Archive for December, 2005

True Meaning of Christmas?!? Bah Humbug!

I’m sick of hearing about the True Meaning of Christmas.

Sorry.

I recognize that I have a non-traditional take on some of these things.  My diatribe on Thanksgiving (Nov. 16) was generally well-received, but I don’t think any of the things I complained about will change very much.  Certainly not enough to notice.

So I write this with a degree of resignation, not seriously thinking that what I have to say will affect the world at large a whole lot.  But then, that isn’t the point.  I don’t write these things for the general population.  I write them for you.  I can’t be sure how many people are reading this blog, but I can be sure that there’s practically nobody here that I don’t personally know, which means I’m among friends as I do this.  Maybe it will mean something to you, as you have meant something to me.

Na.

The Christmas bustle starts sometime in October, since Thanksgiving, as previously mentioned, is not a marketing holiday.  In fact, Thanksgiving is only used by retailers (other than grocery stores, bless them) as a convenient marker for the kickoff of the Rumble in the Aisles, the massive Friday-after-Turkey discount extravaganza that never fails to get Orlando on the map for largest number of people arrested at WalMart.  Click the link if you didn’t hear about this.  There’s even video.

This type of behavior is exactly what the religious types among us bemoan at the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.  It’s a Christmas sale, for crying out loud.  Peace on Earth, people.  But no.  The struggle to get that one more thing seems to drown out the Reason for the Season, and that leads to an unbelievable amount of hand-wringing and sanctimonious preaching from the devout that the Real Meaning of Christmas Has Been Forgotten.  Woe be unto us!

Let’s deal with the reason for the season then, just to get it out of the way.  Christmas, as you might expect if you’ve ever looked at the word, has to do with Christ.  It is, in fact, the Mass of Christ, the celebration of the birth of the Savior of Mankind into the world.  I won’t retell the story, because if you don’t know it, even if you are Jewish, then you’ve lived your whole life on Mars.  Yes, I am fully aware that Christ was not born in December.  I am also, being a Classical Civ major, more than usually quick to remind trivia buffs that the Christmas celebration is in December because of a desire to quash the observance of the feast of the winter solstice, celebrated variously to herald the death and rebirth of Mithras (Sol Invicta!) or, among the Romans, to celebrate the feast of the Saturnalia, both festivals being filled with bacchanalian revelry.

Email chain letters notwithstanding, the candy cane was not invented to help us remember the blood of Christ on a shepherd’s crook, nor is the Christmas tree a Christian symbol of the resurrected Lord (this would be a lot more convincing at Easter, wouldn’t it?), nor is the song the Twelve Days of Christmas some sort of backmasked tribute to the Baby Jesus.  Sometimes candy is just candy.

But debunking all this mythology doesn’t change the fact that Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Christ.  This event really doesn’t need any trappings, boxes or bags to make it important.  The birth of God is going to be significant even if we don’t choose to celebrate it starting three months early.

I once had a discussion with a friend of mine who is a borderline agnostic (raised one religion, now regularly attends no church, but is pretty sure there’s a God).  We were discussing the foreknowledge of God, and how we could be free to choose our own path in this life if there was an omniscient being who already knew what we were going to do.  It occurred to me that if God were not omniscient, if He were not in complete command of the situation, if He were not able to make all things – all things – work together for good for them that believe, that I would have no interest in worshipping Him.  What kind of God is surprised, or even occasionally outmaneuvered?  Wouldn’t you want your God to be better than you are?

Man, I sure would.

Fortunately, God is actually God, and that means that He’s got things pretty well in hand, whatever we do to rain death and destruction and misery down on ourselves.  This would include the birth of His Son, I think.  There is no way He is surprised that the events surrounding His Son’s condescension have spawned a monthlong marketing bonanza that makes the heathen feasts that used to mark the end of the year look like a ladies cotillion.  This has not caught God off guard.  He is still God, and He is still running things.

And He’s smarter than we think.

Yes, we hear from the pulpit over and over how we’ve lost the Spirit of the Season, that Santa Claus has replaced the babe in the manger, how we concern ourselves far more with Decking the Halls than with having an occasional Silent Night to contemplate the birth that makes the holiday happen in the first place.  But do we?

