Simplifying the Christmas season

Leo Babauta writes on simplifying the Christmas season:

What would happen if we decided to become radicals, and simplified the holidays? What would happen if we bucked the consumerist traditions, and got down to the essentials?

For some, the essentials are religious — the spirit of this season has nothing to do with shopping or all the crazy trappings of the holidays. For others, myself included, the essentials are spending time with loved ones. That’s all that matters…

Make a list of the traditions you love, and that you don’t love. We can let go of some holiday traditions, but we don’t have to toss out everything. What traditions do you love? Playing holiday songs, caroling, hanging stockings, making pie, decorating a Christmas tree (some of my favorites)? Maybe you really don’t like the turkey or wrapping presents, shopping, egg nog, wasting food, lying about the existence of Santa, or getting drunk (those are ones I don’t like btw). Make two lists — traditions you love, and ones you don’t. …

Let’s let go of the myth that you have to spend to give. Giving is a beautiful thing. Here are some ways to give without getting into debt.

  • Gift your family with some small experiences, such as caroling, baking, watching It’s a Wonderful Life, playing football outside.
  • Volunteer as a family at a homeless shelter.
  • Ask people to donate to your favorite charity in lieu of gifts.
  • Make meaningful gifts. A video of memories. A scrapbook.
  • Do a gift swap where you put a valued possession (that you already own) into the swap.
  • Bake gifts.
  • Have an experience instead of giving material goods: do something fun together, go to the beach or a lake.
  • Find hope. Christmas has so much potential to be about so much more than buying — it can be a season of hope, renewal, loved ones, inspiration, contemplation. Talk to your family about this — how can we find ways to be hopeful, thankful, cooperative? How can we be more present instead of worried about getting presents? …

I find this sort of advice and guidance to be helpful every Christmas season. It’s too easy to fall into the traps of obtaining more in our culture, and it’s too easy to forget those around us in the rush of daily life.

Amazon Go

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When I was in Chicago earlier this month I stayed at the Club Quarters hotel in the Loop at Adams and Clark Streets. After coming back from dinner in the Homewood, IL suburbs one night, I walked past my first Amazon Go store, which turned out to be right across the street from the hotel. I had read about these “cashless” Amazon stores:

Amazon Go is a chain of grocery stores operated by the online retailer Amazon, currently with three locations in Seattle, Washington, two in Chicago, Illinois, and one in San Francisco, California. The stores are partially-automated, with customers able to purchase products without being checked out by a cashier or using a self-checkout station.

Apparently this Amazon Go store opened only a few weeks ago. There are just six of these stores so far; three in Seattle, two in Chicago, and one in San Francisco.

On entering, you use your iPhone and the Amazon Go app to scan a QR code and the turnstile swings open. An Amazon Go person greets you and you browse, pick what you want off the well-ordered shelves, and leave. No phone/scanning required at exit; the turnstile swings open for you, and you can grab napkins, utensils, etc. on your way out. Your Amazon account is billed automatically for whatever you picked up.

I don’t know if the plan is the same for all of these, but this Amazon Go location was more of a deli/bodega than a full fledged grocery store. Lots of prepared Whole Foods sandwiches and meals, with drinks, chips, ice cream, etc.

‘Better now and unimaginably changed’

I saw this excerpt on Twitter from a conversation with Nick Cave; a brief meditation on the death of his son:

It seems to me, that if we love, we grieve. That’s the deal. That’s the pact. Grief and love are forever intertwined. Grief is the terrible reminder of the depths of our love and, like love, grief is non-negotiable. There is a vastness to grief that overwhelms our minuscule selves. We are tiny, trembling clusters of atoms subsumed within grief’s awesome presence. It occupies the core of our being and extends through our fingers to the limits of the universe. Within that whirling gyre all manner of madness exist; ghosts and spirits and dream visitations, and everything else that we, in our anguish, will into existence. These are precious gifts that are as valid and as real as we need them to be. They are the spirit guides that led us out of the darkness.

