Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year

Here's the payoff for getting a dog that eats everything he can get his snout on: as activity outside our first floor, Chicago apartment gets weirder this weekend, he's there for me. A 45-pound pitbull mix can be a strangely comforting thing, especially on New Year's Eve.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

How was Christmas?

Christmas Eve:

Bob worked. I had dinner in Niles at the Omega Restaurant with friends. When I got home, Bob called and said that in the course of his job (in the restaurant industry) he'd been forced into a physical confrontation. Sadly as a result, Bob was in the emergency room on Christmas Eve from 8:30p to 3:00a. Emergency rooms are busy on Saturday nights and they're also busy on Christmas Eves, but they're busiest on Saturday nights that are Christmas Eves. It was awful. He just sat there for hours while more serious cases went ahead of him. But the x-rays were inconclusive, so it's more pain meds for him.

The other Christmas Eve drama was that Ozzie broke into a plastic Ziploc container of homemade gingerbread cookies and ate all of them. I know Ozzie has gotten very good at pulling things off counters and opening them, so this was my fault. I should have put that box in the fridge before leaving to have dinner (he only does this stuff when we're not home). So it was a good Christmas Eve for him! He was in a good mood when I got home.

Fortunately, there were only about eight cookies in there, not dozens, and they didn't have chocolate in them, which is toxic to dogs. I told him, "I hope you enjoyed your Christmas treat because those were the last cookies you're going to see for a long time."

Christmas Day:

Bob worked. I MC-ed a Christmas luncheon for Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly. It went very well and I had a great time. I told jokes and stories, riffed, ad libbed, involved the attendees and later my friend Ceece (who’s development director for LBFE) said they liked me.

It turns out that the jokes that don't amuse me, were the ones they liked. The jokes that I laughed at when I first heard them, they didn't like as much. This taught me that I must have West Coast humor that is quite different from Midwest humor or maybe it's a generational difference. Anyway, Bob's joke about a talking bird went over BIG. They loved it. My joke about drinking and driving bombed. They also liked this one a lot:

Why does Santa like to garden?
Because he likes to ho ho ho.

This one didn't get much of a reaction, although I thought it was very funny:
Before I judge a man, I'll walk a mile in his shoes. That way if he gets mad, he'll be a mile away and have no shoes on.

Lesson #1: do not trust my sense of humor. If I do a gig like that again I'm going to ask MY HUSBAND for jokes. Ceece confirmed that the elders prefer simpler jokes. If I do this again I'll definitely use more Bob jokes.

I was in charge of making announcements, introducing the guitarist/singer, running the raffle and leading the sparkling cider toast. The Christmas toast was challenging since I don’t believe in God or family or hope or anything. In fact, I forgot to write the toast, and came up with this in the minutes before the party began:

"No matter what we've each been through in the past year, no matter what happened or didn't happen, here's to the things for which we are grateful and to the truth that if you think long enough, you can always find something in the past year that got better."

It worked.

Lesson #2: Keep moving. I like serving food or MC-ing but not sitting around. Being on my feet feels great because I spend so much time sitting at my regular job.

On Christmas night, Ceece and I drove out to the suburbs and took Ozzie for a walk in a brightly decorated area. Being a dog, he ignored the beautiful lights and kept his nose to the ground, fascinated by foreign (to him) soil. He peed on many lawns, but did not poop, which I thought was very respectful of him.

I hope everyone had at least as pleasant a Christmas as me and Ozzie, even though I know that's impossible. And yes, Bob is feeling a bit better today than on the day of his adventure.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Friday, December 23, 2011

How to avoid visiting family for the holidays, without lying

This is merely a public service. I am not talking about the family I just visited last weekend (uh, hi Dad). Family gatherings are often fun and pleasant. This post is just for those few people who have family they'd rather avoid.

1. If you have a job with vacation days, use them all up before the holidays and tell your family you have to work.

2. If you're flying, give up your seat when they ask for volunteers to accommodate stand-by passengers. Ask the stand-by person who's getting your seat to give their best sob story so you can tell your family how their need was greater than yours.

3. Start volunteering with an organization that's active on Thanksgiving, Easter, Christmas Day, etc. Make a commitment to help out on the holiday and then tell your family you can't possibly let down the children or the elderly or the botanical plants or whatever.

4. Start a serious, long-term relationship and divide your holiday time with your partner's family. Warning: this only works if their family is not as bad as yours.

