Monday, December 30, 2013

2013 - What a Year!!!

2013 - who would have thought that this year would be a year of both good things and sad things.  I won't use the word "bad".  Bad would connotate the loss of a loved one, or being told one had cancer.  So, I'll keep it at sad.  

Often you see on TV or movies the question asked "you want the bad news or the good news first?"  So, let's start with the bad or "sad" news.  2013 was tough in a few ways for me.  Justin, my stepson, lost his job at Westamerica in February.  At first it wasn't an issue, since I felt that his grandfather's wallpaper business would pick up and Justin could work in that.  But February turned into March, then April, and by June, Justin was not employed.  I found myself wanting him to work for two reasons: to get off his butt, and to make sure we had rent from him.  I had started to really bear down on him, and then finally, just before Thanksgiving, he got a job, but in Reno, where his uncle and family are.  This was the first year we didn't have Justin for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and there is an emptiness in the house. 

My mom, who is 89, is in the advanced stages of dementia.  Thankfully she lives in a assisted living home with 24-hour care, but she's had 2 episodes of falling that were due to a urinary tract infection, and on the 2nd episode her memory was gone.  She didn't know who I was, and was belligerent to the staff at the hospital, even to the point of hitting and biting them (and me).  It's sad to see that not only is she physically falling apart, but mentally as well.  

But this year was full of good things to offset so much of the sad things.  In March I was moved from a production position at Westamerica Graphics to Business Development Coordinator.  This was a wonderful position that required me to research prospective companies and generate leads for our sales team.  It also involved blog writing and managing our social media content, both of which I found very fulfilling.  In July I celebrated 30 years with the company, and was given a very nice plaque and gift from the owners.  

During the summer I fulfilled a recent dream of directing a choir, and directed two pick-up choirs, one in July and one in August.  The first one was put together by my wife, and made up of singers who'd sung for a specific choir director.  I ended up directing that choir because I asked to, and we had enough singers that I wasn't needed as a singer.  It went over VERY well.  So much so that I put together another pick up choir and directed that in August.  Then in November our choir director took a Sunday off and gave me the opportunity to direct the choir for that Sunday.  I prepped the choir over a few rehearsals, and then directed them that Sunday.  Again, it was rewarding and well-received.  I have decided to form a permanent pick up choir in the coming year, with the goal to work on music that I have a passion for, and direct it once a month at a small church that has no choir.  

The biggest event for me this year was one of sadness, yet mixed with other emotions.  I was laid off from Westamerica Graphics after those wonderful 30 years.  It's been a rough year for the company, and I was let go, with much reluctance from the owners.  But in the few weeks since then I have had a few interviews and wonderful phone calls, all of which give me confidence that I won't be unemployed for long.  And, perhaps this will give me the chance to try other things, to expand my blog writing or social media management.  As the Christmas season starts to come to a close, I plan to blog for Lorrie's business, and maybe offer up my services to blog or do research on a contract basis for other companies.

So, here's to 2013, and here's to a promising 2014!

Saturday, December 28, 2013


My good friend Melanie shared this photo of some retail establishment that already has their Valentine's set up done!  Frankly, I find this absolutely abhorrent!

I don't know if it's just me, or if there are more and more folk that are finding themselves as disgusted as I am with retailers and their push of seasonal items.  It seems that every year, Christmas decor comes out earlier and earlier.  This year it seemed to come out at the end of September!  And I know I'm not alone in noticing this either.  And as much as I've become sensitive to it, the commercialism of Christmas has been around a long time.  I was reading about the history of Christmas on Wikipedia yesterday, and even back in the 19th century, when Dickens penned "A Christmas Carol", the commercialization of Christmas, the marketing, the angle, the pitch, were evident then.  I noticed that even back in the the 50's there were comments about the buying and spending.  Maybe not as early as Labor Day, but early.  When I was Colin's age it seemed that we'd get the Sears "Wish Book" after Halloween, and not start the "season" until well after Thanksgiving.  That time seemed to be more innocent, more about the joy of Christmas, not "let's get Black Friday started at 8 PM Thanksgiving Day!".  And I think that there is a growing backlash among consumers who see this as an encroachment.  I read plenty of posts about not only Christmas coming early, but the retailers pushing the sales, the deals, the store hours.  I know I'm not alone in feeling that the giant retailers are pushing Christmas as a means of gaining the best profit that they can.

