t improve sometime soon, I may be there again. In the meantime, however, we do what we have learned to do best: Saving and giving.

But please, please, do not tell me to be the rich uncle that I always wished I had. There is no substitute for having a generous relative and being one yourself is not the same thing at all. Remember, when you are on the receiving end of someone’s generosity, you are allowing that person to bless you. Conversely, if you are unable to accept gifts gracefully, you are preventing someone from blessing you. Think about that next time someone tries to do something nice for you and you feel weird about it.

I’m sure most of us do wish we had rich uncles to bankroll our every whim, or even to grant an occasional wish. There is nothing wrong with this. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have this opportunity. Still, it is just fine to daydream about it. There is no shame in receiving or in wishing you could receive. Giving has its own rewards, but it can never compare to being on the receiving end of your heart’s desires. Generosity is lovely, but it can never substitute for the joy of receiving exactly what you always wanted. Hence, all those prettily wrapped boxes under our Christmas trees.

Not all of us can be the rich uncle, but all of us can experience the thrill of receiving, whether from a rich uncle or just from our neighbor. And that is nothing to be ashamed of.
NaBloPoMo 2015 Logo  nanopoblano2015dark

Christmas Morning

Christmas Cookie

A Christmas cookie for breakfast?  Why, yes, I think I will, thank you!

The parsonage isn’t very well insulated, so I was able to hear the wind howling through the door frame last night and again this morning.  Not the kind of frighteningly brain-jarring howl of the wind ripping at the storm windows that I recall from my childhood winters in New York, mind you — more like a low-level “Woooooo!” that would rise and fall every few minutes.  ‘Tis the type of sound effect that one might find useful in a haunted house on Halloween.

Into this wind we ventured at 7:30 a.m. on the way to the Christmas morning opening of gifts at my sister-in-law’s house, just a bit over a mile down the road.  With our niece visiting us for a couple of days, this meant four of us rousting ourselves out of bed at six o’clock on a non-workday so that all of us could get in and out of the shower on time.  We have just the one bathroom, although there are always the church rest rooms just next door for emergencies when someone has to go pee right now!

The hour of 7:30 was selected by our other niece, based on the approximate time that her little one usually wakes up.  After all, that’s what it’s all about.  Our two year old grandniece would be walking into the living room to survey the bounty bestowed by Santa.  We knew her reaction would be priceless and we wanted to be there for it.

So out into the early morning cold we went, the biting wind just tearing right through however many layers you piled on.  We arrived a few minutes late and I hoped we hadn’t missed the big moment.  Trying the front door and finding it locked, I proceeded to knock while my wife extricated Pastor Mom from our vehicle.  Mom recently underwent shoulder surgery and has her arm in a sling, so car travel remains a bit of a trial.  In honor of the day, I started out with the “Jingle Bells” knock.  No answer.  I proceeded to the tried and true “shave and a haircut, two bits.”  No dice.  Finally, I just tried knocking continuously.  Then I gave up and rang the doorbell.  At that very moment, my nephew opened the door, clad only in his underwear and wrapped in a comforter.  No one was even awake yet.

It didn’t take long for the household to come to life.  People stumbled out of bed and appeared in the living room.  Our niece returned from an errand to pick up our nephew, who has been carless since a friend attempted to repair his ride sufficiently to get it to pass smog, instead succeeding in getting it to a point where it won’t even start.

Our little grandniece ended up being carried into the living room by her grandma, neither of them quite awake yet.  Miss Piggy and Kermit were singing “Most Wonderful Time of the Year” through the speaker of someone’s phone.  The two year old began inspecting the pile beneath the tree, rather tentatively at first, and then with increasing abandon.  She refused to wear her new pale blue princess dress and tiara, instead preferring to rip open gift wrapping in nothing but a diaper and a smile.  Last night, she removed her onesie in front of everyone while we were enjoying our Christmas Eve tamales.  When I called her Lady Godiva, her mom, still a teenager, admitted that she didn’t understand the reference unless I happened to be talking about chocolate.