5. Leave food out that is easily spoiled (mayonnaise, raw chicken, etc.). Eat it about 12 hours before you're supposed to leave. Call to cancel your visit when you're at the height of the food poisoning symptoms.

6. Tell those family members who you'd rather not see, exactly why you will not be visiting. This won't be an easy conversation, but it will be honest and might help them look at themselves in a new way. At worst, they'll stop talking to you and then you'll be all set for next year.

Good luck and Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christmas in Not-Mexico-but-not-really-the-US-either

I just learned that the fence that separates Mexico from the U.S. doesn't actually run along the Mexico-U.S. border. According to a post on The Lookout, a news blog, the Rio Grande forms the natural boundary between the two countries, but because of a treaty with Mexico that prohibits building in the Rio Grande floodplain, the U.S. border fence stands more than a mile north of the official borderline and thousands of Americans live in that isolated strip of land. They live south of the U.S-Mexico border wall, but are still geographically inside the United States. For some of them, the fence divides their property. For all of them, the fence has drastically lowered the value of their homes.

The border wall as it stands now has gaps of several feet placed almost randomly along it. Some landowners use those gaps to get to their property. Now the government is considering sealing those gaps, which will require a solution that will allow property owners to still be able to access their land. This will be the residents' fourth Christmas with the fence. Increíble.

Monday, December 19, 2011

My perfect Christmas

Okay, it's not my perfect Christmas, since I won't spend it with my husband, but it's the next best thing.

Bob's working Christmas Day because his restaurant is open every day of the year. I spent Easter and Thanksgiving volunteering with Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly, serving dinner to people without other plans. LBFE provides companionship to elderly in Chicago who would otherwise spend holidays and birthdays alone. But LBFE doesn't need as many volunteers for their Christmas dinners, so I didn't know what I was going to do. Bob hates the idea of me being alone on Christmas with nothing to do, although I'm okay with the idea. I've done it before, knocking around Chicago by myself, taking myself out to dinner on Christmas Day. It's very peaceful (have you ever spent Christmas alone with nothing to do?).

Then LBFE called to ask if I could help out after all! At their northside Christmas dinner (there are several dinner locations that day) they said they needed people to help our elderly guests get from the car to their seat at the dinner table and back again at the end. I happily said yes, relieved won't be alone on Christmas, after all.

And then the LBFE staff member mentioned that they need a master of ceremonies for that location. That means standing in front of a big room full of strangers, welcoming everyone to the occasion, introducing the entertainment, running the Christmas raffle and then thanking everyone for coming. Can you guess what I said?

I'm going to be a Christmas MC! It's like a dream come true. I love being the center of attention, being witty and making up what I'm going to say on the spot. And, of course, I love being part of a celebration, especially Christmas. I'll be like the host of a huge party that I don't have to cook for. That's why I said this will be my perfect Christmas. I'm going to totally dress up and look as festive and gorgeous as possible.

Would you do it? Bob would never do it.

Besides that, it'll be me and our dog Ozzie. We'll go for a nice Christmas walk to see the decorated building and homes. I'll probably sing carols to him as we go, but he doesn't get any special treats on that day. This dog has a very delicate stomach and I do not want to spend any part of my holiday at the emergency animal clinic. It's dog food and more dog food for him.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Things I've learned about dogs recently

1. During my battle with bronchitis in the weeks after Thanksgiving, I discovered that our pitbull mix, Ozzie, will stay next to me no matter how much I cough, hack and sweat on him. He's my first dog ever and this is his third month with us. I'm amazed by how this animal behaves. He likes being near the humans no matter what, actually in physical contact. Ozzie amazes me with his sociability. I really never knew anything about dogs before and I'll probably spend the rest of Ozzie's life trying to understand, or at least accept, their uniqueness among the animals.

2. We totally saved Ozzie's life. The more I read about shelter dogs, the more it sinks in that Ozzie was in a very bad situation: not only was he living with a hundred other unhappy dogs in less than ideal conditions, but he has the main traits that make dogs UN-adoptable: he's an adult, he's not a purebred, he has pitbull in him and he's black. He was doomed! (Black cats and dogs take the longest to get adopted.) Bob and I totally did our good deed for life by taking him. Ozzie needed a home and Bob needed a dog, so it worked out.

3. There's a long literary tradition of using "black dog" to refer to depression. This is ironic because I suffer from depression and the idea of inviting in its icon into my home is as amusing as it is disturbing.

