Tik Tok: Time’s Up

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My teenage daughter has found a new way to waste tons of time: the phone app Tik Tok. For the uninitiated, Tik Tok is a platform for posting short videos of yourself usually singing, dancing, or performing in some way. According to my daughter, it’s supposed to be the antidote to the glammed up versions of ourselves we’ve been posting on Instagram. (When I say ourselves, I mean the youngsters!)

On Tik Tok, you see, you can be silly and unpolished. Getting laughs is pretty much the point. Lately, the craze seems to involve posting intricate dance moves and having others compete with their own Tik Tok posts replicating the same dance. The whole thing seems terribly pointless, and the expenditures of time on the site are ridiculously wasteful.

Let’s face it. If you feel the need to post pictures or videos of yourself on social media, you are looking for attention and approval. It matters not whether the image is an airbrushed ideal you are trying to portray or a “Hey, I’m just a regular girl/guy” persona.

My daughter is the youngest of four children, and I am grateful that my three older kids grew up largely before the influence of social media. It has been a struggle to rein in my daughter’s addiction to her screen and insist that she get homework done, rest, and interact with her own family from time to time. I can’t imagine if I had had to deal with crazes such as Tik Tok four times!

I recall the advent of social online presences when my oldest child got AOL Instant Messenger on the computer. She would simultaneously complete her homework and chat with friends. Once my husband and I discovered an “away message” on AIM that included a mild expletive. We grounded her from the computer for a month!

In the good old days, I could also monitor what my kids were listening to music-wise. They were only allowed to download radio versions of songs that removed all the bad language. And although they did have iPods and could ostensibly get around that rule, they largely listened to their music in ways that I could hear.

I don’t envy younger parents. A tech-saturated world is only going to get more advanced. Soon parents will be grappling with teens having virtually reality sex and killing off their enemies in not-so-innocent VR games. I guess I should be happy for the relative innocence of Tik Tok.

Still, I think the clock needs to run out on Tik Tok. I still have to get my daughter through her senior year!

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.

 

Officer Friendly

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This morning when I dropped my daughter off at the high school, I noticed a man I’ll call Officer Friendly standing at the entrance. Smiling and waving, Officer Friendly seemed determined to elicit smiles from the surly teenage early morning crowd.

Officer Friendly has been a fixture in my small town since before my family moved here. He participated in the annual Safety Village program for preschoolers, a curriculum set up to provide instructions to tots on various aspects of road and personal safety. For a while, Officer Friendly was tasked with crossing guard duties near the high school. Unlike most of the officers given this unglamorous post, Officer Friendly would smile and chat with the students as they waited for the light to change on the busy street by the school.

But what Officer Friendly was most known for was his involvement in D.A.R.E., a program to help elementary school children learn about the dangers, and thus stay away from, drugs and alcohol. While D.A.R.E. has shown to be largely ineffective in preventing teen drug use, I still appreciate the connection my children were able to make with a police officer as a friendly and helpful presence in their lives.

Too much of our image of police is negative. They’re the ones you fear will stop you for driving too fast. They’re the ones the neighbors will call if your underage drinking party gets rowdy. And, of course, some police officers abuse their power, particularly against minorities.

But Officer Friendly is a reminder of what community policing can be. It’s true that his career has been spent policing a fairly safe little town. The major crimes around here are petty theft, vandalism, and underage drinking. Still, it would be only too easy for the officers in our police department to see its citizens as “the enemy.” When you are tasked with arresting people, writing tickets, and being suspicious of odd activity for a living, you might start thinking the worst of your fellow human beings.

Yet Officer Friendly never seemed to be afflicted with a misanthropic outlook. He even used a dose of humor in his policing. He once came to a meeting of the community service club I had started at my children’s elementary school to speak to the kids about safety issues. With him was a young teen he had picked up for doing “something stupid,” according to Officer Friendly. He joked with and cajoled the unhappy teen into participating in the club activities. If I were foolish enough to get into trouble as a teenager, I’d want Officer Friendly to be my arresting officer.

Officer Friendly has been retired for a few years now. Yet he is still involved in our community. Seeing him on the steps of the local high school, the omnipresent grin on his face, I felt happy and lucky to have such a role model for the kids in my town.

Ignore the Clowns in the Center Ring

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Every day, the Trump circus provides some new craven and offensive remarks that send the media a-Twitter. Today’s insults were directed against a decorated war hero and his uniform of all things. Cue the outrage and opposing memes reminding America that President Bone Spurs and his sons have done exactly zero to be of service to our country – including and especially throughout their disastrous stint in the White House.

