R-E-S-P-E-C-T

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As New York City mayor Bill de Blasio spoke at a slain police officer’s funeral recently, police officers outside the church turned their backs on him. Most commentators decried the disrespect shown by the officers toward the mayor. On the other side of the divide, members of the NYPD have felt that de Blasio’s previous remarks were disrespectful to police officers. It seems clear that respect is a deeply felt need of all human beings.

If you had to choose, which would you pick: love or respect? That’s a trick question. Without respect, it’s hard to feel loved. When a husband tells his wife, “Don’t worry your pretty little head about that,” he is questioning her intelligence. He may love her dearly, but she will not feel it. Likewise, when a woman berates her husband, or parents berate their children, calling them “stupid” or belittling their feelings, the lack of respect overshadows any love present in the relationship.

The inherent dignity of the human person demands that we respect each other. So why is it so difficult?

People love sarcasm and mockery. From a young age, kids learn to jockey for power and status by mastering the art of the put-down. Variations on “Yo mama . . .” have been around since time immemorial. In fact, a whole musical genre, the rap face-off, consists of verbal insult flinging. Some of America’s favorite comedians have relied almost completely on sarcasm and insults for their humor. Don Rickles comes to mind for the older set and possibly Daniel Tosh or Chelsea Handler for the millennials.

Name-calling is another problem in our culture. If I disagree with you on a political issue, for example, then you must be an idiot or a Nazi. People can’t seem to resist hitting below the belt when they argue. It may be human nature to put others down, but disrespect breaks down the foundations of our civilization.

Disrespect is dehumanizing. If I think of homeless people as hobos or bag ladies, I reduce them to pathetic losers. I don’t have to ponder the fact that they have nowhere to rest their heads on a cold winter’s night. If I use a racial slur, I reduce people to stereotypes, and I’m not forced to reach out and try for tolerance or understanding.

Aretha Franklin certainly said it all in her rousing classic “Respect.” Find out what it means to those around you, and then practice it every day.

Christmas Presence

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Christmas has come and gone, and I received some beautiful gifts – jewelry from my husband, fleece-lined Toms shoes from my kids, a book, a pair of cozy pajamas. But the gifts that meant the most to me were intangible.

The best thing about this Christmas season was having all four kids together under our roof. When they were all young, this is something I simply took for granted. At times I even found it stressful. But this week has been one of long conversations at the dinner table, lots of reminiscing about Christmases past, the fun of helping the kids find gifts to give each other, and even laughter when my son brought down to the tree a gift bag that said “Be My Valentine.”

On Christmas day, we always drive up to Michigan to spend the evening with my husband’s family. Here too there are plenty of brightly wrapped presents under the tree. But here too the pleasure is more in the ritual of gift-opening, youngest person to oldest, than it is anything we might receive materially. The clamor, the laughter, the teasing – it’s all part of what makes the four hour drive worth it.

Once again, I received a beautifully wrapped basket from my sister-in-law with such goodies as wine and chocolate to go with wine. But the most beautiful gift in the basket was a notebook. At first glance, I thought it was a journal in which to write my thoughts. But when I opened it, I saw that each page was chock full of inspirational sayings, Bible quotes, and art work hand created by her. It was so touching and thoughtful, and I will treasure it long after the other contents of the baskets are gone.

More than anything, Christmas celebrates Emmanuel, “God with us.” And if it’s true what they say – that God is in the details – then I cherish the memory of every scrap of ribbon, Christmas cookie crumb, and warm hug from family members that speaks to the God in our midst on Christmas Day and every day.

Light Show

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The winter solstice has come and gone and with it, “the darkest evening of the year,” to quote Robert Frost. The ancients feared the growing darkness and wondered whether they had displeased the gods. Today, we still fear the dark. It harbors the unknown. And that is why December is the month of the lights.

It starts slowly in mid-November. I start to see strings of white or brightly colored lights on a few homes around time – even the occasional Christmas tree proudly standing in a living room window. I always make the same comment (“Too soon!”), but secretly, I begin to long for this hint of the holiday to come.

To be sure, Christmas is not the only holiday that celebrates with light. Hanukkah is known as the Festival of Light, and it celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over their oppressors. The miracle of Hanukkah, the oil in the lamp that lasted 8 days instead of one, is represented by the nightly lighting of the menorah. Likewise Kwanzaa involves the lighting of candles as part of its celebration.

When I was a child, my father would take us through a Chicago neighborhood called Sauganash to see the dazzling lights displays. To this day, people from all parts of the city can be seen in lines of cars wending their way through Sauganash to gape at the gorgeous displays.

