Thursday, December 25, 2008

Response: Christmas as a Pagan Roman Holiday, or as a Reaffirmation of Beliefs.

Okay, I'll bite. In a previous blog, I was criticizing the workplace tradition of Secret Santa by relating the idea of gift-giving as a way of emulating the gift of Jesus that God gave us with Mary and Joseph and the traditional Christmas tale that is told yearly to millions. An acquaintance of mine remarked thusly:

... I have problems with the Christmas story anyway. I choose to celebrate it only because it's a happy time of year, and it's nice to be thankful for what you have. Jesus was NOT born in the winter, he was born sometime in the summer, in fact, Christmas is a pagan holiday from Ancient Rome. It started out as men in rome giving each other gifts...having sex, and drinking, it was like a four day party. [...] So..... Christmas is really just a way to get people to consume... Merry Gay Ancient Rome Pagan Holiday!!!!

And for the most part, he's right. Christmas was celebrated on December 25th to fall on the Winter Solstice, along with the Ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, where the Romans honored Saturn, father of Jupiter. In this festival, gifts were given, fancy meals were prepared, and the slaves were, to some extent, given the same rights as most other Romans. I can assume that, in the society of men, gifts were given, and since homosexual intimacy was not as frowned upon then as it was in later years, that it was common for parties to end up as such. (I have not been able to find your resource for this fact. If you could provide it, it would be appreciated.)

Jesus was not born on December 25th as most modern day Christians would believe, for the simple fact that before the reign of Caesar, the year only had 10 months. Leave it to Julius Augustus Caesar to drop his name into all of time. (and if you have read my previous blog, it is a further example of monument building by egotistical individuals). Therefore, by the old calendar, Jesus was born sometime in October, which, by their climate, would have been late summer.

There are a thousand other traditions and reasons why Christmas is a sham, borrowing ideas from cultures as it passed from culture to culture. And now that we are living in a free market system, the whole idea of Christmas has become a massive consumeristic idea where people charge their credit cards ad infinitum trying to get everything on their lists. It's become nothing but one big sale after another.

Except, when we remove all the traditions and the borrowed customs, the commercialization and the consumerism, we wind up with the simple Christmas story told by the Christian faith for generations. About the birth of Jesus in a manager in the time of Herod, of Mary and Joseph and the wise men and shepherds and angels and the star (which has been theorized that it was a supernova that happened around that time). We've whittled down to one simple fact.

Christmas is all about Belief. We can either believe that Christ was born in a manger, that he was born of a virgin, Mary, and that he was the Son of God, or we believe that it is all a lie, that it's all a figment of some authors imagination to create a new religion. There is so much skepticism in this world, so many false heroes and deception, that it's almost necessary to believe in some truth.
So I would go further than what my friend did. It's not just a day to be thankful for things, rather, it's a day to reaffirm what you believe in. And it makes little difference if it's Christmas or any of the other religious celebrations that go on, the idea is basically the same.

For Christians, the belief in Jesus, in the Christmas story, is crucial to what the religion is all about. For God extended a gift of grace (His son) to a troubled world. A reminder in the way we must act towards a troubled world today. And Jesus was born in a stall, a barn, with a feeding trough for a bed. He could have arrived with Seraphim a singin' and Cherubim a swingin', but Jesus arrived here in a manager, teaching us humility. The roots of Christianity are embedded into the story of Jesus' birth.

I could go further with this argument, but that would set off an ideological or religious discussion that would be better in another blog. All I'm saying is that, if you look at all the Christmas traditions and long held assumptions about the chronological details of Christ's birth (in other words, the unimportant stuff... does it matter when Jesus was born, as long as he was?), then you become bogged down in superficiality. The gift giving isn't really that important, and neither is the tree, the commercialization, all the material observations that make Christmas what it is. Christmas is an internal affirmation, a yearly time to stop and say, "I believe."

For other religions, I would say the same. Ramadan (Islam), or Festivus (Nature-based beliefs), or Hanukkah (Judaism), or even religions that have no special holiday around this time. There should be a day when you take a look at what you believe in and reaffirm that dedication. So that it's just not mush in your head, something to fall back on when things aren't so good. Whatever your beliefs are, it should be a building block for everything else. Christmas (or thereabouts) is a time for beginnings (as is the New Year celebrations), for starting again, strong and fresh, just as a birth would symbolize.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Ozymandias, George Steinbrenner, and King Tut

So what happens after you die? No, I don't mean that. God can work that one out. What I mean is what happens physically and mentally after you die? To other people. You're dead, it doesn't matter about your toenails growing. I mean memories and memorials and whatnot. (There's a point to this, just go with it).

