Here’s to Auter

Each calendar year gives me three months to look forward to the most:  October, November, December.   I call it my “Auter” since it includes parts of autumn and winter.

There are three main reasons I love Auter:  the temperatures get cooler, the holiday season is in full swing, and strangers reveal their humanity.

Out here in too sunny Southern California where I have lived my entire life, sunshine and warm/hot temperatures are monotonous.  I like variety.

I live for the seven-day forecast that shows a daytime temperature in the 60’s and a low reading in the 30’s.  Those days, unfortunately are rare, as are rainy days.

I feel revitalized when the weather is cold during the day, brand new oxygen, clean and fresh.  On those few brisk days, I feel that I can finally write that book.

Have you ever noticed how as you grow older the holidays seem more precious due to how few you have left in front of you?

As a child, there was nothing better than Christmas morning.  Waking up to presents and eating a huge breakfast feast.  That was Christmas. 

However, as I’ve aged, it is the days leading up to any holiday that resonate with me more.  That excitement of what’s to come, the anticipation of putting up certain decorations, shopping at stores that have somehow remained open throughout your lifetime, visiting particular restaurants dressed up for the holidays—those are my favorite days now.

By the time Thanksgiving Day or Christmas Day arrives, it is anti-climatic.  As soon as I wake up on Christmas, I no longer want to hear another carol or eat another cookie.  It’s over.  Gone for another 365 days.

As December melts into January, I hold on to a profound yet naive hope that people are nicer, kinder, more decent. 

Stories abound about the generosity of people who give time or money to those less fortunate.  Secret Santas who hand out $100 bills to strangers.   Removing a paper ornament off a Christmas day with the name of a foster child who asks for a modest toy.  Maybe that driver who never stops at a stop sign will finally do so for the safety of the stray dog or the mother with a stroller.  Finally smiling at the grocery clerk you see all the time and letting her know how much her service means to you not just during the holidays but any old days.

The most confounded thing about Auter is how quickly the days go by.  Why can’t the triple-digit days fly by and the chestnuts-roasting-on-an-open-fire nights go on forever?

That is why I cherish these days and reflect on them when the August heat waves melt my mind.

As much as I can’t wait for the holiday season to return, I don’t really want January through September to go quickly because that would mean losing most of a year from one’s limited bank account of years, an account that no one knows the remaining balance.

Christmas Time is Here But Vanishes All Too Soon

Each year when the Christmas season begins, I vow to soak in as much goodwill as I can.  Whether it is through hearing songs that transport me back to a time when I was little boy, or spending time with my family reminiscing about our past Christmases, or TV shows or movies that always touch me.

It is a melancholy feeling knowing that with each year’s joy of celebrating the holidays means one less year I will have in my life’s limited time clock to celebrate.

Which is why I overdo the celebrations each year, stretching myself to watch one more “Ozzie and Harriet” Christmas show, begin playing Christmas music a few days earlier into November, putting up the outdoor deer and sleigh on our front yard around Thanksgiving, going out one more night driving around blocks to capture the joy of the neighbor’s light displays, or keeping the Christmas tree up one more day to take in the pine smell, oxygen for the soul.

My wife and I recently bought a Countdown to Christmas decoration which requires us to place a toy Santa doll into each pocket of the month of December ending on the 25th.  It seems just as soon we begin on Dec. 1 all of a sudden it is Dec. 21.  Time goes by too fast.

I want to keep pushing a “pause” button so that I can continue baking cookies, listening to the music, visiting favorite restaurants decorated with colors and sounds, and spending time with friends and family.

At this time of year, I childishly hold on to the crazy idealistic belief that people of all kinds make an effort to be kinder towards strangers.  There is only one human race.  We have so much in common, why waste our time fighting one another as if we were from a different race?

As many songs say, why can’t this Christmas feeling stay with us the whole year through?  Why do we accept ugly behavior for 11 months of the year, just to wait for one month to act human, to hold a door open for someone, to allow a driver ahead of us, to donate time or money for those less fortunate?

