Visit me at (Click here for link) I have "moved" some older posts to this site.

2010: What Will Be Remembered?

I just wrote an overview of 2010, speculating about what future historians will consider to be the most important events of this past year. I published it on Hubpages. Here is the link.

The Tax Compromise: Who Won?

I just published an article with the above title on Hubpages. Click here for the link. I'll publish these "little posts" for a while in case any followers still visit here.

I'm "Moving"

A few months ago, I started an account at a site called “Hubpages,” posting past blog entries to see if they could find some more readers. Click here for my Hubpages profile page. Recently, I have been getting more traffic with my Hubpages account than on this site, so I have decided to shut down this blog and publish exclusively over there. Some of these “hubs” will be (slightly revised) past blog posts, but I plan to keep writing new stuff as well.

If you scroll down on my Hubpages profile page, you will find a list of the articles that I have posted, with some of them arranged by general topic. You can also search my profile for certain topics, follow me, and subscribe to an RSS feed just like you might be doing with this blog. I also appreciate any comments, and if you click on ads or buy stuff from Amazon through my site, I will still make a little money. As always, thanks for reading, and I hope to “see” you over at Hubpages.

Christmas: A Few of my Favorite (and Unfavorite) Things

A classic John Lennon Christmas song that I still hear on the radio several times every Christmas season.

In honor of the holiday season, I decided to compile a list of the things that I enjoy the most about Christmas. Also, in the interest of being fair and balanced, and to get a few things off of my chest, I will list a few things that I find somewhat annoying about this time of year. To ensure that this post will not end with me sounding like a scrooge, I will start with the negatives:

1) Christmas music saturation. As you will see shortly, I actually like a lot of the standard Christmas music. Old songs, like familiar smells, can instantly connect me to memories of Christmases past. The problem is that the Christmas season seems to get extended each year, so the songs start to play by early November. So by the time I have heard the 25th different singer break out into “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” I have had enough.

2) Advertisements that start too early. This is closely related to the previous complaint. Since Christmas has evolved into a materialistic orgy, and the American economy cannot survive without a healthy dose of winter shopping, the holiday advertising blitz starts earlier each year. So as soon as the Halloween decorations disappear, Christmas trees pop up in department stores everywhere.

3) Taking down the decorations. This made my list for a few reasons. First, I like Christmas, so it is always depressing to see another one pass. Second, I don’t like excess work, and taking down decorations, unlike putting them up, feels like a chore. This pain was especially acute when we still got real Christmas trees. Needles would end up all over the place when you moved the thing out, and there is something inherently depressing about sticking a dead tree out on the curb. When we switched to plastic a few years ago, it made the whole process less painful. At least we know that we get to see our old friend next year. (Although I miss the smell of pine needles in the house.)

4) Stressed out people. Being a guy, I may not be qualified to make this complaint. My wife, after all, is the one who fulfills all of the duties that make our traditional Christmas possible. I still find it funny, however, when I hear people talking about how stressed out they are trying to get ready for Christmas. If the shopping, Christmas cards, cooking, decorating, parties, and all the rest of it are so stressful, then why not drop a few of these activities? There is no law than I know of commanding, “Thou shalt mail Christmas cards” or “thou shalt buy Christmas presents for every friend and relative that thou knoweth.”

5) Shopping. See explanation for “stressed out people” above. I don’t like shopping for any purpose, and gift giving, especially for adults, is the worst. If adults want something, and they have at least as much money as I – which is most Americans, by the way – then they will go out and buy it. So in some cases, what we call gift giving is merely the fulfillment of someone else’s shopping list, a glorified form of running errands for them. And if the shopper has no list to work with, then it is a crapshoot that more often than not wastes money and leads to the accumulation of excess crap in the recipient’s garage. Adults should save themselves the time and stress and limit gift giving to kids. You can’t go wrong with toys and video games.