I feel the presence of my son, all around, but he may not be there. I hear him talk to me, parent me, guide me, though he may not be there. He visits Susie in her sleep regularly, speaks to her, comforts her, but he may not be there. Dread grief trails bright phantoms in its wake. These spirits are ideas, essentially. They are our stunned imaginations reawakening after the calamity. Like ideas, these spirits speak of possibility. Follow your ideas, because on the other side of the idea is change and growth and redemption. Create your spirits. Will them alive. Speak to them. It is their impossible and ghostly hands that draw us back to the world from which we were jettisoned; better now and unimaginably changed.

If “infinities of experience” can exist in finite creatures like us, it makes sense to me that our fate is not ultimately finite, either.

‘You might be the source of your own pain’

Karen Swallow Prior, author of On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books, reflects in an unexpectedly beautiful way on the good life after she was literally hit by a bus:

Sin is like this in that one small lapse can cause great damage. The split second in which I did not see the bus resulted in the breaking of my body and the torment of physical and emotional pain—damage that will take months to heal. Likewise, even small decisions by those in positions of power to look the other way, to fail to see or heed, can result in a multiplicity of brokenness in the church body—brokenness that, like the fractures in my body, must be tended to with great care, time, and skill in order to prevent deformity and malformation from setting in.

Sin is like this in the way its consequences roll like a small snowball into a heaving avalanche. The moment in which I failed to see the bus rendered profound costs for many other people: the members of the medical teams serving in the ambulance crew, emergency room, and the trauma unit; the other patients sharing space and resources in an overcrowded hospital; the witnesses to my accident, one of whom, a fellow believer, connected with me through the increasingly small world of social media and blessed me with her prayers, but who needs prayers herself because of what she and her husband saw that morning; the family and friends whose lives are directly impacted by the care, concern, and service they offer now out of their love for me. Even when the original error seems small and insignificant, sin’s toll is infinite.

Sin is like this in that it’s terrifying to acknowledge that you might be the source of your own pain as well as the pain of others. Sin is like this in that it’s easy, when facing this truth, to become entangled by self-pity, regret, and a sense of helplessness.

And yet, the God of the universe doesn’t leave us alone in our own error. He offers help in the form of people made in his likeness, whether they be strangers who reflect the image of God by intervening out of compassion or brothers and sisters in Christ who serve as his hands and feet in our time of need.

God also intervenes through the person of Jesus Christ, who suffered on our behalf to remove our pain once and for all, not here on this old earth but in the new earth to come: a new earth where busy crosswalks will become streets of gold, where buses will be replaced by horse-drawn chariots, where medical personnel will make way for the Great Physician, and where every tear wrought by our own sin—and by those who have sinned against us—will be wiped away.

But to ignore our sin, to refuse to repent of it once it has been pointed out to us, is as disastrous as ignoring a massive bus bearing down on us.

What a gift she has to write in such a penetrating way after something so physically traumatic. I’ve had this excerpted for a long while sitting in my notes, and keep coming back to it.

Rowers on the Potomac

Often after work in Arlington, I’ll get one of the nearby Capital Bikeshare bikes and ride across the Key Bridge to Georgetown. Recently I’ve been riding across the bridge near sunset, and a number of times I’ve been coming across just as what I presume are Georgetown rowers are rapidly making their way along the Potomac.

I stopped briefly on the bridge the other day to take this photo. On the left is a little speed boat with a coach and a bullhorn, and you can hear him hollering encouragement as they all speed along the waters.

That’s it. Just a nice routine I’ve found myself in, for however long it lasts.

Tuskegee Airman encounter

On Friday evening I hailed an Uber to the Philadelphia Country Club in Gladwyne for the Pennsylvania Eagle Forum’s 2018 Annual Dinner. I had been invited by a friend, and took her up on it so we could catch up and because I know a number of the people who would be there.