Most people have one of those grave thingees, with a marker, and a copper vase that'll get stolen and sold for drug money, and birth and death dates. (As for mine, I want a big gravestone that says, "He died as he lived with his mouth wide open." JK) Some people are famous enough to have bigger markers, or statues even. (Some people are even famous enough to have statues made of them while they are still alive...go fig.)

What I want to look at are the truly great monuments to former living people. The Indian royalty that so missed his wife that he built a palace to honor her. Most people know it as the Taj Mahal. Or the Pharoahs of Egypt, who for most of their incest-ridden lives, had slaves build giant pyramids to house their divine bodies after their souls had gone off with Osirus. So too were the temples in Palenque and Tikal in the Mayan civilization. And there are others. These kings had the wealth of the country or empire to do with whatever they wanted, and so they built giant tombs for themselves, as a monument that would stand forever after they were gone. A sign of immortality, especially during the days when life was so short.

What about modern times, though. Surely the need to be immortal didn't die out just because Christianity came along and now the saved will go to Heaven? We're just too materialistic for that. What makes us immortal here in the United States? Some timeless piece of entertainment, a song ("Imagine" by John Lennon comes to mind), a book, a movie. In a sense, those things that outlast the sands of time make those who were involved immortal in the minds of the people that live afterwards. Now, I'm not saying that people hundreds of years from now are going to be playing "Imagine," but you get the idea.

It's much like the conversation that Data had with Dr. Noonian Sung (sp?) in his lab. People cherish the past, the antiquity of their surroundings, because those people that are represented in those buildings, in those works of art and literature, have since become immortal, in a sense. This is a comfort to those of us that live today, in the thought that something of our lives would be kept to pass on to those who come after us. A book published, or a named highway, or an airport (ask kids today why it's called O'hare Airport in Chicago, or Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta. Bet you they don't know.)

I'm bringing this up because my mom was talking about how she was upset that they were tearing down Texas Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys since the early 1970's, and building a new facility in nearby Arlington, TX. She didn't understand why, if the building was still useable and popular, why people still didn't use it. After all, Wrigley field has been used for decades. It comes down, I think, to perception. When people look at Texas Stadium, they think of the Cowboys under Tom Landry. So enter Jerry Jones, present manager of the 'Boys and TO and Romo and all the others, and while the glory of the Cowboys under Aikman and Smith and Sanders was great, it's sorta lost its luster now. And Jerry's gettin' old (although he's lost weight, and looks better now than he did a couple years ago), so now it's come down to building a new stadium to attract the Super Bowl in a year or two. It worked, and Jones has said himself that when people look at the new stadium, he wants them to think of Jerry Jones. It's a monument to himself that will stand long after he's gone (or at least until another owner comes along that wants to outdo him.)

There's something about sports stadiums that makes them the Pyramids of America. George Steinbrenner just built a new "Yankee Stadium," at the time when the Yankees are losing their luster, and the once grand empire has now dwindled to jokes on late night talk shows. It wouldn't surprise me in the least if, far below the new Yankee stadium, there's a place where the coffin of George Steinbrenner will be laid to rest, someplace under the pitcher's mound, with all his trophies and awards. Just like King Tut.

I wonder, is it just the massively rich that can create monuments for themselves? At Georgia College in Milledgeville, after the new President got settled in (I don't remember her name, o the irony), she redid Saga (the lunchroom) with a new clock tower, and also made a tower with reflecting pool outside the dorms (getting rid of a parking lot to do it). Could these be but vain attempts to build something of herself on the campus? And what of the vanity of creating something, only to have been forgotten so little time afterward. A person truly worth remembering needs no monument, it is built within, in the hearts and minds of those who knew him or her.

Shelly's poem "Ozymandias" comes to mind, finally. That after generations have gone by, the monuments will fall to dust, and the people forgotten. They will say, "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings, Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" and yet the name will be as foreign and forgettable. So let us not build monuments to ourselves, but strive to build memories and love within the people that are around us, so that we will be remembered for the love that we gave, and not the stuff that we made.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Mindless Matters (follow up to previous post)

In response to my last blog, Luke wrote some ideas down that need further looking into. Specifically, why do people sleep with the TV or radio on at night. For my own history, I never had anything on until I moved here to Georgia when I was 10. I remember going to bed at my house and turning on Fox 97 (by this time I would have been 12), and listening to oldies every night. I made these tapes of songs I liked, and I recorded them straight from the radio, which meant that usually the first couple seconds of music or the first word or two were always cut off. I even used a ruler taped to the record button so that, if I woke up in the middle of the night and heard a song I liked, I could use the ruler to hit record instead of climbing down off of my bed (it was the top part of a bunk set.)

