Friday, October 24, 2008

Sodom and Gomorrah

Living in Washtenaw County and being a faithful Catholic who is inclined to vote Republican is like being Lot living in Sodom and Gomorrah. It feels so overwhelming, sometimes, realizing so many people are determined to live in opposition to clearly spoken truths about life and morality. A visiting angel would have a hard time getting any ears to listen from people who are set on this treacherous path. And yet I feel that my place is here. We who stand here, defending truth and morality are those few that Abraham interceded for to God. We are the ones who, through prayer and action, can stay the hand of God's judgment. For the sake of the ten, he will not destroy the city. But we must do our part: speak up, act, and intercede in prayer as well. If we obey, we will be safe--and perhaps a few may flee the city with us when we receive those marching orders. Until then, stand fast with the whole armor of God.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

This Is the Day the Lord Has Made

The most prominent and enduring family tradition that we celebrate happens every Saturday night. As Christians we take the third commandment seriously and set aside Saturday night to Sunday night as a day for rest, recreation, worship, and occasionally a work of mercy. To begin this special time period, we come together for a ceremony performed before the evening meal on Saturday night. It resembles the same ceremony that our Jewish brethren perform for their Sabbath—candle lighting, songs, prayers, wine and Hallah bread with cheese. The bread is a special recipe that has eggs in it, and is braided and baked with an egg wash on it to give it a special shine. I made it for years, before my daughter got interested in baking. Now she has taken over making it, about six loaves at a time, so that we don’t have to bake as often. We freeze the extra loaves for upcoming weeks.

We try to make a point not to do work during this twenty-four hour period, although homework sometimes still needs to be taken care of. Even with schoolwork, we encourage the kids to hold off till Sunday evening if possible. We also don’t shop on Sundays unless some unforeseen circumstance, like unexpected company, requires it. Any shopping is usually limited to medicine or essential grocery items, like milk.

The central event of our family life happens on Saturday evening. Having celebrated the Lord’s Day ceremony together, we have the finest meal of the week, followed with the best dessert we can come up with. Then comes family time. What do we do, and how do we decide what to do?

In the beginning, when the children were younger, my husband and I would just decide what the activity would be. We try to avoid just watching a movie together, but we don’t entirely eliminate that option. For one thing, we love certain movies, and have the lines memorized from our favorite scenes. Our family will throw a movie quote into a conversation on a frequent basis, and we all yuck it up when someone gets just the right intonation and voice quality to mimic a favorite character: Inspector Clouseau, Rambo or Rocky, Steve Martin or John Candy roles. We choose the video option from time to time, but not back-to-back weeks in a row.

We play many board games, but some of the games are ones that we invented ourselves. For instance, when the kids were very little they liked to play “Shepherd and the Sheep.” It was a simple role-playing game. Dad was the shepherd. Mom was the wolf. We traded off on these roles. The kids were the sheep that the shepherd had to protect. The wolf went off and hid in a mostly dark house, and the shepherd would lead the sheep around and protect them when needed. Very simple, short and sweet, and bedtimes were early back then.

By the time the kids were in their teens the invented games got more sophisticated. We have played most often a homemade version of Jeopardy. Everyone goes off and thinks up a category and writes five answers with questions for it. Our oldest son has always played the role of Alec Trebek. Then we come back together and divide into teams. There are no fancy buzzers. When you know the answer you yell “beep”, and Alex discerns who yelled first. You can’t give the questions to your own answers, so each team is equally handicapped. The category writing is one of the more enjoyable parts of the game. We can personalize the categories into things like: Favorite Family Vacations, Favorite Movie Quotes, and Desserts We’d Like to Have Again. The first time our youngest played, he picked for his category “Jams”, and he wrote out all the answers and questions. The first answer was “It is red and has strawberries in it.” That was probably one of our favorite games, because the youngest clearly got a kick out of making an important contribution.

