Lessons in humility

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I need winter.

Don’t get me wrong. I hate winter with a passion as white and hot as snow is white and cold. But I need the constant lesson in humility winter brings.

One lesson is obvious: our inability to control the elements, and our charge to make the best of bad situations by laying up supplies, amassing sufficient money to keep one’s dwelling sound and warm, and mustering the fortitude snow photo 2 for jharmto suck it up and get out there and face the challenge of snow- and ice-mitigation.

But today I received another, more profound, lesson in humility. It came from a neighbor with whom, frankly, we haven’t gotten along.

Things started off terribly between our households when the late Buddy, Prince of West Methuen, on a couple of occasions availed himself of our neighbor’s lawn, unbeknownst to us (at least until our neighbor unequivocally and vociferously alerted us to the canine crime). You can probably guess what Buddy’s contribution to the contretemps was.

I bought our neighbor a case of Budweiser, left it on his doorstep as a peace offering, and we put the hard feelings in the rear-view mirror. Thus began a prolonged detente, punctuated occasionally by guttural, halfhearted greetings. We eventually erected a fence to keep our dogs on our property, and good fences made at least half-way-decent neighbors for years.

Relations between our camps were still somewhat frosty, but things hit a nadir last winter when I accidentally shoveled snow onto one of his trees, spurring a shouting match. (Both of us are perhaps afflicted, at least occasionally, with Irish tempers.)

However, circumstances led to an exchange, months later, of apologies for losing our cool and we went back to largely ignoring one another. Until today.

Today, for some unexpected reason attributable only to the grace of the God of Surprises, our neighbor approached me with an offer to snowblow our small yet still (on a day like today) formidable driveway. I reluctantly accepted, though unhesitatingly offered to pay him, or at least reimburse him for the gasoline exhausted in the task. He refused my offer and an enterprise that would have added a couple hours to a gargantuan undertaking — it still took me a few hours to clear the walk, deck and roofs — took about 10 minutes.

I’ve done nothing to deserve my neighbor’s largesse, yet I received it anyway. There’s been a lot of that lately in my life, and it’s still a struggle to accept.

I remain truly humbled by the magnanimity of others. Blessings abound, even when they’re disguised by a foot of snow.

The soft idolatry of thrift

Popular culture today is replete with gurus whose chief aim is to help you and I save money.

Sure, they’re often hawking their own frugality tools, their “Total Money Makeovers,” their “21-Day Financial Fasts” and their “Action Plans,” but I believe their hearts are in the right place.

That is, they’re in it for the money, but only in the best possible way. They’ve either grown up poor, made lots of money and blown it or made lots of pennybagsmoney and kept it. To a person, they give terrific and important advice.

An industry devoted to helping customers hold fast to their money might seem paradoxical, but on the whole it’s a good thing.

Except when it’s not.

At some point today, one of my favorite celebrity savers tweeted a link to something written by one of his website’s contributors. This article promised to show readers how to save big money — or,  more accurately, “$$” — by making their own laundry detergent! You can read this yourself, but it showed how some savvy purchases of bar soap, borax and a few other ingredients, and the commitment of about 20 minutes of one’s time, would yield huge dividends in the form of the avoidance of ponying up serious coin for laundry detergent.

Step one was, seriously, use a cheese grater to shred the bar of soap.

No.

I live in one of the more expensive parts of the country, but I’m confident I’ll never have to pay more than, say, six bucks for a half-gallon or more of laundry detergent. I’ve got six bucks, so do you. So does probably everybody you know or, if he or she doesn’t, he or she could certainly find a faith community or even a charitable individual to stand them to a bottle of Purex, Arm & Hammer or even the Market Basket brand.

I have no gripe with DIY-ers who want to give their pioneer spirit a workout by shunning Procter & Gamble, Amway or anyone else who manufactures laundry soap for a living. But I’m concerned that this level of frugality betrays more than a desire to be a responsible steward of the resources one has been blessed with. I think it gets at that “love of money” thing one reads about (or has certainly at least heard about once or twice) in the apostle Paul’s first letter to Timothy.