6) People offended by anything associated with Christmas. People offended by Christmas are usually bothered by Christianity in general. Given the various ways that Christianity has been connected to some horrific events in history, including intense conflicts between Christians and followers of other religions, I can somewhat understand their feelings. It is important to recognize, however, that so much of what is currently associated with Christmas – Santa Claus, wreaths, lights, trees, gifts, even the date of the holiday – is essentially pagan or secular. If not for these non-Christian elements, Christmas would involve little more than some manger scenes, a few religious Christmas songs, and another day on the calendar where people felt obligated to go to church. Christmas is not even a big deal in the Bible. Only two of the gospels mentioned Jesus’ birth, and they can’t even get the story straight. The manger scenes that we see today are a strange amalgam of the contradictory Christmas stories told in the books of Matthew and Luke. So if the phrase “Merry Christmas” makes you cringe, you might want to consider getting over it. The person who said it might not even be a Christian anyway. And when people say “Happy Holidays,” we know what most of them probably mean.

7) People who think that only Christians have a right to celebrate the holiday. See previous item in list. Holidays take on a life of their own, and the secular/pagan traditions have as much validity as the Christian ones. Since Christianity co-opted some pagan elements when the Christmas holiday was established, Christians should not complain if non-Christian traditions often take precedence over their own.

OK, I’m glad that I got those out of my system. Truth be told, the following things that I like about Christmas far outweigh the negatives. Underneath it all, I am a sentimental old sap:

1) Decorating. I like all of the traditional Christmas decorations: lights, trees, wreaths, etc. I do admit that they can get a bit gaudy at times, but I can even live with that. I’d hate see what the electric bill must be on some of these excessively decorated homes. We never go too crazy at our house, largely because I don’t want to put in the time. The tree decorating party, however, is one of our favorite family traditions.

2) Cold weather. Like a guy complaining about shopping, many would argue that a Southern Californian has no right to say anything about cold weather. I love the feeling, however, of sitting inside nice and warm when the weather is cold, wet, and/or snowy outside. If I lived in Montana, of course, I might not be romanticizing bad weather. Of course, if a person in Montana gets tired of the cold, then maybe they should consider getting out of Montana. It’s like me, a resident of Orange County, complaining about an excessive number of Republicans, gated housing communities, breast implants, or mega-churches.

3) Vacation. Winter break is my longest extended vacation of the year. Because I work every summer, the longest continuous break that I get at that time of year is a couple of weeks. In the winter, I get at least a month off, and some of my schools have an even longer break. I like my job, but it’s always nice to recharge the batteries. After teaching for so long, I don’t know if I could ever move to a nine to five job all year round.

4) Watching kids open presents. When I was a kid, Christmas was the highlight of the year. I had a lot of sleepless, Christmas Eve nights, waiting in anticipation for what would turn up the next day. When I had no individual source of income, Christmas, along with my birthday, was the only chance to get a mess of stuff at one time. Watching my kids on Christmas morning is a great chance to relive some of that excitement.

5) Classic Christmas music. Most of my favorites are still the traditional Christian hymns and carols. I don’t believe in the literal truth of the lyrics anymore, but I still enjoy some of the general spiritual truths and desires embedded into the music. They also tap in to the sentimental side that I, as a male American, try to keep hidden most of the time.

6) Traditions. Some of the main things that my wife and I try to provide for our kids are traditions that they can fondly remember as they grow older. As I have grown older, memories closely associated with family have become the most meaningful aspects of the Christmas holiday. I could care less about getting all kinds of gifts any more, although I will take cash if anyone cares to donate to my writing fund.

7) Christmas sentiments. Songs like the John Lennon tune included in this post can sound naïve and sappy, but so what. It is highly unlikely that peace on earth will ever be fully achieved, but striving for a more peaceful world will always be a noble goal. We should strive to prevent cynicism from getting the best of us, especially around Christmas time.

Is the Enemy Human?

I just heard this song for the first time about five minutes ago. I will have to find out more about this artist.

I read a story in the latest issue of Newsweek (December 13, pgs. 31-32) that caused me to be a bit disappointed in myself. It raised the question of how common it was for Afghan insurgents to suffer from some degree of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This article then proceeded to give some examples of specific Afghan insurgents who showed all of the signs. Strangely, this story caught me completely by surprise. Over the last few years, I have heard and read several stories about American soldiers suffering from PTSD. But for some reason, I never considered the possibility that the “bad guys” might suffer from the same problem.

So how do I explain my cluelessness? Whether I like it or not, it is actually pretty simple. I have apparently bought in to the common American public perception of our enemies in the “War on Terror.” Because our enemies are supposedly all a bunch of religious fanatics looking to die a glorious martyr’s death, these must be people who actually relish warfare. So if you follow this “logic,” then there is no reason why people would be traumatized by an experience that on some level they enjoy. By characterizing the enemy in this way, they essentially become a different breed of human. In fact, they are hardly viewed as human at all.