Lorrie has had a wonderful idea for years, one that I wish she could do:  a truly seasonal store, that has bathing suits and patio umbrellas in the summer months (it's odd that all the outdoor stuff at Target usually is out around Valentine's Day and is gone by 4th of July, when Back-to-School stuff goes up).  Her store would be based not on what retailers want you to buy, but what the consumer wants to buy and when!  For example, right now, it's traditionally STILL Christmas, so Lorrie would have all sorts of decorations still available.   I like that kind of thinking.  I like being able to enjoy the various sacred and secular holidays when it's actually those holidays!  And if Lorrie had a store like that, she'd also have a section of Christmas decorations up all year.

I want to enjoy Christmas, and this year, as we have always done, our decorations and lights stay up until Epiphany, which is still Christmas.  I am still watching Christmas movies.  I am still listening to Christmas music.  I am still making sure our Christmas tree stays watered and fresh.  And thankfully, I have not yet seen this garish and rude retail display that sees Christmas only as a retail season.


Thursday, December 26, 2013

So, if I were to write a Christmas Newsletter.....

We've never done the ubiquitous Christmas "Newsletters", mostly because we find the ones we receive are too long, or full of gloating accomplishments, or the "we have shitloads of money" type of comments like "we traveled to such-and-so-a-place and then spent 2 months skiing in Switzerland at our 3rd home" or "Joe III received his double doctorate in Spanglish Studies from the University of Spoiled Children."  After a while you just want to scream at these folk who write these novellas and tell them to get a life!

Even ones that are more, well, down-to-earth can be too much to read, or even digest.  Sometimes you want to just go "no one can be THAT accomplished" or "no one has that much discretionary income".  So, I've thought of writing one that would highlight with exaggerated statements our family's year.  However, I found as I started to write it that I couldn't say things about our family in an exaggerated way that sounded, well, nice.  So, here's our 2013 Christmas Newsletter, but as real as we can possibly make it without embellishment.

2013 was both a good and a tough year for us, but still one that I think we can all remember with fondness. Lorrie and I celebrated 15 years since our first date, 14 years of marriage, and 13 years of being in our house.  We didn't make any great trips this year - no cruises.  But Lorrie and I did spend a week in the mountains at a lakeside cabin, and we were neighbors there with her parents and uncle.

Audrey is 12 now, and in 7th grade (I remember 7th grade!).  She is still schooled at home through the K12 program, and is still taking piano lessons from Lorrie's mom.  She has started Confirmation classes at our church, sings in the youth choir and is also one of the acolytes on Sundays (the person who lights and extinguishes the candles before and after the service, and helps with Communion).  She loves all the guinea pigs we have (four piggies now), and we're sure that she's destined to be a veterinarian.

Colin is 13 - just 11-1/2 months older than Audrey.  He too sings in the youth choir at church, and is an acolyte.  He is in 8th grade, and on the same K12 program as Audrey.  He takes piano from Lorrie's mom as well, even though he's reluctant to practice for them!  He has become, like most teen boys, adept on the computer, and Santa brought him a video editing software package so he can start on what we hope could be a career.

Justin, our oldest, is 19, and was working at Westamerica Graphics, but was laid off in February.  He found that trying to get work was tougher than anticipated, and finally did get a job right after Thanksgiving, but up in Reno where Lorrie's brother and family live.  He actually DIDN'T start his job until the week before Christmas, so he's just getting going.  We didn't have him for Thanksgiving or Christmas, but we Skype with him frequently.  Justin did help out here at home, doing the big, hard physical labor jobs around the house and yard that needed to be done.  

Lorrie's photography business has gotten busy this year, more so in the last 2 months.  In fact, she was SO busy that we didn't finish decorating until Christmas Eve!  Usually it's all done a week or so beforehand, but she had photo shoots, photo editing, and orders to place.  We're glad she's busy now, because it slows down in the early months every year.  She focuses on (no pun intended) family portraits, and is getting a reputation for being very good with young families.  She also keeps busy making sure the kids practice and do their schoolwork.

I was moved into a new position in March, doing business development for my employer, which was an exciting and interesting position.  I was also recognized for my 30 years of employment there.  However, 2013 was a rough year for the company: we lost our biggest client in March, and that took a big hit.  We had 3 rounds of layoffs, and I was one of those let go on that 3rd round.  So, I have joined the ranks of the unemployed.  Despite that, I had a wonderful year musically, singing for a young friend in his master's recital, and directing two pick up choirs at our church in the summer, and another Sunday directing our church's choir when our director was out for the day.  My goal in 2014 is to put together a pick-up choir of my own, and rehearse and sing regularly.  So, even being unemployed, I remain confident.