That is, greed is easy to spot (at least in others) and somewhat less easy to resist (though hardly impossible). Few would set out to live a life entirely based on the acquisition of wealth. Fewer, still, would allow envy to lead them to rob or swindle others of their wealth. Those who would, however, have clearly made a decision to serve money rather than God.

Yet isn’t our fixation on squeezing every last penny another manifestation of idolizing money, of somehow not trusting God to provide?

Stretching a buck has always been wise, especially when times are tough — as they have been for so many of us for so long. But I wonder if too many of us have made something of an idol of a sustainable, thrifty ethos. It’s a softer idolatry, perhaps, than a rapacious desire for money and things. However, we have to be willing to question what we might be squandering while we’re busy saving.

In the spirit of Janus

Last year, I rolled the dice with a New Year’s resolution blog. So how did the 2013 of my behavioral fantasy measure up to reality?

Buddy sun

Buddy on one of his last walks along the Merrimack River, Andover, Mass.

In the piece I talked vaguely about losing weight (I’m actually up a couple pounds, owing to overindulgence in yuletide sweets and too many lunches out), exercising less (my dog, Holly, is ailing a bit, and my other one had to be put down in late April, so my main form of activity — brisk walking along the banks of the mighty Merrimack River with my canine companions — has screwed the pooch) and my ridiculous novel remains unfinished.

Still, I consider 2013 a success. How?

Over the course of the year, I picked up a sweet summer freelance gig, which has turned into a surprising and serious full-time job. I’ve made a couple of new friends. And I feel like I’ve found my way (at least in part) to becoming (or returning to) the kind of person I want to be.

What’s more, I’ve generally stayed true to the “no complaints, no excuses” vow that constituted my true New Year’s resolution. In spite of a couple of personal setbacks, I can truly put 2013 in the “win” column. If nothing else, I’m still on the right side of the dirt.

So, this year’s resolution will be a repeat of last year’s, with one important addition: “Try a little harder.”

Like the Roman god Janus, from whom the first month of the year derives its name, I look simultaneously behind me and straight ahead.

And, on the whole, I like what I see.

 

When faith denies art

OK, I love Jesus and generally applaud others able to employ art as the means of conveying their own love for the “newborn king.”

santa_kneeling_lg

Now where did I leave my keys?

After all, one needn’t travel to the Sistine Chapel to see sacred themes expertly applied.

But sometimes an artist’s devotion goes horribly wrong, and goes wrong over and over again, as in the case of the theme of Santa Claus kneeling in prayer over the baby Jesus.

I mean, are such paintings and figurines supposed to be equating Santa Claus with one of the magi, or perhaps God himself?

I’m a big fan of jolly old Saint Nicholas and am not in the least vexed by the spirit of gleeful commercialism that accompanies Christmas. Similarly, I’m no stranger to disturbing devotional art.

Sgt._Pepper's_Lonely_Hearts_Club_Band

The left-handed guitar on the grave is a dead giveaway.

But Santa as eternal being attending the birth of the Lord is too treacly, infantile and, possibly, heretical to take.

I’d just as soon see the baby Jesus PhotoShopped onto the cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” that is, if that weren’t already too busy proving the death of Paul McCartney.

At any rate, I hope you all had a Merry Christmas or even some joyous, nondenominational winter time off. New year’s coming!

An early Christmas return

Note: As I was watching television the other day, I saw one channel known for saccharine holiday fare — might have been Hallmark, could have been Lifetime — running back-to-back Christmas movies, and not even the classics. These were made-for-TV tripe starring Roma Downey or Susan Lucci or Gail O’Grady or Mitzi Kapture — one of those dames routinely in distress. So, in the spirit of holiday gifts nobody wants, here’s a repeat of something I wrote last year after Christmas, but edited a bit, since it’s still before Christmas (though you wouldn’t know it from watching TV or entering any store). The original post was titled “O holy moley!”

