Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays?

     Over the last month or so I have seen several of my Facebook friends become fans of a group called I Say Merry Christmas, Not Happy Holidays. I did a search on Facebook for the group, and found there are several of them with similar titles.  I have been aware of the argument for many years, probably as long as I can remember. What is right? Does it matter?

     In considering my decision on how to feel about the Merry Christmas v. Happy Holiday argument, I thought about what the season really means.  Not the history of it, or the religious aspects, but how our culture, today, regards the holiday. Doing so, I have concluded that for most of us, even those who are moderately religious, Christmas has become a very secular event.
     I participated in a program this year called Shop With a Cop. I took an underprivileged child shopping for Christmas presents. He had a $120 gift card to spend at Walmart; the money was raised by donations, including a large donation from Walmart. The child I took was the child of a couple from Palestine. They were Muslim. However, this little boy and his brother and sister knew everything about Christmas. They wanted their picture taken with Santa, they wanted a Christmas tree, and they were exchanging presents with friends. They were very thankful for the opportunity to participate in the Shop with a Cop program, and they celebrated Christmas without Christ.
     Although the concept of Christmas began as a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, that is merely paid lip service in most households. Most of the Christmas traditions that we value are not entirely of Christian origin anyway.  People living in the pre-Christian Roman Empire brought evergreen branches and other green decorations in the house during the winter season.  The Christmas Tree is believed to be a combination of a pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice and tree worship.  The myth of Santa Claus comes from a fourth century bishop in Turkey named Nicholas, who cared for children and brought them gifts.  Originally, gifts were exchanged on the Feast of St. Nicholas, but during the Reformation the Protestants changed the date to December 25th and said the gifts were from Jesus; the myth of Santa Claus moved to December 25th, too. 
     As for December 25th, there is really no evidence this was the birthday of Jesus. It has been celebrated on many different days over the course of Christian history, including December 7th and January 7th. Part of the explanation of the December 25th origin is the previously mentioned celebration of the Winter Solstice. Others speculate that was about the time of Christ's birth because it is about nine months after the believed Immaculate Conception of Jesus.
     Many countries in the world celebrate Christmas, including many that do not have a majority Christian population. And in that celebration, many of the traditions are the same.  There are different reasons it is celebrated in different parts of the world, including a left-over from Christian colonial rule and foreign cultural influence.
     Christmas as we know it has hardly any Christian roots anymore. Instead, it is a combination of the Christianization of some old secular and pagan traditions, a holdover from Christian colonialism, and of course the commercialization of the holiday.  In addition, there are other religious holidays that fall during the same time of year. And, Christmas is followed closely by New Year's Day, which is a holiday in the United States and other parts of the world. 
     What, if anything, does that mean to the debate between Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays?  To start with, I believe Christians and non-Christians alike use the holiday season as an opportunity to spend time with family, extend well wishes to those in their community, donate to those less fortunate, exchange gifts with family and friends, and reach out to those they haven't seen often over the year. It has become a time of peace, love, acceptance, and forgiveness for all.  It has become a holiday that our economy depends on. Christians, Jews, Muslims, people of other religions, and non-believers all benefit from these thoughts and traditions.  Happy Holidays seems to be a more appropriate and inclusive greeting.  It includes Christmas, so Christians have no reason to feel offended or left out if they are greeted that way, and it won't offend any non-Christians. Given the spirit of the season, why would one want to risk offending another when extending a warm holiday greeting?

     On the other hand, since I believe that Christmas is no longer appropriately considered a Christian holiday, those non-Christians who are wished a Merry Christmas should not really be offended. They are, or should be, enjoying the same benefits and traditions of the holiday, even if in a purely secular fashion. 
     I will continue to error on the side of caution, be less offensive, and wish Happy Holidays when in doubt. Frankly, I think those who insist on Merry Christmas to show they are proud, in-your-face Christians, at the expense of being offensive, have an arrogant, self-righteous, and isolationist attitude about the holiday and their faith.  Even from a wholly religious Christian perspective, is that what Christmas is about?



Saturday, December 19, 2009

NEW BOOK by Michael Koryta!!