Never mind that any self-respecting 10-year-old playground bully wouldn’t lower himself to the level of these “burns.” Democrats have to come out angrily denouncing the comments, and the statements themselves take on a new life on Facebook, Twitter, the news etc.

I have news for everyone. This is exactly the intent of Trump’s constant barrage of attacks on Twitter, in speeches, and at his omnipresent political rallies. He wants to distract the American people from the reality of what is proceeding in Congress these days as dignified and credible witness after witness testifies that our president used the power of his office to extract political dirt on his likely opponent in the 2020 race.

I’m not saying we should excuse or ever get used to the leader of our nation reducing individuals to dismissive nicknames, mocking their looks, manner and dress, or questioning their patriotism. But at this stage, our main goal should be focusing on Trump’s misdeeds, of which there are many, and keeping his actions as president the focus of our criticism.

It is quite clear that not only did Trump ask for help from Ukraine to discredit Joe Biden, but he withheld military aid from an ally that is currently besieged by the object of Trump’s main bromance: Vladimir Putin. If, prior to 2016, you had asked people to imagine Republicans standing by silently while a U.S. president praised a Russian leader and simultaneously maligned distinguished members of our own military, most people would think you were either crazy or a Hollywood screen writer.

Let’s stop feeding our narcissistic leader the attention and even outrage he so obviously craves. Ignore the side show and focus on the main events: the current impeachment hearings and the next presidential election. The only way to make the circus leave town is to get rid of the man in the center ring.

Wait for It

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Ever since the arrival of paid subscription television, the Big Three networks ABC, NBC, and CBS have been looked upon with a certain amount of disdain. Network shows are seen as largely predictable, saccharine, and not particularly worthy of critical acclaim. For a few dollars a month, viewers can watch quality TV without the interruption of annoying commercials. Further, streaming services such as Netflix have allowed the New Millennium phenomenon of binge-watching an entire season of a television series in one sitting.

I have enjoyed and continue to enjoy some of the critically acclaimed fare on these subscription networks: The Sopranos, Homeland, and Stranger Things, to name a few. Yet I am still a fan of so-called network TV. And I was heartened to find that I am not alone. Los Angeles Times writer Robert Lloyd penned a defense of network TV that appeared in my Chicago Tribune today. He pointed out that while broadcast series have been largely snubbed in recent years at the Emmys, there is still much to be enjoyed about these stories that enter our home week after week. I must agree.

One criticism of broadcast television is that it is bland and not edgy. The main reason for this perception is that the FCC regulates the content of shows appearing on the Big Three networks. NBC’s The Good Place even uses this fact cleverly with the conceit that, in Heaven, all swearing is converted into innocuous language. (“Holy Mother-forking shirt balls!”) Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t need gallons of blood, gratuitous nudity, or strings of F-words to be entertained. What’s more, I can watch the more family-friendly fare you find on network TV with my kids.

Because network television has to appeal to a broad audience, TV snobs find it uncool to like 30-minute sitcoms, police procedurals, or family dramas. Yet some of the most clever comedies of recent times originated on broadcast TV. I defy anyone to find a funnier, hipper or more heart-warming comedy than The Big Bang Theory. And the comic timing of the actors on Modern Family is nothing short of genius. As Lloyd points out in his commentary, streaming services have been spending big bucks obtaining the rights to former network shows due to their widespread and enduring popularity. (“In defense of network TV,” Robert Lloyd, Chicago Tribune, Nov. 19, 2019)

Of course, there is nothing enjoyable about sitting through television commercials, and this was an initial appeal of paid-for TV: the lack thereof. But with the advent of the DVR, viewers can still avoid TV ads simply by fast forwarding them. Or we can use commercial breaks the way gramps and I did in the olden days. It’s the perfect time to use the bathroom or get a snack.

I have to give credit where credit is due. Competition from subscription TV programming forced the Big Three to up their game in terms of quality. Today there are some wonderfully nuanced and special shows on the networks. My favorite is the drama This Is Us. Although I’ve always found the series title atrocious, I am amazed each week at the depth and surprises to be experienced in following the lives of the fictional Pearson clan. Each episode leaves me dying for more.

And that comes to the final reason to love network television. There is something special about seeing a story unfold week after week, to be given small doses of an ongoing saga as opposed to watching episode after episode and, as Lloyd puts it, “feeling way too full and maybe a little dirty.”

Broadcast television will give you a steady diet of laughter, inspiration, and suspense – if you’re willing to wait for it.

 

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!