For all of us Seinfeld fans December 23rd marks the date that Festivus is celebrated. Festivus was the alternative holiday that Frank Constanza, George’s father created as an alternative holiday to Christmas due to it becoming so commercialized.

George shows his fellow office workers donation cards he made in their names to a fake charity called the “Human Fund” so he would not have to give office Christmas presents. His boss finds out and George makes up the excuse that he made up the “Human Fund” because he feared persecution for his beliefs of not celebrating Chrismas, but celebrating Festivus. George’s boss goes home with him to see Festivus in action. 

The celebration begins with the “Airing of Grievances” which takes place immediately after dinner has been served. It consists of lashing out at others about how they have disappointed you during the past year. Frank says “I got a lot of problems with you people and now you’re gonna hear about it”. 

This is followed by the “Feats of Strength” where the head of household selects one person at the Festivus celebration and challenges that person to a wrestling match. Festivus is not considered over until the head of household is pinned in a wrestling match. 

I was surprised to learn from the internet that the comedy writer who wrote the epsiode actually celebrated Festivus with his family as far back as the 60’s. Here are some questions that Daniel O’keefe, the comedy writer answered on line about his REAL family holiday.

The Lost Symbol

Although my reading taste typically runs to non-fiction, occasionally I like to dip my toe into popular fiction.  That is how I came to read The Lost Symbol, by Dan Brown.  It probably is the last time I read a fiction bestseller without a recommendation from a trusted fellow reader.

I had read The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons and I didn’t think either of them was particularly compelling, so I probably should have passed on The Lost Symbol.  My rule, though, is that once I start to read a book I am obligated to finish it.  Therefore, after I started The Lost Symbol, I soldiered on to the end.  It didn’t take long for it to become a struggle.  I think part of the problem, for me, is that I just don’t care for the “thriller” genre, where the hero possesses an improbable combination of immediate knowledge and skills and events unfold at breakneck speed.  I think The Lost Symbol describes the period of about 24 hours, and for most of the book the characters are racing from place to place in Washington, D.C., all the time having meaningful expository or puzzle-solving conversations.  We are taken from the Capitol to the Library of Congress Reading Room to the National Cathedral to various other D.C. landmarks, and in each location we learn in weird, often extraneous detail about its construction, symbology and Masonic influences.

The writing and plotting seemed very pedestrian to me.  We have the athletic, able-to-immediately-call-to-mind-encyclopedic-knowledge academic who can promptly identify obscure symbols and paintings, remember the makeup of buildings, and recall the various teachings of ancient brotherhoods.  We have the brainy female scientist from the rich family of brainy public servants who is on the threshold of a great discovery.  We have the shadowy government figure, the mysterious brotherhood whose members occupy virtually every powerful position in the country, and the ultra-capable villain who overcomes every obstacle but then is stupidly tricked at the end.  Each of these figures had their one character trait that differentiates them from the masses of cardboard cutouts.  Academic?  Claustrophobic — check.  Scientist?  Motivated by desire to stay up with her brilliant brother — check.  Government figure?  Ball-busting and intimidating despite her small stature — check.  Helpful priest?  Blind — check.  Villain?  Tattooed and sadistic — check.

I frankly thought the identity of a the villain was totally predictable.  Whenever a supposedly dead person is described as “beyond recognition” — be it burned beyond recognition, beaten beyond recognition, crushed beyond recognition, dropped in a vat of acid and fried beyond recognition — my suspicions are raised.  Show me the body!  And in this case, I don’t understand why the villain wanted to kill the scientist or destroy her ground-breaking experiments; it seemed completely extraneous to his goal to find the secret knowledge that would give him unimaginable power.  Finally, when I saw that the book was about the Masons, I groaned inwardly.  Like Indiana Jones in Raider of the Lost Ark after he looks down into the Well of the Souls and sees by torchlight a writhing mass of asps, my reaction when I see the Masonic Order in a novel is to roll over on my back and groan:  “The Masons!  Why does it always have to be the Masons?!”