As a mother, I decided to recreate the childhood wonder I felt at this spectacle by taking my own kids out to “Candy Cane Lane,” which is what people called a small area of Westchester, a nearby suburb. I would dress the kids in their pajamas on a winter night, and we would find our favorite houses and favorite decorations, which could be decidedly over the top. We would listen to Christmas songs, and when we were done, I would stop at a nearby donut shop and buy the kids donuts and hot chocolate.

Over the years, Candy Cane Lane has started to fade. The kids have grown up and are not so eager to hop in a car and just drive around with Mom anymore. But I retain my sense of awe at Christmas lights displays. Sure, they are a lot of work, and people often spend hundreds of dollars to have them put up professionally. But for me, they are a beautiful reminder of the meaning of the season – the birth of Jesus.

The gospel of John states, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” Looking at the spectacular light shows of Christmas, it’s easy to believe.

Mommy, I’m Sick

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I have the flu. Yes, I got the flu shot like everybody else, yet I still got the flu. As I lie here in bed in my quiet house, I realize something that is just not fair.

When my kids are sick, I am there for them. I take their temps, give them medicine and fluids, prop their heads on a couple of pillows and let them watch TV marathons. I am at their beck and call, fetching more tissues, making them soup, and answering each weak croak of “Mom” that I hear coming from the sofa.

But when moms are sick, who takes care of them? This morning I tried getting up to wake the kids up for school. I was dizzy and had to lie down. At that moment, what I wouldn’t have given to have my mom fetch me some water and a couple of Tylenols! Later, as I lay in bed, my entire body aching, I debated how badly I really wanted to get up and fetch myself said pain relievers.

I remember when I was first living on my own and had a terrible bout of stomach flu. I became so weak I had to crawl to the bathroom. Wondering whether I would have to call 911 to scrape my dehydrated carcass off the bathroom floor, I gained a new appreciation for all the times my mother took care of me when I was a kid. As the Paramore song goes, “Ain’t it fun living in the real world?”

To be fair, my husband did help me this morning. He fed and watered my 13-year-old and drove her to school. Then he instructed me to go back to bed and not worry about the sink overflowing with dishes and the Christmas gifts I still haven’t wrapped. I am lucky to have him.

My husband also made some coffee, and after drinking a cup, I feel slightly rejuvenated, at least enough to write this post. But still, when my fever spikes and I am sneezing out of control, all I will think is, “I want my mommy!”

The A-B-Cs of Comedy

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Disclaimer: I have no personal, professional or financial connection with ABC-TV.

Every week I look forward to the comedic television lineup of The Middle, Modern Family, and Blackish. Somehow ABC has produced a trifecta of engaging, side-splitting half-hour sitcoms, all of which center on family dynamics and dysfunctions.

The Middle is the unsung sibling of the mega-hit Modern Family. While both shows depict the ups and downs of family life, The Middle focuses on the vicissitudes of one family trying to make ends meet in Middle America. The Heck family is so easy to relate to because they are far from perfect. For instance, mom Frankie yells, “I made dinner!” and plops bags of fast food on the kitchen table. In another episode, I found myself completely relating to the parents, who decide to “take back the house” and do nothing special for their children. They inevitably cave, and things go back to normal, which is to say that the kids rule. Yes, that’s my family life. Yet the Hecks have a connection that makes each episode heartwarming. As much as I am laughing at the Hecks, I am also smiling at their obvious affection for each other.

Modern Family is bigger and brasher than The Middle. The extended Pritchett family have unique family makeups, such as the gay couple raising an adopted Vietnamese daughter and the patriarch and his much younger, voluptuous Colombian wife and her son. The dialogue and timing in Modern Family make it a comic masterpiece. In one scene, Jay Pritchett feels underdressed when his gorgeous wife Gloria comes down the stairs dressed to the nines for a parent-teacher conference. He asks her, “Why do you look like that when I look like this?” Without missing a beat, her son Manny responds, “My friends say it’s because of your money.”

There are tears-inducing moments in Modern Family too, but overall the show is just one giant laugh fest. I think what makes these sitcoms so effective is the strength of their casts. The Middle boasts comedy veterans Patricia Heaton of Everybody Loves Raymond fame and Neil Flynn from ScrubsModern Family, on the other hand, took a cast of virtual unknowns (with the exception of Married: With Children’s Ed O’Neill) and turned them into stars.

The excellent cast is also one of the factors that makes ABC’s new sitcom Blackish so enjoyable. I was leery of a show whose premise rests with humor centered primarily on race. Yet the show avoids the cringe-worthy offensiveness I found in the ill-fated Michael J. Fox Show, which took cheap shots at Parkinson’s disease without any real sense of humor in evidence.

