Friday, December 07, 2007

The True Spirit of...

(Reprinted with permission from Hot Psychology, December, 2005)

As I sit in the waiting room of my local auto mechanic’s, I watch the activities across the street on the lawn of the Intermediate school. Town workers are stringing up holiday lights on one of the huge evergreen trees, and I realize that this task is probably being performed in many other town squares as well. It’s only mid November, but the day is mild, perfect for this kind of chore and besides; Christmas is coming soon.

And now it starts. First panic, then a sad kind of guilt. What a shame for such a wonderful celebration to induce such distress. In these feelings, I know I’m not alone, but I’m not sure how comforting that really is.

Those who celebrate Christmas are commemorating the birth of Jesus the Christ. We give gifts, because it's a birthday, and because it’s symbolic of the gifts of the Magi - the three wise and royal visitors that came to see the New Lord. The sad thing is, when we shop for these gifts, we are sometimes forced into purchasing way past our limits. We don't want to disappoint a child, a spouse, or favorite aunt. Little by little, the spirit behind the giving is eroding; the meaning is diminished. It's not just in the endless shopping and spending, we suddenly feel obligated to over extend ourselves with our time and talents. Children's school activities, church activities, work parties, family traditions, baking, wrapping... wait, what was this day about? Hey, a little over extending is fine at times. I think Jesus more than did his share – but what we are sometimes reduced to, becomes soulless.

Here is a chance to discover what about Christmas, and other ‘winter holidays’ that really strikes a chord within us. What makes them special that we can take with us the whole year, no matter what our religion or culture? What is the True Spirit behind these festivities?

Most of the other celebrations around this time of year don’t seem to invoke these anxious feelings, at least not to the same extent. Hanukkah has not been a major holiday on the Jewish calendar, but as the 20th century progressed, Christmas was becoming more and more recognized in the Western world. In turn, Hanukkah was seen as a both a celebration of the reinstatement of Jewish dominion in Israel, and also because it was a December family oriented and gift-giving celebration, some thought it would make a good substitution for Christmas.

Today some Jews do feel the pressure of giving more or bigger gifts, in an unspoken competition with Christmas commercialism. Others have said they feel other pressures in decorating or entertaining, or as one put it, “keeping up with the Cohens”. Most though, keep things more simple, and take pleasure in the tradition of the Menorah, the prayers, and the feasting. They venerate the second century struggle against Hellenistic occupation in Israel, the restoration of the Temple of Jerusalem, and the consecrated oil that was only enough to burn for one day, but amazingly lasted for eight more.

Another holiday, Kwanzaa, is only 40 years young. Though this celebration is cultural, rather than religious, it is still lumped in with Christmas and Hanukkah, only by virtue of it being celebrated in December. Kwanzaa is derived from the Swahili “matunda ya kwanza”, which means “first fruits”. Though it was founded in order to give African Americans an alternative to an over commercialized Christmas, Kwanzaa celebrates seven ideals, or principles that we can all strive towards: Unity, Self-Determination, Collective Work and Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity and Faith.

When we feel that winter gloom descend, it helps to contemplate on what these days are meant to be about. We should celebrate the miracle of light when we can turn on electricity in our house with out a second thought. We should honor the Self-Determination, Collective Work and Faith of those early Jews, and nurture it in our selves and in our children - every day. In remembering the birth of the Savior, we delight in the thought of the miraculous.
When my husband was younger, someone on his Dad’s side of the family started a unique gift giving tradition. They always gathered at one family member’s house or another, usually a week or so after Christmas. At some point during the day, a mysterious package would show up labeled for one person in the family, with no return address. The package would sometimes be delivered by a taxi, be stuffed in a mailbox, left on a doorstep or appear in the garage.

Inside would be all kinds of goodies, a little smorgasbord of presents specially picked out for that one person. Each year of course, the gifts – and recipient – would change, but there was always the same card tucked among the treasures – a small white card with red writing that year after year, bore the same message:

“Have a Merry Christmas in Your Heart --
From The True Spirit of Christmas”.

How fantastic is that? Sincere wishes for real honest-to-goodness happiness. What the Giver – the True Spirit -- had to do through out the year while preparing this package of joy, was to really consider what would be special for the recipient. This is the celebration of another person at it’s best.

No matter what the holiday, there is always the potential for wonder, the possibility of miracles. Even if the miracle is a bit contrived, like Santa Claus, doesn’t your breath catch, when you watch a young child’s eyes light up at the sight of an unexplained filled stocking? How about the reaction of a desperate parent on hearing that monies raised from a benefit party will more than pay for their child’s medical bills? Miraculous. Even when we think we want an explanation, most of us, because of our faith, are content with the unknown. And what of our own family mystery gift?

Of course everyone guessed at the identity of our True Spirit. Some more enterprising family members put much energy into the conundrum, comparing notes and deconstructing each gift-giving event. Most of us though, preferred to just enjoy the whole mystery and accept it. At some point the quiet speculation led them to guess it was the family patriarch, Raymond. When he died, the family expected that the custom had died as well. Or had it?