One of my favorite young authors, Michael Koryta, whom I was fortunate enough to become friends with, has a new book scheduled to be released June 9, 2010, called So Cold the River. It is exciting not only because it is his first book with publisher Little, Brown, or because it is a break from his Lincoln Perry series, but because it is a different style book for him. Author Dennis Lehane compares it to work by Stephen King, and Michael Connelly said it will "leave cold fingers down your spine." I look forward to reading this book, and hope you do to. You can pre-order it from Amazon at the link above!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

An Adventure in the Woods

     After great thought and consideration, I went hunting on Monday.  It was not the first time, in fact, it was the fourth.  The first time was six years ago and I unsuccessfully hunted squirrel.  I thought it would be easier, but squirrel in the woods--where they are seldom bothered by humans, and when they are, it is likely because the human is trying to kill them--are much harder to find than squirrel in the city.  The second time I hunted was the fall of 2006, and my prey was deer. I went again in 2007, and then again this past Monday.  
     I continue to give a lot of thought to hunting, maybe too much, but it is, after all, going out into the woods to kill a living thing.  My thoughts on the topic are evolving, and I will try to explain some of them.  I have always been entranced by the woods; the calm can be both soothing and eerie.  Hunting provides a lot of time to think, and since the mission is one of death, thoughts often lead there. Not necessarily morbid thoughts, but about the cycle of life, the food chain, how unforgiving nature can be, and the smallness of life in the big picture.
     I went hunting on the land of a friend of a friend.  He owns several hundred acres in central eastern Ohio, about fifty or sixty miles east of Columbus.  It is very rural there, my leading indicator being that there is no cellular phone service!  The land is hilly and woods are big enough that I could easily get lost in them without the help of my friend, who has hunted there for over twenty-five years.  And even he, in the dark, would likely be lost.  They are not so big that I couldn't hear civilization nearby.  Usually it was an airplane, likely taking off or landing in Columbus.  Sometimes it was a car or truck engine on a road a mile or two away.  
     These woods are, at first glance, untouched by man.  But once being there awhile, especially with my friend, evidence of civilization became obvious.  When pointed out, ruts on the ground of the woods could be seen, forming a row of trees that seemed a little smaller than the rest.  Those, I was told, were former dirt roads used by loggers.  Another sign of mankind was the small red/orange hose that rand down the hill, mostly buried by the leaves and debris.  The hose was attached to an old gas well at the top of the hill, long since turned off, but still serviced by the gas company. 

     I should say that calling what I did hunting seems a little misleading.  What I did, and what most deer hunters I know do, is not an active hunt.  That, as I think of it, is going out looking for deer or other prey, or for evidence that could lead you to that prey: tracks or trails or nests.  What I did was nothing like that. Instead, I went into the woods, climbed a ladder about ten feet into a tree, and sat for nine hours on a cold, wooden platform and waited, for a long time.  So, instead of hunting, perhaps it should be called waiting, or something more passive than the implication that I'm out doing something to actually catch a deer.  
     This year I waited for about four hours before I saw two deer running through the woods, away from me. I never had a shot.  Then I waited for about five more hours before I saw one deer walking parallel to me. It was late, about 4:30 pm, and getting dark.  The deer I saw was a buck, a little further away than I would like, but withing my sights.  I shot...and missed, and then, as quickly as I came, picked up my gear, and left before getting trapped in the dark woods.

     All that waiting can be soothing and thought provoking.  It can be so silent that I could hear an individual leaf fall from a tree and hit the ground; I could hear a solitary squirrel walking on a limb; and I could hear the wind rustling the few remaining leaves on the treetops long before I could feel it moving over my face.  That quiet hunting/waiting gave me time to think about the land I was on.  How only a few years after the loggers left, their roads were almost undetectable.  I thought about the Native Americans that likely lived there hundreds, even thousands of years ago.  How they used that land to sustain themselves.  What is sport for mankind today--even though most hunters eat what they kill it is hardly necessary to survive in our society--was working for sustenance to the people that lived there before.  I thought about how they may have walked to the creek for their drinking water, gathered the wood to keep warm, cook their food, and build shelter.  I thought about the first European settlers in the area, fighting their way through the solid woods that made up most of Ohio with their horses and wagons.  And how when they decided where to settle, perhaps not far from the very spot I sat, they would have to build everything for themselves, from only the resources the woods could provide.  No trips to the lumber yard, hardware store, Home Depot, or Lowe's. No carpenters, plumbers, electricians, to call for help.  I thought about wars that might have been fought there, or in woods just like these throughout the country. The differences between the many skirmishes and battles between Native American tribes, between the Native Americans and the early settlers, between the Americans and the British, and between the North and the South.  How the changing technology changed the nature and strategy of the fighting. I thought about life and death and the harshness of nature without the advances and technology we enjoy in our lives today. Even with my layers of cotton, wool, and polyester, I was still cold from time to time.  But I, unlike so many that have come before, had a warm car to return to only a mile down the hill.  

