Wednesday, December 25, 2013

December 2013: Christmas Letter

My habit has been to write this Christmas letter early Christmas morning.  I am beginning the letter on December 23 at 9:30 pm and will continue crafting it through Christmas morning. 
It is Christmas Eve Eve.  The house is decorated.  We, rather my wife, put up and trimmed four trees.  The house inside and out is aglow with holiday cheer.  We need this warmth and cheer of the season tonight because it is incredibly cold on this second night of winter. 
The weather app on my phone is reporting -1 degrees Fahrenheit which for my friends around the world is -18 degrees Celsius.  It has snowed and it is old fashioned bitter cold.  In these days of global warming, it is a great throwback.  Cold and snow is so central to the Christmas tradition around these parts.  It is just great to see. 
Christmas is about the birth of Christ.  The most important carols are definitely religious from Adeste Fideles to Silent Night.  There is a lot more buzz this year about people insisting on wishing people Merry Christmas as opposed to the more politically correct Season's Greeting or Happy Holidays.  There are even t-shirts being sold in the US that say "'Happy Holidays' is what liberals say" and "I am not afraid to say Merry Christmas."  I understand the sentiment but really wish I could more easily know how everyone I meet wants to be greeted.  Maybe we can all wear buttons that just states which holiday we want someone greeting us to acknowledge:  Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Festivus, or perhaps Nothing.  To me this makes more sense.
I do believe there is some older more visceral holiday that Christmas has overlaid in these northern climes.  There is something about the solstice, the shortest day of the year, and celebrating it with lights that just seems right.  Christ was not born in a cold and snowy place, yet the celebration of Christmas in such places involves trees and lights beyond the one guiding star. 
We know that in the early days Christianity would move holidays around a bit
to overlay other, pagan, holidays that were popular with the masses.  I am conjecturing with absolutely no research involved here how important light was on the shortest darkest days of the year.  I am talking bonfires, lamps, candles, or whatever they had centuries before the invention of electricity.  
Of course, this all have been distorted by the mass merchandising around the hype of Christmas shopping.  People 1,000 years from now may look back and simply look at this time of year as a celebration of mass consumption and retail profitability.  While we are fumbling around trying to figure out how to greet each other, retailers know full well that the bulk of their revenue is coming from people shopping for Christmas decorations and gifts.

Speaking of Gifts:  In the past few days, I have been privy to a few conversations that made me realize some differences in how we experience Christmas today compared to in the days, or daze, of my youth.  There are many obvious aspects to point out.  These include how early the season starts and extends to the amount we spend on decorations and gifts these days.  These are obvious changes and have been noted by so many others.  Just this week, there was a story on NPR Morning Edition interviewing people who worked in retail and how they are coping with listening to Christmas music over and over for the past several weeks.  I can only imagine.
I am talking about more subtle changes that only matter to people my age and probably only really matter to people my age that reflect on such things... like me
I was with some guys this week and they were talking about what their kids wanted.  Each of them referred to a list their sons had given them.  One of the sons wanted an Xbox and new computer and the fellow was complaining a bit about the cost and the presumption that his son asked for and was expecting such expensive gifts.  It was pretty clear that the son would get both of the gifts.  I suggested that he get his son a Play Station to kind of give him what he wanted but not exactly.  It would be a life lesson for the college sophomore (yes college sophomore) that, as the Rolling Stones extolled, “you can’t always get what you want.”  The fellow liked the idea but realized it was not feasible all but admitting that his son just would not be happy with anything but what he wanted.
This fellow was not alone.  I do believe my own son exhibited some of this behavior.   It is not that it is a bad thing.  It is just different then I recall behaving as a kid.  Maybe it was socio-economics, perhaps it was something else.  I certainly wanted things but I do not recall making any lists and certainly not sharing it with my parents.  I was always surprised at what I got, sometimes positively and other times not so much.  I never thought about what I would have rather had and I never thought about exchanging what I got for what I might have really wanted. 
I have been thinking this way for as long as I can remember.  This is how I operate today.  If someone tells me what to buy them, I may do it but I am not so excited to present the gift to them.  While I know it is always better to get gifts people will want and value, I would rather present them with something I have put a tad of thought into and want them to have.
I am not one to talk about kids these days being different.  They aren’t really.  It is not the kids at all.  It is the way we have marketed this holiday to everyone.  It takes stronger parenting than most can muster to overcome the marketing machine.  But, it is worth the try.  Get them what they don't expect.  Get them not exactly what they want.  Be creative.  Your children, nieces and nephews, and grandchildren just might remember you more fondly for it. 