The following Christmas – the package arrived again.

Have a Merry Christmas in your heart.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

DVD Review - 24 Season Six

Warning – Spoilers

Whether you loved or hated Season Six, you have to admit there were still plenty of amazing moments: Jack Bauer neatly snipping off the finger of Russian Diplomat Markov with a cigar cutter, Abu Fayed drilling Morris to get him to arm his nuclear devices, Reed Pollock kidnapping Tom Lennox and planning a Presidential assassination in a White House boiler room. Gredenko with his arm. Gredenko without his arm. Kindly James Cromwell (Babe anyone?) suffocating his lovable son Graem in order to keep him mum on family and corporate secrets, and so damn many more. The seven disc set captures those moments with the full 24 episodes, plus special features that include commentaries by the stars, writers, producers and even the Emmy winning composer, Sean Callery.

The basic, if implausible, story takes place about 20 months after Day Five. Jack had successfully brought down the corrupt President Logan, but was then straightaway imprisoned by the Chinese in retaliation for his supposed misdeeds at the Chinese Consulate during Day Four. Now, nearly two years later, the U.S. is deteriorating from terrorist attacks. Finally, one Abu Fayed has alerted the American authorities that he will help them end the attacks by giving them the location of Hamri Al-Assad, the supposed mastermind of the recent terrorism.

The catch is that President Wayne Palmer (deceased ex-President David Palmer’s brother) must give up Jack Bauer to Fayed. After much effort, a visibly tattered and tortured Jack is released from China and brought to Los Angeles, only to be prepped for sacrifice to Fayed. While under custody, Fayed informs Jack that Assad is not the true mastermind, but is trying to stop the terrorism that he, Fayed, is really responsible for.

The ensuing 20-odd episodes follow Jack’s efforts at finding suitcase nukes in L.A., and President Palmer’s failing health at the White House, along with side plots involving Chloe and Morris’s relationship, Vice President Daniel’s unwise dalliance with his aide, and Jack’s father, brother, sister-in-law, and nephew reappearing in his life in an unpleasant way. There is also a brief but strange resurgence of former President Logan and First Lady Martha Logan.

While it’s great to watch the whole season from 6:00 AM on, watching on a DVD format can be overwhelming, as most viewers will watch several episodes at one sitting. Although the continuity is a good thing, the unremitting tension is tough on the nerves. Now’s the time to turn on the special features, because a relentlessly serious show like 24 needs a break, even a little levity. While there is no blooper reel, there are some very funny moments beginning with a never-seen “cameo” that features Ricky Gervais (creator and star of the original BBC’s The Office and star of HBO’s Extras). Gervais plays a Presidential advisor waiting not so patiently on the sidelines during an Oval Office meeting. How Jayne Atkinson, D.B. Woodside and Peter MacNicol kept from busting out into laughter is a credit to their acting skills.

But we do get to hear many of the actors cracking wise while they watch the show. Each disc has at least one or two episodes that have running commentaries by pairs of cast members, producers, or writers. Some of the funniest were the observations of Mary Lynn Rajskub (Chloe) and Joel Surnow (Co-creator and exec-producer) as they watched 12:00 AM to 1:00 AM. They poked fun at Powers Booth’s character (Vice President Noah Daniels) calling him Barry White, and made kissy noises while Booth was lip-locked with Kari Matchett (Lisa Miller).

Jean Smart and Gregory Itzin were hilarious while they were covering hour 6:00 PM to 7:00 PM. Of course, this hour included their big scene at the “spa”. Remember? Martha found a place to store her paring knife? In seeing this scene again after so many months, I was struck (no pun intended) with the absurdity of the whole thing. Of course, Martha was supposed to have been somewhat unbalanced, and Logan’s visit would be just the thing to rile her, but still, it was silly. Smart and Itzin seemed to think so too, but they still had fun reliving the scene. And they both agreed that coming back to do the show for a limited run was like just “eating one potato chip.”

All those involved were genuinely appreciative of each other’s talents. They gave especially high marks to Powers Boothe, Peter MacNicol, Kari Matchett and composer Sean Callery. Nearly everyone spoke of what a fantastic job he does of creating the right moods with his scoring. Callery himself was able to add his thoughts to the 10:00 PM to 11:00 PM hour, partnered with Adoni Maropis (Fayed).

Some of the other extras were more basic overviews of how extras (or ‘background talent’) are directed, or how props are categorized and stored. Take it or leave it type stuff. But there is a nice feature demonstrating all the set up for the opening hour’s Metro bus explosion and a “Look Inside the Writer’s Room” (pre-WGA strike, of course). And for more giggles, the DVD-ROM has the hidden feature of 24 Minutes: Jack Bauer on The Simpsons.

For those who typically don’t bother with commentary options on a DVD, give these a chance. It’s a real treat to get to know the person behind the character, music and story.

They were all clearly were having a lot of fun watching the show, and it was more than refreshing listening to them do what I have done every week during while 24 is running. Enjoying the hard work, and getting caught up in the drama and suspense, but giving it the irreverent once-over.