Another invented game was “Tabloid Headlines.” We all secretly wrote down three or four made-up tabloid headlines. As each was read off, we had to guess who wrote it. The headlines were very creative, and got some of us laughing uncontrollably. Example: Woman Gives Birth to Frank Sinatra’s Head: He sings beautifully proud mother exclaims. Another version of this would be to throw in some real tabloid headlines collected in advance, and figure out which were real and which were fakes. I’m in the process of collecting some real doozies now.

We have also made an evening out of listening to music. Everyone is allotted ten minutes of music time and they select something they enjoy listening to. We all take turns sharing our favorite selections. Dad plays the Beatles, Mom brings out the classics (by request opera sopranos are not allowed—sorry opera fans), there’s rock and roll, some country and folk tunes, and Final Fantasy orchestral pieces. Even some movie sound tracks make it into the line-up. Ten minutes times seven people make for a nice evening’s entertainment, and an appreciation for what other folks like to hear. It also helps some of us get better at Encore, a commercial boxed game of singing song lyrics.

Once we had a conflict to solve. A few members wanted to watch an important post season baseball game for family time, and the younger children definitely did not. So we decided to create a sports bar. The television could be on, but refreshments and some “casino” type games would be available in different parts of the room. You played the games to win refreshments. Everyone was happy. The baseball fans were willing to play a little game to get some popcorn and pop, and the younger ones had a chance to have fun setting up the room and planning the games. Once the casino games were all played, with the television on the whole time for the fans to stay in touch with the game, the younger ones were happy to eat their popcorn till bedtime and watch the game too. It was one of our better compromise situations.

There are lots of ideas of what to do for a fun Saturday evening together. Some of the ideas will flop, but if Saturday night is established early as a non-negotiable family time together, even the flopped ideas will be forgivable. Whatever is decided on, it should play into the strengths and interests of the family, and maybe even stretch those interests into new areas. It should also be something that bonds the family instead of bringing out areas of tension or weakness. That is not to say that tempers are never lost on Saturday night, or that no one ever has to play something that bores them. But if everyone knows that every Saturday the family will be together, and that the goal is fun, closeness, and a celebration of family life, eventually even the foot-draggers will be won over. Figure that the commandment to keep the day holy unto the Lord has been kept.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Christmas letter dilemma

That perennial family tradition of writing a Christmas letter to be inserted in cards to folks we only hear from once a year was also a hallmark of our family life. As vulnerable people, we often dread the writing of one, and maybe more often abhor the reading of other’s, especially if we have a tendency to compare achievements. But in our fast-paced modern lifestyle, the Christmas letter seems to be one last vestige of trying to stay connected with people from all points in our walk through life. I like to hear from people and I read every single word of every newsletter that comes our way from acquaintances that cared enough to keep us informed.

However, determined not to be overwhelmed with an overly-active schedule and too many committees, appointments, sporting events, extra-curriculars, and so forth, our family has made a concerted effort to not be described as over-achievers. Many people admire this choice, and we are a closer and happier family because of it—until it comes time to write that Christmas letter. What is one to say?

For the first fifteen or so years of our marriage we had the perfect solution. Instead of writing a dull list of things we’ve not done, places we’ve not gone, and awards we’ve not won, we instead collected and wrote down all the funny things our kids said over the course of that year and let their insights be the content of our newsletter. People began telling us how much they looked forward to our Christmas card. Some folks even asked to promise never to drop them from our mailing list. Another friend said she wanted to do the same thing, but was embarrassed about copying. I said, “Just do it. You will be thanked.” What I didn’t say is the thanks will come from friends, but also from your own family later on. And you will thank yourself.

The following is a short compilation of some of the best entries in our newsletter. I’ve changed the names to ages, and of course, as the kids got older their ages changed. The four-year-old in this first entry is the ten-year-old later on.

Three-year-old: I’m going to be a cow when I get big.

Four-year-old: You can’t be a cow. A cow has 1, 2, 3, 4 legs and you only have two.

Papa: How did this cassette get in here?

Four-year-old: Papa, I was going to bring it back and then my schedule changed.

