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Epiphany Time

29 Dec


With Christmas finally  over, Many Christians around the world will soon be celebrating the Feast of The Epiphany — sometimes called Twelfth Night, since it occurs 12 days after Christmas. This observance commemorates early events in the life of Jesus. Traditionally the Western church has emphasized the Magi’s visit while the Eastern church focuses on Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist. Epiphany takes place on January 6 and dates as far back as 361 AD.

In Greek the word means” “appearance” or “manifestation” and the main theme, is the sudden revelation or “shining forth” of an important, life-changing, truth. The story of the wise men has always been a favorite of mine, maybe because of the way it integrates divergent elements like science and religion, innocence and experience, and the parochial and the universal or maybe it’s just because it’s the origin of Christmas gifts. Although the Bible provides few details, tradition holds that there were three wise men named Caspar, Balthazar, and Melchior. No one knows the real number, but we assume there were three, based on the number of gifts. The wise men are sometimes called “Three Kings” because of some scriptural references and the expense of their gifts. Admirably the Magi are usually portrayed as a racially and culturally diverse group and I especially like how they were not deceived by the evil King Herod. The subsequent massacre of the children of Bethlehem established Herod as a villain for the ages- someone, who, as Eddie Murphy once said, wants to go to Hell and not have to stand in line.

The wise men had their epiphany seeing the Christ Child in person, but what about the rest of us? Have you ever had a sudden realization that changed your life in some fundamental way? Epiphanies are an important aspect of many major life changes. Deciding to end or commit to a relationship, making vocation choices, and even choosing to enter recovery are all often preceded by some sort of epiphany. Armed with data from in-depth interviews and surveys, psychology professor William Miller from the University of New Mexico and co-author Janet C’de Baca, explore this issue in their book “Quantum Change: When Epiphanies and Sudden Insights Transform Ordinary Lives.” Miller defined” quantum change” as a vivid, surprising, benevolent, and enduring personal transformation, that usually occurs over a short time ranging from several minutes to several days. Miller says that after such changes many people reported giving spirituality a more central place in their lives. Surprisingly most people were not overtly seeking such radical changes. According to Miller’s research there are five distinctive features of quantum change experiences:

 1. Typically change occurred at a point of desperation, where something had to give-the so called “tipping point”.

2. The majority of people who experience these changes were not in obvious pain and change came into their lives seemingly uninvited. Others have found that such transformations are often proceeded by periods of inactivity when the process of change seems to be unknowingly “brewing”.

3. Personal growth accompanied the transformation. Discord and conflict were often replaced with acceptance and tranquility.

4. Many people who changed had previously suffered trauma or emotional distress, which somehow may have helped prepare them for change.

5. Most people interpreted their change as something “sacred” that had happened to them, although not all put it in a religious context.

According to Miller many reported the experience of “being in the flow of something larger than themselves.” Other researchers have noted that major breakthroughs typically occur when the individual is engaged in conversation with another person. This is not surprising since many sociologists believe that verbal interaction is the matrix for the creation of new knowledge. Sudden insight also appears to have a biological basis. Using sophisticated scanning devices, neuro-researchers John Kounios of Drexel University and Mark Jung-Beeman of Northwestern discovered that there consistently was activity in the right temporal part of the brain, just before people reported flashes of insight when solving puzzles. Subjects who had sudden insights showed this increased brain activity before they even saw the problem, suggesting they were already prepared for a sudden revelation.

Psychologist Jonathan Schooler found that people have more trouble getting insights when they try to logically solve a problem. Thinking in the usual manner seems to interfere and Kounios concludes that insight comes more easily when people don’t try so hard. While quantum changes and major breakthrough experiences are dramatic, they are also relatively infrequent. Many of us, however have had more subtle versions of these experiences. Thee everyday epiphanies are more like finding the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle that finally lets us see the whole picture. Frequently such information is right in front of us and begs for our attention, but our history, prejudices, and fears blind us. Such opportunities are not unseen, but simply unnoticed. Around the world people are documenting both their major and everyday epiphanies in on-line diaries or blogs.

 Surfing through the blogosphere I found the following descriptions.

 A Dozen Epiphanies

1. I had an epiphany that morning that led to a conscious decision to keep my trap shut.

 2. I had an epiphany that my Ph.D. was a useless abstraction piled on top of other useless abstractions.

3. I had an epiphany that what I was eating could actually have been making me sick.

4. I came to the realization that my behavior was steering my life in a bad direction and that I needed to change before it all came crashing down.

5. I came to the realization that I was in far over my head.

6. I came to the realization that I needed help.

7. I came to the realization that I was afraid of everything.

8. I came to the realization that the majority of my existence was devoted to satisfying the needs of the corporate bureaucracy.

9. I came to the realization that my child was all grown up.

10. I came to the realization that I am spending too much time on the Internet.

 11. I came to the realization that I should not buy a new car this year.

12. I had an epiphany that I looked exactly like my dad when he was my age, which was shocking.

While many of these seem as if they should have been obvious, often it takes us a long time and some perspective to identify the patterns in our own lives. Don’t be discouraged, just relax and maybe you can start the new year with your own personal epiphany.


From a column orginally appearing in  the Southen Indiana News Tribune.


