Affluenza

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day-after-washington-square-crowd-2012jpg-9fa154e14a0ab044Shoppers hit malls the day after Christmas (oregonlive.com)

 

Just before New Year’s, I read a disturbing statistic in The New York Times: “Americans have among the lowest levels of happiness and work-life balance in the developed world.”

I wish I could say I was stunned to learn that the wealthiest nation in the world was among the least happy. But I had noticed that immediately after Christmas Day, a day when many of us showered each other with countless gifts, the malls were packed with after-Christmas shoppers. Sure, some of those shoppers were returning or exchanging gifts that didn’t quite work. But many people were undoubtedly there for all the post-Christmas bargains so that they could amass more stuff.

The need to acquire more and more material goods and wealth is a symptom of an inner discontent. We tie our worth, not to our intrinsic goodness as human beings, but to the prestige of the car we drive, the handbag we carry, and the zip code in which we live. Then we wake up the day after Christmas and find that none of those gleaming presents around the tree have made us feel any better about ourselves.

No surprise that too much is never enough in a land where everything is available. Look at the levels of obesity in the United States, which are some of the worst in the world. A few years ago, I read a news story about an African teenager who had been brought to the United States to be educated and cared for at a charitable residential school called Mooseheart. The young man came to prominence because he was a star player on Mooseheart’s basketball team. Describing his early life in the United States, he described being taken to a hamburger place and being able to eat only half of the food put in front of him. He was amazed at the bounty in America. We are indeed lucky to have an abundance of food and other essentials here in America. Yet that same abundance tends to breed excess.

The other consequence of all this materialism is that we need to work harder and longer hours to acquire an affluent lifestyle. Technology, which should be seen as a labor saving boon, is instead used to connect us to our workplaces 24/7. Hard-driving workaholics are the admired ones in our society. We give lip service to family values, but our culture encourages us to leave our families and chase more money, power, and prestige.

As we begin a new decade, we as Americans should reconsider our values. It starts with each individual. I can start to recognize what truly makes me happy: spending time with family, giving to others, having solitude in which to read and reflect. I can shed the need for more material things. I can start to judge myself and others not by the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, or the jobs we hold, but by how we treat each other in this land of endless bounty.

 

2020 Vision

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As we begin a new decade, I’ve been thinking about the periods of growth and stagnation in my own development. I’ve noticed that as I plunge headlong into my sixties, I’ve become a little set in my ways. My interests, values, likes and dislikes have been established, and I’ve seen no need to depart from them. That might not be the best way to age gracefully.

I have decided that my goal for 2020 is openness. The way to fight stagnation is to open oneself to new experiences and to other people. For example, when my husband and I were younger, I was game to see all kinds of movies with him, to attend rock concerts, and to share in his MSU Spartan fandom. Over the years, though, I lost my patience with action movies, loud music venues, and trips to East Lansing, Michigan. As a result, my husband and I are often two ships passing in the night, retreating to our separate TVs and interests. In order to grow together and not apart, we need to embrace each other’s passions to some degree. Maybe a date night at the new Star Wars movie is a place to start.

I am an inveterate homebody. I love nothing more than to stay home with a good book and my family. But getting out and being with other people is healthy. Last night, a dear friend of mine from college hosted my husband and myself at her home for dinner. It was so great to reconnect with her and her husband and to be social. My sister is another person who helps get me off the couch and out into the world. Because of her, I see more live theater than I ever would if left to my own devices. In 2020, I plan to be the seeker and initiator of more experiences with others in my life.

Openness also means the willingness to listen to others whose beliefs differ from my own. Especially in this charged political climate, it has seemed impossible to cross the partisan divide. As a presidential election looms, I plan to seek other outlooks on the candidates and the issues facing America today. Such openness will either confirm my current beliefs, alter them, or expand them to include more nuance, more areas of gray. I hope Americans on both sides of the aisle at least attempt to hear each other instead of constantly listening to the echo chamber of their own political stances.

I’m looking forward to a new decade. My children are (mostly) grown, and my time is more than ever my own. I plan to make good use of it as we head into the new Roaring Twenties.

 

Remembering the “Old Man” at Christmas

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My father was a Christmas Eve baby. Although celebrating his birthday each year might have been an inconvenience for my grandmother, his own kids loved having something extra special to revel in during an already magical season.