Now that the yuletide holidays are scratching at the window, I’m getting ready to be among those poor souls annually pilloried by the likes of Bill O’Reilly for waging the War on Christmas.

In fact, I rather enjoy the holiday and maintain that, among all the winter festivals, Christmas is far superior to its competitors.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to get all Jesussy, here. Your beliefs and mine are our business and, frankly, of little interest to one another. Rather, the Christmas I happen to dig is the one embraced by most Americans: the convivial secular orgy of gift-exchanging, overindulging and wishing others Merry Christmas, happy holidays or season’s greetings — it’s all good.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a couple of gripes. Here goes:

1. Two verses of any Christmas carol will suffice, thank you. Sorry, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” but after “two turtle doves,” I’ve tuned out.

2. Speaking of Christmas carols, I simply find no need for a 24/7 rotation of holiday “favorites” on the radio for days on end. If a station wants to have a Christmas carol blowout on Christmas Eve Day, Christmas Day and even Boxing Day, that’s fine. Otherwise, cut it out! (And for those who suggest I can just change the station, too late: I already beat you to it.)

Don’t mistake the aforementioned observations for a disdain for all things associated with Jolly Old St. Nick. In my mind, Christmas as observed by most Americans (regardless of creed) is without peer.

As a “Braveheart”-style rally for one’s august faith tradition and heroic ancestors, Hanukkah is okey-dokey, but as a holiday, well … come on, now. Hanukkah is dreidls. Christmas is Battling Tops. ‘Nuff said.

And Kwanzaa? Kwanzaa and I are the same age, and neither of us is yet eligible for a subscription to AARP Magazine. What the hell kind of holiday tradition is that? Come talk to me when you can grow a little peachfuzz, Kwanzaa.

When the weather outside begins to turn frightful, I typically torture everyone on my social media network with wishes for a joyous Saturnalia, but so far I’ve attracted only one adherent — counting myself — to that ancient Roman yuletide feast, so Christmas remains large and in charge.

Happy birthday!

Is Frosty the Snowman the way and the light? Nah, didn’t think so.

That said, let me take a moment to clear up a couple of things. Christmas parties in public schools don’t represent an attempt to force religion down anyone’s throat, unless that religion is Frostianity.

At the same time, getting your ski pants in a twist when someone wishes you “happy holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas” doesn’t make you a good Christian, it makes you a grim and obnoxious bore.

If you’ve got anything to say, leave a comment below or contact me in person: I’ll be on the Island of Misfit Toys. Cheers!

To Mister, with love

When I was still editor-in-chief of the Live Free or Die Alliance, an undertaking I only recently had to back away from in favor of an irresistible opportunity at Lesley University, a friend asked me something over beers on a Portsmouth, N.H., deck.

Why did those of us involved in New Hampshire’s premier citizen-engagement website — all of us seasoned professionals of one sort or another — refer to the organization’s driving force as Mister Montrone, rather than by his given name, Paul? At the time, I believe I said something flippant like, “That’s the name on the bottom of our paychecks.”

Here’s the truth, or at least my truth, however: His genius, character and example demanded it (though he never asked for the honorific).

It’s no hyperbole to say Mister Montrone single-handedly revived my career, after I’d been laid off from a job and industry I loved and excelled in. He also stood by me through a couple of personal trials, even though they were inconvienient to the work of his organization. But there’s more to it than that.

Paul Montrone as a client (though I considered him my boss) was brilliant and mercurial, always appreciative though never satisfied. More important, in any room he’s in, Mister Montrone is the smartest, best prepared and most energetic person there. He showed me a way to be, a way I’ll certainly never achieve, but a way I’ll continually strive for. Calling him “Mister” was a sign of respect, not only for his myriad business accomplishments and financial successes, but for the man he is.

He’ll never see this, of course. He reads pretty much every crucial newspaper or important book published. He’s too busy and sensible to trifle with ridiculous blogs like this one. But this needed to be said.