Here’s a line at WalMart at 11pm the week of Christmas.  There are enormous carts filled with magical – truly, folks, magical – goodies of every type and description.  It’s late and it’s a work day and everyone is tired, including the cashier.  Someone fumbles with her purse and the change goes spilling across the floor like candy from a broken jar.  The woman tiredly reaches down and starts chasing the glittering coins, but she isn’t alone.  Everyone in line is on the floor with her, smiling, scooping copper and zinc back into her purse.  Except one man, who reaches across while she’s down there, zips his card through the reader, punches in his PIN, winks at the cashier, and puts the small sacks of her goodies into her cart.  Bends down and scrabbles on the floor with the rest of us.  When the woman stands up her bill is paid and no one will own up to having done it.  The cashier wishes her a Merry Christmas and out the door she goes, bewildered and grateful and tearful.  As are we all.

Tell me you’re going to see that in March.

Here’s something else.  The line is longish, and especially after something like that, people get to talking.  I ask the man in front of me “so, what you got there?”  He smiles and says “my mother has been complaining about her feet the last couple of months, saying that they’re always cold.  So I got this whirlpool-style foot massager that heats the water.”  “That ought to handle it,” I say.  “Yep.  I think it will.”  He goes on to show me, as we shuffle forward, a half-dozen other items in the cart, one for his little girl, some for his twin boys, a couple of little candies for his wife.  It occurs to me, a little at a time, the way the sun rises, that his $230 basket of gifts contains not one thing – not one thing – for himself.  We’ve talked for 15 minutes and he hasn’t said a word about himself.  I don’t even know his name.

There are perhaps 20 people in this line, and there are 4 of these lines in this store, and there are 3700 Wal Marts in the US.  And every single cart is filled with things for people other than the ones doing the buying.  Every purchase is a gift.

I’m sure this happens in August, too.  On some other planet.

If giving to others is the forgetting of oneself, and if the forgetting of oneself is the path to finding oneself, if the surest path to God is the caring for others, then somehow, miracle of miracles, God has contrived it so that the entire hedonistic season points men back to Him.

I like giving gifts.  I spend months planning them.  I like buying things.  I spend as freely as I possibly can, and I’m here to encourage you to do the same.  Don’t be stupid.  But do go all the way.  Give what you truly wish to give and let January deal with the fallout.  Giving with your heart is never – it is NEVER – a bad idea.  If someone nags you about it, smile, be polite, and don’t pay them any attention.  All the preaching and the moralizing probably has its place, too, but honestly, more often than not (and I am, myself, a fairly religious fellow) it seems like the preachers are telling us to stop having fun because they are worried that if they don’t personally put a stop to all this getting and spending that God will be unable to do His thing.  

Wouldn’t you prefer a God that didn’t much need your help?

Well, good news.  You have one.

Merry Christmas.

CPI, and A Rousing Defense of Myself

The Consumer Price Index today registered its largest drop since before the Korean War.  That seems to most people to be indicative of lack of inflationary pressure.  Not to bond traders, of course, who responded by selling.

The economy officially makes zero sense.

Regarding my post yesterday about Scrooge, I got this response from my father, who happens to be playing Fezziwig in Utah’s #1 performance of A Christmas Carol, at the Hale Centre Theater in Salt Lake:

Gordon Jones wrote:
BTW, Scrooge’s nephew is Fred, not George.
 
Richard[Wilkins, who plays Scrooge and has for 2o years] read your piece last night.  He says you need to read his notes in the program, but he thought you made some good points.
 
The change of heart for his Scrooge doesn’t produce (only) trivial gifts to individuals but support for education to eliminate Ignorance which will attack Want more broadly.
 
g

And here is my response:

