Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Career Advice

We live on a main street through our normally quiet west Provo neighborhood, far enough from the railroad tracks that we can hear the whistle wail in the distance. In the middle of the night, it has a certain romantic charm because it evokes memories of the great train trips I've had. It's Americana. It's exciting. It's pleasant.

On the other hand, because we live on a main street through our normally quiet west Provo neighborhood, we also hear every juvenile hotshot in a pimped-out ride who thinks the whole world also wants to hear his stereo played at the "deafening" decibel level. We can feel the bass beat while the vehicle is still several blocks down the street, and as it nears the house, we can hear the sound loud enough to cause pain and drown out our own music. I can't imagine what it's like inside that truck.

Being a fairly new resident of Provo, I don't know if there are anti-noise ordinances in town, but if so, they are among the most violated civil laws. I'm sure those drivers just want to share their music with me, but I have a right to refuse to listen to sounds so loud my ears bleed. People with an ounce of sensitivity ought to establish a personal anti-noise ordinance. Unfortunately, respecting air space is not considered by some to be an inalienable right for other people.

Noise is sort of like cigarette smoke. I don't want to breathe it because it nauseates me, and I don't want to hear the booming bass because it not only offends my ears, it's very possible that the decibel level can do actual damage to my eardrums as I hear it passing by. No thanks; old age is doing its own number on my hearing levels without the help of inconsiderate strangers.

So my advice is this: Anyone seeking a career that will never be modernized out of existence should seriously consider audiology—hearing aids, sign language education, that sort of thing. Listening to that high decibel bass long enough in that enclosed environment will make a lot of people deaf who just thought they were being cool. Whether they like it or not, they're going to need medical care in the future for deafness they've inflicted on themselves, and it'll happen much sooner than they think.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmases I Have Known

In 1995, we had no Christmas tree. It wasn't the first time we'd gone without, nor the last, and it wasn’t because the Grinch sneaked in and stole our holiday. Rather, it sneaked up on us when other things got a higher place on the priority list as the year came to a close. Dau # 2 married in September and moved to Logan, and Dau # 1 returned from her LDS mission in October and got married in December. It wasn't a surprise. It had been on the radar screen for several years, but she wasn't making very many decisions about it until she got home, and then everything happened fast. By the time we went out looking for a tree on Christmas Eve that year, there weren’t any. 

Lately I have been reviewing other Christmases I have known.

Guam, an island in the western Pacific, was the scene of our first two Christmases as a married couple. Like Utah, Guam has two seasons. In Utah, it’s freezing cold winter and burning hot summer. On Guam, it’s wet and wetter. Without snow or even a chill in the air, getting in the mood for Christmas in our island apartment was difficult. Real evergreens were simply too expensive, but we had some other representations and substitutes. We went caroling in the hospital with our church group, but not even singing "Jungle Bells," the island version of the old song, could make us feel the holiday mood. Our second Christmas was a different story. We had a six-week-old baby, and our gift to each other, and her, was a new rocking chair, delivered in Santa-like fashion on Christmas Eve.

Possibly the most unusual Christmases we’ve had were the two we spent in Iran, a long time ago, before the revolution. Dau # 1 was about a year old. Our landlord and his family had rented to American Christians before, and were sensitive to our homesickness at that season of the year. We socialized with our Christian friends, but it didn’t ease our heavy-hearted feelings. In a Moslem country, of course, little attention is paid to the celebrations of infidel religions. As we sat there on Christmas Eve, trying not to think about what would be happening back home that night, we heard some noise and giggling at the door, then a knock. I went to see what was going on, and there were the landlord’s children, tugging at a potted pine tree to get it through the door. It was decorated with colorful paper chains and handfuls of cotton. We were so touched that a Jewish family prepared this meaningful gift for their foreign Christian friends. More than a tree, or what it symbolizes, we needed to feel kindness and love, and they certainly gave us that.

Over the years we've tried some other traditions. One year we went out in the hills and cut our own Christmas tree (bad idea unless you don't mind pitch dripping on the carpet) and another year I got my husband a surprise gift  he didn't like because I hadn't cleared it with him ahead of time. (Yeah, that's how he thinks.) But we recovered and forged on. For a few years I experimented with fruitcake recipes to find the most amenable, for a while went through a chocolate dipping phase. Then there is the Christmas bear collection. I don't know when that started, but we now have a stuffed bear for every member of the family. I've tried to get the kids to choose one and take it home, but nobody wants to break up the set. For a few years, my sister and I would make and exchange ornaments, until we both got too busy.

However, the tradition that has stayed with us is the pudding prize. Danish Rice Pudding, an exquisite blend of rice and cream and transcendent bliss, is a tradition of my great- grandfather's homeland. You put one whole almond in the pudding, and whoever gets the almond in his/her serving gets a prize. We've enjoyed that, and the tradition has gone with the kids when they left home.

When the girls left home, our Christmas began to take on a different form of celebration, and if it weren't for our son, we wouldn't have had much at all. When we're not going to be together it's hard to keep up the traditions as enthusiastically as we would if we were going to share them. Son is best described as the Christmas Kid, and his philosophy is, "We need a little Christmas NOW." He'd get out some lights to put on the bushes in front of the house, and decorate the tree, and pretty soon I'd feel like making holiday goodies. Then he left home, too, and some years we didn't get out many decorations at all.