Luke was talking about how often people have the TV or radio on as a defense mechanism, to keep the monsters at bay. And that's probably true, except I think that as time progresses, the monsters that are on the outside turn into the demons that are on the inside. People keep audio stimuli on to keep away the meandering thoughts that are stressful or disturbing. Money issues, personal quibbles with loved ones, the insecurities of life. It's what people watch that are interesting. The Tonight Show, which is on late, is filled with mindless comedy, interviews that are anything but illuminating, and a host that is bland and egotistical, and hardly funny. The best that can be hoped for is to stay awake until Conan O'brien comes on. Then there's more intellectual humor, if you can stay awake past Leno's banality. My mom has on HSN, which is filled with positive and sometimes instructive information on how to buy their latest X, Y, or Z. I usually have on Sportscenter on ESPN, or I might turn it over to FoxNews or Headline News, so that I can recieve a proper brainwashing. The reason I turn on the TV now is to keep my thought processes on more mindless matters. So, he's right. The stuff people leave on at night is pointless. It's supposed to be. (Although, I've learned not to leave X-files on at night, cause 1) I wind up watching too much of it and not going to sleep, and 2) screaming from the TV tends to wake someone up. On a related note, I used to never leave it on NBC cause they would have this show, Starting Over on at 3am which was all about women starting their lives over, and it would be a bunch of sobbing and crying, and it always woke me up, too. )

To think about it now, reality is what everyone is trying to escape from. There's more comfort in not knowing, in escaping reality, than knowing, and being afraid. And I can totally understand it, because I would rather drink Lysol than to have to go through my checkbook. It's genetic, I think. My dad couldn't balance a checkbook either. I think it's because of the same reason. Reality is too harsh, too uncaring, and it's better if I don't know, that it won't hurt me. Of course, that's not true, as the numerous $35.00 overdraft charges can attest to.

Sometimes people just can't accept quiet. They have to have some external audio stimuli to keep their minds off the other noises they hear in their minds. As if the conscious and sub-conscious are not to be thought of. And it's gotten worse now that portable sound devices are everywhere. Dozens of people walk by me everyday either listening to their i-pods (and sometimes singing out loud, which is another blog all together), or talking about nothing on their cell phones. It's all mindless matters, and they seem to fill their days with it. My mom wonders why I can't go to the store without taking a CD along in the car. Well, that's why. Aside from the fact that without the music, I will fall asleep driving very far, it also keep my mind "mindless" while I do the menial task of going from point A to point B.

So to answer the questions. Yes, I do keep the TV on as a defense mechanism, to keep the meaningful thoughts down and the mindless matters rising to the surface. Perhaps that is why most of my dreams take place in a mall (or because I work at one). There is time, in the shower, or sitting here, writing on my blogs, to think the deep thoughts, to understand the experiences and memories in my head. But there is also time for thinking nothing, letting stimuli enter your brain and leave it unfiltered, undigested (that people have a tendency to do this to important information, like listening to parents, is another blog altogether as well). That's why shallow summer blockbuster movies are so popular, or why rock n' roll songs of the Brittany Spears variety are so necessary now, because people don't want to think about the real problems in their lives, they'd rather think about or create false issues and problems in other people, or read, or watch TV (soap operas, for instance). It is the way today's world works. So while Victor and company fight out their problems on The Young and the Restless, we can sit for a time and ignore ours.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Cathode Cacophonous Stimuli

Woke up this morning, and since it was Saturday, and it was 10am (I slept in), I turned on College Gameday on ESPN, who were at Atlanta for the SEC Championship game (which Florida won, like I thought they would.) So I had to go to the restroom (follow me on this), and while I was sitting there, I noticed that I had stereo voices going on all around me. My mom was asleep and had HSN on (as she usually does at night), coupled with ESPN in my room, and it was a cacophony of sounds all around me.

I thought to myself, there's never a time in our house when a TV is not on, or something is filling the house with information (audio stimuli). Are we really to the point where our bodies need a constant feed of audio stimuli to be satisfied? My brother always has the TV on, and my grandmother listens to her can opener in bed at night (it's a radio as well). There's no point in the entire day when something isn't talking about the news or sports or some entertainment. And it's not like I watch it all the time. I could have Sportscenter on and have it repeating itself for the 4th time, and I just keep it on. Cause there's nothing else on, and I guess I need background noise.