     I couldn't write a post about hunting without getting into the ethical questions about it.  I should say I've never been an avid hunter.  In fact, during the month leading up to the big day I sometimes find myself thinking of reasons not to go, and if it wasn't for my friend, whom I enjoy spending time with and who enjoys hunting immensely, I would likely never hunt again.  I know that many of the people I share political and social views with would not agree with my Adventures in the Woods, so I would like to explain my reasons for deciding to go, even if it is just what my mother, a psychiatric nurse, might call rationalizing
    I have no moral or ethical problem with hunting or hunters, as long as they eat or donate the meat they kill.  I have more of a problem with cattle or chicken farms that raise animals in captivity, sometimes restrained in such small quarters the animals can't turn around, only to slaughter them for food.  At least the animals that are hunted are free to live in their natural habitat until they are killed.  Although I don't have a problem with hunting and most hunters, I sometimes have a personal issue with it; is it right for me to kill a deer, gut it, and eventually eat? Some of the recent video of the poor treatment of animals at cattle and chicken farms, and the significant contribution the cattle industry has on climate change, has really forced me to consider vegetarianism.  But I'm not a vegetarian.  Neither is my wife.  And our son's doctor has encouraged us to feed meat to our toddler. 
     Although I get a thrill out of seeing a deer after waiting hour after hour, I don't get a thrill out of killing it. I am proud, or at least content, that I had the patience to wait, that I am capable of handling a gun safely and hitting a target, and that, if I had to, I'm able to bring home some food for my family. 

     I have decided that my Adventures in the Woods are good for me.  They provide me with important time alone, without the distraction of a phone, TV, radio, computer, or even books; just me and the woods.  My adventures remind me how quickly nature can be destroyed, and revived.  They give me time to think about the history of the area and of mankind.  Being hot, cold, wet, and exhausted all give me reasons to be grateful for what I have.  Hunting is one of the most primitive of human activities, and it makes me remember that although we enjoy the beauty and love of animals, we also need them to eat and survive.  
     Although I didn't get a deer this year, I got what I needed out of the trip, and am glad I went.  As for next year? Maybe you can help answer that.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Do You Do Your Part for Charity?


     Not long ago my wife and I were watching 20/20 on ABC News.  There was a report about charitable giving that really caught our attention.  The report's findings were surprising.  First, it seems the most generous Americans, as a percentage of their income, are the working poor.  They give about 30% more than the very wealthy do.  And the least generous? People like me, and probably most of my readers, middle-income Americans. We give less, by percentage of income, than the working poor or very rich.  That is embarrassing to me, but it doesn't stop there.
     I would have guessed, even bet money, that those that are more liberal or Progressive, like me, would be sure to give more money than self-described conservatives.  However, according to this report, I am wrong.  Of the top twenty-five states for charitable giving, all but one voted Republican in the 2004 Presidential election. Religious people give more money than non-religious people, and not only to religious charities, as I would have thought. 
     So, after watching this report, my wife and I decided to increase our charitable giving, and to do so in a way that matched what was important to us. In other words, we wanted to find charities that were in line with our political and world views and interests, that helped people more than causes, and were efficient with the donations received. 
     I am passionate about a few things, so this was an easy quest.  First, I like history, education, and Colonial Williamsburg, and I had already been giving to them for years!  We also like things in the Cleveland area that we enjoy and feel are beneficial to the community.  The Cleveland Botanical Gardens fit the bill.  
     I care very much about access to health care, and am disturbed how many people get sick and die every day around the world from diseases that could be easily preventable or treated if proper health care were available.  I had read a book, Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder that highlighted the Partners in Health, an group started by Dr. Paul Farmer.  This organization is wonderful in almost everything they do: they spend their money wisely (their managers seem to be paid very meagerly) and think outside the box for solutions to health care problems in the areas they work.  
     I also care very much about the civil rights of Americans, so the old standard ACLU  came to mind.  Of course, since I listen to National Public Radio almost daily, the local NPR station was on the list. Finally, I care about the environment; not only climate change, but keeping the planet clean, protecting wildlife, and preserving natural space.  
     I found a great website, Charity Navigator, that helps rate and categorize charities and how well they work. It can be explained better on the site, but they rate charities by their efficiency and capacity, and then make public the ratings.  It was a great way to help make a decision about where to send my money.