Now we are in transition again, having moved to a new house. I highly recommend downsizing. It's liberating. One good thing about a smaller house is that there's no place for a lot of extra stuff, like holiday decorations. After our first year here, I eliminated half of what I had, and we haven't missed it. So I got a wrought iron tree, about four feet tall, that's strictly for ornament display, and there's space for that in the corner of the living room--no lights, but it works for us. We have an olive wood nativity set and a couple of smaller ones to put on the piano, and the bears sit in the entry.

Through all of that, the ongoing question was "Why are we doing this?" Christmas got better when we released Santa with a vote of thanks and focused on the Savior. Each year it's a challenge to pay attention for opportunities to serve and help others, and we are reassured by the knowledge that, as the Grinch learned, Christmas doesn't come from a store. If Christ isn't already there, no amount of trappings will bring Christmas into our hearts. Over the years we have begun to understand more keenly what Charles Dickens meant when he says through his changed character, Ebenezer Scrooge, “I will honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all year."

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

December Bride... And Groom

It’s been 42 years since my husband and I were married, and having had a December wedding, and three children in the next nine years, the focus changed for a while to them instead of us. We never really sat down and talked about how we would celebrate Christmas, but as time passed we experimented to discover for ourselves what traditions offered by our culture would best fit our family. Some years the holiday came, and there were numerous family obligations and visits as we had time off from school, during which “our” day came and we nodded and smiled and said, “Yep, this was the day,” and went on with whatever we were doing. Some years we had time to celebrate by going to dinner, and after our nest emptied out, we even had brief getaway vacations when our schedule allowed. We always celebrated Christmas, but our anniversary received attention only if we got around to it.

This evolution of celebration has made me think back to that first Christmas Roger and I spent together. Actually, Christmas that year was five days before our wedding, and he went home to Portland with me to meet my parents for the first time. I knew I had made the right choice when I saw what a good sport he was. A photographer friend of my parents did our wedding portrait, and my mother held an open house for us. She was always a gracious hostess and a generous person. She loved to celebrate, and having a new son-in-law was her favorite Christmas present that year. We were 26 at the time, and I’m sure there were times she had despaired and wondered if I’d ever find someone to put up with me. Nevertheless, the first meeting with my parents was nothing if not memorable for Roger.

On Christmas morning, as we gathered for our gift exchange, Mother somehow lost her balance as she bent over to plug in the tree lights, and fell into the tree. It remained standing, even if she didn’t, and as my brothers helped her up, she laughed along with the rest of us at what a Laurel and Hardy thing she had done.

Mother always liked to have a special breakfast on Christmas, and this year it would be extra-special because Roger was there. We all took our places around the kitchen table, and as she hurried over from the stove with a pitcher of syrup she had just heated, the bottom dropped out of it. Our food got cold in the time it took us to clean up the mess. Permanent syrup stains on Roger’s slippers became a cosmic admonition for us to keep our sense of humor, no matter what we fell into, no matter what splashed on us.

We spent the following two Christmases on Guam, an island in the western Pacific. My mother sent us a box of Oregon holly to make a wreath, and some gold satin ornaments, which I piled up in the shape of a Christmas tree. Real trees were simply too expensive on our beginning teacher’s salary, and it's hard to celebrate Christmas in perpetual summer weather. For two years after that, we were in Iran, with a Jewish landlord who understood our Christian customs and kindly provided us with a living tree that we later planted in their garden.

We’ve had more ordinary celebrations since we settled down, and our children have enjoyed establishing and following the traditions we have had together. We all love following the tradition of our Danish ancestry with rice pudding on Christmas Eve--whoever gets the whole almond in their serving gets the pudding prize. It took the kids years to figure out that I manipulated the servings so the same person didn’t win the pudding prize two years in a row. As our children have left home, they’ve each had the collection of tree ornaments I started for them when they were very young. Now they do the same thing for their own children.

When the three of them got old enough to govern themselves, we'd go away for a couple of days and leave them home alone. Our rationale was this: "Before there was you, there was us. Some day you'll leave and it'll just be us again. We don't want to come to that place having forgotten what it's like to be us. So we go away to focus on each other and remind ourselves who we are."

Both of our daughters were married in the year we celebrated our 25th anniversary. When they celebrate their 25th, we’ll celebrate our 50th, and we have decided to get together and have a big party that year. For 15 years, we arranged and juggled Christmas visits between Vancouver WA and Decatur IL which took our minds off the subject of anniversaries. Besides, grandchildren are so charming, so delightfully distracting. Now two of our kids live in Utah and one lives in New York.

Through the years, we’ve seen Christmas and our anniversary take on different forms of celebration, and looking back over the mellowing process of time, I appreciate more and more the celebration of the birth of Christ, who did for us what we cannot do for ourselves, and who is the holder of the seal that binds our family together. To focus on his birth and his gifts helps us remember that he has always been a part of our lives and our marriage, that he is the ultimate marriage counselor, and that it matters to him that we have been true and faithful not only to each other, but also to him.