I wonder why we have the TV on all the time? Why is it that we have to have the light blinking and the sound droning on, even in the dead of night, when we're all asleep. It reminds me so much of Ray Bradbury's "The Pedestrian," where the main character walks along the empty futuristic streets and sees all the windows with their blinds drawn, but with the flickering lights of TV screens easily seen. As if there's no reality but that reality. Outside means nothing to people anymore, only what they see through the electronic windows that pipe fantasy dreamlands and paradises into our homes and our minds.

I think it also goes along with the need that our brains have for constant audio stimuli. During a concert, when the music stops, or when there's even a break in sound, the audience starts screaming, or whatever, as if there had to be something to fill that void. People might actually be afraid of silence. (I think I did that blog earlier. I can't remember.) I think it even comes down to, for instance, during church or at a funeral, someone will start coughing. It might be someone having to clear their sinuses, but I also think it just might be that there's this need to hear something, to make sure you're alive, that this whole thing is real. You can never have a time of complete silence, especially with more than one person around.

I think everyone needs a little quiet time every once in a while. I'm not talking about meditation or prayer or the like, although that's a perfectly wonderful thing to do with quietness. Sometimes, though, just existing is enough. Practice "being" with nothing but yourself. Let your mind wander and see where it goes, but make sure there's no audio stimuli to distract it. There might be something amazing in that silence. Like an old friend...maybe yourself.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Fickle Finger of Farve

Last year, the NFL was in the throws of a Brett Farve Love-fest. He could do no wrong, he could play as long as he wanted to, his semi-god status had been well confirmed (and mostly deserved... he's done more than any other Football Quarterback has done, including Marino (who never won a Super Bowl) and most everyone else because he's never missed a game. NEVER. Think about it, he's been in the league for years and years, and it would be like going to school from K-12 and never missing a day. Absolutely amazing!)

So he retired, then un-retired, tried to force his way back on the Packers line-up, was rejected, then ultimately traded to the New York Jets where he is now doing his best Dan Marino impression...namely, playing like Farve of old for a game, then throwing three interceptions a game. What drives me nuts is the sportscasters who originally worshiped Farve now are saying he should have retired, and stayed there, because he's no good. But let's face it, Farve is as good as 90% of the quarterbacks in the league that are healthy, and injured quarterbacks like Tom Brady are now out. It's a perfect atmoshpere for Farve to do what Montana did in Kansas City, namely, to get the Jets back to the playoffs. Will he win a Superbowl again... probably not, but at least he achieves the most important thing in football, more important than winning...he entertains. I wouldn't watch the Jets for anything before, but now I'd rather watch the Jets than the Patriots or, I hate to say it, the Colts (since Payton Manning is injured and not doing as well). All because of the amazing plays (and possible blunders) that Farve does each and every game.

Because Football is all about the entertainment value of the game. Does it capture your attention enough to keep you from flipping channels through endless beer and commercials. Farve keeps the game going. And the Titans, and the Falcons (with rookie of the year Matt Ryan from BC). But none of the other teams will make me say, I'll watch this whole game without playing Bejeweled 2 the whole time. Make me regret I have to miss most NFL games cause I have to work, but alas, most teams are humdrum and banal. Farve adds a Spark, and that's cool.

And don't defend him one week and dismiss him the next. Joe Paterno and Farve are on the same road, with the media flip-flopping more than Kerry did in the 2004 elections. Make up your mind. And realize that what Farve does is make football worth watching. He makes every game feel like a backyard rumble-tumble where everyone has a good time.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Christmas Music; Music Review: Sufjan Stevens, _Songs for Christmas_

Music Review: _Songs for Christmas_ by Sufjan Stevens;

Working retail gives me a unique experience when it comes to Christmas. Most people go about shopping, going to church, and hear Christmas Carols occasionally, just enough to make them dear to their heart. Full of happy memories (or not), listening to the parents 33(1/3) record albums on an old turnstyle, decorating a tree. Or hearing them while shopping at the malls or at Kroger's for the ham and green bean casserole. But working in retail, you get to hear Christmas Carols on a whole other level. That is, incessantly.

It's interesting to see how it effects people working with you. Some can't stand it, react violently to anyone whistling a song outside of when the music is actually on. Others transition from enjoying it, to merely tolerating it, to downright hating it. Still others have a sense of humor about it, and knowing the songs as well as we do, turn to parodies to make the yuletide gay. I don't think I've ever hated listening to Christmas music, and while I've been known to do a parody or two, it's cool to play around with the music from a Christmas carol, moving the chords to minor or trying out a different note. Passes the time. And yes, I do get Christmas songs stuck in my head, especially from some of the old crooners, for they had no problem in singing it in a different arrangement, one that would be memorable. My least favorite music are the contemporary stuff made by today's "artists." I'd rather stick with the traditional stuff... with a few important exceptions.