The Whole Shopping Thing:  In recent years, the shopping pace the days after Christmas is just as brisk with it all being in returns, exchanges, and upgrades.  Most presents come with gift receipts as a testimony to the dramatic increase in this behavior.  It is probably just a function of having too much and thus becoming incredibly picky about what we want and what we want to keep.   The stores are just as busy the few days after Christmas as they are leading into the holiday.  It is full of people taking things back and then shopping the after Christmas sales for things that better suit their tastes.  To this day, I only take back and exchange things if they do not fit or if I already have the item.  For fit, I try to get a similar as possible item because that is what the gift giver had in mind for me.  Even if it is something I already had, I try to get a different color. 
On Christmas Eve, I got an email from Jos. A. Banks, a men's clothing store.  This is not so rare because if you ever have bought anything from them, you will receive several emails a day for perpetuity.  This email had the title:  “Starting at 10pm Tonight... Christmas Day DOORBUSTERS with FREE Shipping!”  Yay... let’s celebrate Christmas by shopping for the bargains created due to the trouble retailers have with forecasting accurately!  The new Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro movie also is opening on Christmas Day.  I recall, clearly, that back in the day everything, EVERYTHING, was shut down on Christmas.  This change bothers many folks I know, but I take the change in stride.  I simply choose not to shop or go see a movie on holidays when I would just rather chill with family and friends.  Or...  just maybe... I avoid the stores at all costs.

Going to See Santa:  Going to see Santa used to be a big deal.  My prime treks to see Santa were in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  It was the cusp of the era of the Christmas Story movie and the commercialism that seems to have fully taken over. 
We used to see Santa a few times.  Santa would be at our church, maybe he would show up at Cub Scouts, my uncle's Masonic Lodge, or a few other community venues.  We enjoyed seeing Santa at these events, these secondary sightings of Santa.  We knew they weren't "the real Santa."  We could tell because we might recognize the man under the amateurish beard.  If we didn't recognize the man, we might notice just how fake the beard or hair was.  We might catch glimpses of dark hair under the hat or hair.  It did not matter.  We knew these were people playing Santa to help out because Santa could not be everywhere.
We did, however, know where the real Santa was.  We would make the official Santa visit to that special place.  Primo locations in Detroit were the Hudson's Department Store Downtown or the Ford Rotunda in Dearborn.  We used to get a little dressed up for this visit.  We would wait in line to see Santa and he was magnificent with snow white hair and beard and a rich looking well tailored red and white suit that we expected the great man to be wearing.  The surroundings were equally spectacular with Santa mounted on a throne as he should be. 
The Ford Rotunda was a magical place.  It was originally the Ford Pavilion at the 1934 Chicago World’s Fair.  After the World’s Fair, it was dismantled and moved to Dearborn, MI.  After being closed in World War Two, it was remodeled, modernized, and the open court was given a geodesic dome.  In the 1950s, it became the 5th largest tourist destination in the United States.  It was an amazing testimony to the strength and power of the US Auto Industry after WW2.  Per Wikipedia:

In 1953 the annual Christmas Fantasy was held for the first time at the Rotunda and nearly half a million people visited that first year. A giant 37-foot-tall Christmas tree was displayed. An elaborate Santa’s workshop and a life-size nativity scene that the National Council of Churches called the “Largest and finest” in the country, as well as animated characters from children’s stories, a 1/2” per foot scale 15,000-piece miniature circus with 800 animals, 30 tents, and 435 toy figurines of circus performers and customers. The Christmas Fantasy was held for nine years at the Rotunda and in that time nearly 6 million people visited.
We used to go to the Christmas Fantasy at the Ford Rotunda.  It was a highlight of the Christmas season.  In early November of 1962, workers were waterproofing the roof and a fire started that burnt down the building.  No more Rotunda, no more Christmas Fantasy.  It was heartbreaking and to this day, part of me does not understand why they did not rebuild it.  They could have
and should have.  Another part of me, now looking back, saw that event as a major chink in the armor that foretold the troubles Detroit would encounter. 
It will come as no surprise given the above comments on gifts that I never knew what to ask Santa for.  Usually, when I got up to Santa, I just rattled something off.  At this writing I cannot recall anything specific that I asked Santa for in any of those visits.  I think I just wanted to be surprised.