I do not recall the support for education in any of the movies I have seen, and since this is a piece about movies, and not Christmas stories in general – I dislike most of those so much that I don’t think I could do a piece on them – I don’t feel any necessity of dealing with that part of Scrooge’s transformation.  If it comes to that, I don’t recall any such transformation in the story, either, which I confess I read only once.And really, so what if his change generates support for education?  What is it that he will use for the means of that support?  His time?  Not likely.  And if he did, it would be to the ruination of his other ventures, without doubt.  This is the standard liberal tripe where we’d all be better off if we lived in the mountains contemplating our navels.  What nonsense.  Scrooge will support education, if he chooses, with big chunks of money, ala Leland Stanford.  Great idea.  Fully in support of it.  Can’t do it myself.  Which is, of course, the point of the essay.  Scrooge et al are role models without substantial value to the current population, or to any population, as far as I can determine.In fact, and this is the darker side of the issue, I am surrounded by people that have the idea that what they should do is neglect their families so that they can make them comfortable monetarily.  They’ll use the money to go on church missions, they say, or to give to the missionary funds, or to donate generously to charitable causes.  In the meantime their actions make it increasingly likely that someone will have to engage in missionary work to their own children, because the example they see has absolutely nothing to do with a testimony of God, and everything to do with the management of the creature.  This attitude makes me angry.  I consider it to be perhaps the most insidious and destructive of all Lucifer’s lies.  And I do believe that movies like this perpetuate those lies.  At first blush, it would seem that A Christmas Carol teaches precisely the opposite lesson, that one should, in fact, spend one’s time being concerned about mankind rather than focusing on money.  But does it really?  If we want to emulate Scrooge, how can we, unless we do what Scrooge did?  And then, because time is not fungible, that moment I steal for the office is one I won’t get to give my Charlotte.  The office will be there tomorrow.  Charlotte, though, tomorrow’s Charlotte, will be married and living in Lima.  She needs Dad now, not once Dad reaches the revenue goal for the 3rd quarter, and she needs not Dad’s wallet, but Dad himself.  I will therefore never be Scrooge, for good or for ill.So along comes A Christmas Carol to teach us – perhaps without quite meaning to – that it’s okay to spend 50 years as a nasty curmudgeon, because there will always be time to use one’s accumulated wealth then for the Advancement of Education, or the Support of the Less Fortunate, or the Serving of God.  But there will not always be time.Cj

We Need a Little Christmas – NOW!

Christmastime spawns a certain type of movie.  You’ll be familiar with the formula: bad man acts contrary to societally-accepted norms, terrible (humorous, scary…) events transpire, bad man has change of heart and embraces all mankind (his family, his potential family…).  It’s a good formula.  It taps into very powerful archetypes.  It generates good revenue.  All of us have done bad things, and most of us want to change and become better.  

Here’s my beef.  There’s one component that I forgot to mention that appears in almost all of these films: the bad man is rich.  After he changes, he is still rich, only now he gets to use his massive riches for the benefit of all mankind and not just for his personal pleasure.  This bothers me.  I find myself at the end of the movie inspired, moved, and wanting to emulate what the main character has done, but I can’t, because I am not rich.  I am changed, but whatever my will, my capacity to act in concert with the hero remains practically nil.

I cite as a chief example the kingpin of all Christmas movies – A Christmas Carol.  You know the deal: Ebenezer Scrooge hates Christmas, the spirits scare the bejabbers out of him, and he becomes a benefactor to all mankind.  Right on the pattern.  But let’s look deeper.

First, Scrooge is spectacularly rich.  Why?  Because he is a skinflinted cheapskate.  But that’s not exactly correct, is it?  Scrooge did not acquire the money he has through extortion and blackmail; he got it through judicious investing and the performance of accounting services, and because he and his staff work harder than anyone else.  Scrooge and Marley’s is what we would today call a bank.  Apparently, it’s a good bank.  Scrooge does not donate money to the poor, and holds some fascinating (and quite insensitive) opinions of what should be done with the less fortunate.  But we are meant at every turn to despise Scrooge not because he is a cantankerous old fart but because he is a rich cantankerous old fart.  There are far less savory characters introduced in the story, including a woman that stole the silk shirt off Scrooge’s dead body, but we aren’t mad at her, because she’s poor.  Apparently it’s okay to be a skinflint as long as you don’t get rich by it.

Second, now that he’s a changed man, he can use all this loot to benefit his fellows.  This is absolutely great, and what’s more, it’s wonderful fun to watch.  This is one of the most common dreams of mankind, to become rich and use those riches to spread happiness and joy.  To his credit, Scrooge does that admirably.  But remember, folks, Scrooge can do this because he is wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice.  His nephew George has a generous heart but an empty wallet, and couldn’t help Tiny Tim even if he were aware of his plight.  Scrooge can.  However, would Scrooge be able to help Tiny Tim if he had always been like George?  Isn’t he able to keep Christmas well “starting today” only because he failed to do so for so long?  And how do I emulate this?

Let’s look at the things Scrooge does that give evidence of his change of heart.  One, he gives a lad a massive tip for performing a relatively tiny service.  Two, he buys a turkey of immense size and sends it anonymously, by cab, in the snow, to the Cratchits.  Three, he finds the charity solicitors and tells them he’s going to give them a gigantic sum.  Four, he raises Bob Cratchit’s salary.  Five, he buys coal.  Is there something in here that shows Scrooge’s change of heart that does not involve the use of his money, money which we are meant to feel he shouldn’t have accumulated?  I would personally love to do all of the things described for my employees, but I can’t.  I just don’t have the resources.  If I were to do these things, it would jeopardize the business itself.  Okay, I could probably buy coal.  I’ll get right on that.  And I’m already a good tipper.  Somehow, though, this doesn’t satisfy.