Don’t Cook Your own Financial Goose this Christmas

17 Dec


Like many of us I  have a love-hate relationship with my credit cards. On one hand they are convenient and easy to use, especially for online shopping. Of course, that is part of the problem. They are way too easy touse. According to money guru David Ramsey if you use credit cards instead of cash, you end up spending 12 to 18 percent more. Swiping a card is just not as traumatic as forking over the actual cash. During the next few weeks the first of the holiday credit card bills will come rolling in for millions of Americans. Some people call this the real “Nightmare After Christmas”. Holiday credit card purchases havegrown 50 percent over the past several years and continues togrow every  holiday season. The mortgage crunch, increased minimum payments and recent  bankruptcy laws may make things even more treacherous than ever. Bill Staler, a vice president at Consumer Credit Counseling Services has said  that their workload increases by 15 percent in the quarter following the winter holidays. Staler says that many people in recent years have found  it  more  difficult to use mortgage refinancing to pay off credit cards due to more stringent loan requirements and the decreases in home equity.  A 2004 survey showed that 73 percent of Americans believe that money is the top  all time stressor and Dr. Harvey Brenner from Johns Hopkins University has written that  economic instability is “the single most pervasive and continuous source of stress in our society.”

Psychologist Dr. Lynn Hornyak, who specializes in money issues finds that overspending and avoiding money issues are the two most common problems. Are there times when just can’t stand to open a bill or look at a bank statement? To me balancing a checkbook ranks just behind having a tooth pulled on my list of favorite activities. Money also has great symbolic significance. It may represent a way of keeping score in life or serve as a substitute for love and affection. The psychological significance of money can be seen by the reluctance of people to even discuss it. Many people would sooner discuss their children, relationships, or even sex lives, rather than their bankbooks. There are also some important gender differences. Women often see money as a means to maintain security. For men it may represent power and substitute for physical appeal in attracting partners. For many people money represents freedom of action and a lack of money may prevent us from making much-needed changes. Unfortunately it is not uncommon for people to stay in unsatisfying and even abusive relationships for the sake of financial security.

In their fantastic book “The Financial Wisdom of the Ebenezer Scrooge,” psychologists Ted and Brad Klontz and financial planner Rick Kahler identify the underlying culprit in most money conflicts as the “money scripts”

we internalized as we grow up. Using Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” as a metaphor for how to transform your relationship with money, they show how Scrooge displays a variety of maladaptive money scripts. Money scripts are especially powerful because they are largely unconscious. They also tend to run in families. Family therapy authority Cloe Madanes has said that different family styles in gift giving and unresolved sibling rivalries are often the key factors in pathological overspending. Some of Ebenezer Scrooge’s self-defeating money scripts included: Don’t trust anyone with your money, don’t spend money on yourself, giving to the poor encourages laziness, money will give your life meaning, and if you had more money, things would be better.

Interestingly enough, Bob Cratchit doesn’t come off much better. Bob also has his own destructive money scripts such as: There will never be enough money, money is to be spent not saved, you’ll be paid what you’re worth, and you don’t deserve money. The authors question why Bob doesn’t quit defending Scrooge and just get a better job. Also they contend that Bob should have gotten Tiny Tim the medical care he needed instead impulsively blowing his meager resources on a Christmas goose. This extravagance is often left out of film and stage versions of the work. It is estimated that today the Cratchit’s Christmas dinner would have cost well over $500.

Stawar family money scripts often made reference to the “poor house” My father, who grew up in the Great Depression, viewed money as security. He was constantly saying that we were driving him to the poor houseby leaving on the lights, turning up the thermometer, or taking showers that lasted too long. This script was well entrenched in me. When I left home for college I sold an old car and received a crisp new$100 bill for it. Feeling insecure about being away for the first time, I kept the hundred literally in my shoe for over two years. Sometimes when I act anxious about money, my wife Diane says, “Would you feel better if you had a hundred dollar bill tucked in your shoe?” Unfortunately the answer is often “yes.” And even now whenever I hear the furnace running, I still feel a pang of anxiety.According to the Klontzs and Kahler being able to adaptively “rescript” is the key to developing a more functional financial life script.

There are other things you can do to help both now and in the future. Florida psychologist Cheryl Fellows has said  that due to financial stress, people often feel insecure and out of control after the holidays. She recommends that you try helping others and connect with family and friends to shore up your self worth  and security. Additionally many people need to take some practical steps. The following suggestions come from a variety of expert sources.

  1. Total all your bills so you know how much you actually owe.
  2. Pay on cards with the highest interest rates first.
  3. Sign up for online statements (e-mail balance notices for bank accounts or bills are great for chronic avoiders).
  4. Request in writing a lower interest rate or switch balances to a lower interest rate credit card.
  5. Establish a reminder system for making payment on time.
  6. Increase the amount you pay on every credit card.
  7. Change payment due dates to better match your cash flow.
  8. Cut expenses until holiday bills are paid (especial discretionary things like entertainment).
  9. Finally develop a detailed written plan for your holiday spending- maybe a Christmas club would help. The most important thing is to stick to your plan. Do not get caught up in the holiday fever and end upbuying the kids the newest and expensive fad that will take six years to pay off or splurging on your own $500 Christmas goose.

Based on  a column that appeared  in the Southern Indiana News Tribune

A Wonder Gift Life: The Best Thing I ever Got

13 Dec

Most of us can easily remember the best Christmas present we ever received, but why does this memory stand out? In his classic work, “The American Christmas: A Study in National Culture,” James Barnett, from the University of Connecticut, said that Christmas gifts symbolize not only seasonal generosity, but also the inner life of the family group.

According to Barnett, an essential feature of the American Christmas is the belief that children have a “natural right” to a happy Christmas. Many parents try to recreate their childhood pleasure, while others are determined to provide the kind of Christmas they were denied.