4. I'm beginning to genuinely like our dog. I had a lot of doubts for the first couple of months, including during my illness when I suspected that he had brought me a bacterial infection (humans can't transmit illnesses to dogs, but they can transmit them to us!). But now that we're all healthy again, I'm finally beginning to relax. Ozzie is still an alien to me, but he's not so bad, plus he makes my husband 100% happier. The little dog, as I often call our 45-pound pitbull mix, is beginning to rub off on me.

5. Purebred dogs are damn expensive and "puppy mills" often create health-compromised puppies who aren't socialized or trained or anything. Pet stores are often stocked with puppy mill dogs. I'm beginning to agree that there's no reason at all to get a dog from a pet store or breeder while there are millions of animals being killed in shelters every year because no one wants them. Shelter dogs need you and they're cheap. Many shelters have puppies and purebreds, at least periodically. Of course, mutts are great because they're unique, often are more even-tempered and don't have the health problems purebreds have. Heck, I'm a mutt as most Americans are.

6. Pitbulls usually live 10 or 12 years, but sometimes they make it to fifteen! Ozzie is between 3 and 4 years old, so I might be in my late 50s by the time he finally kicks off. This isn't good news to someone who's not good with long-term commitment, although I've gotten better since I got married. Okay, here we go...

Saturday, December 10, 2011

“Isn’t There Anyone Who Knows What Christmas Is All About?"

[I originally posted this on January 5, 2006. I'm running it again, with slight editing. The title refers to Charlie Brown's plaintive cry as he tries to reconcile his "commercial dog" with the party atmosphere of his play rehearsals and the original nativity story.]

Recently I watched the History Channel's Christmas Unwrapped: The History of Christmas. Here’s my summary of the program which I found extremely relevant to the annual discussion of the true meaning of Christmas. The following historical facts are from the History Channel program, but the opinionated statements are mine.

Christmas Started Without Jesus

It turns out that early Europeans were observing a winter solstice celebration centuries before Jesus was even born. In Norse country it was called “Yule” and it lasted for as long as the enormous “Yule log” took to burn, which was about twelve days. In preparation for the cold, dark season people would kill almost all their livestock since they couldn’t feed them through the winter. The feasting and general revelry that resulted became the annual Yule celebration.

In Rome the winter solstice marked the period known as “Saturnalia.” During this festival people drank, behaved raucously and generally overturned the normal social order. While this was going on, the upper classes of Rome worshipped Mithras, the sun god, whose feast day was December 25th. Mithras was also believed to have been born in a field and worshipped by shepherds.

In fact, the early Christians didn’t even celebrate Jesus’ birth, focusing on his resurrection (which makes a lot more sense to me). But by the fourth century the new Church needed to establish Jesus’ holy birth, so it began to put together the nativity story. It knew it would never manage to outlaw the pagan traditions already in place, so it appropriated them and that’s how December 25th became Jesus’ feast day.

It Had More Sex Than Saints

In England during the middle ages, the pious went to church on December 25th for “Christ’s mass,” but most of the population just carried on as it always had on that day. For those who celebrated, Christmas was a festival of drunken revelry and sexual activity that would look more to us like Mardi Gras or New Year’s Eve. It was a saturnalian free-for-all with little connection to Jesus except in name.

By the 17th century the Puritans had had enough of this and they made attempts to outlaw Christmas in both England and the New World. These devout people saw Christmas as a depraved tradition that had to be stopped. It didn’t work, but the holiday was greatly downplayed for a long time, as evidenced by the U.S. Congress being in session on all Christmas Days for its first 67 years.

America Needed a Tradition

When the United States were established in 1776, the early Americans wanted to rid themselves of all things English, including Christmas. But over time they also needed new culturally shared holidays and a reinvention of Christmas was on the horizon.

One new aspect of the American Christmas was how it addressed the growing class divide of the industrial U.S. In the early 1800’s the holiday became quite dangerous as working class people turned it into a time of violent payback for the increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots. In response to growing economic imbalances, writers like Washington Irving and Charles Dickens created works of fiction that instilled a spirit of generosity and demonstrated sharing wealth with the poor. These popular stories gave the upper classes guidance about what their responsibility was to those who had less and established “giving” as a central Christmas theme. Christmas now gave people a chance to correct some of the socioeconomic unfairness of newly industrialized America.

