Monday, November 26, 2012

How Black Friday Consumes Us

"A society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going is a society…built on sand."          --Dorothy L. Sayers

Here’s what I did last Thursday night and Friday, Thanksgiving Day and the day after our national day of thanks. Watched my New England Patriots completely demolish the New York Jets while I sprawled out on the living room floor in hopes of aiding my overconsumption of turkey and all the fixings. Next morning I bid a bittersweet goodbye to old friends who had been my houseguests for three wonderful days.  I created a behemoth Turkey sandwich for lunch, with stuffing, gravy and cranberry sauce spilling out the sides.  I read.  I napped. Then that night I planned for dinner and the latest Steven Spielberg blockbuster movie, “Lincoln”.

Here’s what I did not do. I did not leave my house at 10 pm Thursday night to get in line with hundreds of other at the local Best Buy so I could secure a midnight “door buster” deal on a flat screen TV. I didn’t rush out from the Thanksgiving dinner and drive north to New Hampshire where that state’s Wal-Marts opened at 8 pm Thursday night, the earliest ever.  I didn’t go any where near a mall, not even close, knowing that the traffic jams would be of apocalyptic proportions.

I didn’t shop. I didn’t buy. I didn’t consume. Call me odd. Call me weird.  Call me out for my reluctance to join the race from turkey consumption to consumer goods consumption to mark the start of the holiday buying season.  I just couldn’t do it.  Couldn’t get on the frantic shopping train that each year seems to start up earlier and earlier and then won’t stop until the last minute on December 24th.    

But 137 million of my fellow Americans did so on Black Friday (as it has come to be known), and Black Thursday night (as it is coming to be known). On average they spent $423 apiece.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’ll be doing my own Christmas shopping in the weeks ahead and will probably approach that spending figure. I’ll do my part for consumption, helping companies get in the “black” (profitable) for 2012.

I’m not anti buying.  Consumer spending does after all constitute seventy percent of the overall economy.  I mostly enjoy making my Christmas gift list and figuring out the exact thing I plan to give to each of my loved ones.

I guess what really shocks me each year on these “Black” shopping days is the frantic, desperate and even bleak spirit which marks the communal ritual of descending upon our cathedrals of commerce en masse. Folks standing out in a midnight misty rain, in a quarter mile long line outside a big box retailer, all to snag a 32 inch TV for $199.  Shoppers pushing crammed carts, heavy laden with brightly colored boxes and baubles at two in the morning, looks of complete exhaustion on their unsmiling faces. Store workers forced to curtail or even skip their family holiday plans because they just have to serve this sacred shopping “tradition”. And far too many of us spending money on things we really do not need, with money we really do not really have, all to celebrate, theoretically, a holiday that was once a holy day, December 25th.  That’s why I find the yearly consumption fever so hard to fathom.

Remember? All this gift buying and gift giving, at least for Christians, is supposed to be about honoring God’s gift to the world: a baby, born to unmarried and poor parents, a child come to bring peace on earth and goodwill to all peoples. Regardless of what faith tradition we may claim, if any, it is hard to argue against the true gifts we all hope to find come these December days.  Peace. Joy. Love. Light in the darkness. Generosity. Family. Those are the real presents that I want this year and every year.  How about you?

So here are some alternative gifts I pray we might find under the tree in just 27 days: meaning beyond consumption, giving beyond self, generosity beyond commerce, community beyond isolation and love beyond belief.

May God grant us all truly happy holidays.


Monday, November 19, 2012

Formed for Life At The Family Dinner Table

“Every lesson I learned as a kid was at the dinner table. It is where we laughed, cried and yelled but most importantly, where we bonded and connected.”
--Michael Symon

This week on Thursday afternoon I’ll sit down for my 52nd Thanksgiving meal. That’s a lot of lifetime turkey!  In my clan various foods always vie for epicurean loyalty year after year come the fourth Thursday in November.  There’s Mom’s walnut pie with its caramelized sugar filling and a delicate flaky crust. My sister’s “magic” green bean casserole topped with crunchy onion rings.  Yes there are taste bud tussles at our table.  Should we go for the homemade “artisan” cranberry sauce? Or the canned stuff with its perfectly round gelatinous slices, totally processed and totally delicious? My favorite food is the potatoes, mashed and whipped and silky smooth, with a perfect indentation on top to pool fresh made gravy and melted butter. YUM!