Dehumanizing an enemy is perfectly natural during war, particularly when fighting an enemy that uses such brutal and nasty tactics. Still, as a History teacher who has read tons of accounts of societies dehumanizing their enemies, I thought that I was more aware of this potential tendency in myself. Apparently, I am not as insightful as I had hoped. You would think that I could recognize that people are people. Regardless of ethnic, ideological, or cultural differences, all human brains react to extreme trauma in similar ways. And all of us, regardless of who may be the “good” or “bad” guy, are conditioned by surroundings and experiences that may cause us to dehumanize others.

This little post, believe it or not, is not designed to make a statement about the war in Afghanistan or about politics in general. I’m not trying to argue that we should somehow feel sorry for our enemies or seek to treat them for mental illness. But whatever your views on our current wars or on war in general, it is important to recognize the danger of dehumanizing an enemy. Portraying an enemy as a different type of creature, a sort of “superwarrior” with no regard for himself or for the lives or others, can lead to excessive pessimism and, possibly, unnecessarily prolonged fighting. After all, how can you defeat, outlast, or negotiate with people who love to fight so much? In addition, it can lead your society to justify acts of violence that might be counterproductive. If you view large numbers of civilian casualties - so-called “collateral damage” - as an acceptable cost of war, then you may create as many enemies as you destroy. It will, after all, give the dead civilians’ loved ones good reason to dehumanize the society whose military did the damage.

John Lennon (and Heroes)

This is an Elton John song dedicated to John Lennon. It was recorded a couple of years after Lennon's death.

I didn’t really get into music until I was in high school. Like many people that I have talked to over the years, high school was, by and large, a lonely time for me. Music therefore became a refuge, a means of both connecting to the world and escaping from it. This is why I would often gravitate toward songs that could be a bit on the depressing side. In both the lyrics and emotions expressed, I could personally relate to both the feelings and the message. Much of the stuff that I listened to, which can be loosely classified as “classic rock,” was already considered old at that time. The fact that some people my age saw it as old and outdated only added to the appeal. It was just one of many signs that I was deeper and smarter than they were.

Like many classic rock aficionados, the first band that I really loved was The Beatles. In my humble opinion, there is no rock band in history that produced such a wide variety of incredibly catchy songs. My favorites then, as now, came from their later period when the music became more experimental, no longer consisting of nothing but catchy love songs. And the most experimental of these songs tended to be written by John Lennon. In both lyrical content and style, his songs had an edge not found in most of Paul McCartney’s music. His voice also had a raspy, soulful, world-weary quality, the same difficult to define traits found in all of my favorite voices: John Fogerty, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, etc.

With Lennon, however, it was more than just the music. In reading books about him and The Beatles, I found aspects of his personality that I thought were pretty cool: his sarcastic sense of humor, brutal honesty, liberal (“hippy”) idealism, and ability to recognize the silliness of his ridiculous level of fame. In many ways, he was a perfect hero for someone suffering from “teen angst.” He seemed able to see the stupidity all around him, and he was willing to take unpopular steps to make a better world, particularly with the various “publicity stunts” and songs designed to bring “peace.” As a kid growing up in the 1980’s who somewhat idealized the 1960’s, Lennon seemed to be the ultimate ‘60’s rebel hero.

So like many young people, I looked for heroes and tended to idealize them. Like Lennon, however, my childhood heroes were hardly perfect people: Magic Johnson, Bruce Springsteen, Babe Ruth, Jack London, J.D. Salinger, John Fogerty. Their primary appeal, however, was not the ethical quality of their lives. In an entertainment-crazed culture, my heroes became the best artists and athletes. I admired them for their remarkable talents, not for their general behavior. With Lennon, however, his flaws – drug use, infidelity to his wives, naïve idealism, occasionally foolish public statements – were almost part of the appeal. In his music and life, he could be so brutally open and honest, and agree with him or not, there was no denying the passion of his convictions. He put himself out on display, which was part of the reason why he provoked such strong positive and negative reactions. He made it more difficult for people to put him on a pedestal, a fact that could be annoying to those who did not want their heroes to be human.