According to University of California sociologist Allison J. Pugh, parents try to evoke the “magic of childhood” by means of “the wonder gift.” A wonder gift evokes sheer delight mixed with awe. It is not only something children like and want usually; they don’t really expect to get it. Most wonder gifts have some social disapproval that makes them even more desirable. Parents may try to convince children that they would never buy the coveted object. The gift may be thought to be too expensive, dangerous or age-inappropriate. This is a situation where the parent knows better but gets the wonder gift anyway. When she was very little, our daughter, Sally, told us that she knew there had to be a Santa Claus because no parent would ever “buy all that junk.”

Our social group sets the basic standard for gift-giving. Widespread emulation explains toy fads such as Beanie Babies, Cabbage Patch Dolls and Tickle Me Elmos.

The wonder gift, however, demonstrates that the parents can recognize the child’s individuality. There is parental narcissism in not being able to resist being the miracle worker, but knowing exactly what the child wants can be important to their psychological health. Since we define ourselves in relationship to others, when we are given accurate feedback, it validates our sense of self. When someone else “gets you,” it is tangle proof that you are acceptable. Of course, there must be limits on what wishes are fulfilled, but children have a better grasp on this than we might think.

Once when my father was drinking, he bought me a very expensive go-cart at Sears. I must have been around 9 years old at the time, but even at that age, I knew that the gift was inappropriate. We certainly couldn’t afford it and there wasn’t even a place where I could legally drive it. When my mother stopped the delivery, I was more relieved than disappointed. Although, I wonder if this experience had anything to do with the expensive go-cart I bought for our children 20 years later.

For children, Christmas often takes on a special vibrancy that is lost in adulthood. This is probably related to the magical character of children’s thinking in the pre-operational stage of cognitive development, which is from ages 2 to 7 years. Children gradually sacrifice this wellspring of imagination for the sake of logical thought. But even in later childhood, they still can recall the magic — until maturity and hormones wash it away and Christmas no longer seems like Christmas. The wonder gift is a way to try to recapture those feelings.

In Jean Shepherd’s “The Christmas Story,” little Ralphie’s consuming passion is a Red Ryder air rifle — a perfect wonder gift. Although I grew up 25 years later, I completely identify with this obsession. In my case, as Freud wrote, the “exciting cause” of my illness was the Mattel snub nose .38 “Shootin Shell” revolver, complete with Greenie Stickum caps and shoulder holster. Possession of this holy grail of boyhood was my one chance to hold my own with my perennial rivals.

Deep down, I knew I could never truly compete with all my friends who had innumerable uncles who perpetually scoured the planet to find the most amazing and attractive toys to bring before them . But the possession of a snub nose .38 revolver was a redemption of sorts. Like Ralphie’s air rifle, I believed this sacred object would grant me all the things children feel deficient in — power, confidence and status.

Also like Shepard’s protagonist, I was not very subtle in dropping hints. With Saturday morning television commercials whipping me in to a frenzy, I made a Christmas list with only one item on it. I knew I would get other things, but I didn’t want to leave any doubt what the priority was.

On Christmas morning, the whole Jean Shepherd story played itself out. Just like Ralphie, I ripped open every package, but no snub nosed .38 materialized. I received some very nice stuff, but I was in a daze of disappointment. All I can remember is sitting under our Christmas tree in a pile of wrapping paper, staring at yellow bubble lights and feeling devastated. I was on the verge of tears, when with a flourish, my father produced one last present like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. The old man sure did know how to build the suspense. As I opened it, I could hardly believe my eyes and my good fortune.

Jane Austin has one of her characters say that he disliked surprises because they only increase the inconvenience considerably and do nothing to enhance the pleasure.

I may agree, but that Christmas all I could I feel was the wonder and the ecstasy. I strapped on the hard black plastic shoulder holster and insisted on wearing my Sunday suit that had an Eliot Ness-style vest — to capture the complete G-Man motif. My visiting relatives even complimented me on how nice I looked that Christmas Day. Little did they know I was packing deadly heat just beneath that Robert Hall jacket.

Psychoanalyzing your Christmas Cards

8 Nov



Did you do the Christmas card thing this year or did you just e-mail “Happy Holidays” to everyone in your address book? Maybe it’s technology or just the times, but people don’t seem, to take Christmas card giving as seriously as in the past. Banishing someone from your Christmas card list was the ultimate in social rejection. Lists were carefully saved and even passed down from generation to generation. Ironically most of the cards I get now come from companies wanting my business.

Over the last several years, the number of Christmas cards sent by Americans has declined, probably due to communication technology and increased social isolation. Some of the personal touch remains, however, as a number of people include messages, or their annual Christmas letter, in their cards, bragging about their latest family triumphs in order to get one up you. Last night Diane wouldn’t open the card from her cousin before dinner because she said she did want to ruin her appetite.

Christmas cards began in London in 1843, the same year Charles Dickinson’s “Christmas Carol” was written. This current holiday season the Greeting Card Association estimates just over two billion greeting cards will be sent.

Christmas cards do have some appealing features. They connect us to others, help us put our emotions into words, and provide a tangible keepsake to preserve memories. Most of us feel inspired to reciprocate if we receive a card.

In one of the few scientific studies of holiday cards, Karen Fingerman and Patricia Griffiths from Pennsylvania State University found that people who received many cards believe that a large number of people are thinking about them and feel less lonely. Also people reported having a significant emotional reaction to about one-third of the cards they received, sort of like Diane. Younger adults view cards as a way to establish new social ties, while older adults see them as a link to their personal pasts.

