We are blessed this holiday season with endless opportunities to give to our fellow-man. The Christmas season is typically a time of generous sharing with those “less fortunate”, but this year you could toss a stone and hit a needy person! Seriously, you do not have to look far for a chance to brighten someone’s holiday.
Now that our state’s highest court deemed panhandling a protected activity under the 1st amendment, there is a beggar at every corner and off-ramp in the county. We donate to them through the local soup kitchen and despite the convenience of giving at a red light, I encourage you all to find an alternative to funding substance abuse, as well. The Salvation Army’s bell ringers are pretty easy to find, as are the charity jars in every gas station.
Congress has provided extra giving opportunities this year by cutting food assistance to over 47 million families in November, so we gave a bag of groceries to the food bank and a couple of cans of veggies at a local food drive to help offset that. I’m confident that this need would not be filled by 10,000 bags of groceries in December, but we can all give a bit. Most of us believe in kids eating no matter the circumstances. While we are thinking of children, we must donate at least one gift for the Angel Tree or Toys for Tots. With this year’s reductions in early education spending, may as well give an educational toy or game. You get the idea. Simply look at the day’s headlines, then apply your charity where needed. Know someone who is unemployed? Offer to help edit their resume or take them out to lunch. Mail someone an anonymous Christmas/gift card. Open the door at a store for someone. Check that little box on your utility bill to give $2 a month to someone struggling to stay warm this winter. Go through your closets and give away unworn coats, hats, sweaters, boots, and gloves. Simple gifts can make a difference. Have you ever felt uplifted by someone’s caring? Have you felt uplifted by giving?
This is the season of giving and the opportunities are endless.
Inevitably, I receive at least one Christmas gift that makes me wonder, “What the hell made her buy me that?” and it is usually from my Mom. I am her only child and can only surmise that it is because she buys me so many gifts and gets caught up in a Christmas buying frenzy. This year it was Hello Kitty sleep pants. I try not to say, “What the hell?” out loud anymore, but could not stifle my laughter. Accustomed to my insensitivity, my Mom immediately offered, “They are SO cute!” But, I am not a cutesy kind of gal, despite the winking kitty and the kitty with reading glasses that make me giggle every time I look at them. However I create characters who are, so I will wear them when I need to channel a girly girl. When she reads this she will say out loud, “I gave you gift receipts”, but I would never dream of returning them. They and everything else quickly faded into the background when I opened the Godiva chocolate bar she gave me. “Rapture” and “ecstasy” are how I would describe my experience with Godiva.
My Daughter gave me a jar of brandied blackberry jam. I have not had booze with breakfast before, but this stuff has made me a believer. Well, at least in brandied jam. My Dad gifts me with monkeys because the monkey is my Chinese astrological sign. This year I received a monkey steel bank where the monkey climbs a palm tree to deposit a coin in the top of the tree. My home office is called “the monkey room” because it houses the majority of them. They scare the shit out of my husband who knows that monkeys are not always fun. Hearing how meaningful these monkey gifts are to me, my friend David made me monkey cookies for Christmas. The cookies were extra special because he had to form them with mix and match cutters, not having a monkey cookie-cutter, and he put spices in them so they were not the usual sugar cookies. David is not the usual friend; he is a bit spicier. In case you have not figured it out, my family goes to great lengths to buy thoughtful gifts (I think my Mom does it on purpose). In the season of consumption it may be our way of separating ourselves from the herd and appreciating each person’s uniqueness. I really am quite blessed with an unusual group of family and friends who make this absurd world not only more bearable, but lovely and laughable.
It’s a Wonderful Life has been a meaningful part of my Christmas season for decades. I find as I get older small things such as my love for this classic are enduring. Every year I’m inspired by George Bailey and his truly blessed life. George is a regular guy with big dreams who feels beholden to do the right thing, which often means foregoing his own desires. Even as a kid, George Bailey is an unintentional hero who risks his own well-being for the greater good. He still wishes for a million dollars like everyone else does. Hot dog! Opportunities to make a difference in other’s lives are usually unexpected, but I love this movie because we and George get to see the impact of his actions. That there are often unknown ripple effect of our actions is my truth, but then movies and books have gifted me with what some people deem as an unrealistic outlook. I call those people “cynics” and try to ignore them even when life is tough due to my take-the-easy-way-out inability.