I just saw a piece on CBS’s Sunday Morning show where a wealthy benefactor visits impoverished neighborhoods to give $100 bills to those needy people.  And what stood out to me wasn’t when the camera captured his handing out the money, but when he spoke kindly about a complete stranger, telling a mother how much a wonderful person she was to her children. That is when tears streamed down their faces as well as mine.  The money was just an excuse to touch other people, reminding them that their lives matter, no matter who they are or how they live.

I wish I could soak in more stories like this one for it reminds us of how charitable we all can be towards others.

With January around the corner, however, we will have to wait again for December to see these stories that ring emotional bells within us; in other words, to feel humane.

I’m Dreaming of a Not-so-Hot Christmas

When New Yorker Irving Berlin wrote the opening to his iconic “White Christmas,” he was suffering from a warm December day while vacationing in Beverly Hills.

The introduction, rarely recorded or known, goes like this:

The sun is shining, the grass is green
The orange and palm trees sway
There’s never been such a day
In Beverly Hills, L.A.
But it’s December the twenty-fourth
And I am longing to be up North

All my life I have been in the South, Southern California that is, and have only known warm or even hot holidays.  Forget a white Christmas; I’d settle for a sunny but brisk 65-degree holiday.

Unfortunately, the chance of a cold or rainy Thanksgiving or Christmas is extremely rare.  If the temperatures stop rising at 79 degrees, I consider it better than the 93-degree Thanksgiving that sweltered Burbank in 2017.

Watching those TV commercials with people bundled up in sweaters and parkas, making their way through snowy landscapes taunts me:  that fantasy has never materialized.

And with the way the weather has become warmer in recent decades, the future looks hotter.

I know that me griping about warm weather during the fall and winter months places me among the minority of Angelenos.  I am never happy when a weathercaster appears joyful describing a warming trend or gloomy when predicting a few raindrops in the forecast.

Here we are a week before Thanksgiving and I’ve only had one fire in the fireplace so far because the nighttime temperatures have barely edged below 55 degrees.

For me, cooler days invigorates me while the hot ones depletes my energy even with indoor air conditioning.

I keep promising myself that one of these Decembers I will trek to a colder climate and spend a week in a mountain cabin and actually see it snow on Christmas Day.

In the meantime, I’ll have to live with not Christmas in July, but July in Christmas.

It’s the Most Busiest Time of the Year

The week between Christmas and New Year’s is unlike any other of the 52 in the year.

Even if you don’t have to work, there is so much to do that you don’t feel like you have had time off.

First, every speck of seasonal sparkle needs to be put away.  Nothing is more depressing than Christmas decorations still up after the first of the year.

Now it is time to take down the tree.  Remember to put each ornament back into its correct compartment of each cardboard box.

Saw off the larger branches so that the heart of the tree can fit through the door on its way to the green garbage bin.

Vacuum the fallen needles.  Sweep them off the porch and driveway.

Remove all of the delicate Christmas knickknacks decorated throughout the house and re-pack each one back into its own container until next year.

Get the ladder out and retrieve the giant plastic red boxes that store everything.

Keep the ladder out to take down the outdoor lights; you don’t want to be that one house on the block with them still attached to the eaves in March.

No matter how one tries to carefully fill each box with the same contents in the same position, it seems that you still need one more box to fit all of the Christmas decorations.

Then it’s off to the after-Christmas sales. You buy wrapping paper and greeting cards, not because you need them, but because you fell in love with the candy cane pattern or the old-fashioned Santa face.  You also buy because in some way you want to continue the good feeling of buying gifts that has just concluded with Christmas.

Once arriving back home, time to reward yourself with a ham sandwich, leftovers of the Honeybaked ham.  Once the pre-sliced ham is gone, give up carving the remaining meat around the bone, so throw the rest of it away (unless you like to make soup).

And the sugar.  The See’s candies, the Lindt chocolates, the tin of caramel and cheese corn, the red and green M&M’s, and the hazelnut (fill-in-the-blank).   There is a part of me that wants to get rid of it all.  No worries; my students will enjoy them.  In the midst of a sugar high I try to figure out the last time I ate vegetables.

