Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Bonus

While I was still employed, I was a member of the company social club. The social club was the group that arranged employee social functions throughout the year; mainly the annual company picnic and the two annual Christmas parties (one for adults only and one for the employees' kids). The social club booked the halls and provided the gifts and refreshments for these functions. Since these things cost money, the social club was funded via payroll deduction; three dollars was deducted from each paycheck of each employee belonging to the social club.

At Christmas time, each employee would receive a free turkey courtesy of the company. This was the annual Christmas bonus, and it was provided not by the social club but by the company's owners. As the company is now being liquidated, there is, of course, no staff Christmas party (adult or childrens') this year, nor are there any free turkeys.

Since the social club had been collecting its membership dues for most of the year and didn't pay for any staff Christmas functions, it found itself with a surplus of cash on its hands when the company shut down. To their credit, the social club executive decided that the only fair thing to do was to distribute the remaining monies evenly among the remaining membership (those who were still in the company's employ when it finally failed). And so it was that I received in the mail earlier this week a check from the social club in the amount of just over five hundred dollars.

Ironically, it appears that the best Christmas bonus that I ever received came after the company had shut down. God bless us every one!

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Advantages of Holiday Unemployment

I'm an optimist. I try to look at the positive side of every situation. Smile, and the world smiles with you; cry, and you cry alone. I tend to see the glass as half-full rather than half-empty. "Always look on the bright side of life," that's my motto (whistle-whistle whistle-whistle). So I'm here today to tell you that Christmas or, rather, the month before Christmas, is a great time to lose your job.

Christmas shopping was a snap this year. I kept going to the malls on Tuesday mornings, while everybody else was at work. It's great (if you can overlook the lack of money thing, that is). The store merchants are genuinely glad to see you at 10:15 am on a Tuesday. They actually looked bored until I came along. I didn't think that happened this time of year.

In fact, everything about Christmas was a snap this year. This is the first year that I didn't get at all stressed out about decorating, shopping, wrapping and all the other miscellaneous preparations that come with Christmas. I had nothing but time on my hands. No pressure at all. My Austrian relatives will actually receive Christmas cards from me on or around Christmas time this year! That'll be a first!

There was no company Christmas party to worry about this year either. Call me a stick-in-the-mud, but I've never fully enjoyed the annual company Christmas party. You get all dressed up in your monkey suit, the missus needs a new outfit every year and you drive out to some community center or school or church hall, often in crappy weather. You usually can't park within a half a mile of the front door so you end up trying to navigate your way across an icy parking lot, you in your Italian leather loafers and the wife in her stilettos, without falling and breaking a leg or at least a heel.

Since I worked out of town, the Christmas party was always out of town as well, so I couldn't fully let my hair down and imbibe because I had to drive home at the end of the night (my wife doesn't drive). Oh, the company covered cab fare, but only for those employees who lived in town (cheapskates!) Staying the night at a hotel is an option, I suppose, assuming you can get a room at all, because it's a busy time of year for travellers. Besides, I've never been very comfortable sleeping in hotels anyway, even good ones.

The actual dinner was usually at least mildly enjoyable, if somewhat predictable (chicken or roast beef) as long as you wound up at a table with anybody else whom you knew, which wasn't always the case. Heaven forbid you found yourself surrounded by a bunch of strangers, especially if you're a natural introvert, like me; or, worse yet, with someone whose company you didn't even enjoy at the office, let alone at a party!

And why could I never, ever, ever win the centerpiece or a &@#!! door prize? For years I went to the annual Christmas party, and I never won anything. My sister (who is still employed) won the centerpiece at her company shindig this year. This must be the third time she's won the centerpiece. I hate her. She was always mom and dad's favorite and, apparently, she was always Fate's favorite too, not that I'm bitter.