We wish you and yours a wonderful and special 2014!  Merry Christmas!!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

It has to be real! The dichotomy of the Nativity

As I was listening to our pastor's sermon this morning, I was struck with this wonderful thought: the dichotomy of Nativity.  I mean, Hollywood could have not written a better story.  Here's a young girl, probably in her teens, basically not married yet, but has gone through the various Jewish traditions and is almost married to Joseph, who is most likely much older than her, and she's probably his second wife, after the loss of his first wife to death via disease or childbirth.  We don't know much else about her except she has a cousin, is very, very poor, and most likely uneducated.  But she was Chosen by God to be the earthly mother to His Means of Grace.  Then Joseph, finding out she's, well, to put it in the modern vernacular, knocked up, and by "The Holy Spirit" (you can imagine Joseph thinking he'd been set up with some fanciful girl, not a sensible young woman), he decides to divorce her quietly.  Perhaps her father is his best friend, maybe even a relative.  He wants no shame for her or the family.  But he too is told of the importance of the baby, and he does the most responsible thing he can do: he takes her as his wife.  Obviously, they save face by moving away for a bit, which happens to coincide with the Romans taking a census, which is another way to tax the populace.  Joseph takes his pregnant teen wife on a donkey ride through roads that were treacherous, and highly dangerous, and they end up in Bethlehem.  Since everywhere they go has the "no vacancy" sign on it, they end up in a stable, full of cows and sheep. It's dark, smells, has animal crap all over, and she has to give birth with no midwife, nothing to ease the pain - and it's her first child as well.  Then, she takes swaddling cloths, which is basically strips of cloth, wraps the baby in the early spring chill night (Jesus' actual birth date was most likely mid-April).  Jesus, the King of Kings, the Savior of the World, the Light in the Darkness, the Christ, was born in abject poverty.  Now, I look at that and think to myself, why cannot someone believe in Jesus?  Historically we have enough evidence from both Roman and Hebrew writers that a movement came out of Palestine based on teachings of Jesus, and the followers of this movement were called "Christians".  So, to me, the evidence of this movement, coupled with the nature of this birth, give proof that Jesus existed, and more than that, WAS God and the Son of Man.  Face it, if you wanted to have a King's birth portrayed, would it be in a humble stable in abject poverty?  No.  The child would be of a royal bloodline, (which Jesus was, being a descended from King David), and born in great opulence.  Jesus wasn't.  That, alone, gives me this wonder of the dichotomy of His birth.  It isn't right, yet it is.  It calls on something deeper, something mystical.  It doesn't make sense, which to me, makes it real.  

The other dichotomy that I find in the Nativity is the one used by Benjamin Britten in his "Ceremony of Carols", in his last movement, "Deo Gracias", where he uses Medieval text that speaks of the of the apple being taken by Adam, and Mary being the one who reverses that event with her role in the birth of Christ.  Here is the text (and this is olde-English, 14th century, so the spelling is very different):

Deo Gracias!
Adam lay i-bounden
Bounden in a bond
Four-thousand winter thought he not too long
Deo Gracias!

And all was for an appil
An appil that he tooke
As clerkes finden, written in their book
Deo Gracias!

And neve' had that appil takke been, the appil takke been
Neve a lady would be a hevn'ly quene
Therefore we morn singing, singing, singing
Deo Gracias!

Again, we see something that does not make sense falling perfectly into God's plans.  He takes death itself and uses it to conquer death, and not physical death.  But the death that comes when we are not a part of God, a part of His Kingdom.  

Monday, December 16, 2013

Surreal, but....nice

How many of you have watched that opening scene from "Notting Hill", where Hugh Grant's character shyly and awkwardly invites Julia Robert's character over to his flat? There are many wonderful lines from that scene, but the best is "Surreal, but....nice."