Four-year-old: I took a prayer time, mama. I sang “Christ is Risen” and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

Five-year-old: (at K-Mart, drumming fingers thoughtfully) Papa, I’ve been doing a little thinking here. Let’s get some nails and build a skyscraper in the backyard.

Four-year-old: (While eating an ice-cream bar) There’s another ice-cream bar in my mind.

Four-year-old: (saying his bedtime prayers) Dear God, I pray that papa wouldn’t have any problems at work, that mama wouldn’t have any temper tantrums, that my brother would stop picking his nose and teasing me, and that I would be a good brother to him. Amen.

Five-year-old: Before any people were made the dinosaurs were on the earth, but nobody knew it ‘til they got the book and record.

Ten-year-old: Mom, did you ever think that if Adam and Eve didn’t sin, would there still be Legos?

Nine-year-old: (hearing that a friend bit someone) I can’t believe anyone would do that? You might bite someone’s poison ivy!

Four-year-old: (saying dinner prayers) Thank you, Lord, that my brother barfs olives.

Nine-year-old: Mom, you’re the greatest mom in the whole world.

Four-year-old: Yeah, our mom’s never mean.

Nine-year-old: Oh yeah. Well, you haven’t lived as long as I have!

Three-year-old: Mom, can I wake up from my nap now?

Five-year-old: (worried) Mom, I just don’t know how my life is going.

Mom: Do any of you need to go to the bathroom? I don’t want to have to stop at the grocery store to take you to the bathroom.

Five-year-old: Mom, that’s just the way life works.

So that’s the idea. Sadly kids grow up. They are still funny, but it takes whole paragraphs to describe the personality quirks of the individual, all the circumstances surrounding the event, and why they said what they said, before you even get to the punch line. We chose not to explain it all. Plus some individuals knew our ears were cocked for funny stuff, and it isn’t funny when someone is just trying to make it into the Christmas news. Our letters have gotten dull again, but the past letters have been saved and brought out for a laugh over and over again. Besides, no one-page blurb about our family could possibly sum up the fun we have had, the eagerness with which we come together, and the affection we hold for one another. My oldest son, when he was about twenty-six, said, “My friends will ask me to do something with them on Saturday night. I tell them I can’t because it’s our family time together. They say ‘Can’t you get out of it?’ and I say ‘I don’t want to.’ They just don’t get it. I don’t want to miss Saturday night with the family.”

No Christmas letter can quite capture the essence of our life together—but that short explanation of my son’s tells me that maybe our under-achieving dullness was OK after all.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

That Hideous Family Tradition

Family traditions are a great thing to get started, but some are best left in the back of the family closet. Our family had one tradition that was great fun, but it was kept a deep, dark secret most of the year. It all began of course, with Dad receiving Christmas gifts from an ethnic employee, a Mr. Not-to-be-Named, which all tended to be tacky, poorly made, and hideously ugly. It was a kind but unnecessary gesture for Mr. Not-to-be-Named, and probably part of his ethnic culture. But we had to admit that we looked forward to opening the Not-to-be-Named present every Christmas with a high degree of irreverent glee, wondering what the new monstrosity would be, and how Mom was going to find the words to express her thanks in the obligatory thank-you note afterwards. I have never known my mother to lie, but I also never read those thank you notes!

The tradition that developed from these gifts started with the internationally-famous-monument-replica-in-a-glass-box. The glass had some decorative painting on it, and the monument inside was cheap to say the least. We howled with laughter, but that was just the beginning of many more kinds of howling. It disappeared into the deep recesses of a closet and was not seen again for years.

The next time it surfaced will probably never be remembered accurately for sure, but it did rear its ugly head at some unwelcome moment. Maybe it was at a wedding, or a baby shower, but it arrived in an exquisitely wrapped package with some loving note written on the card. With nervous fingers the excited recipient probably slid off the bow and requested scissors or a knife to detach the tape without tearing the lovely paper. With great anticipation the giftee reverently lifted the lid expecting some thoughtful and expensive wonder. The camera was ready to record the event. And then the look of surprise, quickly becoming disgust, as the honored receiver realized he or she had been duped, and a tradition was born!