Even as I write this, I have no doubt that my former boss, who happens to be one of my regular readers, is going to leave a comment reminding me that I did win a door prize at the last company party that I attended. It's true, I did. I won a very attractive gift basket; you know, the kind that's full of crackers and cheese and chocolate wafers and tea and stuff. I'm sure that's why I'm now unemployed. Just as no good deed goes unpunished, neither does good luck, apparently. Even then, Fate couldn't resist adding one of those special ironic twists that she reserves just for me. The gift basket that I won was donated by the company for which my brother-in-law (my sister's husband) works, so she probably has a whole pantry full of the things anyway!

As for the dance which inevitably follows the dinner, I was never overly fond of dancing, largely due to the fact that I can't dance. The rare time that my wife manages to coax me out onto the floor, I usually end up looking like some kind of public service ad for Parkinson's Disease.

All in all, when it comes right down to it, I'm usually just as happy (or probably happier) spending a nice, quiet evening at home, sipping a glass of Bailey's and watching "A Christmas Carol" (the Alastair Sim version, of course) for what must be the eight-hundredth time. Unemployment made that possible, and it also made it a whole lot easier for me to identify with Bob Cratchit.

Since everybody who knows me knows that I'm out of work, I get a pass on cheap Christmas presents this year. Nobody expects anything overly extravagant or even good from someone on a budget. I could probably get away with raiding Wal-Mart's bargain bin, if I wanted to.

Mom: Oh, here's one from Andy and the family. I can't wait to open it ... it looks like a DVD ... yes, it is! Let's see now ... Pilates for Dummies. Why that's, er, just ... wonderful! Exactly what I wanted! Thank you so much!

Being unemployed makes it easier to get rid of charities and telephone solicitors too...


Me: Hello?

Telephone Solicitor: Hello, is this Mr. Halmanator?

Me: Yes it is.

Telephone Solicitor: Mr. Halmanator, I'm calling on behalf of the Out Of The Cold program. We're collecting gently used winter coats or cash donations to help the less fortunate who can't afford...

Me: Oh, man, I'd love to help you but, you see, I'm kind of between jobs just now...

Telephone Solicitor: I'm very sorry to hear that, Mr. Halmanator. You have a very...

Me: Did you say you give out winter coats? You wouldn't have anything in a size forty by any chance? My old flannel overcoat's kind of moth-eaten and starting to feel a bit drafty...

Telephone Solicitor: Well Mr. Halmanator, you're free to visit our depot at...

Me: Right, well, I tried to get down there last week but my old jalopy gave up the ghost half way there. Couldn't even afford a tow truck to...

Telephone Solicitor: I'm very sorry to hear that sir. Unfortunately, I can't...

Me: (Mournfully) That's okay. I'm sure I'll make it through one more winter. It's the ... the kids that I'm really more concerned about. Greg, Marsha, Bobby, Cindy, Kurt, Louisa, Friedrich, Gretl, and ... Sniff! ... little Tiny Tim! He looks so pale and thin of late...


Me: Hello? Hello?

You can bet they crossed me off their call list.

Friday, December 11, 2009


I normally try to stay away from religion on this blog. It's much too sensitive a topic, and too hard to discuss rationally. Up until now, I've written only one post having specifically to do with religion, and one other one that touches on the subject (in a poem). However, I found myself in church last Sunday morning, asking myself why I was there. I'm not particularly religious, you see. When my daughter was younger, I would go to church in order to set an example. Although I'm not religiously devout, I felt that she needed exposure to religion, else how could she later make a decision on something about which she knew nothing? By the same token, I've never been the kind of father who insists that his child must do something that he himself is unwilling to do. Now, however, she's approaching the age at which she must decide for herself what her beliefs are. My tenure as her Shining Example is almost at an end. Hence, my dilemma. Why was I still there?

I was raised Roman Catholic. When I was a child, I was a True Believer. God was good and the devil was bad and kids who went to church and said their prayers and behaved well went to heaven when they died. Those who didn't believe in God were bad, and they went to hell when they died.

As I grew up, I became aware of more and more subtleties, nuances, exceptions and contradictions that the priests and my teachers tried hard not to dwell on during my years of indoctrination into the Catholic faith. For example, I learned that there are other religions that don't recognize Jesus of Nazareth as a deity, such as Judaism, Buddhism and Islam. Most of these religions worship a single, all-powerful, omnipresent deity although they call it by different names; Jehovah, Yahweh, Allah. However, the various religions differ radically in the details of their beliefs.

