Monday, December 30, 2013

Visions of Sugar Plums

Merry Christmas. Mine went well, and I hope yours did too.

I received a couple of thoughtful gifts this year. The one that stands out most are my sugar plums. Now I don't think they're traditional sugar plums, unless traditional sugar plums are gummy candies. To be honest, I don't know, and I don't need to find out. The ones I received are amazing, and can only be found locally at fancy candy shops.

As always, it's the thought that counts. My mother knew I like them, she knew they always sell out locally, and she braved the interwebs to find them for me. She even ordered them in time to have them by Christmas; no small feat for the worlds worst planner.

I hope you all gave and received thoughtful gifts this year.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Merry Christmas to all

I am going to be taking the next two weeks off … celebrating the Christmas Holiday. I wish everyone of you a very holy and joy-filled Christmas and a 2104 filled with all good things. 
Christ is born.

Please drop back the week of January 6.

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The Most Thoughtful Gift

Merry Christmas everyone. My last post about thoughtful gift giving lead me to thinking about thoughtful gift receiving. The most thoughtful gift I've ever received was when I was seven, and the shocking part is, it was from my father.

You might be thinking that a father giving his son a thoughtful gift is not shocking, but you Sir have never met my father. He's the worst give giver I've ever met. This is a man who is happy to give an expensive gift, but intentionally does a terrible job taking the price tags off so that you know what he spent. This is also the man who gave me a toy beeper when I was thirteen. If you were not a child of the 90's, let me tell you that a real beeper would have been the coolest gift a thirteen year old ever received, and toy beeper meant for a seven year old would be pretty insulting. Now that I've done my best to give you an idea of his failings as a gift giver, let me tell you about the one time he got it right.

I was about seven, and we were attending the Renaissance Festival, which was always a good time. This trip went from good to spectacular when we were approached by a real life wizard, who chose to give me his real life wizard staff. At least that's the way I remember it.

The staff was short and had a top that was not a traditional grip could be used as one. He was using it that way when he approached, so the staff came to about his elbow. When he gave it to me I was stunned into silence, and I think I had to be reminded to thank him. After gifting it to me, I was able to use it like a longer staff, with it coming to about eye level with me. It was beautiful, and curved, and knotted.

This was the perfect gift for a seven year old, presented in the perfect way. Now I'm not saying it wasn't a real wizard staff presented by a real wizard, but some time later I realized my father must have purchased the staff himself, and had the wizard give it to me for effect. It was the most thoughtful gift I ever received, and he gave it even though he couldn't take credit for it.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Cathedrals & Churches

A friend of mine, Travis, with whom I work as a volunteer at the Basilica of St Mary in Minneapolis, is a self professed Catholic geek. ( In a previous post, Making of a Volunteer, I told the beginning of what became the unlikely story of my working with Travis. ) One of the meanings of this is that he is very attracted to churches ... their outside, inside, architecture, windows, statues, paintings, layout, virtually everything about them. When going from point A to point B, he will stop at an interesting church and take pictures ... outside, inside, of the statues, of the paintings, of the windows, of the altar(s), ... ; you get the idea. Sometimes when going from point A to point B, both A and B are churches, too!

I offered to preview some of his favorite pictures on my shared blog. I used the word "preview" because he is putting together a website which will be an exposition of churches in the upper Midwest, but is still some time away. He accepted my offer, with more excitement than I had anticipated, and recently sent me some pictures. Below I preview two of them, along with the explanations he wrote and I edited.
High Altar
Basilica of 
Stanislaus Kostka
Winona, MN
High Altar at The Basilica of Stanislaus Kostka in Winona, MN

This is one of the more recent churches to be elevated to the status of minor basilica (done so on November 10, 2011 by Pope Benedict XVI, making it only the second basilica in the state of Minnesota). The church was designed and built in the 1980s in the Polish Cathedral Style. The vastness of the basilica is moderated by its rounded nave and profuse light (thanks to many large stained glass windows throughout the structure).