I can’t wait. Not just for the food but more important for the people who will gather around the dining room table in my home, the folks I love the most in this world.  My family and my good friends. Our cast of characters has changed over the years.  My Dad who once ruled over the turkey, carving knife in hand, is no longer with us, nor my Uncle Frannie. We miss them. The little ones who once were pushed up to the table in their high chairs now may bring around their boyfriends for pie and coffee. Responsibilities for making the feast fall upon a new generation, Mom having cooked a brood of turkeys through the years. 

But what is faithful and true and unchanging on Thanksgiving for us is the ideal that always we are summoned to come together again around a common table and to break bread.  It’s a tug and a desire as old as Creation itself. It reflects two of the most basic human needs: food to fuel our physical bodies and love to fuel our hearts and souls. Having a trusted and familiar place to return one year later. Our lives have no doubt changed for the good and the not so good in the past 364 days. We’ve got a new job or a new beau.  Or it was a hard year because of illness or unemployment or divorce. We share the stories of our lives. We tell corny family jokes.  We are re-formed.

There is something sacred and precious about a table and folks gathered around it to eat and talk and laugh and cry and say grace over plates and bowls and platters of food.  Consider just how many meals have you eaten around such a table in company of others. Hundreds, thousands even.  In a world where too many folks can’t get to that table for lack of food or because of war or conflict or a family split or for whatever reason, we should never ever take for granted the miraculous gift of a shared meal.  

Every major world religion reflects the sacredness of “the table” in their beliefs and rituals.  The communion table for Christians. The Sabbath table for Jews. The fast breaking table for Muslims.  The sacred vegetarian meal prepared and blessed by Sikhs in the Temple and then shared with others.  For finally it is at the table, perhaps more so than at any other place in this human life, that we are finally shaped and formed and made and loved into who we are. 

So once again this year…may we pass the turkey. Hand over the fresh rolls just out of the oven.  Let’s lift up a glass of eggnog. But first: may we offer a prayer of real thanksgiving to God for our Thanksgiving meals and for the sacred tables where those feasts will take place.  There is no other place quite like “the table” in all the world.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

In Politics, Sports and Life, Leave It All On The Field

Leave Everything On The Field (phrase) 1. to commit wholly to, or to try one’s best at a sport or a game. (first reference 1986) --from the radio program “A Way With Words” 

I’m a fan of two American pastimes: sports and politics.  Both involve outsize personalities and cut throat competition. Each features dramatic storylines about second chances, messy falls from grace and last minute come from behind victories. One, professional sports, seems important but is really only entertainment. The other, politics, is often packaged as entertainment yet really needs to just be more important. And each endeavor offers arcane facts and odd statistics for the diehard fan.  So here are some final numbers to wrap up last week’s Presidential election….

11:12 pm, Eastern Standard Time, election night: the first major network calls the election for President Obama. 607 days: the length of the campaign, beginning March 11, 2011 when former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty declares as the first Presidential candidate. $2,000,000,000: amount spent by the campaigns and their supporters making 2012 the most expensive election in United States history. 72 percent: Governor Mitt Romney’s share of Utah’s votes, making the Beehive state the reddest state. 71 percent: Obama’s take in Hawaii, as the Aloha State went true blue. Infinity: if you live in a swing state, that’s the number of campaign ads on TV you had to endure for the better part of a year.

But the stat I’m most intrigued by is 12:55 am, a week ago last Wednesday morning right here in Massachusetts. That’s when our former Governor got up to deliver what must have been the hardest speech of his life. I cannot imagine what it is like to work so hard for so long to achieve something so dearly desired and then to fall short. To get so close with 48.1 percent of the popular vote. It may have been an Electoral College  “landslide” but last week’s election was the fourth closest Presidential race in 112 years.

I wonder what that long solitary walk on to the stage at the Boston Convention Center was like for Governor Romney. He spoke for just three minutes, 628 words in total. Then with a final wave he left the stage, exiting into the shadows of American history.