Dad’s birthday kickoff would be a traditional turkey dinner with all the fixings. Then we’d present the gifts we’d racked our brains to come up with, fathers being notoriously hard to shop for. The typical ties and pairs of socks we wrapped up each December 24 sometimes gave way to more unusual items. One year I gave Dad a small oil can, something the Tin Man might have used. Another year all 11 children pitched in and bought my father a smoking jacket. It was deep red velvet and lined with black satin – positively Hefner-esque.

When my older sisters reached their teens, we developed a new tradition to mark my dad’s birthday. Each Christmas one of the networks would air the classic Bing Crosby movie White Christmas. This was one of our favorites. We particularly loved the song “Sisters” performed by Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen, and we would often do our own sisterly rendition in the kitchen while washing the dinner dishes. During these TV viewings of White Christmas, my dad would join us and gently mock the schmaltz. We knew, though, that he secretly liked the movie and enjoyed sharing it with his kids.

In the film, two old war buddies decide to help their commanding officer, who has retired to Vermont and runs a ski resort in risk of closing down due to the lack of snow. The two friends track down their fellow soldiers and invite them to the inn for a musical show on Christmas Eve. When the former CO walks into the theater, the men all stand and sing “We’ll Follow the Old Man.” It’s a teary and heart-warming scene.

The older kids in my family decided it would be fun to sing this song at our “old man’s” birthday celebration. We bought a paper birthday crown that we made Dad put on after dinner. Then we gathered around him and sang a rousing chorus of the song, whose lyrics include, “We’ll follow the old man wherever he wants to go” and “Because we love him.”

Singing “We’ll Follow the Old Man” became a Christmas Eve tradition. My dad would chuckle softly, and his eyes would twinkle as his children, and later grandchildren, surrounded him and sang. The year my father died, we sang it in his honor on Christmas Eve.

“And we’ll tell the troops we answered duty’s call – to the greatest son of a soldier of them all.”

 

Layaway

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When I was a college student, my bank balance usually hovered in the five dollar range. During my freshman year, I realized that my winter coat was insufficient for the harsh reality of life on the Illinois prairie. So I headed to our small campus town in Champaign, Illinois, and found the coat of my dreams. It was a light, cream-colored parka with a furry hood. But as the price tag was significantly higher than my bank balance, there was only one option for me: buying it on layaway.

With just a few dollars down, I could have the jacket stashed away for me until I was able to pay for it in full. Week after week, I saved up money from my part-time job at the university library and tried working a few extra hours so that I could put more funds towards an eventual reunion with that warm and lovely coat.

I was reminded of this experience from my past by a news story I read the other day. Chicago Bears linebacker Khalil Mack went into a Florida Walmart and paid off the $80,000 in layaway debt shoppers had accrued so that families could go home with their merchandise. (“NFL star Khalil Mack pays off all $80,000 worth of layaways at hometown Walmart,” Christopher Brito, CBS News, Dec. 11, 2019) I have seen similar stories at the holidays of other athletes and celebrities playing Secret Santa for layaway customers, and it always warms my heart.

In this day and age, the ubiquity of credit cards has made the concept of layaway almost old-fashioned. Instead, we simply charge everything and hope to pay it off eventually, often accruing serious amounts of interest in the process. But for many low-income people, a credit card is not even an option. So using layaway is a method to have purchases saved and put away until their buyers can come up with the money to pay for them.

It bears remembering that in this season of bounty, so many are struggling to afford the necessities of life, never mind the extras. Here in Chicago, we may not have much to brag about when it comes to professional football prowess. But we can admire the magnanimous heart of Khalil Mack and others striving to make the world just a little bit better.

Reason for the Season

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It feels special to me that the first Sunday of Advent has fallen on December 1, the same date on which we open the first window on our Advent calendar. When my kids were young, they would fight to be the one to open the little window and extract the toy that would hang on the Advent tree. Today at Mass, the Advent Wreath is blessed and the first candle lit. It is the start of a season of waiting in darkness for the Light of the World.

I love the month of December with its promise of Christmas. It’s true that the weather has turned cold, and there’s always the possibility of snow to slow things down. The trees are stripped bare, and nature looks stark and uninviting. Nighttime comes earlier and earlier as we head toward the winter solstice, and many nights I long to go to bed early, a bit of human hibernation.

During this season, I love to play George Winston’s aptly titled album December as I drive around doing Christmas errands or sit at the kitchen table addressing Christmas cards. The gentle piano music puts me in a meditative mood that is just right for the season of Advent.

Advent is about waiting: waiting for families to come together, waiting for healing strength, sometimes even waiting for a miracle. Contemplating the story of a poor and helpless infant being born in the dark of night, in the unsanitary conditions of a stable with a feeding trough for a bed: it’s hard to fathom the mystery of this tiny child being the salvation of the world.