The view of the family was also changing. Traditionally, the American family was supposed to discipline children and turn them into hard workers, but by the end of the 19th century the family was seen more as a nurturing body that protected childhood innocence. Christmas, with its emphasis on giving gifts, allowed people to pour attention on children without seeming to spoil them. The holiday became a celebration of children, honoring them with presents and sharing in their joy.

Why Shopping Is Central

The creation of Santa Claus in the mid-1800's did a few things: it reinforced the idea that Christmas distributes wealth, it solidified the focus on children and it removed gift-buying from the marketplace and placed it in the realm of family love and affection. Shopping became an expression of love. This diminished the obvious commercialism of gift-buying and obliged parents to fulfill their children’s expectations. Thus did shopping become the central activity of the Christmas season.

But Where Was God?

By the late 1800’s Christmas was just about everywhere, except in church. In fact, the author of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas was an Episcopalian minister who initially kept his authorship a secret because he thought the poem was too friviolous; after all, it didn’t mention Jesus once. The celebration of Jesus’ birth was an established part of the Catholic tradition, but for quite a while American Protestant churches pretty much ignored it. For decades they stayed closed on December 25th until their parishioners made clear that they wanted services on that day.

So much for Jesus’ birth being the original reason we have Christmas. December 25th was initially part of a pagan festival that morphed into a holiday of gift-giving that American churches didn’t want anything to do with until almost the 20th century. There was no golden age during which most people observed Christmas primarily as a holy day. That idea is as much a myth as Santa Claus. Sorry Charlie Brown, but Snoopy's not off target: Christmas is as much about the big decorated tree as it is about the manger.

Does Christmas Even Need Jesus?

By the 1920’s all of the sex and revelry were gone from Christmas and by the 1950’s it was all about kids and presents. So, where does Jesus fit into this again? Clearly a spiritual focus is appropriate since religious services recall the need to connect with a greater power. In the centuries before Christ, people needed to believe they’d survive the winter and they worshipped the sun as their source of life. Modern Christians worship the son of God, whom they recognize as the source of life.

But for as long as December 25th has been recognized as Jesus’ feast day, there have been lots of other activities going on at the same time. If Christmas were really just about Jesus, the holiday wouldn’t occupy public space as it does. Strictly religious holy days tend to be observed only by those who practice that faith. Our grand scale yuletide traditions -- big decorations, big eating, big shopping -- support the religious significance of the day, but they don’t really engage it.

Pick Your Own True Meaning

The History Channel’s program ends with the observation that only children understand what Christmas is really about: pure joy and celebration, and the magic and mystery of opening gifts. That’s why, even as grown ups, we often experience a moment of delight when we see a Santa truly in his role or glimpse a dazzling light display. Such moments take us back to our childhood and the unadulterated awe and glory that Christmas held for us then. Our American Christmas tradition was tailor-made for children and they are critical to its magic.

Sooo...the true meaning of Christmas includes Jesus, but today it's just as much about children and gift-giving. There has really never been a time during which people treated December 25th as a solemn holy day. In fact, the drunken orgy it used to be caused the Puritans to try to stamp it out altogether. This is why, although Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus, it's just as much about decorations, kids and presents as it is about God, an interesting outcome for a holiday with a rich pagan history of drunkenness, gluttony and sex. I know when I tell someone "Merry Christmas," it has nothing to do with Christianity. I'm just wishing them a really good season of partying.

[This Chicago magician does magic, too, plus he's funny.]

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Target Clinic misdiagnosed me

I started feeling achy on the day before Thanksgiving. I felt so crappy (achiness, fever, headache, chest congestion, horrible cough, alternate chills and sweats), that I went to a Target store health clinic on Sunday where a nurse practitioner told me it was the flu so I should stay in bed and drink fluids. When I felt equally crappy on Tuesday, I called my real doctor. On Wednesday night she identified it as bronchitis, with a touch of pneumonia and prescribed me antibiotics and an inhaler because my lungs were working at about half capacity. I was not breathing well and can't move very fast or I can't get enough oxygen. She tested me for flu, but I never had it at all.

I wish I could have started these antibiotics on Sunday. I'd probably be at work right now. I've been keeping my boss updated, although I don't feel proud to say that I accepted a bad diagnosis that prolonged my illness. The inhaler is helping a little and I'm waiting for the antibiotics to take effect. I'm still feverish and sweaty.

Can I sue Target?