As I read the book I began to notice the verb choice in each sentence, which is a pretty good indicator of less than stellar writing and plotting.  In this book, everyone seems to be striding to and fro. No one moseys, or saunters, or sidles, or even just walks.  I also hate it when characters talk to themselves in italics.  Did I just see that wall move? It is almost as annoying as the decision to print every statement by Owen Meany in A Prayer for Owen Meany in capital letters, LIKE HE WAS SHOUTING ALL THE TIME.  Ugh.

So, I can’t recommend The Lost Symbol.  I am sure there are good thrillers based in Washington, D.C., but this isn’t one of them.

Sunday’s Sermon

Well last Sunday the church was filled with plenty of poinsettias and we sang all of the traditional Christmas carols. When it came time for the sermon I figured it was going to be your typical run of the mill story about the birth of Jesus, but it wasn’t.

The popular story told every year is that there were three wise men who traveled from the East to see the baby Jesus. These wise men followed a bright and shining star, the “star of Bethlehem” as they traveled westward and came to a stable or manger above which the star hovered. Mary, Joseph and the shepherds who came in from the fields watched as the wise men presented Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh as he lay wrapped in torn strips of cloth in a manger, or animal trough.

As our preacher said “this is a wonderful story, but it’s not what the Bible says”. Only the gospel of Matthew gives a narrative of the birth of Jesus.

There is no mention in Matthew as to the number of wise men that came to visit Jesus, but Matthew does refer to them in plural so there were at least two, but because three gifts were given it was probably assumed that there were three wise men. According to eastern tradition it is likely that there were a dozen or more men traveling together at that time and probably not just three.

Who were these men ? Were they really wisemen or kings ? Most scholars believe that these men – the Magi – were highly educated eastern astrologers well versed in manuscripts from around the world, including Old Testament manuscripts, so they were well aware of the prophecies of the coming Messiah. 

And the “star of Bethlehem”, that star was likely not a bright and shining star or King Herod would not have had to ask to speak with the Magi to try and determine from them when the star first appeared. There is also no mention that the Magi were led to Jesus by a hovering star because such a star would have been quite noticable. Thus, the star was probably not out of the ordinary and would have only been noticed by the trained eye of the Magi. 

Since the star first appeared to the Magi when Jesus was born it would have taken several months or a year or more after the birth of Jesus for the Magi to follow the star and find him. As the gospel of Matthew says “and when they came into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother”. 

So Jesus wasn’t a baby at the time the Magi saw him, but was probably a few years old and he wasn’t in a stable lying in a manger because the Magi came into a house. So there were definitely no wise men at the stable, but there were likely shepherds, however since Jesus’ exact date of birth is not really known, it probably was not during the winter months because shepherds didn’t sleep in the fields with their flocks during the winter because it was too cold.

So does this mean that this story isn’t true because of a few factual errors, not at all ! This story is just like any story where someone added little here and someone else added alittle there to make it more entertaining, nonetheless it’s still a very good story.

An Extreme Christmas

While we here in the Midwest hope that we might see a white Christmas, over in Europe they are battling a winter storm of epic proportions.  Some areas have seen up to 20 inches of snow, and in parts of Austria, Germany and Finland temperatures have fallen to 33 below zero.  Plane, train, and road travel have been disrupted, and a number of deaths have been reported due to exposure.

Over the years Kish and the boys and I have occasionally talked about traveling to Europe over the Christmas break, to see firsthand how the holiday is celebrated in the Old World and to look at the continent in winter.  I’m glad we didn’t do that this year.

Bizarre Classic

Each day I hear this Christmas song on the radio at least once. It has to be one of the most bizarre pairings in musical history ! Bing Crosby was a musical star of our parents generation in his seventies, while David Bowie was a musical star of our generation in his thirties when they recorded this Christmas song in 1977.

I mentioned it to a younger friend of mine that I really liked this song and she said “yeah, it’s cool” so I guess that means it stands the test of time and is a classic. A “pretty thing indeed”.

Hoping For A White Christmas

I’m a traditionalist.  I like a white, snowy Christmas.  If Christmas were today, conditions would be perfect.  The ground is snow-covered, and on this morning’s walk snowflakes drifted down, swirling in the streetlights and giving a feather’s touch to the skin.