Dr. David Holmes, a psychologist from England’s Manchester University says the choice of a specific Christmas card inevitably gives away an awful lot about the personality of the sender. Psychologists just love to interpret things-inkblots, dreams made up stories, drawings, and also any decision you make (or don’t make). It’s sort of an occupational hazard and analyzing your Christmas cards may be going a bit too far.

Anyway, Dr. Holmes says people who find it difficult to express their feelings often hide their timidity behind the humor of a comic card. Introverted people are drawn to cards that picture Christmas trees, especially those that are devoid of baubles or presents. Winterscapes are sure signs of loners, as are cool colors such as silver, white and blue. Holmes also suggests people who value tradition; tend to send the same sort of cards their parents sent. They often prefer Victorian or cozy fireplace scenes that evoke the past.

Snowman lovers tend to be very sincere softies with keen intellects, while penguin fanciers demonstrate taste, style, sophistication and a good sense of humor.

Even card shape may be meaningful. Square cards suggest practicality, while tall, slim cards suggest concern with style and an artistic flair. People who send round cards are the most unconventional, often in a chaotic sort of way.

I am not convinced about this, but below are some of my interpretative guidelines that I thought might help you this holiday season as you look at you cards.

• CANDLE: Suggests warms feelings, but a tall candle can be interpreted as being a show off.

• DOVES: Unconsciously thinking about chocolate when they bought the card.

• ELF: Suggests small but highly industrious features, sort of like Switzerland.

• FROSTY THE SNOWMAN: Drove by Wendy’s before choosing the card.

• GEESE: Possible goosaholic. Do their front steps have plaster geese dressed up in red capes?

• GINGERBREAD MAN: Suggest fear of being “consumed” by others, tendency to avoid situations by running away as fast as you can.

• GOLD: May have attention problem and is attracted by shiny objects.

• MUSICAL CARDS: This is the sort of person who would buy your kid a drum- significant latent hostility.

• NUTCRACKER: The scary teeth and military uniform add up to oral aggression in my book.

• CHRISTMAS PRESENTS: Generous, but maybe be a bit materialistic. The actual meaning may depend on the choice of wrapping paper, but let’s not get into that.

• SANTA: Jolly, but some possible paranoia (“He knows if you have been bad or good”). “Making a list and checking it twice” also suggests possible obsessive-compulsive issues.

• TOY SOLDIER: These are adorable, cute and smiley characters that are packing heat –denial of aggressive impulses.

• STARS: Stars are distant, aloof, impersonal, and grandiose- sort like our cat.

• STOCKING: Suggests some fetish possibilities that are best not discussed.

• TEDDY BEAR: The Teddy bear is the international symbol for cuteness. On the positive side, if some person sent you this card, maybe they think you are cute.

• WREATH: With no beginning or end, the wreath suggests a well-rounded personality.

How do your friends and family stack up? Is someone lonely or in need of cheering up? Do you want to cheer someone up? Maybe you should consider sending a last minute penguin.

(Based on an article  appearing originally  in the  the New Albany Tribune)


An Indiana Night Before Christmas: Hoosier Style

3 Nov


A Hoosier Night Before Christmas

 Twas the night before Christmas, and all across the state,
Nothing was improving, not even  the unemployment rate;
From the banks of the Ohio to the top of the  Knobs,
All they could talk about was the economy and jobs;
The residents were nestled all anxious in their beds,
While visions of toll-free bridges danced in their heads;
All the sidewalks were covered with ice and salt granules,
As they braced for more budget cuts from Governor Mitch Daniels;

Down at the New Albanian,  the people had drank a few brews,
But were now settled down for a long winter’s snooze;

Then out in my backyard I heard such a clatter,

 I expected to see some wild turkeys scatter;
The toys in the yard were all covered with  snow,
  In the moonlight I could barely see anything below;
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But an all terrain vehicle  and a bevy of deer;
With a chunky little driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment twas an Indiana St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles the four wheeler flew,
And he yelled, and  he shouted, at the domestic caribou;
“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Blitzen and Donder!
Let’s get this crate up into the wild blue yonder!
Like mobile homes before the wild tornado fly,
The ATV took off and mounted the sky;
So up to the roof-top the whitetails they flew,
With a bag full of goodies and Indiana   Nick too;
And then, in a twinkling, I heard overhead.
Prancing and pawing like a Kentucky thoroughbred;
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney Indiana Nick came with a bound;
He was dressed all in camouflage, from his head to his toes,
 And the aroma of pork tenderloin permeated his clothes;
A bagful of presents he carried on his broad back,
He looked like a trader opening a gunny sack;
His eyes sorta glared! His smile kinda   scary!
His hair was disheveled, his nose like a strawberry!
On his belt hung a flashlight and a old hunting bow,    
And the hair on his chin was as grey as the snow;

A dip of Wintergreen tobacco, he held tight  in his cheek,
And the minty smell encircled him like a peppermint wreath;
He had a oval face and a big round belly,
He was  clearly well acquainted with the Kroger deli!
But he was  friendly  and honest– a typical  Hoosier,
  I  thought  to myself, “Could he be a  boozer?”;  
But a wink of his eye and flick of  his finger,
Said all was ok but I better not linger;

The miraculous gifts  were what we had hoped for,
  Lower taxes,  no tolls, and federal bailouts galore;
He brought money for schools and a ball team that was splendid,
Then with his work complete up the chimney he ascended;
He sprang to his vehicle to his team gave a whistle,
Onward to Muncie he flew like a missile;

And I heard him exclaim as he soared out of sight,
“Happy Christmas Indiana and to all a good night!”