The little one’s favorite gift turned out to be one of her least expensive presents:  A small stuffed Barney that sings the cloying “I love you, you love me” song.  Its purple arms are perpetually outstretched, inviting a hug from all.  We all hope that she doesn’t expect her toy Barney to revert to life size in a starburst of fairy dust.

My vote for best gift of the day, however, goes to a present received by my niece:  A cedar hope chest complete with beautiful heirloom quilts sewn in years past by family members now gone but fondly remembered.

As for ourselves, our favorite gift was a Keurig coffee maker, one of those fancy modern doodads that you just throw a pod into and push your cup under the spout.  My wife admits to having wanted one of those, which I find a little strange since the two of us are tea drinkers.  However, that may be about to change.  Particularly if that box of decaf Donut Shop coffee is anything like what I used to get at Dunkin’ Donuts back in New York all those years ago.

Home(less) for the Holidays

gifts

Christmas Eve seems like a good time for an update on the homeless guys who we’ve been trying to assist here at the parsonage.  I am pleased to say that things are starting to look up.

Homeless Guy #3 surprised us all when he entered a local residential program that focuses on leading a godly life, staying clean of alcohol and drugs, and contributing to support of its mission by performing carpentry, roofing and other types of home improvement work in the community in exchange for donations.  We had been feeding #3 whenever he showed up at our door, despite our awareness of his penchant for fighting off demons with the aid of substances that we’d rather not know about.  We’d see him sleeping on a friend’s porch or out in the open or occasionally sharing a tent with Homeless Guy #1.  Every time we’d give him a couple of sandwiches, a bag of chips and a bottle of water, #3 would tell us stories about how he planned to turn his life around by entering a residential program.  We didn’t believe him for a minute, as his ongoing pattern of behavior led us to believe that he was merely telling us what we wanted to hear.  Praise God for small miracles.  I only hope that he’ll be able to make a decent life for himself once he completes the program.

Homeless Guy #2 is homeless no more, or at least for now.  Befriended by our young nephew, who calls #2 “uncle,” they eventually became housemates.  They share a love for music, both of them being guitar pickers with golden voices.  #2 does odd jobs (painting, carpentry, yard work and the like) and receives Food Stamps (known as CalFresh in our neck of the woods), so is able to contribute to their household.  Other things, I prefer not to think about.  I am all too cognizant of the penchant the two of them share for the toke and the six pack.

As for Homeless Guy #1, he doesn’t come around to the parsonage since we had it out with him and let him know that he is no longer welcome here.  We still see him wandering around the area, walking on the side of the road, going in and out of the dollar store down the street.  He wears a monitoring ankle bracelet that was a condition of his release from jail.  We’ve had some cold nights recently (at least by California standards), and we’ve noticed extra layers covering his tent.  Off in the distance this morning, we heard him yelling and cussing and throwing a fit, as is his wont.  He must have gotten into it with his mom and sister.  It wasn’t long before the sheriffs showed up.  Later, we saw him walking down the road again.  I guess the cops gave him a pass as a Christmas present.

While substance abuse, mental illness and even personal lifestyle choice are frequently cited as the primary causes of homelessness (particularly among Republican congressmen), I challenge you to take the time to actually talk to a homeless person and learn his or her story.  It won’t take long before you realize that the primary cause of homelessness is poverty.  To state it in the bluntest terms possible:  It takes a certain amount of money to pay rent.  Either you have it or you don’t.  And if most of the little money you have goes toward food, medicine, clothes for your kids and maybe bus fare, you’re probably not going to have enough to pay for rent and utilities as well.  Many get by, at least for a time, by robbing Peter to pay Paul.  We have neighbors in our community who survive dark nights and empty refrigerators because they’re behind on the electric bill and it’s preferable to at least have a roof over your kids’ heads.  There are those who endure freezing nights without heat and scorching summers without air conditioning for the same reason.  Here in California, our summers frequently involve weeks on end of temperatures over 100°F.  Cooling centers open up in public buildings in an effort to minimize the heat-related deaths we experience among the elderly and the young every year.

There is a woman in our neighborhood who resides in heavily subsidized housing.  She pays only $11 per month in rent.  And yet, there have been a couple of times when we learned that she had run out of food.  Life on a fixed income is a special kind of hell.