If you ever have the chance to work for him, either as part of the LFDA or in one of the eight or more companies he owns, I urge you to take it. It will not be easy, but even if you only work for Mister Montrone for one day, you won’t forget it.

Or him.

TV, the true opiate of the masses

I was talking to a colleague the other day (yes, I actually have colleagues again, at least for the summer) and we were talking about the crap TV we mistresseswatch. Then I realized that I watch every single show on television.

Well, not really, but I watch a lot of TV. Some of it, like “Breaking Bad,” “The Walking Dead,” even “Game of Thrones” is quite good.

But I also like TV shows about solving problems, like “Bar Rescue,” “Restaurant Impossible,” and, of course, “Pit Boss” and “Pitbulls and Parolees.”

And, I hate to admit, I’ve been watching “Mistresses,” that is, the American version of the terrific guilty pleasure produced originally by the BBC. Yes, “Mistresses,” starring Alyssa Milano. I’m not proud of it but, I’ve got to say, it’s not that bad. They’ve done a creditable job with the remake (though it’s interesting that all the male character names are the same as in the original, yet the eponymous mistresses were given variations of the original character names — Savannah instead of Siobhan, for instance — though I don’t know how “Trudy” became “April.”) It’s also a little more United Colors of Benetton-esque than the UK version, which ain’t a bad thing.

Hey, at least it’s not “Three’s Company” reruns, though I’d certainly be catching one or two of those if they happened to be airing. And if I’m ever in a position to compete in a “Three’s Company”-based trivia contest, I will kick maximal ass.

No real point to this post, I suppose, except to cop to yet another time-waster. Acceptance is the first step in healing, I suppose.

A ‘special’ message to kids

Sit down. Shut up. Take off your clothes. Pick up a machine gun.

And don’t forget to buy something on your way out the door.

That’s the prevailing message American society delivers to its young people. But you wouldn’t think that to hear the geniuses at “Fox & Friends”  talk, as they jack up Mr. Rogers! Instead, they imagine that telling a child he or she is special is the cancer at the core of a culture in decay. That self-esteem is weakness. That TV is reinforcing bad character.

They’re right about that last one, but not for the reasons they think. The problem isn’t Mr. Rogers telling kids to revel in who they are, or a multiracial (and multispecies) “Sesame Street” making learning fun. The problem is that we have an entire generation of children (maybe two generations) bereft of programming that wasn’t specifically designed to sell them something.

Our beloved cartoon characters were Bugs Bunny, Scooby-Doo and the Super Friends (even the less-than-super Wonder Twins). Today’s cartoons are half-hour-long commercials for toys made by other, even more profoundly exploited children. Hell, we even had one “Star Wars” movie released before the action figures were dreamed up. Today’s kids got a steady televised diet of “My Little Pony” or “G.I. Joe.”

(Here’s what a bunch of smart people say about the issue. The rest of this post is just my all-too-familiar nonsense.)

When we got a tiny bit older, our television fare was “Drawing from Nature with Capt. Bob,” “Jabberwocky” and “Zoom” (at least if you grew up where I grew up), or maybe “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” (which, I acknowledge, has an advertisement right in the title — though I’m not sure how many kids are bugging their parents for a whole-life insurance policy).

Today’s kids watched “The Hills,” “The Real World” and any other MTV-spawned cavalcade of booty-shaking, bitch-slapping and rule-breaking.

And we have a generation of kids who haven’t known even a single year of peace. America has been at war continually since the 21st Century began, and that doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon.

So, yeah: Blame Mr. Rogers and his entire neighborhood. I never trusted that X the Owl.

I don’t care what your political beliefs are or what terrible things you had to endure at some point in your life, even if that point is now: If you’ve got a problem with Fred Rogers, you’ve got a problem with yourself.

While many, including me, ridicule today’s “trophies for everyone” culture, and shake our heads at kids clad in Kevlar before every bike ride, none of us would trade our childhood for theirs.

I can only hope that Mr. Rogers’s critics are, in fact, masters of irony. Because no one who had the benefit of “The Electric Company” can be this dumb, right?