(From a column in the New Albany Tribune)

The Christmas Meanies

3 Nov



Christmas is a time for generosity and charity. It’s when we renew ties with family and friends.   But there are those, for whom the holiday is nothing but “humbug”.      Since stories are the essence of the holiday, we have a long tradition of  Christmas villains. The nativity story itself has perhaps the vilest of them all, the baby killing King Herod.   

Contemporary Christmas celebrations owe  a large debt to Charles Dicken’s  A Christmas Carol and his immortal characterization of Ebenezer Scrooge. This  tale highlights the ever present possibility of  redemption and Scrooge  is the first  of a long series of villains, who are redeemed by the spirit of  the season. This plot has been repeated in numerous radio, film, and television adaptations.  

Some psychologists have compared Scrooge’s transformation to what happens in    successful psychotherapy, with insight triumphing over  childhood trauma and alienation.  The same could be argued for the film “A Wonderful Life”,  where being able to see one’s life in a broader context,  can even  overcome  suicidal depression.  Mr. Potter,  this movie’s villain, falls into the class of  unredeemed antagonists.  He refuses  change   and     is  eventually consigned  to being irrelevant, which may be his  perfect punishment, given the extent  of  his narcissism.

In Christmas media offerings we see a variety of familiar villains.  In the horror-action genre there is Billy, the  serial killer of Silent Night, Deadly Night, who goes  on a Yuletide killing spree,  wearing a Santa suit.  He is finally stopped by being artfully  skewered by a Christmas tree.  And  we  have Bruce Willis facing  down  Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) the smarmy Christmas  terrorist  in Die Hard.

Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol is considered by many baby boomers to be  the definitive version of   Dicken’s classic. We of the Bugs Bunny-Huckleberry Hound  generation,  identify more with Jim Backus’ Scrooge than with Alistair Sim or George C. Scott.   

Of course Dr. Seussimaginative How the Grinch Stole Christmas  gives us a another villain who rivals Scrooge.   This fuzzy green misanthrope is, as the song puts it,  “a three decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwich with arsenic sauce”.

Most Christmas villains  are larger than life,  with the possible exception of  Scut Farkas,  the coonskin  cap wearing bully, in Jean Shepherd’s  Christmas Story. With his sinister  yellow eyes and green teeth,  he  pushes little Ralphie too far and gets a well-deserved beating for his trouble.  As a child I had  my own Scut Farkas,  by the  name of Marlin. I’m withholding his last name, just in case  he is  still  around somewhere,  waiting for me. Whenever  I  rode my bicycle, Marlin would pop out of nowhere to torment me.  I would often go blocks out of my  way to avoid him. Marlin never got his just desserts, which is maybe  why I get such vicarious satisfaction watching Raphie beat the snot out of Farkus.  My real life Farkus just disappeared one day, probably recalled to the hellish nether regions from whence he came.            

In recent years we have been appalled by Willie T. Stokes as portrayed  by Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa. Stokes  is a degenerate  alcoholic safecracker, who in the guise of a department store Santa, specializes in Christmas Eve burglaries, with his elf-impersonating  accomplice.   Bad Santa is not everyone’s cup of tea, although I admit I loved the scene  in which Thorton, in a  drunken frenzy, eats all the chocolates  from  a kid’s advent calendar. Feeling guilty,  he Scotch tapes the calendar  back together,  filling it with anything he can find.  When the kid gets an aspirin tablet, instead of a chocolate,  the next day, Stokes  says, “They can’t all be  winners, kid”.   This movie’s  disturbing grittiness may have something to do with Thornton’s admission that he was drunk throughout the filming.  The Stokes’ character has sunk so low that  his redemption must, of necessity, be relatively modest.      

In a lighter vein, there are  Harry and Marv,  the comically inept “Wet Bandits,   violently abused by young Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin)  in  Home Alone.     This movie must address some deep-seated psychological need  of children  to get back at adults.  Kids watched the original movie so many times that it became the  third highest grossing film ever.  Like Farkas, Kevin’s bullying brother– Buzz,  rings true to anyone who had to contend with an older sibling. My older brother Norman made  Buzz look like  a choirboy.    

Martin Short chews up the scenery as Jack Frost in  the undistinguished   Santa Claus  3: The Escape Clause. Speaking of this film and Tim Allen’s  performance as Santa, one critic  said “This Christmas we are treated to both a turkey (the film) and a ham (Allen).

Quirky, funny,  and scary Steven Spielberg’s intense 1984  Christmas  film,  Gremlins featured the demonic chainsaw-wielding gremlin, Stripe, who like  a vampire,  is finally destroyed by exposure to sunlight. The microwave scene in this movie still gives me nightmares.

            Animated television specials have also given us a wealth of  memorable villains. There is  crabby Lucy in a Charlie Brown Christmas, and in    Santa Claus is Coming to Town  there is  the grouchy   Burgermeister who bans all toys in Sombertown and the malevolent wizard Winter Warlock, who is redeemed by the gift of a toy train.    Professor Hinkle, the evil magician, mugs  in Frosty the Snowman,  and Bumble the abominable snowman, from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, turns from his evil ways,  only after Herbie the Elf pulls all of his teeth.