This cathedral was designed and built at the turn of the last century. The image is of Christ the Judge, flanked by Saints Peter (keys) and Paul (sword).
Apse Image
Cathedral of
Saints Peter and Paul
Indianapolis, IN

I will preview more, scattered among my posts, in the coming weeks.
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Monday, December 16, 2013

Christmas Gifts

I love Christmas, and for me a big part of the Christmas fun is gift giving. Money is an important factor of course, but it is the thought that counts. You may say that's a cliche, but I don't think it can be said enough. It seems to me that many don't agree, and even fewer understand it.

Everyone seems to understand that when it's the thought that counts, that they don't need to spend a lot of money to give a good gift. I could not agree more. The part that some people don't get is that you do need to give some thought. It may seem simple, but I can't tell you how many people seem to think that the phrase, "It's the thought that counts," means 'It's the decision to give a gift that counts.' As in, 'I gave a poorly thought out gift, but that's okay because it's the thought that counts.' This may just be my interpretation of the adage, and if you disagree, feel free to comment.

I am often told that I give good gifts. I don't spend a lot of money, so I have to assume that I am succeeding in my goal of giving thoughtful gifts. I do recognize that I do this for partially selfish reasons though. I enjoy the hunt for a thoughtful gift, and the glory of basking in my success when I've nailed it.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Oh, to sing

“Ooooohhhhoooh.” … I struggled to maintain the pitch I was trying to sing, as the meeting’s stragglers, members of the parish choir all, stifled their inclination to laugh.

“I think you should take voice lessons from me.”

With that, a dream and a nightmare intermingled.

I had always loved to sing in Church. I enjoyed singing and gave wide berth to my desire. Shortly after getting married, I noticed that my wife, Ellie, at these times, would slink away from me. She did it subtly, but deliberately, and almost always with a furtive glance back to me; it let me know she didn’t really want to be associated with the source of that sound.

Fortunately we could talk about this … No, I don’t know how I sound. Yes, I realize I am singing loudly. No, I don’t know that I am off pitch. Yes, I would guess I’m off pitch. No, I’m not sure what to do about being off. Yes I can read music. No, I don’t know how to make my voice the same pitch as the middle line of the staff … Yes, I know the middle line is B.

I realize I sound dreadful; not easy to admit. There were hurdles to taking voice lessons.

The idea intimidated me; I had visions of failure. I’m not used to failing. I believed that failure here was likely.

I guessed voice lessons were not cheap, and we didn’t have a lot of money to throw around. It was easier to admit that than it was to admit being intimidated.

I knew two people qualified to teach voice. One was Jerry, our parish’s Director of Liturgy .

Not knowing exactly what had gotten into me, I asked Jerry to give me voice lessons. “No.” I figured I had dodged a bullet.

A year later, with no context whatsoever, as the meeting was breaking up, Jerry said to me, “Sing me a pitch … give me your best shot.” I sang ( tried to ) a pitch as described above.
His, “I think you should take voice lessons from me,” made my body quiver; I felt a chill, panic, perhaps. “Think about it. Give me a call when or if you want to pursue it.”

The decision was now mine. Why was I not elated? I knew immediately I would take him up on it; I also knew it would take a while. The intimidation was real.

My intimidating vision was spot on. He asked me to match a pitch he played on the piano. At first I didn’t always even know if I was above or below the pitch. I knew if I lowered my voice and raised it slowly I would, if only for an instant, be matching the note he was playing. This, of course, did not satisfy him. Eventually I could hold my voice steady enough and close enough to the played pitch that we would move on, to another pitch not far removed from the one I just successfully “mastered.” I slowly learned to both hear and feel when my voice and the piano’s pitch were the same. The first song I learned was, “Holy God.”

This excited me; it was learning that transcended mere understanding in my brain. That kind of understanding was insufficient. These lessons became the highlight of my week.