Old friends:  I am always inviting the readers of this Christmas letter to stop by for a cup of Christmas cheer.  I thought I would show the warm glow of our home in the photo.  Our home is open both Christmas Eve and Day.  While the house will be full of relatives, there are friends here too and there  is always room for old friends to stop by. 
While I would love to see everyone whose friendship I value, I would love to see those that I got to know in Latin America.  I get to see friends in this country more often.  When it comes to my Armenian circle, I tend to see them at various functions and our annual Labor Day gathering.  I have not been to Mexico, Central, or South America since 2006.  I have not seen many of these friends for the most part since then. 
Case in point,  I got a Christmas greeting from an old friend, Julian Gutierrez.  The opening line of his message summed the reality of it.

Another year is gone, and we have had very little chance to be in touch, distance is a killer, but I hope we will continue to stay in touch in 2014.

We used to see each other on a regular basis when we worked at Colgate.  We met in the Latin American Division where we were both part of the Division staff.  Then Julian did stints in Venezuela, Mexico, and Europe.  When I would visit the subsidiaries in Venezuela and Mexico, Julian and I would work together and catch-up.  We had the same values eschewing politics for hard work and doing what was right and lament at how important the political component was.   Julian is very bright and very hard working.  For sure, I paled in comparison to him in the hard working part.
Andres Maleplate called me today from Montevideo.  He has called every year since I moved here.  We keep in touch throughout the year but the Christmas call is special.  I was online earlier with Angel de la Puente from Mexico.  We do not keep as well in touch as well as we should but it is great, always, to hear from him. 
Some friends, however, fall through the cracks.  Even with social media, we lose contact simply because we do not see each other with any regularity.  It is a little sad but truly the way of world especially when our friends and family are spread out all over the world.  I think I must have some genetic vestige in me that still lives in some ancient village where the cast of characters around changed only by birth and death.  There is certainly good and bad in that.  People dear to you are always around.  On the flip side, the people that irritate the living daylights out of you were always around too.

Our best wishes to friends and family all over the US and the world for a wonderful and warm Christmas Day.  More so, may 2014 be healthy, happy, and prosperous for one and all.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Nelson Mandela

It is about at this time of the year when we take stock of those notable and famous people who passed on.  This year three of those people stood out in my mind:  Nelson Mandela, Tom Clancy, and Peter O'Toole.  Nelson Mandela, rightfully, had the lion's share of the media attention.  A few people asked why I didn't write about him.    The answer is simple.  I sometimes like to wait a few years and see how persons image changes through the lens of history.  My guess is that Mandela's image will only improve with age.   These requests got me to thinking about the great man and this piece is the result.

What impressed me about Mandela was his calming style and dignified presence.  He guided the country through a relatively smooth transition Apartheid to Democracy with disrupting the economy.  He did this by not disenfranchising the heavily white based business leadership and ownership that made South Africa the largest and most vibrant economy in Africa.  This is in contrast to what happened to in Rhodesia and other countries when they transitioned from the vestiges of colonial rule.  

Apartheid was a pretty ugly system.  The haves and have-nots were polarized along racial lines and the country made a relatively smooth transition.  Is everything perfect in South Africa today?  That is debatable but it seems that the country still works pretty well.

Clint Eastwood directed a 2008 movie called Invictus starring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar.  Pienaar was the captain of the South Africa National Ruby Team - The Springboks.  Mandela was elected President and took office on May 10, 1994.  There was a very real fear that the country could turn to chaos or that the black South Africans now in power might take actions that would drive the white business leaders out of the country.  Mandela realized that the economy needed to stay solvent and vibrant to ensure a smooth transition.  South Africa was about to host the 1995 Rugby World Cup and Mandela saw this tournament as a way to unite the country.   Up until then, rugby was a sport supported and followed by the Afrikaners and the Springboks were a symbol of Apartheid.  Mandela enlisted the support of Pienaar in his plan.  The movie tells the story of these two men and their role in the transition of South Africa.

At a critical stage of the movie plot, Mandela was encouraging Pienaar and gave him a copy of the poem, Invictus by William Ernest Henley (1849 - 1902), that Mandela used in prison to help buoy his spirit and will to persevere.

Like many sports movies, such as Miracle, I have watched this movie several times.  I have read the poem several times. 