            I find Oogie Boogey  in Tim Burton’s The Nightmare before Christmas especially frightening, but my favorite animated villain has to be  Heat Miser (“I’m Mr. 101”) from The Year Without a Santa Claus.   For some reason I never found his stepbrother, Snow Miser (Mr. Ten Below) very  appealing.  This year there is big news for all us unrepentant fans.  ABC Family plans to have  the  Miser Brothers  team up to  save Christmas in a long awaited sequel.

  All things considered however,  my vote  for  the best  Christmas villain goes to Granville Sawyer.  You may not recognized the name,  but he is the twitchy and pompous store  psychologist in the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street. Sawyer is the one who gets Santa Claus committed to a mental institution. By maltreating the store’s naive teenage janitor, Alfred, the Grinchy Sawyer  so infuriates Mr. Kringle,  that he gets cracked on the head with Santa’s cane.  This movie  was remade several  times, but Sawyer doesn’t fair any better in any version.  The best line  is when store owner R.H.  Macy’s says in a voice dripping with contempt, “Psy-chol-o-gist! Where did you get your degree, correspondence school? You’re fired.”  Finally a CEO we can admire.   

 Based on a column originially published in the in the New Albany Tribune

Can displays of Christmas decorations actually hurt people psychologically?

30 Nov

Can Christmas decorations actually hurt people’s psychologically?  Can  they damage self-esteem, depress mood or engender  feelings of alienation and exclusion?  Check out this link for the answer:

Santa’s Christmas Cat?

24 Sep

Claus, our two year old cat seems to be on a rampage over the holidays.  He won’t stay away from the artificial tree and  when I went into the family room the other day  the real Christmas tree was   laying on the floor. The rug was soak with water from the tree stand and Claus was nestled in the branches, denying any knowledge of how it could have possibly have happened. Although a very attractive cat, Claus unfortunately is an inveterate liar.  
For example,  all winter he keeps insisting that he wants to go outside. He is a very vocal cat—  not a desirable trait in a feline. He sit by the door for hours,  whining about how he needs to see a man  about a rodent or something.  But no sooner than you let  him out than he is on the other side of the door complaining about how cold it is outside.  You would think he could at least go to the bathroom while he was out there, but noooo,  that might  be too uncomfortable for his majesty. He saves it up,  apparently preferring his litter box that I have to clean
The other day my wife Diane let him out the back door and then went down to the basement where she immediately met him again.  Evidently Claus has learned to dematerialize and  reappear in  our basement at will.
Diane and I constantly compare him to our previous cat, Hobbes.  Poor Claus is like   the second wife in Daphne du Maurier ‘s  novel Rebecca,  who must compete with the memory of  the beloved  first wife.  Hobbes was one in a million:  an elegant gentleman cat  and Claus, I am afraid to say, is no gentleman.  Unlike the noisy and disconcertingly human-sounding Claus,  Hobbes only meowed  his orders once and expected and usually received  total  obedience. If we didn’t rush to  open the door at his first command, Hobbes would simply  walk away and act totally indifferent, there was none of this pedestrian  squalling.  Also Hobbes always did his business outside, bless his cat soul.
Of course, we have a selective memory when it comes to  Hobbes. He wasn’t perfect either,  if the truth be told.  As a kitten he ran up our  Christmas  tree and batted at every ornament  he saw.  
There was even one Christmas when the  great Hobbes totally disgraced himself.    Against our better judgment and express wishes, our oldest  son   brought another cat into our  house. This new  cat, Clawdy, was a female who had shared an essentially feral existence with a bunch of  college boys.  Clawdy immediately took  possession  of Hobbes’ favorite   place  our bedroom. Hobbes was too much of a gentleman  to evict a lady and besides Clawdy had become  terribly ferocious,  competing  with   college boys for   pizza scraps and having to use a filthy litter box that was hardly ever changed— much like the boys’ apartment bathroom if I remember correctly. 
Thus having both gender and territoriality issues,  Hobbes apparently  wanted to make certain that everyone in the house  knew that the  shiny presents under the tree were his property, which caused Diane, an obsessive compulsive wrapper, to almost have a seizure.
Last winter Claus was outside during an  ice storm and managed to get severely injured. We don’t know  exactly wheat happened,  but he managed to drag himself up the porch steps and to lay next to the dog.  Fortunately our son-in-law, Jeff is an emergency veterinarian near Cincinnati  and managed to patch him back together. We are also  lucky that cats have great recuperative powers. Jeff says if you throw two pieces of cat  in a room,  they will grow together into a cat. Claus was in intensive care  at my daughter and Jeff’s  house for several months, while my granddaughters nursed him back to health. I am not sure Claus truly appreciated all the attention, wearing a baby bonnet,  or riding in the doll stroller. Except for the indignity of having several inches removed from the tip of his tail, he recovered  remarkably, given the extent of his injuries. And he can still catch a mouse, he would like  you to know.
Claus was  named by our middle son after friend of his from Germany, but we still think of him as a Christmas cat. At the restaurant at Holiday World there are several paintings of Santa’s workshop  and many of them contain a cat that   has the same unique markings as Claus. We told our granddaughters that the paintings  prove  that Claus is related to Santa’s cat. They just smile back at us skeptically and humor us,  as if we were completely insane, much the way our  children do.  