I'm in a "surreal but nice" mindset right now.  It has been two weeks to the day that my employer of 30 years sat me down in his office and, with great emotion in his voice, told me that they had to let me go.  I certainly did NOT expect EVER to hear that, so I really had no strong emotions that day.  In fact, since then, the overriding thought or feeling I've had is that it didn't happen.  I don't "feel" unemployed.  Yes, I've applied for unemployment.  Yes, I received that last check.  Yes, I've had a couple of phone interviews and have sat down with a prospective employer.  But still, I just wake up in the mornings and think it's simply a vacation.  I still cannot get my mind wrapped around the fact that I'm no longer employed.  And not just that I'm no longer employed, but that I'm no longer with the same company I'd been with for 30 years!  The company that I grew up with.  The company that has been a 2nd home.  Every once in a while I think about the next few months and get a bit scared, but I think that whole fear is being kept in check with this false idea that I'm due back at work after Christmas, or something like that.  It's surreal.

There is also another surrealism going on here, and that is that our house is not decorated for Christmas.  That's not by choice.  You'd think with me being unemployed that we'd have all the time in the world to do this.  But frankly I've been tasking on resume writing, phone calls, emails, research - all to do with getting a job.  Then there's the kid's schoolwork and practicing.  I've been staying on top of them, getting them up in the mornings, getting their breakfasts, making sure they have a schedule.  We've also had things going on every weekend, with a church concert that Lorrie and Audrey were in, to the kid's recital yesterday.  Then, thankfully, Lorrie's been busy with photographic work.  She's had photo sessions, photo editing, album orders to construct and place.  And since she's the major driver of our decorating (and since I don't do any major decorating since she's particular about where things go!), I just haven't taken on the job of doing it myself.

So, it's a bit of a surreal time right now.  Not busy, but just - well, odd.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Advent - preparing for Christmas

Tacking something on to an earlier post about Christmas.  Today in church our pastor related how Christmas traditionally used to be observed, long before the commercialism of the Day overshadowed the day itself.  He spoke of how Advent was the time that Christians prepared for Christmas Day, and during that time, Christians were penitent - as if it was a Lent "Lite".  No fasting, or anything extreme.  But a time of inner reflection, of spiritual preparation, for the coming of the Christ Child.

I was so appreciative of our pastor's message.  For the choir devotions a couple of weeks back I talked about the "Ceremony of Carols" by Benjamin Britten, particularly the movement that speaks of the helpless baby born in absolute poverty, Who is to conquer sin.  And our pastor's message echoed the sentiments of that devotion: that we need to spend Advent in preparation.  Not just getting the decorations up, or gift buying and wrapping, or making sure EVERYONE gets a Christmas card.  No.  We need to spend the time preparing our hearts for Christmas.

I miss the idea of the traditional Christmas.  What we really observe these days is derived from what Dickens wrote in "A Christmas Carol".  Many of our traditions can be traced to that time in the early 19th Century.  But more importantly, Christmas didn't START until the 25th.  Trees were not put up and decorations not done until Christmas Eve.  Gifts were exchanged on Christmas Eve.  Then Christmas day was the 1st day of many days, 12 to be exact, in which Christmas was truly celebrated.  It was not celebrated with gifts, or after-Christmas sales.  But with family, and with gifts given daily until Epiphany on January 6th, which is the traditional date of observance for the appearance of the Wise Men.  Now, does the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas" make a little more sense?

I yearn for THAT type of Christmas!  Where we decorate that day.  Where the tree goes up and is decorated Christmas Eve.  Where we celebrate the Day itself with family and church - no massive 2-hour marathon gift session.  And then we observe the 12 days until Epiphany.  That REALLY is Christmas!  It's not just the DAY!  It's the "season" that goes for the 12 full days.  That would be special!  And that would truly be Advent followed by Christmas!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Chapel in Yosemite Valley

Photo by Michael Gordon
Many years ago I had the pleasure of going to Yosemite in the dead of winter.  I was joining a photographer friend and his son for the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday in mid-January.  While there we stayed at Camp Curry, and spent our days in the snowy and sub-freezing temperatures of Yosemite Valley and Glacier Point, photographing, hiking, and making snow angels (Matt Brubaker was VERY good at making snow angels!)  I enjoyed the experience in so many ways, but have yet, after all these years, to pull out my 35mm slides from that trip and scan them.

Yosemite is known for its grand glacier-carved granite wonders such as Half Dome, or El Capitan, or Bridalveil Falls.  But on that trip I remember the small things: the leaves on the ground coated in snow and ice; the sound of my boots crunching in the snow on the hike up to Mirror Lake; the whispering whooshing sound snowflakes make as they fall gently to the ground; and the chapel.  Man has left his imprint on the valley, but none so gentle and yet so profound as the Yosemite Chapel.  And in winter, it takes on a grandeur that seems to focus the eyes from the granite spires and walls to this small building in a meadow.  