Many of us live a hand-to-mouth existence, struggling along paycheck to paycheck.  One unanticipated expense, one illness or automotive breakdown, can send us straight over the edge, into the abyss of homelessness.  Writhing on the precipice like a mouse caught in a trap, we are susceptible to those who prey on the poor, such as the payday loan places, the rent-a-centers and the convenience stores that profit off of inflated prices and cater to those who lack a car to drive into town.

Despite the abominable rhetoric of Congress during the unemployment debates of the past year, there are relatively few who fall into unemployment and homelessness as a result of sloth and lethargy.  Most of us go down screaming all the way.  And once we’ve fallen down the rabbit hole, it is next to impossible to climb back out.  You can’t find or keep a job if you don’t have a stable address and a place to bathe regularly.  Destroyed credit ratings and lack of first month’s rent, last month’s rent and security deposit may lead to a protracted period of sleeping in a homeless shelter, under a bridge or over a heating grate.  Difficult economic times have always helped to draw families closer together; pooling of resources can make the difference between extended family members having a roof over their heads or becoming homeless.  Too many people, however, have no family who they can rely on when the going gets tough.  Here in America, we live in a culture that celebrates individualism and views the nuclear family as the sitcom ideal.  Anything less reeks of failure.  We all want to do our own thing, unencumbered by aunts or uncles or grandchildren occupying spare bedrooms and sleeping on couches and making messes and not cleaning them up.  If drugs or alcohol or mental illness brought on by a history of abuse is involved, the situation is often rendered impossible, leading to homelessness.

My boss and I have had some really good conversations while standing at the tall picture window situated at the end of our row of cubicles.  (Next week will be his last with our agency and I will miss him.)  Several of those have been about homelessness.  With our office located high above downtown Sacramento, he has been able to point out the spot where his homeless guy usually hangs out.  He tries to stop to talk with his homeless friend for at least a few minutes each day.  This is a man, my boss tells me, who has been sleeping outdoors for 22 years now.  Even so, he recently told my boss that he is hopeful that his time without a home will soon come to an end.  He just has a feeling, he related, that good things are just around the corner and that something will arise that will allow him to finally have a home after nearly a quarter of a century without one.

Indeed, hope is always the last thing to die.  For when even that is gone, when all hope has vanished, we truly have nothing left but the blackness of despair.  I like to think that hope figures somewhere in the lessons of Christmas.  For hope recognizes the possibility of a better tomorrow, whether it be through the fulfillment of ancient prophesy or through taking action in our local communities toward ensuring housing for all.

Hope is sending off a letter to Santa Claus at the North Pole with the conviction that, if I’m very, very good, he might come down the chimney with all the desires of my heart on Christmas Eve.  Hopeless is knowing that, no matter how good you try to be, you will never be deserving of anything but lumps of coal.  And so, on this Christmas Eve, I put it to you that entirely too many of us fall into this latter category.

Yesterday, we had our annual toy giveaway here at the church, courtesy of an area Spanish-speaking congregation.  While carols played through a sound system, hot dogs were cooked and passed out as parents and their children lined up to receive what may be their only Christmas gifts this year.  Each child who showed up received several age-appropriate toys, while food boxes were given out to the parents.  All of the gifts were donated by generous businesses and individuals.

We have the naysayers, sure.  When I point out that families began gathering at 7:30 am for the 11:00 giveaway, leaning against the church façade, bundled up against the cold, someone always points out that most of these families are not impoverished, that they’re just trying to get something for nothing.  That we are suckers whose generosity is being taken advantage of.  As I think about this, I am reminded of a saying that my mother used to throw at us when, as kids, we became unduly cynical:  “Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.”  I laugh now at how old-fashioned this sounds, but there is a truth to it.  There will always be sharpies out there, fraudsters who care about no one but themselves and who, to paraphrase Billy Joel, will take what they’re given as long as it’s free.  For me at least, this will never be a reason to throw in the towel.  The only control we have is over our own behavior.  We have no control over what anyone else does.  The fact that there is evil in the world is not a valid excuse for refusing to be the good in the world.  And as for those who characterize us as bleeding heart do-gooders, I can only say “why don’t you come join us?”