Originally published in the Tribune & Evening News (

The Blue Blanket of Embarrassment: Another Steeltown Story

21 Jan

The start of a new school year always reminds me of my older brother, Norman. He was one of those larger than life characters, who thought ordinary rules didn’t apply to him. Norman would invariably show up the first day of school not wearing a belt and his shirttail hanging out. Mr. Dant, the principal, would lurk by the front entrance just to throw Norman out, like the first baseball of the season.
Once Norman was kicked out of a physical education class because he was wearing purple gym shorts. School rules clearly stated that gym suits must conform to the school colors of green and white. No other colors were allowed. Outraged, that night Norman acquired a pair of green shorts and a white T-shirt. Never one to leave well enough alone, he painted large white polka dots on the green shorts and large green polka dots on the white T-shirt. He thought that technically he had won, but they threw him out of class anyway, citing the school rule about not creating a nuisance — that was one charge Norman could never beat. Norman and Mr. Dant locked horns for Norman’s entire four years of high school. I am not sure which one was happier at graduation.
My own educational career in Steeltown had an equally unpropitious beginning. Although I couldn’t stay within the lines very well, I enjoyed coloring the heavily line pictures of pumpkins and corn. I especially like the playground, even though they had reduced the monkey bars to half size, after a first grader fell and suffered a compound fracture of the arm. The playground had a large wet low area that would freeze over and kids could slide on it. Also everyone took pleasure in using the long cement banisters on both sides of the front steps as sliding boards.
Mrs. Cook was a kind kindergarten teacher and my fellow classmates, while not friendly, where at least not as unpleasant as my older brother. As the Christmas holidays approached, sliding on the playground mini-pond was excellent and some of my classmates even started talking to me. They seemed excited about Christmas and talk quickly turned to putting on a Christmas program — a nativity scene perhaps? I was told by some of the popular kids that I could even be a wise man.
Of course, I would need a costume — something like a bathrobe or maybe a blanket. I could pull it over my head and use it as a burnoose. I immediately told my mother about it and insisted that I get a blanket and some cord to wrap around my head. I was taking no chances in impressing my new buddies. Plans for the program were discussed every day and eventually a date was set for the big program– just a few days before Christmas break. On the appointed day I arrived at school with my cardboard box in hand, containing my blue blanket, some gold cord, and a small package wrapped in gold colored paper. As I put my stuff in the cloakroom I thought it was curious that no one else seemed to have brought anything — how could the show go on like this? In class Mrs. Cook asked me in front of the other children why I had brought a cardboard box to school. I said for the Christmas program of course. She asked ominously, “What program?” It was then I smelled a rat. Before I could say anything one of my new buddies said, “Look!! Terry brought a blanket to school. What you gonna do? Sleep in the cloakroom? This set off a flurry of laughter with a dozen kindergartners repeating, “Yeah, what you gonna do? Sleep in the cloakroom?”
I was mortified and not for the last time in Steeltown schools, I wished I was dead. The only redeeming aspect of this disaster was the fact that I had not actually worn the blanket to class, as I had originally planned.
Denying the obvious truth, I would still like to think it was not a total setup. Maybe it was just kid talk that got out of hand. Had I not want to be part of that crowd so bad, I might’ve be more curious why the teacher wasn’t involved in planning the program.
For the rest of the year I had to endure constant comments about sleeping in the cloakroom. Kindergarten was pretty much ruined for me and only the blessing of summer vacation gave any relief. Over the summer I almost managed to repress the whole sordid affair. I would not have been so carefree that summer, had I known that that I would have to face the meanest first grade teacher at Steeltown Elementary in a few months.
From the start first grade was nearly unbearable. My new teacher, the infamous Miss Cobb, obviously could not stand me or my extremely sloppy penmanship. She seemed to take it as some sort of personal insult. “What did you write this with? A dirty fingernail?” She would say. “This isn’t writing, this looks like chicken scratching.” I started missing the teasing about the cloak room.
In those primitive times, self-esteem hadn’t been invented yet, so no attention was paid to children’s pathetic little feelings. And with no rules about taking universal precautions, Miss Cobb was known to jerk intransigent pupils around her classroom by hooking her finger in their mouths and pulling on their cheeks like they were carp.
Towards the end of first grade I got in big trouble for accidentally smearing some grape jelly in a school library book. For a week I was subjected to a daily public castigation for my sloppiness, much to the amusement of my disloyal classmates. I thought the whole ugly incident had finally ended, when I gave a book report a few weeks later. I had read a picture book about a girl named Janet who lived on a farm. After relating the simple story and surviving a few tricky questions from Miss Cobb, the other pupils where then allowed ask questions and make comments. Much everyone’s delight, Charles, my so-called best friend, shouted out, “How much jelly did you feed her, Terry? Even then, I didn’t think I could take ten more years of this.