Is this the only example of this kind of behavior?  Heavens no.  How about (just recently) Family Man (rich man finds out he’d rather have a family than money), Two Weeks’ Notice (rich man finds out that he’s happier helping other people than himself), The Santa Clause (rich executive finds out that being Santa is more fun than doing his job well), Sabrina (rich man finds out that mooning around Paris is better for his soul than making beautiful and useful things – and as aside, don’t just see the recent one where Harrison Ford is, well, Harrison Ford, but go back to the original with Humphrey Bogart and the Immortal Audrey Hepburn.  Bogart makes a speech about the value and utility of his job that is absolutely marvelous – and one of the best defenses of market capitalism ever captured on film).  A majority of lesser Christmas films are just remakes of A Christmas Carol, and follow the same pattern.

Fortunately, there is an antidote.

It’s A Wonderful Life is the greatest Christmas movie of all time, and one of the best five movies ever of any genre.  It follows the pattern, make no mistake.  A major part of the plot is the change of heart that George Bailey undergoes.  To be sure, it isn’t the only part, because like all fantastic movies it has several subplots, but the main thrust of this movie is the pattern – but in negative.  

George is a poor man who is poor because he’s spent his entire life giving money and things away to help others.  We get to see this against the backdrop of Mr. Potter (oh, Lionel Barrymore!), who is Scrooge without the spirits – and without the ethics.  George knows how to keep Christmas well because he has been doing it his entire life.  Then the crisis occurs – not to someone else (Tiny Tim, Sabrina, Charlie, a law clerk) – but to himself.  And he cannot help himself.  He has saved everyone else; himself he cannot save.  Momentarily, he becomes bitter.  Momentarily, he becomes Ray Kinsella (never noticed before how similar Field of Dreams and Wonderful Life are, did you?), and he’s asking “what’s in it for me?” and getting scant answer.

Clarence (as a delegate for God) gives him an attitude adjustment.  It’s gut-wrenching watching George think that everything and everyone he gave his life for is gone, but it serves the required purpose of helping him see that those things are his forever, and going to jail is not the end of the world.  His heart is changed, and even though (note the contrast) he can now not do anything to help anyone else, even himself, he is now at peace in a way none of the other protagonists mentioned above can be.  They have done nothing; George has nothing left to do.

This is powerful stuff.  It solves my problem.  George is everyman; he’s not a bigshot, he doesn’t live in Metropolis, he doesn’t have money or fame or super powers.  He runs a creaky little company staffed by moderately incompetent relatives and assorted hangers-on.  He’s goofy and sentimental and some days a little bitter.  Life hasn’t treated him all that well.  He’s just doing the best he can with what he has to work with, which isn’t really all that much.  But he’s tenacious.  He doesn’t give up.  He’s resourceful.  And though he may have momentarily lost perspective and forgotten a couple of important things, basically he’s as good a man as you could wish to meet.  Not later, after he’s been Scrooge for 50 years.  Right now.

I can be like that.  I don’t have to be rich.  I don’t have to be powerful.  I can do the things that George does right now, and maybe, if I do, one day I too will find that I am the richest man in town.

Market Drift

The markets are drifting coming into (specifically) the Fed Meeting tomorrow and (generally) the end of the year.  The biggest remaining economic news for the year will relate to the Christmas buying spree and (believe it or not) whether the Fed continues to use the word “measured” in its description of how fast it’s going to raise rates.  For bond traders, apparently the question is not whether the Fed will continue to jack up rates – that’s pretty much a given tomorrow and in January – but whether it will signal that it’s going to keep doing so after that.  If it does so signal, bonds are going to get crushed on Wednesday.  If it signals something else, like that it might be willing to pause and see if raising the Fed rate by almost 4 points in a year and a half is going to cause economic problems, then bonds could do very well all of a sudden.  That would be good for mortgage rates.