It’s a joyful kind of waiting, though. Christmas is coming. Hope and love are its harbingers. The twinkling lights and jingle bells of the season break through the darkness and fill us with anticipation. Our spirits lift, and we pour out the excess on the people we encounter.

It’s easy to get lost in the pre-Christmas hustle and bustle. There is so much to do: gifts to buy and wrap, cookies to bake, travel arrangements to make, holiday meals to plan. Advent is designed to help us keep our hearts and minds on the reason for the season: the birth of the Christ child and what that means for our world.

In the stillness of the winter, we can listen to the promptings of the spirit and truly prepare ourselves to receive the greatest gift of all.

 

Attitude of Gratitude

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The other day my husband, daughter and I were talking about materialism. A classmate of hers had written an essay about the subject, and we were debating the ability of a capitalistic society to eradicate greed and the obsession with possessions. My husband said he had recently read that 80 percent of the world’s population lives on less than two dollars a day.

It’s easy to focus on what we don’t have. At times I get disgusted with my unruly hair or impatient when our home technology goes on the fritz. Taking for granted my access to an abundance of food, I bemoan my inability to lose weight. I complain about being stuck in my car in heavy traffic while others are waiting out in the cold at a bus stop. I grumble about long lines at the supermarket without being grateful that I have the means to shop there in the first place.

It’s easy to take our good fortune for granted. We come to assume it as a right rather than a privilege. In a novel I recently read, the aristocratic British characters move through the world in a state of entitlement, little appreciating or understanding how most of their fellow Brits live.

During this Thanksgiving week, it’s a great time to take stock of the many blessings in our lives. Rather than lamenting the cold and blustery weather, we can appreciate having warmth and shelter from the elements. Instead of bellyaching about long to-do lists, we can be happy that our families are together and that we will have a table full of food to share.

Very early this morning, my son arrived safely in Chicago after a particularly turbulent flight through some intense storms. My husband picked him up from the airport at a time when most of the world, myself included, was fast asleep. Their voices awakened me as they entered the house, but instead of being annoyed, I was grateful to have my entire family safely under one roof together.

For the next few days, thousands of people will be traveling to be with their loved ones, break bread, and celebrate one of the least commercialized holidays in America. Let’s cultivate an attitude of gratitude for all that we have and all that we are to each other.

 

Make Cocoa, Not War

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Record low temperatures in the Midwest are making it feel more like January 14 than November 14. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas? With snow and ice on the ground, my big red parka pressed into service, and recent forays into shopping malls, I am getting the Christmas spirit early this year. I may even have to start listening to the “Holiday Lite,” a local radio station playing festive tunes 24/7.

Of course, along with the peppermint mochas and the jingle bells come the inevitable complaints about the “war on Christmas.” Despite the fact that no one has ever been attacked for saying “Merry Christmas” or wearing an ugly Christmas sweater, many will have to carp publicly about the near death of an entrenched and ubiquitous holiday that shows no signs of dying out.

What these people are really upset about are efforts in the public sphere to be more inclusive of others who don’t share the tradition of celebrating Christmas. Thus the removal of creches from the county courthouse and religious hymns from the public school music program. A certain portion of our populace insists that America was founded as a Christian nation and that attempts to remove religious symbols and customs from public places is the first step toward Hell in a hand basket. Conveniently left out of this argument, of course, is that pesky First Amendment with its anti-establishment clause.

Also ignored is one of the principles that makes our democracy shine: protection of minorities. We are only free to the extent that we respect the rights of each and every American. Besides, being inclusive of people with different beliefs and customs makes life more interesting and fun.

I’ll never forget the year I volunteered to help with the winter holiday party in my son’s second grade class. In an effort to include different holiday traditions, we were having a Hanukkah station where kids learned to play the dreidel game. I was assigned to prepare and run the dreidel station, but I had no idea what to do. There was a single Jewish child in my son’s class, and the boys happened to be friends. So I called Jack’s mother and asked for her help with the dreidel game. She replied with a laugh, “I’d be happy to help. But I’m Muslim, so I don’t know anything about the game either!”

Life in the great melting pot of America is more colorful when we embrace each other’s language, foods, customs, and celebrations. That doesn’t in any way diminish our enjoyment of our own.

So by all means, wish anyone you’d like a “Merry Christmas.” I’m pretty sure that’s not an endangered expression. Meanwhile, baby, it’s cold outside!