Phyllis Shlafly’s Eagle Forum is a patriotic/political organization. Andy Schlafly, one of Phyllis Shlafly’s sons, was in attendance, and he and Bobby Schindler have spoken together in the past. I met Phyllis Schlafly years ago in Washington, and remember growing up my grandmother being an admirer of Schlafly’s various advocacy efforts, particularly on the risk of adopting basically libertarian laws that would de-emphasis natural human relationships in favor of market/commercial rights that themselves would reorder society. I expect within the next few years that a form of the Equal Rights Amendment will be ratified by new states, and that a push will be made to recognize it as the 28th constitutional amendment.

Corey Lewandowski was the keynote speaker. I was not impressed by him either in substance or style. Far too much hero-worship of the presidency and a great deal of self-aggrandizement. Congressman Glenn Thompson joined a half dozen or so candidates for office, and he was great. I met Thompson when I was a student at Penn State and when he was still Centre County Republican Party chairman, just before he won his 5th district office. Thanks to Pennsylvania redistricting, Centre County has now been split in two, and Rep. Thompson’s district designation becomes the 15th this November.

The highlight of the evening was in hearing from Dr. Eugene Richardson, one of the few surviving Tuskegee Airmen:

The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-American military aviators in the United States Armed Forces. During World War II, black Americans in many U.S. states were still subject to the Jim Crow laws and the American military was racially segregated, as was much of the federal government. The Tuskegee Airmen were subjected to discrimination, both within and outside the army. …

Before the Tuskegee Airmen, no African-American had been a U.S. military pilot. In 1917, African-American men had tried to become aerial observers, but were rejected. African-American Eugene Bullard served in the French air service during World War I, because he was not allowed to serve in an American unit. Instead, Bullard returned to infantry duty with the French.

The racially motivated rejections of World War I African-American recruits sparked more than two decades of advocacy by African-Americans who wished to enlist and train as military aviators. The effort was led by such prominent civil rights leaders as Walter White of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, labor union leader A. Philip Randolph, and Judge William H. Hastie. Finally, on 3 April 1939, Appropriations Bill Public Law 18 was passed by Congress containing an amendment by Senator Harry H. Schwartz, designating funds for training African-American pilots. The War Department managed to put the money into funds of civilian flight schools willing to train black Americans.[5]

War Department tradition and policy mandated the segregation of African-Americans into separate military units staffed by white officers, as had been done previously with the 9th Cavalry, 10th Cavalry, 24th Infantry Regiment and 25th Infantry Regiment.

It was an honor to meet Dr. Richardson and some of his brothers-in-arms. It was surreal to hear him speak about President Truman as a contemporary rather than purely as a historical figure. (Truman’s Executive Order 9981 ended segregation of the armed forces.) And it was a gift to speak with him briefly afterwards. Dr. Richardson is 94 or thereabouts, and this year my grandfather—who also served in World War II in the U.S. Army Air Corps—would have turned 91. I thought of him as we spoke.

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Dr. Richardson is also a Philadelphian and a Penn Stater:

Tuskegee became the center for training African Americans for air operations and was the only source of black military pilots in World War II. Today, the airfield where they once trained is known as the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site.

Richardson’s interest in flight began in 1930, when as a young boy his father and a friend took him along to see the Colored Air Circus, a group of black aviators performing an air show in Mansfield, Ohio. At 17 he decided to join the Army Air Corps in order to become a pilot. A few months later – at the age of 18 – he completed basic training and went on to Tuskegee Army Airfield for 40 weeks of pilot training. He later received gunnery training at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida and went on to Walterboro, S.C., for combat training.

While he and 37 others finished their flight training in March 1945, the war ended in the European theater just two months later so they never saw any combat. Of the 38 pilots in his class, 23, including Richardson, graduated as fighter pilots and 15 as B-25 bomber pilots.