In our analysis of our loan pipeline, which we do annually, we discover that despite our best efforts, December has always been the #1 month of the year for loan closings.  This December appears to be no exception.  The holidays do cause significant problems with the timing of closings, because there are two major holidays in a week at the end of December.  For instance, if we want to fund a refinance loan this year we have to close it by the 23rd of December, otherwise the funding will take place on January 3.  Seriously.  This wall-to-wall effort to get these loans done before the end of the year may have an impact on the consistency of this blog.  Just warning you in advance.  It gets sort of nuts here this time of year.

We are still seeing seriously terrific returns on investing in real estate in Utah. We ourselves just finished up our very first investment deal as a Group, and it worked out nicely.  We’re not rich or anything, but we got the same returns our clients have been getting all year, so that was a hopeful sign.  We’re getting ready to do some more.  Wanna come along?

Working on two major essays: the much-touted “I’m Sick Of Hearing About The True Meaning Of Christmas” and another one called “Scrooge Strikes Back”, which somehow isn’t coming together all that well.  This kind of thing happens.  Plus we’re writing everyone a Christmas note in the card we’re sending you.  Hectic, to be sure, just like your life.

But it’s still the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.

Go See Narnia!

I’ve been, I’ve returned, and I’m a better person for it. How many movies can you say that about?

I wrote a truncated review of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe for imdb.com, which is by far the greatest compendium of movie stuff ever. What follows is an expanded version of that review.

Exactly What It Claims To Be, 8 December 2005
Author:
aminuteman from Utah

It could have been overblown, but it wasn’t. It could have been “enhanced” or “inspired by”, but it wasn’t. It could have been excellent. And it is.It’s hard for me to separate the movie from the book, the two being so closely mated, and that makes it practically impossible for me to rate this movie, since the book is one of my favorites of all literature. That, and one of my earliest memories is my father lying in the hallway reading this book to me and my brother as we went to sleep. How do you objectively comment on something so close to one’s heart?

I was deathly afraid that the movie would try to be something that the book isn’t. The Chronicles of Narnia are not the Lord of the Rings trilogy. They are also not the Three Musketeers, or the Legends of King Arthur. They are stories for children, stories that happen to be about the most important thing that has ever occurred, but children’s stories nonetheless. The movie preserves this. The animation is excellent but not flawless, and the CGI is good but not top-drawer. This is irrelevant. The story is all there, every bit of it, from Edmund’s snottiness all the way to the mice on the Stone Table. The dialogue is not straight from the book, but it’s organic to the movie.

A word about the acting. Nearly all the characters are very good, with the possible exception of the two older children, Peter and Susan, played by William Moseley and Anna Popplewell. The latter of the two, I think, is unlikely to get a lot of work. Fortunately, the major bulk of the film is carried by Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes – great, great name), and neither of these two seem to have been tutored in acting. They just are. It’s fun to watch. Aslan (voice of Qui-Gon Jin) is very good, grave and powerful, and the White Witch (Tilda Swinton) is genuinely nasty and wholly believable. Nobody is winning an Oscar, here, and the actors know it, and that allows them to just do the story. It’s refreshing.

I was also afraid that no movie in this day could possibly tell this tale and leave intact the mystery and power of Aslan, as representative of the Christ. No review of this movie could leave out this essential point, I don’t believe, for this story is, in its essence, a story about the root of all Christianity. And my fears were not entirely unfounded. There is some skirting of the essential point, but the light touch on it is unlikely to obscure the truth from those who know, while refusing to hit over the head those who would rather not have to face it. In the end, it was dealt with about as well as could be expected.

When Aslan goes to the Stone Table, if you have ever grappled with serious spiritual things, you will beg Him, with tears on your cheeks, not to go. You will see that He knows what he is doing, even if you cannot understand why He does it. That 5 minutes was among the hardest things I have ever had to watch in a movie theater. It was great moviemaking. It was the one piece of the film that simply had to be done correctly. It was.

And I was most afraid that I would leave the theater and find that my childhood memories were overlaid with some sticky Hollywood film that would affect my love for the book itself, that I would see in my head only those images that the movie projected, and that they would alter, perhaps even degrade my love for CS Lewis’s immortal classic.

That didn’t happen. The movie actually is less a recreation of the book, which after all is only about 85 pages long, so much as it is an homage to it. Faithful it is, to be sure, but also there was a tangible joy in the making of the movie that comes clear through it, a bowing before the great tale mixed with a celebration of it. It does not ignore those that have not read the book, instead it asks them over and over to give the book a try.

For me, the movie was a fitting tribute to the book, preserving its character and power while allowing the characters to live and breathe for a new generation that might not be quite as much at home with the printed page.

For Narnia! Long Live the Lion!

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