Of course, we are not the only bastions of generosity in our little town.  Far from it.  There’s the Salvation Army, for example.  The Sally had collected hundreds of toys to give away to local kids right before Christmas.  Unfortunately, they stored those toys in a vacant storefront next to a supermarket.  Some malefactors discovered this fact, broke in and cleaned them out on Sunday night.

But for several hundred kids in our community, Santa arrived a day early.  They provided the hope; generous donors provided its fulfillment.  If we are to banish homelessness for good, we must rely on a similar model:  The hopes of the have-nots fulfilled by the largesse of the generous.

So where do we start?  Whose responsibility is it to ensure that each of us has a home?  I submit to you that it is everyone’s responsibility.  In Yolo County, just down the road from here, the local government implemented a ten-year plan to end homelessness in the county.  They report that they are well on the way to achieving this goal.  Other localities insist that they haven’t the resources to devote to a project of such dimensions and must rely on the federal and state governments and the generosity of private donors.  Meanwhile, Congress cites finite resources and too many hands clambering for a handout.  The churches, they say, will have to take up the slack.

Now that I have lived at a church for a year, I am able to appreciate how this zeitgeist trickles down to the immediate needs of the community.  As a local church, there is seldom a time when we are not virtually broke.  We are a tiny church, and despite generous donations on Sundays and at other times, there is never enough available to do all the work we’d like to do here in the community, much less to make contributions to worthy causes elsewhere.  With the help of other churches, we are able to do things like hold an annual toy giveaway or run a weekly food distribution.

What it comes down to, of course, is that no man is an island.  We are all in this together, popular ideas about individualism notwithstanding.  We are our brother’s keepers, whether we choose to ignore this responsibility or respect it.  We have to do it together, though.  Yes, we need the support of Congress.  Yes, we need the contributions of the state and county governments, the tireless efforts of our elected representatives who create programs that provide the neediest among us with housing and food.  And, yes, we need the churches and the generosity of businesses and individuals who provide us with turkeys and canned goods and gift certificates.

None of us can do this alone, but together, and with the blessings of God, anything is possible.  We can bring hope to the hopeless and the homeless.

Merry Christmas, everyone.  May your days be merry and bright.

The Week Before Christmas

tree

‘Twas a week before Christmas and all through our place
the wrapping of gifts proceeded apace.

There were some for the nephews and some for the nieces
and treat bags with Kisses and Kit Kats and Reese’s.

In red, green and blue the tree was ablaze
and we knew that the kids were all counting the days.

There’s a pot luck at church and a service on Sunday
then out-of-town guests here for dinner on Monday.

We’re planning out meals and which songs we’ll be singing
while the doorbell and phone are constantly ringing.

Every three or four hours, we run to the store
and later, we realize we have to get more.

So it’s back in the car for a trip into town
with a grin and a carol and nary a frown.

Then we’ll run out of OJ or crackers or cheese
while everyone’s palate we’re trying to please.

But we try to maintain the old Christmas cheer
although we are grateful it’s just once a year.

For soon we’ll have naught but our mem’ries and pics
and boxes of leftover candy cane sticks.

We’ll pack up the ribbons, the red and the green
just as soon as we ring in two thousand fifteen.

We’re enjoying the blessings of those we hold dear
as we wish merry Christmas to friends far and near.

Happy Holidays!

The 12 Trips to Walgreen’s

Walgreen's Madera

On our first trip to Walgreen’s, my true love gave to me, one Elf on the Shelf and a partridge in a pear tree.

On our second trip to Walgreen’s, my true love gave to me, two liters of Pepsi, one Elf on the Shelf and a partridge in a pear tree.

On our third trip to Walgreen’s, my true love gave to me, three trashy paperbacks, two liters of Pepsi, one Elf on the Shelf and a partridge in a pear tree.

On our fourth trip to Walgreen’s, my true love gave to me, four boxes of caramel coconut fudge, three trashy paperbacks, two liters of Pepsi, one Elf on the Shelf and a partridge in a pear tree.