But that’s how it is in American politics, American sports and this American life.  We love our winners, the victors, the ones who claim the gold.  And often far too quickly, we dismiss or diss or just forget the losers. The runners up.  The also rans. 

Yet the truth is that if we compete and participate with gusto and passion on the field of play or field of life, like President Obama and Governor Romney, we’ll probably end up losing more often than we win, stumbling more often than we soar. Certainly gives me sympathy for how the Governor must have felt on that chilly November night.   

Remember how many interviews and resumes it took before you got that good job?  How many doors did you knock upon, phone calls did you make all for just one sale?  We may be married or in a great relationship but how many first dates turned out to be first duds? We can’t all get straight “A’s”, no matter how hard we try.  Most humans actually end up in the middle of the grading curve. That’s life.   

That’s why I like the outlook Romney expressed the afternoon of the election when asked about his state of mind and heart now that it was almost over. "I feel like we put it all on the field. We left nothing in the locker room. We fought to the very end and I think that’s why we’ll be successful." He was wrong in his prediction but right in his attitude. 

To play so hard and try so hard that regardless of the final score or tally we can at least take heart in knowing that we truly left it all on the field. No effort spared.  No last minute push neglected. No hesitation in the final stretch for the goal line. The game is over and we are fully spent.  No one likes to lose.  But even worse perhaps is the notion we that did not give it our all. 

President Theodore Roosevelt, who lost very badly in his last run for public office, once said, “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failures, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory or defeat.”

So congratulations to President Obama and to Governor Mitt Romney. One lost.  One won.  But they both left it all on the field.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

In This Life We All Need a Good Neighbor

“…you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”    -- Matthew 12:30-31

My favorite neighborhood pizza restaurant closed a few days ago.  Once a week, for the past five years that I’ve called this corner of God’s world home, I’ve ordered a pizza there.  Always the same: large pepperoni, with a bottle of Fresca on the side.  Those slices were delicious, absolutely. I’ll miss the culinary enjoyment of getting my supper there, the ritual of it.  But what I’ll miss even more is the neighborliness of the store, the fact that most of the guys there knew my name. That when I picked up my order they always offered a cheerful “Hello!” That when I called in on Sunday nights I could always count on a friendly voice and good service. 

I suppose I could have traveled a bit further away to get a pizza. It might have been as good, maybe even better, or cheaper.  But the folks who ran the shop were my neighbors and so I wanted to support them as a good neighbor too, right there in my neighborhood.  My ‘hood, my corner, my street, my village, my community, and my home.

In a time when we supposedly all live in a “global village”, as one philosopher called our technologically dominated modern life, it can be easy to forget the comfort of claiming a geographic, physical, specific, real place in the world as our neighborhood. Where we talk over the fence about the kids or the storm the night before or the new person who’s moving in down the block.  Where we stop by at Christmas with fresh cookies or drop off a casserole when someone is sick.  Where we have folks right nearby who can save us in a pinch with last minute childcare or a cup of sugar to save a recipe. Neighbors.

I know this sounds quaint, even archaic in our Facebook hyper-connected world.  Who needs friends nearby when we’ve got so many “friends” on line? Why catch up face to face when you can just update your status?  Forget real conversation. Just send a quick text.  So much easier, quicker, cleaner, right? Maybe. But me? I need a real neighborhood with real neighbors in a real world that some times can be a real stormy place.

Because for all the virtual ways we humans claim so called “cyber-neighborhoods”, there is finally no substitute for human contact in an actual neighborhood, on a street, an avenue, a block, a lane or a cul-de-sac.  Just ask all the folks slammed by Superstorm Sandy last week. 

Neighbors rushed over to help folks pull all of that stuff out of the basement in the moments before it flooded.  Neighbors with power welcomed in other neighbors and gave them a hot cup of coffee, a warm meal and a shoulder to lean on. Neighbors checked on one another, offered electric plugs for cell phones and computers. Neighbors literally offered shelter from the storm. No electronic screen can ever replace the gift of folks right next door who know our names and are there to lend helping hands or even just to bake a pepperoni pizza pie.

So farewell to the village pizza parlor.  You’ll be missed for the food but even more so, for just being such good neighbors.