There were only a few rules for the tradition. The replica had to stay in the family. It must always be given without suspicion—to be caught was tantamount to a disgraceful backfire. The giver was allowed to make alterations on the gift to enhance the hideousness. The internationally-famous-monument-replica underwent some serious redecorating. First it was paint fluorescent orange. The next giver added a small King Kong figure to one of its architectural features. Then small flags were perched on its corners. Finally the electronic geniuses in the family made those flags twirl at the flick of a switch, and lights began to flash. There seemed to be no end… But sadly there was. The glass box broke and was discarded. Next the replica itself began to disintegrate. I remember sadly disposing of its remains myself and officially informing the rest of the family of its demise.

But the replica was not the only precious thing in circulation. There was also the Black Plaque, not to be confused with the black plague—although many of us felt plagued by it on more than one occasion. On the Christmas morning it first arrived, even as we took it out of the box, tacky pieces of colored tile were falling off of it, and the garish colors only clashed all the more with the crummy gold-leaf medallions and the phony stone gems. It was an item intended to be hung on the wall but would have best been dropped in the garbage can. We did neither with it. Mom quietly put it away somewhere and wrote the obligatory thank you note.

This eyesore went on to appear at the most unexpected, inappropriate, and unappreciated moments. It started out as a Christmas present to the least initiated and newest family addition--a fiancé. It has been a wedding present, anniversary present, birthday present, and maybe even a baby shower present. When these precious moments had all been desecrated by its intrusion, it began to be simply left behind in some conspicuous place when visiting family guests made their quick departure, sort of like some obscene calling card.

Conspiracies were engaged in. Since the most suspected family members were always the ones to have last received it, those members often slipped it secretly to an unsuspected party who did the ghastly honors to the next innocent victim. People began making inquiries of its whereabouts before extending invitations. Threats were made by both those who possessed it and those who feared receiving it.

I know that once I slipped it in my sister, Janis’s, knitting bag before she left my home. She must have wondered at my lack of composure in saying good-bye. As she hugged me, she held her bag in one hand, the round shape of the plaque showing quite obviously through the canvas sides of it. I thought for sure I would be caught—something that must never happen. She did get out the door, mentioning that she might even knit on the drive home, when she was not taking her turn at the wheel. The door shut. The motor started. They were gone, and so was the plaque. I was safe at last. I must admit that I think I did a sort of a naughty little victory dance at having achieved this daring feat. I heard later that Janis didn’t knit on the way home, but went to a meeting later in the week, taking her knitting project along to work on. She actually discovered the plaque in a public place. I could not have asked for a more victorious coup of chagrin.

Now at this moment I must say how disappointed I was to have served certain relatives of mine a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner recently, only to find that my thanks was repaid after all their departures by the disgusting appearance of the BP in our bathroom. Now I am not going to name names or point fingers, but the suspects are obvious.

Just the morning before all of their arrivals, I asked my beloved spouse if he knew of its whereabouts. We were nervous because the plaque had been out of circulation for a few years, lying somewhere in ambush. Even as a write I recall with something less than fondness, how pieces had fallen off the BP during its very brief reign above our toilet. It had been broken in two, but was expertly repaired with duct tape. A cheap wristwatch has joined the crummy gold medallions on its surface, just below a picture (not flattering) of yours truly which is glued in the center.

Adjectives begin to fail me as I try to express my feelings for this piece of sentimental-family-hysteria-passed-around. However, I must admit that ugly as it is, it has made our family one full of good-humor, clever in plotting and executing plans, and devilishly wicked in our designs to mar dignified family landmarks with its appearance. Hideous as it is, it has brought us happy memories of times when the ultimate goal was to pull off the prank with as much shock value as possible. Let me end this episode with a hearty thanks to Mr. Not-to-be-Named for enriching our family life, and a warning to all my beloved family: We don’t have skeletons in our closets. We have BP’s. So beware! I’ve got it now!