Was the movie an idealistic Hollywood version of reality?  Less so than other sports related movies such as Cool Runnings which was a totally fictitious story of the first Jamaican bobsled team.  Read more on the man and the historical accuracy of the movie:  Newsweek - Invictus.   

President Obama quoted from on December 10, 2013 in a speech on the passing of Mandela.


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Magic Eight Ball

The Magic Eight Ball was a fascinating toy when I was a kid.  This cleverly designed sleek plastic orb was used to tell fortunes.  Well, it was kinda sorta used to tell fortunes as long as the fortune inquiry was made in the form of a question.  It was kinda sorta good at telling fortunes as long as the question asked was had a yes or no answer.  It was indeed fascinating but only for a few minutes at a time.  Most of the time it served as a table top, desktop, bookcase, or dresser decoration.  I never had one but certainly had friends who did.

I have one now.  Being the grown-up child that I am, I downloaded an app on my phone. 

I wanted to learn more so as usual, I just took advantage of Google and searched for information.  Also as usual, Wikipedia provided most of the background information needed.  I was delighted to learn that the first use of an eight ball as an alternative to a crystal ball was actually in a 1940 Three Stooges short, You Nazi Spy. No wonder this toy has such appeal to me.

In 1946 a company in Ohio, Alabe Crafts, marketed the predecessor of The Magic Eight Ball.  Their product, the SycoSeer, was more like a opaque crystal ball.  It did not sell that well.  In 1950, Brunswick Billiards had Alabe Crafts make a black and white Eight Ball version of the toy.  Maybe it was the link to The Three Stooges or perhaps simply the general appeal of the black eight ball, but It became a success in the new format and survives to this day albeit with a lighter, probably cheaper, plastic ball.  Somewhere in the interim, Mattel acquired the rights to the product. 

The "brains" of The Magic Eight Ball is a twenty sided die.  Each side is a triangle and has an answer printed on it.   The Eight Ball itself is black plastic with a flat bottom window
where the fortune appears.  The answer ball is in a dark alcohol solution.   When The Magic Eight Ball is turned so that the window is facing up, the icosahedron with the answer floats to the top and an answer appears in the window. 

With the ball and solution being black, we cannot see the inner workings of The Magic Eight Ball thus giving the toy a very magic feel for especially for kids growing up in the 1950s and 1960s.  In this digital and electronic age, a toy could be created with eerie music that asks one the question and then could generate the answer.   For a purely fluid mechanical device, The Magic Eight Ball was a pretty elegant invention for its day.

The are twenty answers in The Magic Eight Ball.  The answers are as follows:

Ten of the answers are positive.
● It is certain
● It is decidedly so
● Without a doubt
● Yes definitely
● You may rely on it
● As I see it, yes
● Most likely
● Outlook good
● Yes
● Signs point to yes

Five of the answers are indecisive
● Reply hazy try again
● Ask again later
● Better not tell you now
● Cannot predict now
● Concentrate and ask again

Five of the answers are negative
● Don't count on it
● My reply is no
● My sources say no
● Outlook not so good
● Very doubtful

In this app happy world, I explored the App Store to see if there were a Magic Eight Ball simulator.  Of course, there were many.  I downloaded several until I found one that I liked.  It is very much like the toy I never had as a kid.  I have used it several times to the amusement of people around my age.

In reading the ratings and reviews about these apps, they were quite polarized.  The ratings were either a stellar five or cellar ones.  There were very few in between.  People that liked it were reliving their youth and thought the app was cool.  Others that liked it were under the impression, or so they wrote, that the answers and prognostications were true.  Really?  The people that gave it ones thought it was stupid and lame.  Of course, these low raters probably never played with one as a kid.

Of course The Magic Eight Ball, in 3D or app form, is not real and is lame.  I have never seen anyone play with one for more than five to ten minutes at a time.   They same applies to other iconic toys such as Slinky and Silly Putty.  They advertise well and seemingly everyone at one time or another has wanted or had them.  But, no one can play with any of them for more than a few minutes.  The toys are appealing but totally not interesting enough to keep kids, or adults, interested for very long.  People can lose hours playing video games quite easily.  On the hand, have a Slinky go down the stairs a few times or ask The Magic Eight Ball a few questions and it is on to something else. 

Will I get bored with my new Eight Ball app?
"Concentrate and ask again."

Will Ara Topouzian comment on this posting?
" As I see it, yes"