But, I know I am not the only one. In 2007 Vince Gill released a song written by Al Anderson with the chorus, “All that you can take with you is what you give away”, which is very close to a framed quote under the picture of George Bailey’s dad in the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan. George is sometimes reluctant to give up his plans to “shake the dust from this crummy little town off my feet” and see the world, but by the time he forks over his honeymoon fund during a run on the bank he has embraced his role in Bedford Falls. Mary’s hair must have smelled heavenly to him when they were on the phone with Sam Wainwright. His dreams were thwarted so many times by that point that he trades them in to forge a new life path with his bride. George didn’t forget his desires, his big dreams, but adjusted to life’s reality, a reality rich in intangible treasures. The George Bailey line I relate to most is when Clarence explains that he knows so much because he is George’s guardian angel and George says, “Well, you look like the kind of angel I’d get”. I feel ya, George.
Along those same lines is the trouble he faces when Uncle Billy loses the Building & Loan’s deposit. You would think that after all the good George spread around he might have softened old man Potter’s greedy mean heart, but that is not the way it works, is it? A person rarely goes against their nature. It is George’s friends that come through for him, the very ones that motivated his detour. Sometimes I think my choices have not been appreciated a whit and are likely forgotten. It’s a Wonderful Life implies that is not the case and if I consider the impact others have had on my life, my dark thoughts are rendered senseless. I take away so many lessons from George Bailey. I may be uncertain of my financial future, but no man is a failure who has friends. Heehaw!
Throughout the world cheese is the most popular food item to shoplift, but in the states steak rules the hearts and minds of one in eleven who walk out of a store without paying for an item. To deal with that pesky conscience, Jameson whiskey comes in second as the most stolen item this holiday season. I know, I know. Everything gets blamed on the Irish, but keep in mind that there are a ton of wannabes in the U.S. that think drinking Jameson makes them Irish. That is simply how Jameson operates. Daniall Ashley, a Florida man caught this week while attempting to steal four steaks and 2 candles from a grocery store, may have had a jig or two before he stumbled upon his romantic notion. While police blame drug addicts for meat thievery, the majority of carnivorous shoplifters caught pinched enough meat for a meal. One would assume that people are stealing because they are in need and/or young and stupid, but it is estimated that 75% of shoplifters are adults with jobs. Perhaps they are hard workers that do not have enough money left over after paying for necessities to afford these luxury items that used to be their rewards. Steak is termed “luxury meat” and while many of us cannot afford filet mignon, a 15% increase in the price of cattle has lassoed all steak cuts of beef into the luxury category. I understand loving steak and Jameson, but I have never met a steak that was worth jail time. Jameson on the other hand…let’s just say “stuff happens” when he is on board, but once in a while it is worth the risk as long as I’m not running a tab.
When Josh Brolin’s character in Wall Street Money Never Sleeps is asked how much is enough he replies, “More”. It must have been the Christmas season. Although we do not openly agree with him, most of us, deep down, wish we had “more” even as we tout how grateful we are. We talk about the reason for the season, but the truth is Americans plan to spend an average of $700 on Christmas gifts and we all know how those well-planned budgets fail at Christmas time. The electronic gadgets we crave are guaranteed budget-breakers; my iTouch comes in a close second to the best Christmas present I ever received. I do not expect anything will ever beat the joy I felt upon discovering an orange Huffy under the tree when I was six. Why do we get caught up in frenzied over-spending during what is supposedly the most blessed time of year with family and friends? Is it our herd mentality that is so evident on Black Friday? Is it our desire for our children to feel the kind of joy I felt when I spied my Huffy? Is it the endless TV ads, emails, and catalogs that lure us in with their touted deals? I keep telling myself that I have everything I need, but the diamond commercials make me drool. My husband puts me in check by yelling “Blood diamonds!” with faked indignation. I never should have let him watch that movie. Honestly, what makes me overspend is that I want to buy special presents for everyone I love. We get more pleasure from giving than receiving, but I wouldn’t try telling that to a six-year-old.