When you finally get to the end of the day to pick up the new biography of Ulysses S. Grant or the latest Jack Reacher novel by Lee Childs, you find yourself too exhausted to get past 10 pages.  Maybe you can wake up before anybody else tomorrow morning and find some golden time to absorb all of the joy you have just experienced.

Outings need to be arranged with out-of-town guests.  It’s not that the visits are obligations, it’s just that you would like time to watch that new DVD.

Don’t forget to take down the 2017 calendar and replace it with the 2018 one—but not before significant birthdays have been written in the squares for each month.

You blink and New Year’s Eve arrives.  Can you enjoy yourself at home or must you join the throngs at the Queen Mary celebration?   Make a reservation and don’t look at the credit card statement.   Drive yourself or take Uber?   Watch out for those driving while intoxicated.   You want to be around for all of 2018.

On New Year’s Day, TV viewing is essential for either the Rose Parade or the football bowl games.   Too bad that resolutions begin on Jan. 1 and not Jan. 2 because it is difficult to plant one’s self passively in front of a screen without overeating.

One final task remains:  to plan a real vacation months down the road so you can truly relax.

 

OMG: Not Even Charlie Brown is exempt from the war on Christmas

As I watched the 1952 film “O’Henry’s Full House” on TCM which ends with a tracking shot on the star of Bethlehem, I thought about how this type of religious symbol would never be shown in a movie today.

In fact, when is the last time you saw a major motion picture or TV program that treated religion in a non-sarcastic way?

In the past, having characters pray to God or attending religious services was considered normal, a reflection of audience’s lives back then.

A Gallup Poll asking Americans about their religious beliefs in June showed that 89 percent of Americans still do believe in God.   Such a number has held steady over the years from a high of 98 percent in the early 1960s.   What has declined is ­­­­people attending religious services.

Reporter Emma Green points out in The Atlantic article “It’s Hard to Go to Church” that “50 or 60 years ago, churches, in particular, were a center of social and cultural life in America [but now] many people may be creating their social lives outside of a religious context—or perhaps forgoing that kind of social connection altogether.”

A litigious segment of the population that wishes to permanently abolish any religious shadings from America’s culture has resulted in what some perceive as an anti-Christian sentiment.

The word “God” in the Pledge of Allegiance has been challenged several times.  Some cringe when they hear that word in public (though the initialism OMG is somehow okay).

Yet imagine how less powerful Frank Capra’s 1946 “It’s a Wonderful Life” would have been if in the most gut-wrenching moment of the film when Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey begs for his life back—“please, God, let me live again”—he omitted “God.”  It is the prayer to God that charges that scene with emotion; without it, the scene would not have resonated so deeply.

Even 1990’s “Home Alone” known for its slapstick comedy has a scene in a church.  As “O Holy Night” plays in the background, Kevin, played by Macaulay Culkin, meets his neighbor, Old Man Marley.   Neither character is shown praying, but the idea that two people who don’t know one another, one a child, the other an elderly man, can share a contemplative moment in a place of worship is a scene that would never make the final cut nowadays.

Just this week a legal battle ensued concerning 1965’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” the animated classic which depicts a school nativity program and Linus quoting from the Bible, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior which is Christ the Lord.  That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

Dedra Shannon, a nurse’s aide at a middle school in Killeen, Texas, took that quote and, along with a likeness of Linus, taped it to the door of the nurse’s office.  The school board ordered it removed.  But on Thursday a judge ordered it back on the door with the words “Ms. Shannon’s holiday message” added.

Frankly, it is amazing the show is still played on TV without being edited or a disclaimer tacked onto the opening.

We are living in a time where religion and gender are being rubbed off of human identity.   Then what is left?

Zooey Deschanel who recorded a Christmas album along with M. Ward as She & Him told the Los Angeles Times that “we tried to do ‘Here Comes Santa Claus,’ but then we realized how religious that song is.”

What specifically bothered her?

“It goes, ‘Santa knows that we’re God’s children / And that makes everything right / Hang your stockings and say your prayers…’” Deschanel then began to laugh.  “It was kind of scary.”

Pretty sad the times we live in when using the words “God” and “prayers” make people laugh or scared.