Because that's what keeps Christmas Carols fresh and alive in my mind. Finding those songs that are different, but still drive home the meanings of Christmas, that accentuate the emotions that go along with it, be they happy, sad, nostalgiac, or even painful. There is no more complicated time of year for anyone's emotions than the holidays, when the sun is dim and low, and the cold weather chills you through your coats, and it always feels like snow, with clouds hanging, as if it were to tease you into thinking you might actually get some of the time stopping white stuff that turns us all magically into children again.

Each year I find new albums made from some of today's artists that endears the Christmas Carol all over again. Gives me shelter from all the negativity from my co-workers who would just assume never hear "O Holy Night" for as long as they live. A short list of must have Christmas Albums:

Robin and Linda Williams** - The First Christmas Gift

Barenakedladies - BareNaked for the Holidays

Billy Gilman - Christmas Classics

Sufjan Stevens* - Songs for Christmas

Hanson - Snowed In

*Sufjan Stevens is mostly known for his folk music style albums. He plays many different instruments, many on a single track. One of his main projects, and what helps him focus on a theme, is to release albums about states that he has lived in (ergo, Michigan and Illinois). He uses the locations, people, events of those states as an introspection into his own beliefs, spiritual and otherwise.

I had a friend who came into Borders and had to have Stevens' Christmas album. As did all his friends. So I decided to see what all the fuss was about.

In a style that could be considered "Alternative-Folk," Sufjan mixes traditional Christmas music, sung with as much deference and solemnity as possible, with his own unique compositions. They mix nostalgia and the depression that goes along with the holidays, with memories past and friends and family long passed, with the spiritual hopefulness of the meaning of Christmas, along with the silly and off-the-cuff lines that a contemporary 20 something would like.

I picture the band as a group of Christmas Carolers, standing on the street corner, with instruments entirely of their own making, and each a little off key. The modality of the songs is striking, and non-traditional, but very cool. The album is actually 5 cds, each a mini-album made each year between 2001 and 2006. The last album or so is a little weak, but the rest is amazing work. My favorite track is their take on "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing", which is done in a slow 6/8 time. With a banjo, nonetheless. Awesome work!

** I've talked about this album before, as it was my album of choice two years ago. Robin and Linda Williams' album is one that definitely grows on you. There are no songs on here that could be considered traditional Christmas Carols, but all of the songs should be. It gives me hope that folk is not dead, and neither is the actual meaning of Christmas.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Book Review: _Anathem_ by Neal Stephenson

A tome of a novel that took me forever to read, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Born of the same ideas that made science-fiction the highly profitable, and (some would say) the inheritor of classical literature, Neal Stephenson has kept up the genre in a time when crime dramas and fantasy worlds of dragons and vampires have far outshone the metal of machines and spaceships.

It is so much more than a sci-fi novel, however. Plato would have felt right at home amongst the concents and the fras who teach inside them. It is the Academy and the Lyceum in a future time, when matter and genetic structure can be changed, not for the profitability of it, but because by looking into the structures of a thing, the "form" in which it came from can be identified and theorized. While reading this book, one can draw from it the philosophical musings of Plato, Kant, Emerson, and others, undoubtedly.

The amazing part of the book are the Dialogues, where metaphysical arguements are completely thought out and argued in the Ancient Greek style. They talk about the conscious and soul of a person, alternate realities, advanced mathematics, language, communication, culture, music, aesthetics...very cool stuff. It's the meat of the book, not the plot line, which is definitely there, but wasn't actually necessary. I would have been content with 890 pages of the daily life of a Fra in the Concent in which they studied.

Tying Anathem in with the science fiction classics, Cifford D. Simak's Ring Around the Sun immediately comes to mind. In both these books, Earth (or Abre in Stephenson's world) exists with an infinite number of alternate realities, those made by the decisions of those civilizations. Each reality co-exists parallel to each other, and in both books, the ability to travel across those realities has been discovered and used. Whether for good or ill, it is yet to be determined.

I felt at home listening to Fra Erasamus' dialogues with other teachers, and didn't mind at all the slowness of the plot. There were some points when I had to skim past some parts, as the conversation became too tedious or the actions (especially in space) became too drawn out (of course, that's a problem I have with reading about space activities or caves or whatever, it's a literary claustrophobia, as it were.)

A wonderful book, but as I have found out, it is nearly impossible to sell to other customers, for the book is too unconventional for me to describe to people in any type of concrete terms. I describe it as reading Plato's The Republic, but in a science-fiction setting, and I get this glazed over look. But that's okay. I liked it.