Richardson was discharged in 1946 and returned to Philadelphia, where he finished his high school degree and did his undergraduate work at Temple University. He also earned master’s and doctor of education degrees from Penn State. Pursuing a career in education rather than aviation because of the lack of career opportunities for black pilots, he became a high school principal in Philadelphia’s school system. He is now retired and tours the United States and Canada speaking about and teaching the story of the Tuskegee Airmen.

His experiences have inspired a generation of African Americans, including his son, Eugene Richardson III, who became a fighter pilot and an airline executive.

In an interview at Penn State Dr. Richardson reflected: “Every way we can possibly— every vehicle we can possibly use—to let the world know that people are people. Because they’ve had different experiences, because they come from different environments, doesn’t make them any different. They still have the same basic needs and the same basic desires. And we need to help people realize that.”

Sonoma picnic

A few scenes from our picnic at Cline Cellars in Sonoma from Saturday afternoon. We were out of San Francisco for only a few hours, but they were warm, sunny, and reinvigorating hours after waking up in a city absolutely covered in dreary fog.

We drove back to San Francisco around 5pm.

‘News of the day’ is a figment

Neil Postman writing in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business:

Our attention here is on how forms of public discourse regulate and even dictate what kind of content can issue from such forms.

To take a simple example of what this means, consider the primitive technology of smoke signals. While I do not know exactly what content was once carried in the smoke signals of American Indians, I can safely guess that it did not include philosophical argument. Puffs of smoke are insufficiently complex to express ideas on the nature of existence, and even if they were not, a Cherokee philosopher would run short of either wood or blankets long before he reached his second axiom. You cannot use smoke to do philosophy. Its form excludes the content.

As I suggested earlier, it is implausible to imagine that anyone like our twenty-seventh President, the multi-chinned, three-hundred-pound William Howard Taft, could be put forward as a presidential candidate in today’s world. The shape of a man’s body is largely irrelevant to the shape of his ideas when he is addressing a public in writing or on the radio or, for that matter, in smoke signals. But it is quite relevant on television. The grossness of a three-hundred-pound image, even a talking one, would easily overwhelm any logical or spiritual subtleties conveyed by speech. For on television, discourse is conducted largely through visual imagery, which is to say that television gives us a conversation in images, not words. The emergence of the image-manager in the political arena and the concomitant decline of the speech writer attest to the fact that television demands a different kind of content from other media. You cannot do political philosophy on television. Its form works against the content.

To give still another example, one of more complexity: The information, the content, or, if you will, the “stuff” that makes up what is called “the news of the day” did not exist—could not exist—in a world that lacked the media to give it expression. I do not mean that things like fires, wars, murders and love affairs did not, ever and always, happen in places all over the world. I mean that lacking a technology to advertise them, people could not attend to them, could not include them in their daily business. Such information simply could not exist as part of the content of culture.

This idea—that there is a content called “the news of the day”—was entirely created by the telegraph (and since amplified by newer media), which made it possible to move decontextualized information over vast spaces at incredible speed. The news of the day is a figment of our technological imagination. It is, quite precisely, a media event. We attend to fragments of events from all over the world because we have multiple media whose forms are well suited to fragmented conversation. Cultures without speed-of-light media—let us say, cultures in which smoke signals are the most efficient space-conquering tool available—do not have news of the day. Without a medium to create its form, the news of the day does not exist.

I wonder if it’s safe to say that every medium is defined, at least to a large degree, by the information it either excludes or diminishes in importance.

For the past number of years I’ve thought that a desirable sort of luxury is freedom from advertising in daily life; that it’s worth paying for services and subscriptions that eliminate the noise, anxiety, and false urgency of advertising. And I think this is still desirable and valuable, but it’s worth reconsidering this to say that a desirable sort of luxury is freedom from information-in-excess in daily life.

That is, a deeply lived, engaging, and meaningful life is one where noise of all sorts is kept to the barest minimum. How to do this, practically speaking?