A Note on Christmas Trees

22 Dec

Christmas tree are a bizarre custom. Although the Druids had worshipped trees for centuries, it never occurred to them to invite one up to the house. But ever since Martin Luther bewildered local pagans by dragging a highly flammable evergreen into his house, decked out with burning candles, this tradition has begged the question of how to select the perfect tree? You want the right shape, freshness, height, fullness, room for ornaments, with that subtle hint of pine freshness that doesn’t conjure up images of disinfectant.
Denominational differences abound when it comes to Christmas trees. The orthodox believe that you must actually chainsaw that sucker yourself, while conservatives hold that real Christmas trees only come from holy ground– like Michigan. Reformed believers even recognize the legitimacy of artificial trees, so long as they’re green. And of course there are those dangerous cultists who believe in multi-colored flocked trees.
Even though the supermarkets claim their trees are fresh, I know for a fact that they start cutting them some time in May and keep them on life support for several months. That’s why I prefer cutting down my own tree, although this limits you to local varieties.
The trek to the woods quickly becomes a family tradition. In Florida however, it’s likely to be an extremely sweaty and sticky tradition. Chopping down a tree and dragging it through dusty terrain with pine tar all over you, when the temperature and humidity are both 98 isn’t exactly Currier and Ives. Only one year out of the last 20 was it cold enough to bundle up and take along hot chocolate and marshmallows. Mostly it’s fudgecycle and salt tablet weather.
When we first started chopping our own Christmas tree we lived near a national forest and it only cost a dollar to get a permit for a sand pine. Unfortunately sand pines are not especially attractive. They have no shape, branches twist all over the place, and large pine needles stick out in wild unsavory clumps. To get any semblance of the sought-after inverted cone shape, you need a sand pine at least 25 feet tall and have to stand back about 500 yards.
Over my wife’s strenuous objections, I chopped down such a tree the first year we went. When we got home the tree was about three times taller than our house. Undaunted I lopped off most of the top and the bottom saving the mid-section of the tree. Any suggestion of a shape dissolved and what remained resembled a flat rectangular wall of twisted pine branches. It became the source of great amusement to our friends. I would says, “Hey this the latest thing. You don’t have one of those old-fashioned triangular trees do you? I believe they have one these Christmas tree walls at the White House. Plenty of room for ornaments you know.” They were not deceived.
The next year I was determined to get a normal looking tree to redeem myself. Again the sand pines were terrible with no shape and bald spots all over them. Eventually inspiration struck and along with the tree, I cut several additional branches from nearby trees. At home I sharpened the ends of these extras and inserted them into holes I made in the tree trunk with my Black and Decker electric drill. These new branches were far too weak to support ornaments and kept falling out, so I heated up an old saucepan full of hot glue and cemented them to the trunk. I was able to assemble a respectable sand pine in about 45 minutes.
My ersatz sand pine resembled an aluminum Christmas tree that my father bought at a July clearance sale at Walgreens when I was a kid. My family hated this tree so much, it was finally banished from the house and my father was reduced to displaying it on the front porch. The tree had about three dozen thin metallic branches with what looked to be strips of aluminum foil glued to them. You couldn’t string regular Christmas lights on it because of the shock hazard, so it came equipped with a spotlight and a revolving plastic wheel made up of primary colors. The tree appeared to change color as the wheel turned. The tree also had a special stand that played Silent Night and rotated rapidly in the opposite direction from the spotlight, resulting in a seizure producing sensation of motion as it simultaneously violently flung ornaments into the street. After a few hours of this, the plastic color wheel mercifully melted into a chromatic pool of goo.
The only problem with my virtual sand pine was that after a few days, the grafted branches dried out, all the needles fell off, and they all turned brown.
Eventually we moved and located a local tree farm. I’m not sure what kind of trees they had, but they were all well shaped. The hippie tree farmer who ran the place used a “tree shaper”– a bizzare Weedwacker contraption that hacks the trees into perfectly shaped cones. These shaped tree were so full, they were almost solid. When we got home we discovered it was so dense, it was virtually impossible to hang anything on it. Instead you sort of laid the ornaments on the side of the tree. Decorations would slide off it like hot fudge off a Teflon sundae.
After the hippie went into rehab and the tree farm went out of business, we started patronizing a large commercial farm. They have a Santa Claus, hay rides, gift shop, tree shaker and bundler, petting zoo, and even a winter scene for photo opportunities. Everything is a little tacky but I don’t mind some peeling paint or red-eyed diseased goats, so long as I can buy an icy coke right on the premises. My only objection is that the place is next to an old chicken farm. You can see the long coops and while most of the chickens are gone, they have left about 2 feet of memories under the buildings. On a hot Florida day when the wind is right, it isn’t Christmas in the air.
Some Tree Tips
Of course chopping down the tree is only the beginning. Securing it to an appropriate tree stand is always tricky. I suggest installing the stand before you take the tree in the house. I know of at least two people who, in frustration, have actually nailed their Christmas trees directly to the living room floor and at least one person also nailed multiple guide wires to “keep the damn thing straight.”
Keeping dogs, cats, and kids out of the Christmas tree is another challenge for the novice. Play pens, shock collars, and water spray bottles are recommended. Use trial and error to ascertain the best permutation for your situation.
Determining the correct additive for Christmas tree water is perhaps the major controversy of our times. Sugar, corn syrup, lemon-lime soda, alcohol, aspirin, and plant food have all been suggested, as well as the various commercial preparations now available. The notion that something sweet is helpful is based on the glucose drip analogy. Aspirin and analgesic additives are based on the idea that cutting the tree down creates pain and trauma. I once read that a botanist suggested that trees should be anesthetized before any type of tree surgery such as trimming or transplanting is initiated. I suppose the alcohol additive is along the same lines. Give your tree a stiff drink before you hack it down. My rule of thumb is; “Don’t give your tree any food or drugs you wouldn’t take yourself.”
Finally there is the disposal of the tree. People have different traditions relating to this. Some take the tree down immediately after Christmas. Others wait until New Year’s Day, Epiphany, or even later. I vote for New Years Day. A recent development is the Christmas tree body bag. I recommend just dragging the tree through the house and out the font door. That way for months afterwards you can enjoy those pieces of tinsel that stick to the carpet, welcome mat, and your lawn thus extending that special holiday feeling as long as possible.