Black Friday even sounds ominous. Signifying sales that retailers hope will push their profits into the black, it also represents the dark side of Christmas. A California shopper felt the frenzy of competition when she turned on her fellow shoppers with pepper spray in an L.A. Wal-Mart last night. That is what the news reported the incident as this morning- competitive shopping. On any other day pepper spraying a crowd of 20 adults and children would be labeled outright as assault, but in the name of consumerism today it is deemed part of the competition for deals that can only be attained today, unless you shop during the two weeks before Christmas. I know a lot of people who shop at Wal-Mart because I know a lot of people who do not have much money. I have found that the irritation is not worth lower prices and does not make me “live better”. Perhaps there is something in the air in Wal-Mart that brings out the worse in shoppers, and most of the minimum-wage clerks. Perhaps I am only justifying my own bad behavior. The only time I embarrassed myself by losing control and screaming at a store clerk was in Wal-Mart. I told the guy checking me out that he double-rung an item, so he finished ringing me up and said that I would have to go to the courtesy desk to get the overpayment back which I had not even given him yet. After a half hour in the “courtesy desk” line with at least 25 other people, another clerk snapped at me that the cashier would need to take care of my refund. I let her know in my not-so-nice, barely restrained voice that they should change the sign because I certainly was not receiving any “courtesy” and she would take care of my refund or let me speak to a manager. I also told her that it is common sense to apologize to an inconvenienced customer. But, at Wal-Mart it isn’t. Once again displaying her polished customer service skills, she told me to watch my language. I do not know what overcame me. I laughed like a maniac and yelled, “Watch my language? Well, here’s some language for you…” I am at a loss to repeat exactly what I said because I sort of blacked out. I remember flinging quite a few expletives and the people in line clapping and saying, “Yeah!” I swore I would never return to the place of my shame, where I became another crazy Wal-Mart shopper.
I received a notification informing us that donations to Michigan food banks will no longer be tax-deductible after December 31, 2011, which coincides with the expiration of federal extended unemployment insurance programs. The expiration of federal extensions will immediately drop 2 million unemployed from the rolls and millions more will follow as state benefits expire in 2012. Also heralding in the New Year, Michigan will reduce unemployment compensation to a maximum of 20 weeks from 26, the standard of all states for more than 50 years. Because unemployment compensation is designed only to cover living expenses, it is commonly accepted that all of these monies are promptly dumped back into our lagging economy. A doom and gloom outlook for the unemployed and needy has been the forecast for a few years now, but the perfect storm of 2012 will add to poverty statistics at a head-spinning rate. My inclination to seek out positive and humorous perspectives about any given situation has become more challenging, but I think I can do it for the remainder of 2011.
With the holiday season approaching my thoughts predictably turn to what I am thankful for and what Jesus gifted me with on the day he was born. If there were ever a time to relish the present, it is now. I plan to savor Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts with my family members who are currently healthy, fed, housed, and humorous. My focus is on blessings that money cannot buy nor replace, such as loving and supportive friendships and a stable marriage. We will give what we can, not for the benefit of a tax deduction, but because we appreciate the need to share our bounty now more than ever. People are pulling together, one of the few upsides to our economic climate, and I believe we will experience more brotherhood in the coming year. While Christmas commercials and electronic ads are inundating a broke America in a futile effort to pry money from near empty wallets, we will buy gifts from local crafters, small businesses, wineries, and breweries. 2012 promises to be a challenging year, but I plan to have a rocking good time during what remains of 2011 and adopt a Scarlett O’Hara attitude of not thinking about it today. Helping me to delay thoughts of next year is The Michigan Beer Cellar, the only micro-brewery in Michigan that is also a winery and artisan distillery, conveniently located only a few blocks away.