I see Yosemite itself as one of God's greatest Cathedrals - not one built by the toil and sweat of workers and artisans.  But a Cathedral of true worship, where we can feel and hear His Presence, because HE built it  It is HIS Cathedral.  And in that valley, covered in snow, seeing that chapel was seeing a place that attempts to condense all of that grandeur and worship into a small, yet significant, building.  Maybe because we as humans need a sense of "place" to worship God, we gravitate towards that chapel.  Perhaps that is why the chapel is significant for many: they DO feel that it is a special place in such a great Cathedral, and they feel that connection to God by being in that small, yet special, chapel, embraced in the arms of the cliffs and granite walls.  God is there, just as He is all around us in that valley, and just as He is all around us each and every day, and every time we dwell within our minds and think of that small chapel in that grand valley.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

You're either with me or against me.....

My daily devotions are from a book of the writings of C.S. Lewis, whose logic is formidable and yet so simple.  One of the struggles I face is my abhorrence with those who call themselves Christian but want to make sure that ALL Christians act the same, that we all are against same-sex marriage, that we all are united against abortion, that the Affordable Care Act is a grievous miscue of government powers.  And if you do not follow or adhere to these beliefs, you are needing to be "converted" to those beliefs.  Corrected would be the more appropriate term.  Today's reading from Lewis spoke to me about this, and how it is really the work of Satan to have such extremes in beliefs.

"Christianity thinks of human individuals not as mere members of a group or terms on a list, but as organs in a body - different from one another and each contributing what no other could.  When you find yourself wanting to turn your children, or pupils, or even your neighbors, into people exactly like yourself, remember that God probably never meant them to be that.  You and they are different organs, intended to do different things.  ON the other hand, when you are tempted not to bother about someone else;'s troubles because they are "no business of yours', remember that though he is different from you he is part of the same organism as you.  If you forget that he belongs to the same organism as yourself you will become an individualist.  If you forget that he is a different organ from you, if you want to suppress differences and make people all alike, you will become a Totalitarian or an Individualist.

"I feel a strong desire to tell you - and I expect you feel a strong desire to tell me - which of these two errors is the worse.  That is the Devil getting at us.  He always sends errors into the world in pairs - pairs of opposites.  And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse.  You see why,of course?  He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one.  But do not let us be fooled.  We have to keep our eyes on the goal and go straight through between both errors.  We have no other concern than that with either of them."

Wonderfully written and so true.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

John Alexander and singing

I saw this photo of John Alexander, the Artistic Director of the Pacific Chorale, and felt the need to write a post.  I had the great pleasure and honor of singing with John during four brief but wonderful seasons in the Pacific Chorale.  During those four seasons the Chorale sang repeatedly with the Pacific Symphony, as well as the Long Beach Symphony, the Pasadena Symphony, and one memorable series of concerts with the Boston Symphony under Seiji Ozawa.  In addition to that the Chorale did 3-4 concerts per year on its own program, so we were singing quite a bit.

I learned a great deal from John by simply observing and listening, and this photo reminds me of one of the things that I learned from John and greatly appreciated and admired.  As part of his rehearsal technique, John would "sing" out how he wanted the Chorale to sing.  And when I look at this photograph it brings back to my ear the countless hours of hard work that John required and we as singers gave willingly.  But moreover, this one image shows something that is the key to how John gets the Chorale to sound so good: his mouth.

That may sound odd, but I look at this image and see how John has a full and open mouth, and he was obviously demonstrating something to his singers when this photo was taken.  That is how good choral sound is created.  An open mouth like this, with the entire jaw lowered, allows the sound to be open as well, and not pinched or thin.  It allows for the palate of the mouth to resonate, which in turn, causes the head to resonate, which creates that total warm, clear, round choral tone that John wants from his singers.

Thank you, John, for teaching me more about choral music in four short seasons than I had known before.  Thank you for being a continued source of inspiration, even though I no longer have the honor of singing for you.  Thank you for the young choral directors you've inspired that will carry on this wonderful art.  And thank you for making us work hard to achieve the wonderful sounds you were able to inspire us to sing.