Unfortunately, the weather forecast is not cooperating.  It is supposed to get gradually warmer over the next few days.  By Christmas Eve we are to get the dreaded freezing rain, followed by rain on Christmas with temperatures in the 40s.  So, we hope instead for a cold snap, and a Christmas wrapped in a white blanket.

To Sail On Distant Seas

Artist's depiction of the surface of Titan

Here’s a pretty cool space exploration idea:  land a craft on one of the seas on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.  Because Titan is so cold, the seas aren’t filled with water, but with liquid hydrocarbons, including methane, ethane, and propane.  (Hank Hill no doubt would support the idea.)  NASA thinks Titan may have more hydrocarbons than Earth has oil and natural gas.

The Titan exploration proposal would be pretty cheap by modern standards, costing only a few hundred million dollars — about the price of a Senator’s vote for the health care bill.  And it has the advantage of being creative and evocative, drawing on the rich history of Earth exploration by sailing ships.

The Economy At Christmas — The View From Central Ohio

The tree at Easton

Yesterday Kish and I went Christmas shopping for a few things.  It was a mistake.   The roads to Easton, our nearby shopping megaplex, were jammed, and when we got there we could not find a parking place.  As we drove through the Easton complex, we saw lots of shoppers, although not many seemed to be carrying multiple bags with their purchases.  We eventually went to a store called World Market, where a fair amount of the goods seemed to be on sale but there were lines at the cash registers.  As I waited for Kish to make her selections I saw a number of shoppers pick up items and consider them, but ultimately put them back on the shelves and move on.  We also visited the nearby wine and liquor shop, which was doing land-office business.  We contributed to their sales, I must admit.

I’m not sure what inferences can be drawn from this one-shot exposure to the Christmas shopping season in central Ohio, but based on that limited experience my guess is that people are out shopping but are being selective and cautious in their purchases and are largely resisting “impulse purchases.”  I also think that buying wine, beer, and liquor for the holidays probably is pretty much immune to economic downturns.

I also think that businesses are pulling in their horns for this holiday season.  At work, I seem to be getting fewer Christmas cards — even of the electronic variety — and there clearly are fewer holiday parties and business gifts being given.  In the past, there were many business-related holiday parties to attend, and service vendors like court reporters and copying services typically gave bottles of wine, tins of holiday sweets and snacks, and holiday-themed presents to their valued customers.  This year, no one seems to be doing so.  That suggests to me that businesses are still being careful with their spending because of concerns about where the economy is heading.

From all of this, I suspect that the results of the Christmas shopping season will be decent, but no record — and perhaps not the consumer-driven boost to the economy that some observers are hoping for.

The Nebraska “Compromise”

According to news reports, Senate Majority Harry Reid apparently has secured the 60th vote necessary to pass a “health care reform” measure — whatever that measure may be.  It is difficult to know exactly what the bill ultimately will include because, as the full Senate has debated one bill, Reid evidently has been cobbling together the real bill in the form of a “manager’s amendment.”   As I understand the procedure, once Reid is certain that he has the necessary 60 votes he will offer his amendment to substitute for the bill then being debated, seek a cloture vote to end all debate, and then have a vote on the just-introduced amendment.

The 60th vote evidently is Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson.  The price for his vote, among other items, is a provision stating that the federal government will pick up Nebraska’s share of the cost of expanding Medicaid, which is one of the other provisions of the sprawling bill.  In short, thanks to Nelson’s coy game of hard-to-get, Nebraska taxpayers will get a free ride and taxpayers in Ohio, and Tennessee, and New Mexico, and other states will pick up Nebraska’s share of the tab.

I don’t care which side of the “health care reform” debate you are on:  this kind of crass political bargaining should disgust everyone.  The polling results show that a majority of Americans are opposed to the hash-house “health care reform” legislation — and now we learn that the price for having this unwanted bill crammed down our throats is that we also get saddled with subsidizing Nebraska (and, according to the article linked above, a few other states as well).  As of November, the unemployment rate in Ohio was 10.6 percent; in Nebraska it was 4.5 percent.  Why in the world, then, are Ohio taxpayers paying a portion of Nebraska’s share of costs?