On our fifth trip to Walgreen’s, my true love gave to me, five tacky picture frames, four boxes of caramel coconut fudge, three trashy paperbacks, two liters of Pepsi, one Elf on the Shelf and a partridge in a pear tree.

On our sixth trip to Walgreen’s, my true love gave to me, six tablet cases, five tacky picture frames, four boxes of caramel coconut fudge, three trashy paperbacks, two liters of Pepsi, one Elf on the Shelf and a partridge in a pear tree.

On our seventh trip to Walgreen’s, my true love gave to me, seven phone chargers, six tablet cases, five tacky picture frames, four boxes of caramel coconut fudge, three trashy paperbacks, two liters of Pepsi, one Elf on the Shelf and a partridge in a pear tree.

On our eighth trip to Walgreen’s, my true love gave to me, eight Snuggies, seven phone chargers, six tablet cases, five tacky picture frames, four boxes of caramel coconut fudge, three trashy paperbacks, two liters of Pepsi, one Elf on the Shelf and a partridge in a pear tree.

On our ninth trip to Walgreen’s, my true love gave to me, nine Sherpa throws, eight Snuggies, seven phone chargers, six tablet cases, five tacky picture frames, four boxes of caramel coconut fudge, three trashy paperbacks, two liters of Pepsi, one Elf on the Shelf and a partridge in a pear tree.

On our tenth trip to Walgreen’s, my true love gave to me, ten packs of AA batteries, nine Sherpa throws, eight Snuggies, seven phone chargers, six tablet cases, five tacky picture frames, four boxes of caramel coconut fudge, three trashy paperbacks, two liters of Pepsi, one Elf on the Shelf and a partridge in a pear tree.

On our eleventh trip to Walgreen’s, my true love gave to me, eleven pairs of thermal socks, ten packs of AA batteries, nine Sherpa throws, eight Snuggies, seven phone chargers, six tablet cases, five tacky picture frames, four boxes of caramel coconut fudge, three trashy paperbacks, two liters of Pepsi, one Elf on the Shelf and a partridge in a pear tree.

On our twelfth trip to Walgreen’s, my true love gave to me, twelve drums of white chocolate peppermint kettle corn, eleven pairs of thermal socks, ten packs of AA batteries, nine Sherpa throws, eight Snuggies, seven phone chargers, six tablet cases, five tacky picture frames, four boxes of caramel coconut fudge, three trashy paperbacks, two liters of Pepsi, one Elf on the Shelf and a partridge in a pear tree.

Merry Christmas!

The Purple Tree

purple tree

I drove into town to get the oil changed in our car today, and on the way home to the parsonage, I saw a family of six walking along the side of the road, every one of them decked out in red and white Santa hats.  Every last one of them, including the baby in the stroller.

Wow, so it’s really Christmas, huh?

As a New York boy, it never seems as if it’s really Christmas here in northern California.  The mild weather fools me every time.  With all the falling leaves, it feels more like October.

Sac fall color

I took this photo of downtown Sacramento’s fall color from halfway up the office tower in which I am currently employed.

All in all, this was quite a week.  We started out on Sunday with brunch at one of our favorite Mexican restaurants.  They have veggie fajitas right on the menu . . .

fajitas

. . .which I proceeded to make into tacos, thanks to the vegetarian black beans.

veggie tacos

This may not seem like such a big deal, but believe me, it is.  It’s delightful for once not to have to ask the server to have the cook make up something special, and no butter (no, not even margarine), and by the way, what type of oil do you cook with?  Congratulations, you have instantly become a problem customer.  Just don’t admit to being a vegan, whatever you do.  Better pretend to have severe food allergies.  Or tell them that you’re an Orthodox Jew and have to follow the kosher rules.  Hope they don’t ask you where your “Yamaha” is.  (Out in the parking lot, doofus.  It’s the one with the twin cams and the Star of David).

Monday was pay day, also a big deal when you only get paid once a month.  Pay bills, pay tithes, buy groceries, figure out the budget for the month.  If you really want that vegan coconut milk “ice cream” that costs four and a half dollars for a thimbleful, now’s the time to speak up.  Next week, there won’t be any money for it.  (Don’t cry, there’s always next month.)