Entertainment, in its proper place

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I took this photo on Friday afternoon while walking through the little village of Lemont in Central Pennsylvania. I think it fits with these Benedict XVI observations:

“Entertainment, in its proper place, is certainly good and enjoyable. It is good to be able to laugh. But entertainment is not everything. It is only a small part of our lives, and when it tries to be the whole, it becomes a mask behind which despair lurks, or at least doubt over whether life is really good, or whether non-existence might perhaps be better than existence.”

Chesterton’s

I wrote that other day that Chesterton’s at the University of Mary embodies their Benedictine value of “moderation,” and want to write a bit more about that today and about my experience there. As much a community center as a pub, here’s how Chesterton’s describes itself:

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Chesterton’s is the community center and “campus pub” located at The Cloisters, the University of Mary’s upperclassmen apartment complex. It’s an incredible place to study and socialize, watch television, play pool and old-time video games, or just enjoy the view. Chesterton’s also hosts a weekly community night for all members. Chesterton’s features complimentary coffee and popcorn, snacks and soda, Wi-Fi, and printing. Members have 24/7 access to the main level of the community center.

Chesterton’s is proudly named for G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), the English writer, literary critic, poet, and Catholic apologist.  The design of Chesterton’s was inspired by The Eagle and the Childpub in Oxford, where J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and the rest of The Inklings used to gather for good cheer and conversation. …

Three nights a week, Chesterton’s operates as our “campus pub,” offering concessions and beverages. Chesterton’s members who are of legal drinking age and who have completed the University of Mary alcohol training seminar are admitted to the community center to enjoy a limited food and beverage menu, as well as complimentary beer or wine.

The Tolkien-themed beer on tap, “Southfarthing Stout” and “Green Dragon Ale,” are locally brewed for Chesterton’s at Buffalo Commons in Mandan, ND.

The University of Mary is committed to educating students on the responsible and moral use of alcohol. Student members participate in thorough training which includes cultural, legal, and heath perspectives. No alcohol is for sale. Rather, as a benefit of membership, members are provided with up to two glasses of beer or two glasses of wine per evening without charge. Consumption is tracked by Mcard, and no one is allowed more than two glasses of beer or wine per night. No liquor is available, and those who bring alcohol of any kind into Chesterton’s have their membership revoked.

It was pointed out that the University of Mary is a “dry” campus, and so to some there might seem to be a contradiction in Mary playing host to a pub. But seen as a community center that happens to have a pub, and a pub that happens to be open only a few days a week, and a pub that when it happens to be open is only open for members, and as a public that’s occasionally open for members only providing two mugs of beer or glasses of wine… Well, suddenly you’ve got a physical environment for drinking in the context of others, and a whole milieu designed to foster moderation that points toward richer relationships and experiences suggesting that the natural human desire to pursue more can be satisfied with good beer and wine, but not only through more wine and beer.

Chesterton’s pub only ended up being open for one of my nights at University of Mary, but that experience was a refreshing one. Knowing, heading in, that I could only order two drinks did make me focus and savor every sip. I found myself tasting that Southfarthing Stout and that Green Dragon Ale.

I’m sure there are times when students or professors or whomever sort of rue that two drink limit (and I wonder whether the complimentary sodas, iced teas, etc. help offset that), but I imagine there are plenty of other times when someone wakes up the next day and is grateful not to be hungover after ending up just thoughtlessly ordering one after another. And that’s one aspect of the virtue of moderation that’s not spoken about often enough in a free market, personal-liberty-trumps-all-else culture—that something like moderation can be encouraged systemically “from above” through a pub/club like Chesterton’s that adds a bit of variety and distinctiveness to a culture that says it values pluralism but rarely seems to tolerate substantial difference.

What I’m trying to say is this: Chesterton’s was great, and I’d welcome that club/pub approach in other places.