A few days ago, people throughout the world were commemorating the 30th anniversary of Lennon’s death. No other entertainer, not even Elvis, can provoke such a reaction decades after his or her death. Some of this is due to circumstances. History is filled with examples of people who have become more deeply immortalized and idealized because they died a “martyr’s death.” If he were alive today, I wonder how much attention Lennon would still receive. How many more songs would he have recorded? Would he have reunited with The Beatles at some point? Would he still be out there today, fighting for “peace”? Or would he have gone back to what he did for most of the last five years of his life, staying at home as a full-time househusband? We will never know. But we can hopefully agree on one point. Whatever you think of Lennon’s politics and music, his murder, like all murders, was an unspeakable tragedy. And in his case, we lost a brilliant individual, a man whose youth could hardly be described as normal, just as he was reaching the age when most of us truly start to grow up.

Soccer Parents

I couldn't find a good soccer song, so I settled on this slightly cheesy tune that can make even the most masculine father choke up a little. Apparently, Darius Rucker, former lead singer of Hootie and the Blowfish, is now considered a country singer.

We just had a strange weekend. My younger daughter’s first ever soccer team was in an end-of-the-year tournament, so we were guaranteed to have two games on Saturday and at least one on Sunday. If her team did well and advanced to the semifinals, we might end up playing two additional games on Sunday. I had some conflicting feelings. My rational self wanted her team – and especially her personally - to do well, but not well enough to advance. After all, I did not want the entire weekend eaten up with soccer games. But then the games started, and my emotional self took over. So as I found myself yelling, jumping up and down, and exhorting her team to victory, it became clear that it is impossible to root against your child. This episode, then, can be added to a long list of irrational behavior carried out on behalf of my kids. It was more evidence that the state of parenthood can be classified as a mild form of insanity.

After winning two of the first three games, we advanced to the semifinals on Sunday afternoon. Her team outplayed the opponent, but the game ended in a one-one tie. The game then proceeded to one of the most unjust procedures in sports: penalty kicks. Five different players per team get one shot each, and most goals wins. For the first time, my wife got to experience what I feel when watching a Laker playoff game. Luckily for us, the other team relied heavily on a couple of great players. So after those two made their goals, the rest of their team missed. Three of our kids scored, so it was on to the finals.

My daughter would now have a chance to play a night game under the lights. And to make things more interesting, it rained pretty heavily off and on throughout the game. In the first half, there were a few close calls, but neither team was able to score. Then, in the third quarter, the other team managed to punch one through. I figured that this was the beginning of the end. Our girls were looking tired. It was, after all, their third game of the day and fifth of the weekend. But then, halfway through the fourth quarter, one of our best players managed to get a ball past the goalie from an almost impossible angle. Suddenly, there was hope again, but that would be the last goal of the day. Believe it or not, it was another one-one tie. This time, because it was the championship game, they decided to play a sudden death overtime period. Five minutes were played, and it was still a tie. Now if this was earlier in the day, it wasn’t raining, and there wasn’t another team waiting to play their championship game, then they might have played more overtimes with various scenarios that would make a goal more likely. But time had run out, so it was time for more penalty kicks. Believe it or not, each team made four of their five shots. So now it was sudden death penalty kicks involving the players who were not as good. Our sixth kicker barely missed, and the other team’s made it, and it was finally over.

So as this epic battle raged, I could not help standing there in the rain wondering what the hell we were doing. I was cold, wet, and my feet hurt from a whole day of standing and screaming. The kids, of course, had to be in more pain than I was. And yet, at the same time, as I watched those little girls playing their hearts out in the mud, I couldn’t help thinking, “It doesn’t get any better than this.” This was clearly a game – and a day - that we will remember for the rest of our lives. And hopefully, both of our daughters will have fond memories of their parents standing and yelling, hour after hour, rain or shine.
After a game and weekend like this, it was hard to see any player in this game as a loser. In sports, however, even with seven and eight-year olds, there can be only one official winner. But even the most chronically hyper-competitive parent had to take pride in the performance of everyone involved. After the game, there was a little ceremony where everyone received her first and second-place medals. And as my daughter carefully clutched her little medal under her jacket in order to make sure that it didn’t get wet, I knew that she would be looking forward to the next soccer season. Hopefully, she doesn’t expect to play in a championship game every year. Games like that don’t come along very often. That is probably a good thing. I don’t know if I could take it.