In Blackish, Andre Johnson, a black ad exec, presides over his upper middle class family, including doctor-wife Rainbow (played by Tracee Ellis Ross, daughter of the singer Diana Ross) and four precocious kids. The kids really elevate the show to something special. Although they are wise beyond their years in the style common to sitcoms, they are not obnoxious, but extremely likable.

What really impresses me about Blackish is that race is addressed in a very open way without being trite or offensive – rather, hilarious. In a recent episode, Andre wants to be his office’s first black Santa, but when the role is given to a Hispanic woman, he protests, “There’s supposed to be a Black Santa before a Mexican Santa.” His mom agrees, “Mexicans can’t be jumping the line. It’s bad enough they started taking Black people’s jobs with sneaky tricks like working hard for less pay.”

What could come off as offensive simply comes off with a laugh. Blackish, with its sharp, humorous focus on a racial minority, gives me hope for another ABC sitcom set to air in 2015 – an Asian-American comedy titled Fresh Off the Boat.

There’s something about humor that helps expand our horizons in a non-threatening way. A lovable gay couple on Modern Family helps normalize the idea of gays for its audience. Likewise, Blackish gives us a glimpse of how blacks see racial stereotypes without making us feel defensive.

As I get older, I have noticed the inevitable lines that are starting to appear on my face. And since I’d rather live with laugh lines than frown lines, I plan to enjoy my favorite comedies as much as possible.

It’s a Wonderful Life

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As a Christian, I am supposed to believe that my life here on Earth is merely a temporary stop on the way to Heaven. Throughout the Bible, the theme is one of a “stranger in a strange land,” a sojourner. I am supposed to be eager to leave this life for the next.

There’s just one problem. I love my life here on Earth way too much. I’m just not ready for the glorious world that “God has ready for those who love Him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9)

What do I love? I love nature. Spectacular sunsets, the weight of white snow on a tree bough, a cardinal flitting from bush to bush, the lulling roll of waves on the beach, the smell of fresh cut pine calling up all the Christmases of my past. I look in awe at the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains, Niagara Falls, and the Grand Canyon.

I love man-made things too. Fresh bread and butter, a glass of wine, the Great Wall of China, “A Starry Night,” an elegant brick Georgian house, Beatles songs. The smell of an old book, the ticking of a grandfather clock, even the rumble of laundry in the dryer on a cold night when I am home with my family, cozy and warm. No, I’m not ready for the pearly gates.

Most of all, I would miss the people in my life – my family and friends first and foremost. At a relative’s funeral recently, I realized just how hard it is to say goodbye. Although I hope and pray that he is in a better place, I can’t help but feel sad for the things he will miss and the time his loved ones might have had to spend with him.

Life can be very hard, no doubt about it. No one escapes hardship, pain, or suffering. Loneliness, doubt, and fear – all are part of the human condition. Yet I can’t help agreeing with the time-honored lesson that George Bailey learns in the classic Jimmy Stewart holiday film: “It’s a wonderful life.”

Advent Waiting

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When I was a child, the month of December seemed to stretch into eternity. Each day I would open a little window on my Advent calendar and count how many more I would have to wait through until Santa Claus came.

Even Christmas Day itself was unbearable. My mother insisted on feeding us breakfast, and my family all went to Christmas Mass before getting to run down into the basement where our presents would be spread around our Christmas tree. From youngest to oldest, eleven of us lined up waiting for the signal from Mom that we could open the door and go find our treasure.

Nowadays, I have Christmas anxiety in reverse. Will there be enough time to decorate the house, buy and wrap all the presents, send out the Christmas cards? As the days of December go by in a fast clip, that anxiety mounts.

Yet if I allow myself to stop and reflect, I am able to ponder what this waiting is really all about. In the cold, dark mornings and wintry nights, when all the world seems asleep, I think about a teenage girl, nine months pregnant, making a difficult and dangerous journey to her husband’s ancestral home. I think of the rough, unsterile conditions in which she gives birth to a miraculous child, a son that will save the world.

I also think about present day miracles that always seem to occur around Christmas time. People willingly depositing their cash into little red Salvation Army buckets. Strangers wishing each other good cheer. Carolers visiting nursing homes. Good souls spending Christmas Day feeding the homeless. Estranged family members reconnecting for the sake of peace on Earth.

Like many families this Christmas, mine has experienced its share of joys and sorrows this year – engagements, weddings, births, deaths, illness, financial distress. Like many others, we are waiting – hoping and praying for peace, healing, and joy.

Whatever your beliefs or faith tradition, I pray that you find peace and lasting happiness during this season of light.