Jerry and I have been going at this for 11 years. Although Ellie no longer slinks away from me in church, I feel barely an advanced beginner. I now learn to sing songs, and sometimes I “get” them fairly quickly. Jerry still has me open virtually every lesson by matching pitches. He still, occasionally, has me sing “Holy God,” to make sure I haven’t forgotten everything I’ve learned.

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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Giving Thanks

For dessert, we all went to our friend’s, to introduce our cat-loving son and daughter-in-law to Moonshine and Missy Prissy, our friend’s cats. Introductions went well.

To celebrate our recent Thanksgiving, my wife and I had a dear friend over, as well as our son and his wife. We chatted, had some snacks, drank some wine, and then ate the traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Then the just-mentioned dessert.

The day went as planned, with everybody enjoying all of it. The day is its own cause, but the quiet mingling of the people in our house added energy to my reflection: how much do I have to be thankful for?

As I see it, items to be thankful for share two attributes: something that allows me to either enjoy life or get more out of it; something that I cannot realistically take credit for having.

Many of these things leap to mind, and I list some of them in no particular order:

My work ethic: this was given to me by my parents and reinforced by those I associated with in the obtaining of my education.

My ability to learn: I can, perhaps, take credit for what I’ve learned, but my ability to learn is not something I can take credit for.

Being born in the United States … along with all the other circumstances of my birth ( the skills and abilities of my parents, the financial situation they were in, the state and city of my birth, the notions about school and learning that my parents had, the “culture” that defined my extended
family, … ; ).

My wife ( meeting her was something that was entirely beyond my control ) and our family

My faith: this is, by definition, my belief in the existence of God and trust that he will envelope me with his loving care as he promises he will … always, everywhere.

After being laid off from a good-paying Engineering job, being able to live for five years on a significantly reduced income without incessant worrying about money, even though I was almost incessantly worrying about it while having that good-paying Engineering job.

The people in our lives, past and present.

My health and that of my wife and our immediate family.

The people I’ve had the opportunity to hear speak and the authors I’ve chosen to read.

What do you have to be thankful for?

Monday, December 2, 2013

Christmas is for Everyone

I recently found out that my friend who teaches at a public high school is indecisive about the separation between church and state. It took her a couple of moments, but she was clearly pleased that she thought of a good example of when it's appropriate to combine the two; Christmas. When I told her that Christmas was not religious, she didn't want to hear it. Maybe you guys will.

Christmas predates Christianity.
Obviously they didn't call it Christmas, but other folks did celebrate that time of year before Christians came along. Plus there's no reason to believe Jesus was born at that time of year, even if there was a Jesus.

Christmas is a national holiday.
If Christians wanted to keep it to themselves, they shouldn't have shared it with the whole nation. Plenty of Non-Christians celebrate Christmas in a Non-Christian way.

Most Christians celebrate Christmas in a Non-Christian way.
That one might take some explaining. What I'm saying is that the way I see Christians celebrate Christmas seems unrelated to their religion, and in some cases, in direct conflict.

It seems to me that a Christian's home is ten times more likely to be decorated with a figure of Santa than a figure of Jesus. Santa is the guy you teach kids to pray to for gifts, and then grants these prayers based on his constant supernatural observation. If you think I'm being overly offensive, please remember the word prayer is not reserved for communication with a deity.

I think Christmas trees are more popular than both Santa and Nativity Scenes put together, and the bible uses a Christmas tree as an example of what not to do.

For most people, Christmas is about family and gift giving. How does that honor a guy who was against family, and material possessions? (References available upon request)

Yes, for some people religion is the primary focus of Christmas. I'm glad they enjoy that, and I'm glad that they're free to celebrate Christmas their way. I'm just saying I'm celebrating it my way, and for a change, I'm actually in the majority on this one. Oh, and Christmas is for everyone.