This latest development just shows that there is no barter too crude, no back-room deal too base, and no “compromise” too appalling for Majority Leader Reid to entertain in his headlong rush to gain passage of his “manager’s amendment” by Christmas.   The end result of the legislative payoffs to individual Senators and their states is a rank, costly disaster that is slowly emerging from Congress like waste product emerges from the butt-end of the digestive tract.

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes (Cont.)

I like recipes that are a bit weird — and this one definitely falls into that category.  What, no actual baking in a heated oven?  Even so, these are a delicious, frothy-tasting treat.

Forgotten cookies

Ingredients:  2 pasteurized egg whites; 1/4 teaspoon salt; 3/4 cup sugar; 1/2 cup chocolate chips.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Beat egg whites and salt until stiff.  Slowly add sugar, then fold in chips.  Drop by teaspoons onto greased cookie sheet.  Then, turn oven off and place the cookie sheet in the oven.  Let the sheet sit in the oven for at least four hours undisturbed.

I’ve made these using food coloring, butterscotch chips, and in other variations.  Each time, they have been very good — and each time Kish says I could easily make them without anything but the meringue.

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes (Cont.)

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes (Cont.)

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes (Cont.)

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes (Cont.)

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes (Cont.)

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes (Cont.)

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes (Cont.)

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes (Cont.)

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes

Living With A Two-Tone Head

My hair is turning grey.  At first, the process was gradual.  Now, it is happening at an alarmingly increasing pace.  At first, it was just a few flecks here and there.  Now, every trip to the stylist provides unmistakable evidence of aging.  Brown hair is shorn and mostly grey hair seems to lie underneath.  The effect is particularly noticeable at the temples, where it looks like I’ve inadvertently leaned against a whitewashed fence.

You always hear that greying temples makes you look distinguished.  Don’t believe it!  Instead, it makes you look like you have a two-tone head or are wearing a badly matched toupee.  And the weird, literally kinky nature of the grey hairs makes it very difficult to maintain any kind of distinguished visage.  Instead, the grey hairs tend to jut out, begging to be plastered down with some powerful pomade.  It is as if, after decades of life in a limp, boring brown incarnation, the hairs have thrown every convention to the wind and decided to live their remaining years in reckless abandon, grey, twisted, and untamed.  It provides a great incentive to get your hair cut frequently — and then the vicious cycle starts over again.

Maybe Now, Everyone Will Recognize Hugo Chavez Is A Jerk

When Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez followed then-President Bush to the podium at the United Nations several years ago and said he still smelled the scent of sulfur, some American politicians and pundits who were opposed to Bush laughed, shook their heads, and said Chavez’s comments just reflected how the Bush Administration’s policies had reduced the esteem for America in the world.  Today, Chavez, who is attending the climate change conference in Copenhagen, used the same “scent of sulphur” line about — President Obama.

Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Maybe now everyone in our country — Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative — will understand that Hugo Chavez is not some keen and witty observer of the international scene, but instead is just an anti-American jerk, an anti-democratic “populist” who has run his country’s economy into the ground and engages in tiresome America-bashing in an attempt to raise his international profile and prop up his sagging approval ratings at home.  Maybe now all Americans will come to realize that Chavez, who apparently received a standing ovation from delegates attending the Copenhagen conference, is just a slightly more outspoken example of the anti-capitalist, reflexively anti-western governments that make up significant portions of international bodies like the United Nations.  The next time someone expresses concern because the United States is following its own path, rather than hewing to the “international consensus,” remind them that the “international consensus” is largely made up of governments headed by former “rebel leaders,” dictators, “strong men,” thugs, scoundrels, “presidents for life,” and other representatives of repressive regimes.  Why in the world should we care what Chavez, Robert Mugabe, and Muammar Gaddafi and their ilk say about our country and its policies?

If Hugo Chavez’s comment about President Obama causes even a few Americans to wake up to the reality of what a rogues gallery many international organizations have become, we should thank him — and then never pay attention to him again.