Monday was also the first day back at work from our four-day break (Thanksgiving is the one and only time of year that we have one).  Down came my paper turkey from the dollar store and up went my purple Christmas tree, of similar pedigree (see photo above).  Matching purple bows were pinned up both inside and outside my tiny cubicle domain. Fa la la la la…

Although it rained for most of the trip down to and back from the Central Valley for my father’s 81st birthday last weekend, my coworkers report that there was barely a sprinkle here.  Tuesday, however, the heavens opened up over Sacramento.  The entire area instantly turned into a big soggy mess.  “The crops really need it,” I would hear a dozen times a day.  “Finally, a break in the drought.”

moon

As I left work on Tuesday evening, the nearly full moon attempted to show itself through the mass of clouds that had been watering the fields and roadways all day.

By Wednesday, immense puddles had formed all over the area.  We had a brunch at work for an employee returning from maternity leave.  I was able to help myself to orange juice and fresh fruit, and I brought in bagels for everyone to enjoy (along with some hummus as my personal substitute schmear for the cream cheese).

I wanted pasta and hot soup for dinner, so I asked my wife to bring Pastor Mom along when she picked me up from work.  We had a wonderful dinner (“Yes, the cook says we can make the sauce without cheese.  Yes, you can have olive oil instead of butter with the bread.”) and made our way northward toward home without incident, despite the continuing rain.

Thursday morning, many of my coworkers reported that they had a heck of a time getting home.  One person who works on my floor talked about having seen four cars literally floating down the freeway.  Welcome to California.  Dry or wet, it’s always a disaster.

At noontime on Thursday, it was still pouring down rain, but in the early afternoon the clouds parted a bit and the sun struggled to come out.  One by one, we all began to wander over to the picture window on our floor to gawk.  We were treated to this:

double rainbow

The photo does not begin to do this double rainbow justice.  It was a huge arc that gave the appearance of wrapping all of Sacramento in a giant embrace.  This was among the largest rainbows that I had ever seen, and I couldn’t help thinking that this was what Noah saw when God promised never again to destroy the world by flood.  Brighter times ahead.  Yes!

Thursday evening, we all took my sister-in-law out for her birthday.  We had a wonderful time (veggie tacos, hooray!), my niece and nephews showed up, and my two year old grandniece was in high spirits.  She wouldn’t stay in her high chair very much, so we passed her from hand to hand and only had to run after her once when she made her way down the steps and headed toward the restaurant exit.  When it was time to leave, our dear little one, entirely unprompted, offered each of her hands to my wife and myself.  Hold my hand and walk with me, auntie and uncle.  I will cherish this photo forever, my friends.

Hayden Donna Aron

Thursday night, I went to bed a happy boy.  And so, life being what it is, things proceeded directly from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Friday.  Finally, the end of the week had arrived, so let’s go out with a bang, now shall we?  I won’t get into the details of the Friday follies that transpired at work (I am shaking my head just thinking about some of it) other than to describe the celebration we had in honor of the birthday of one of my coworkers.

On Thursday, some people were out, and those who were at work couldn’t decide whether we should have a brunch for my coworker or take her out to lunch.  The last I had heard, it was decided that it was too last minute to do anything.  And then on Friday, as noon approached, I was informed that we would be bringing in Vietnamese pho for lunch to celebrate my coworker’s special day.  Did I want beef or chicken?

Nooooo, not again!  I happened to be working away in my cubicle at the time, crunching on fresh radishes (hot ones!) dipped in hummus.  “I don’t eat meat at all,” I explained.  “I’m a vegan.  See? This is what I eat.  Carrots, radishes, hummus.”

“Oh, I was a vegetarian for six months once,” came the reply.  “Maybe just the noodle soup without the meat?”

Sometimes you don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Also, we had a meeting at which my boss (who is among the best supervisors I have ever had and whom I appreciate dearly) announced that he has found another job and is leaving.

I think I’ll go with crying.

And, uh, merry Christmas.