Saturday, December 25, 2004

Christmas Thoughts

I’m not a fan of office gift giving or of gift giving among acquaintances. Within the family it’s a fine thing, although Mr. Jane and I have been known to buy our own presents so that it is more of a surprise to the giver than the recipient. Rest assured the kids get tons of presents. Before you call me a Scrooge, let me explain myself.

I love the holidays. There is nothing better than turning out all the lights except the tree, and listening to Christmas music, except doing that while stretched out on the sofa with a homemade quilt, maybe with a fire in the fireplace. Warm cookies and some cocoa would really complete the experience. We have an advent calendar and the cards we’ve received displayed on the wall. What’s missing from this picture? Shopping and craziness.

Surprises are not welcome in my house unless they involve the arrival of large sums of money or an unexpectedly good report card. I like routine. My holidays are planned. If a holiday event is not on my calendar by mid-October it will probably be skipped. In November Mr. Jane and I take a day off work. While the kids are in school we do 80% of the Christmas shopping. By and large it’s done and we don’t really have to set foot in a retail store other than the grocery for the entire month of December. I address the Christmas cards over the Thanksgiving weekend. It’s great. We take the kids to a toy store to buy a gift each for the church’s children’s home. I buy two gifts for the toy drive at work. This year we packed 10 shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child at church and a few more at scouts. Our annual gift to the Heifer Project was a flock of chicks (cheap cheep!). Two food drives and a partridge in a pear tree. Around New Year’s I pick up wrapping paper and cards on sale and store them for the next holiday. Throughout the year or when I travel I watch for likely gifts on sale. This year I’ll start a box for Operation Christmas Child items in anticipation of packing shoeboxes again.

From December 1 to December 25 all I want to do is bake, eat, enjoy the carols, read Christmas letters, and look at decorations. The artificial tree comes out the weekend after Thanksgiving and stays up until just before the New Year. It is a peaceful, reflective time of year. What happened in the previous 12 months, what might happen in the next. We spend time with extended family, but more often we stay quietly at home. For people religious it is a time of wonder and expectation. None of this involves a sale stampede at the mall.

The small gifts often exchanged at work all too easily become perfunctory. If you treat people well all year additional knickknacks are unnecessary. If you don’t then they won’t make up for it. I feel bad because sometimes people in the office will give me things and I don’t reciprocate. It just reinforces the behavior and ups the ante. I’d rather people spend the money on their families or give it to charity and the time could be better used as well. Throughout the year I bring in donuts or other food items for everyone to share. I try to treat everyone with respect and solve problems where I can. It’s that’s not enough, a token of esteem or affection at Christmas won’t help.

We try to pack too much into too short a period of time, as if this month or day are the only ones that we can use to express our love for others. There are 11 other months and 364 other days. Let’s make it easier on ourselves and space things out a bit. Someone unexpectedly gave my children gifts a few days before Christmas. Instead of running out to find something to give their family, maybe I’ll bake them something next month or for Valentine’s Day.

So if our paths have crossed and you have extended me a holiday gift or taken a special effort on my behalf and I do not seem to have responded, please do not take offense. Throughout the next year I will do my best to look out for your interests and try to show thoughtfulness on your behalf.

On this Christmas Day I wish you all a peaceful heart and the warmth of love and compassion.

Friday, December 17, 2004

There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays

‘Tis the season to complain about the secularization of Christmas. Every year there is a spate of articles and essays and letters to the editor about the disappearance of manger scenes from schools and public open spaces. I say “bah humbug.” There is a definite public good in the separation of church and state. I like that my children learned about a number of religious holidays in school; they know more about Hanukkah than I do. Kwanzaa has always confused me a little but I can get through a social conversation about it without looking like an uneducated fool. Public schools can discuss the holidays, provided they cover all of them equally. This is often manifested in the books that are read to the students – one on Hanukkah, one on Christmas, one on Kwanzaa. I was volunteering in the elementary school one day when I overheard two teachers talking about this. One said she was considering skipping the Christmas book since she was sure all the kids were familiar with it. The other told her to cover all her bases to avoid any potential complaints.

The all-encompassing multicultural exposure that the kids get allows them to be more understanding about the lives of their future co-workers, neighbors, possible in-laws, and friends. It also lets them learn more about themselves, but only if a religious identity is introduced at home. When I was a girl we learned Christmas carols in music class at school and no non-Christian holiday celebrations were ever acknowledged, not in December, not at any other time of the year. I’d never heard of Rosh Hashanah until I moved to Pennsylvania. Everyone was the same, even the Catholic kids.

My children are learning that they are of the Christian faith and within that a Protestant and within that a particular denomination. We’ve been singing Christmas carols at home, on the sofa by the tree, as a family, no two of us in the same key, none of us in any recognizable key at all. They are learning that religion belongs in the home and the house of worship but that within public life all faiths are respected or are to be kept private. This is a good thing. It forces us as parents to think long and hard about what we want our children to identify with. We have to make a conscious choice about whether to go to holiday services or religious celebrations. We can no longer outsource the religious education of our children, and that is good for all of us. If we want the Christ back in Christmas we can’t expect the schools or Macys to put it there, nor should they. We aren’t a faith by default anymore.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Serving Two Masters

We make it hard to be a politician. I don’t know if it is harder now than it used to be, but I know it is hard. While we all love the stereotypic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” ideal of the common man taking on the system and winning, we aren’t always willing to put the sweat equity into seeing it happen. Even so, just having the goodwill and support of constituents isn’t enough. Candidates seem to need to goodwill and support of party bosses and power brokers as well. They have to hire the right consultants and use the right printing businesses and have the right media experts and the right professional fundraisers. To pay for all that you have to tap into the deep pocket donors and special interests. And therein lies the split. Appeasing both the voters and the big guns is a very delicate dance, since their priorities may not overlap much.