     So, after being inspired by the 20/20 report, thinking about what causes I felt were important, and researching charities to make sure my money was well spent, how did we do in our charitable giving?  We increased it, but like most in the middle class, failed to live up to our goals.  I continued to contribute to Colonial Williamsburg, started donating to NPR, became a member of the Cleveland Botanical Gardens, and participated in Susan Komen Breast Cancer Foundation activities.  But I failed to donate to any environmental funds, Partners in Health, the ACLU Foundation, or any organizations that provide books, education, or health care to people in the United States.  As we say so often in Cleveland, there is always next year.

     I think it is important, that we, as Americans, and me as a Progressive, start to put our money where our mouths are.  There are hundreds, thousands of non-profits that do wonderful things for people all around the world.  We could skip going out once a month and send that money to one of them, and probably feel better for it.  Charity and volunteering needs to become something that is more than just talked about or done as a token gesture around the holidays, or to spice up a college application or resume.  
     So the next time you're going out to eat, or buying that new computer, camera, clothes, car, ask if you really need what you're getting. If the answer is no, there are lots of others who do.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Best Grandparents Ever

     Ten years ago tomorrow, on November 21, 1999, my grandfather, Joseph Edward Tylicki, died; he was 86 years old.  A little over a year later, on December 17, 2000, his wife, my grandmother, Florence Frita (Gerber) (Henning) Tylicki, died; she too was 86 years old.  Today, there is a mass in memory of my grandpa at St. Agnes church in Elyria, Ohio.  
     I think about my grandparents often.  They were my mother's parents.  In honesty, I know very little about their lives before I was born.  My grandfather was born in Cleveland and grew up in the Newburg Heights area.  Both of his parents were Polish, but I think they were born in America.  I know he had several brothers and sisters, but only remember Uncle John because I took Grandpa to visit him in the nursing home a few times before he died.  Grandpa graduated from Ohio State University. He told me stories about hitchhiking back and forth to school and about his military science courses, which were mandatory then.  Grandpa did not fight in World War II, I think because he had eye problems.  At  young age, he watched a welder and damaged his eyes; he had problems with them his whole life. He never drove at night, even when my mom was young, and was practically blind by the time he died.  Grandpa worked for Harshaw Chemical, and eventually settled in Elyria.  
     I know about the same about my grandma.  She was one of twelve children. I remember some of her brothers and sisters, but certainly not all.  They seemed to have funny names to me, of course I later learned they were nicknames!  They called Grandma Mice, because she was small and very quiet. There was Uncle Pork, Aunt June, Aunt Stell, and Aunt Red. Perhaps I could think of more if I tried.  My cousin gave me a family tree, but looking at it now to help would feel like cheating.  Anyway, Grandma was one of twelve children, born in Amherst, Ohio.  Her father, I'm near certain, was from Switzerland; the same cousin visited there and took a picture of the house he was born in.  Her mother, I think was from Germany, or at least of German ancestry.  The family moved around a lot, with her father having a difficult time getting and keeping work.  It was the depression era and no one had money, but I got the impression from Grandma that her dad was also a bit of a drifter, a get rich quick kind of guy.  Grandma married a jail guard and lived with him in Elyria. She was pregnant with their second daughter when the car he was in was hit by a train and he died.  Grandma eventually went to work at Harshaw chemical, where she met Grandpa.  During her youth, I think Grandma might have been a bit of a daredevil.  She liked the pilots, and flew with several of them in their old bi-planes, and she had an Indian motorcycle.  I'm sure both of those activities were rare of a woman during that time.
     My grandparents were in their thirties when they married.  They had seven children of their own.  I was older, probably a teenager, when I learned my two oldest Aunts had a different father than the rest of the kids. My grandpa always referred to them as his children, but it seems Grandma kept some things separate for them.  Most notably, she sent them to public schools while the others went to Catholic schools.  Of course they had many grandchildren and great grandchildren before they died, making summers and holidays at their house the best time ever.  There was almost always a new baby ever year.  That has continued after their deaths, but we don't get together as often. 