The prevailing thought seems to be that if you shove enough mailers, automated phone messages, and radio and tv ads down the voters’ throats you can get anyone elected. Unfortunately there is some research supporting this theory. Making sure the information you present is correct and verifiable seems to be a secondary, and sometimes conflicting, concern. After all, as Congressman-elect Mike Fitzpatrick so clearly demonstrated, you can always apologize for mean-spirited campaign literature afterwards and say you tried to stop those nasty party bosses from sending it out but they just wouldn’t listen. I don’t mean to pick on him; he’s by no means the only one to use this strategy, just the one that comes to mind the quickest. (True Confessions: I’ve used the “its better to ask for forgiveness than permission” strategy myself a time or two.)

It’s easy to judge all elected officials by the actions of a few. I wonder how many of the local people who donated money to Congressman Jim Greenwood or Representative Kelly Lewis are going to be so eager to donate again. Greenwood dropped out of the race to take a job for an industry association. Lewis resigned about a month after the election for similar reasons. Both acknowledge that they were discussing and considering offers during the campaign. Weren’t they at least a little obligated to let people know? Campaign and political workers know their paychecks depend on the election results but you sort of assume the candidate who is asking you to work long hours for little money isn’t going to leave you in the lurch.

For surely you know that campaigns and political staff are poorly paid. Yes, there was that report that some staffers make more than their bosses but those are few and far between. Most state house campaigns and non-incumbent federal campaigns are run by people who earn little or no money. Consultants may earn big bucks but the people who implement their ideas aren’t. Some time ago I volunteered on a primary campaign and one of my jobs was to write the checks. I know what the consultants and the politically connected businesses were paid (a lot). I know what the woman who called people and asked for money was paid (zippo). I know what I was paid (zilch). I know what the woman who took the checks and cash to the bank and deposited them was paid (nada). I talked with people who worked on other campaigns and in political offices and I have some idea what they were paid (not much, if anything). I look at the campaign finance reports of other candidates and see that they are much the same. I see the glossy ads for political consulting firms and their press releases announcing how many of their clients won. Two that come to mind have odd names that I can only remember as Breakingup Rocks and Chrysler JuJubee (my favorite movie treat). No doubt the consultants are trained, educated professionals who know their stuff and certainly have no lack of clients. A local organization I volunteer with was approached by one such firm They were was representing a related federal organization, and wanted our support on something; I was impressed that they could find us. No doubt the volunteers and near-volunteers on the same campaigns work just as hard and have a lot more riding on the election results. If the candidate turns out to be a clinker it’s of no consequence to the consultants; a win is a win. I looked at the web sites of three consulting firms and could find nowhere any mention that the firm was interested in being hired by good, let alone competent, honest or trustworthy candidates. The local people, though, can be held responsible by their neighbors for years if the candidate turns out to be a dud.

We make it hard to be a politician. We’ve allowed a professional political industry to develop and, by and large, to accept what they offer us without much complaint. We’ve allowed party bosses and other power brokers to dictate district boundaries, election timings, and candidates. We’ve made it acceptable for local grassroots support to be made secondary. We need to re-establish control and stop asking candidates to serve two masters.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Concrete or Abstract

There are a number of good topics to write about this week – Gov. Rendell trying to slip a lot of money Comcast’s way while keeping any from getting to public transit systems, the defrocking of a lesbian Methodist minister, the resignation of everyone in the Bush cabinet except the one person I really wish would go. But a busy schedule gets in the way. As so often happens, those of us who put people into office don’t have the time required to watch them as closely as we’d like.

Why wouldn’t Rendell favor Comcast – his alter ego, David Cohen joined the company after leaving Rendell’s employ? For a good overview of his role in the Rendell administration read Buzz Bissinger’s A Prayer for the City. I’m not sure I believe everything in the book but it does provide an interesting glimpse into the mayoral campaign and the first term. The two functioned as separate halves of the same person. It was a rare and remarkably effective performance. I can certainly understand the deep debt Rendell feels for him. It is human nature to look after those we see as concrete as opposed to abstract. Rendell can see Cohen. The Comcast customers in the Pittsburgh area who are looking at 6% increases in their Comcast bill, even if Comcast gets the money, are abstract. The people he sees while out walking his dog are concrete. The schoolkids who use SEPTA to get to school and whose families may not be able to afford a significant fare increase are abstract. Rendell and the Republican state legislators are battling over ….. what is it they are battling over? The good of the people of Pennsylvania? I forget.

What did I do this weekend? Took the kids to swimming lessons, co-lead a children’s program at a church event. Monday I spent an hour volunteering at one child’s school, wrapping presents for the Winter Store at the other’s, and giving a presentation later in the day, with hopefully getting some work for my paying job done in between. Sunday I huddled with two other moms at church to brainstorm about possible programming this spring, maybe a tea just after Easter when the girls will still be wanting to show off their finery. Maybe a “science Saturday” that would attract boys as well as girls. All of this to take place at our middle class church, where any number of similar programs are available throughout the year. Why not volunteer at an urban school where the help is much more needed? Why not plan “science Saturdays” at a church in an area where there isn’t anything else like it? Well, those people are abstract.

So while I get immensely angry at Rendell and legislative leaders it would be hypocritical not to realize the tendency to look after one’s own is universal.

As for the defrocking of Rev. Beth Stroud in Germantown, the guilty verdict was arrived at by a vote of 12-1, her removal as a pastor, one of several options available, was a closer 7-6; It’s hard to discipline someone when it could just as easily be you next time, even if not for the same offense.