      I have just written almost all I knew about my grandparents from their births until mine, which was in 1974.  After about 1980, when I can remember life, I could probably write volumes about them, at least about how I remember them, and their lives.  I'll spare you that, even though I find it very interesting and think the rest of the world should, too.  But I will share a few things that I think are important. 
     Have you ever had anyone in your life in whose eyes you could do no wrong? I think everyone should have a person like that. It can't be a parent, because they have to scold and discipline children. It would never be a teacher or coach for the same reason.  Friends are way too quick to criticize, eliminating them from that list too.  For me, and probably for many people, it was Grandma.  I don't know for sure, but I suspect that, had I committed mass murder, she would defend me, and say something like, "I'm sure he had a good reason."  That was how she was to me, and I think to all of her grandchildren.  I never remember her using bad language or speaking poorly of any person or group, race, religion of people.  The worst I ever remember her saying about anyone was about my father at the time of my parents divorce, and even then all she said was that she didn't like how he was treating my mother. 
     After raising her nine children, even while the youngest was still living at home, she started fostering children.  She almost always had infants, but one time had a little girl, Tarita, who was my age.  Before she retired, when she was eighty years old or awfully close to it, she had taken care of over one hundred babies and had been awarded the Foster Parent of the Year by Governor Dick Celeste's wife Dagmar Celeste
     My grandfather retired when I was very young, I think the company made him retire because he reached age sixty-five.  Anyway, I hardly remember when he worked.  He was a traditional man of his time.  He went to work, maybe did yard work, and Grandma did all the cooking, cleaning, and housework. I remember kind of laughing that his big contribution to household chores after retirement was that he would take his own dishes to the sink after meals.  I don't know that he ever in his life prepared a full mean for anyone, or even himself.  While my Grandma was hospitalized once, I remember my mom and aunts making arrangements to go and get dinner for Grandpa. 
     After retirement, Grandpa came on some family vacations with us and with the families of at least one aunt. He came with us to Florida at least once and to South Carolina twice.  He took us to the zoo a few times, and to a local park several times, too.  He was our emergency contact at school, so if we ever were sick and my mom wasn't around, Grandpa would come and pick us up. 
     I think his main hobby was reading.  He read at least two, maybe three newspapers every day.  He also watched the news.  Like my grandma, I never remember him swearing or saying anything bad about anyone, or about any group or race of people.  He was not as loving as Grandma, he seemed a little less comfortable with the hugs, but he was always happy to see me and would offer good advice. 
     They were not like many older people; they weren't cranky, mean, and never bored us with stories and complaints when we visited.  Even as they grew older and needed more help, they accepted it gratefully, never with expectation.  And when they got sick, and fortunately neither was sick for too long before they died, they handled it with dignity. 
     A year or so before my grandpa died, he asked me awkwardly if there was anything in their house that I liked, like a piece of furniture or decoration.  It took several times of his asking before he more bluntly asked if there was anything of theirs I would like after they died.  I was surprised to have been asked, but said I liked a gold ring with a blue stone that he always wore.  The day after he died, my grandma made sure I got it.  I wore it to his funeral, at my wedding, and I'll wear it again tomorrow, at the mass in his memory.
     After my grandma died, I was present for a discussion about her obituary.  Jokingly, I suggested that it somehow convey that I was her favorite grandchild.  Looking back, I think I upset one of my aunts, who quickly responded by asking about her children.  That is what was so special about her; probably all of her grandchildren felt like they were her favorite. 

     If anyone has read this far, they probably have noticed that perhaps I am looking at my grandparent's memory through rose colored glasses.  My mom has jokingly referred to Grandma as St. Mama (I called her Mama) when talking about her with me. I will argue that my memories are accurate, and at worst are only mildly biased.  And like I think everyone should have at least one person in whose eyes they can do no wrong, I hope all people have someone thinking of them the way I think of my grandparents.

      Although I think of them often, today, while holding my one year old son, I thought of them and the mass tomorrow, and how much I really, really miss them.  I haven't cried about it for several years, but did today.  I am not a religious person at all; if there is a God, he or she surely is not any of the gods of any of the religions I know anything about, and certainly doesn't care about the day to day existence of me or anyone else.  But, I know that Grandma and Grandpa are alive in my memory, and in my heart, like they are with my mom, aunts and uncles, and cousins.   I hope they knew how much I loved them, how much I miss them, and how much I would love to be more like them.   I try, not as successfully as I would like, to live life and treat people the way they did, and am trying to teach my son the same.  In that, perhaps there is eternal life after all.