Even Christianity, I learned, is divided into several sects that disagree with each other about the details of the Christian faith. Roman Catholics aren't the only Christians. There are also Lutherans, Baptists, Mormons, Presbyterians, Anglicans and Jehovah's Witnesses, to name but a few.

Now here's the kicker; each sect is convinced that theirs is the true and correct faith and that all of the others have strayed from the path, just as each of the major religions is likewise convinced that they are the Chosen People and all of the others are either infidels or at least sadly ignorant of God's true nature.

I also learned that there are people who don't believe in the existence of an all-powerful deity nor a heaven or a hell or even an afterlife at all. We call these people atheists or agnostics and I was taught to see them as evil and immoral. Then a funny thing happened. As my life progressed, I met a few self-professed atheists and, to my surprise, some of them seemed neither evil nor immoral to me. They just didn't happen to believe in that which they couldn't see. They made me start asking new questions. My religious teachers generally discouraged questions, because questions lead to doubt, and doubt is bad.

Why do we need a God or the promise of heaven or the threat of eternal damnation as an excuse to live good lives? Does it make sense to neglect this life in favor of an afterlife? What if there is no heaven? What if the world in which we live is all that we have, and all that we'll ever have? Wouldn't it be a good idea, then, to work on making it as heaven-like as possible?

I further discovered that, just as not all atheists and agnostics are necessarily evil, not all religiously devout people are necessarily good either. Some outwardly pious religious authority figures have used their religion as a vehicle to hurt and abuse. The Catholic church burned those who questioned its doctrines as witches and heretics for centuries. Certain radical Muslims seem to believe that they have been charged by Allah Himself to destroy the infidels of other faiths. In the late nineteen-eighties, The "reverend" Jimmy Swaggart was caught spending the money donated to his ministry by the faithful on prostitutes.

At some point, I went back to asking myself some fundamental questions:

Question: What was I taught when I grew up?

Answer: That there is God and there is the devil, and they compete for the souls of humanity.

Question: What's the difference between the two?

Answer: God is good. The devil is evil. God wants us to be good and to do good. The devil wants us to be evil and to do evil.

Question: Why does God want good, rather than evil?

Answer... Wow. I had to stop to think about that. Why is good preferable over evil? Why can't everyone act purely in their own self-interest, and others be damned? What's wrong with looking out for Number One?

Because that way leads to chaos and anarchy. Nobody is an island. We all need the help of others from time to time, and we accomplish more and improve our world and our lives when we work together. That means being empathetic of other peoples' wants, needs and feelings and acknowledging that everyone else has the same rights as I do. There's nothing wrong with acting in my own best interests, as long as doing so doesn't involve hurting someone else. Unfortunately, every situation is not a zero-sum game. Sometimes, there has to be a winner and a loser. "Aye, there's the rub", as Shakespeare so eloquently put it.

The religious and the secular are often at odds with each other. I've heard both sides argue their positions many times and, unfortunately, those arguments often focus on ridiculing opposing beliefs. Religiously devout Christians insist that we must be Born Again. We must accept Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior. Only in this way can our souls be saved. Any other path leads to eternal damnation, with much weeping and gnashing of teeth. The secular sometimes deride the religiously devout as mindless simpletons who have been brainwashed by superstition. "I refuse to believe in that for which there is no evidence," they declare.

Where do I stand? I don't know. I'm not a very good Roman Catholic, and I question many of the beliefs of the faith in which I was raised, yet I'm prepared to allow that there may be forces in the universe of which we humans know nothing. Just because I can't perceive something, doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. If I were deaf, I could hear no sounds, yet the sound waves would still be there for those with the ability to perceive them. In that sense, I am neither an atheist nor an agnostic.

I don't believe that any one religion has a monopoly on truth. I think that they share many common ideas and that, in the end, they all strive for the same fundamental goal; the promotion of good over evil; but they waste too much time and energy bickering about the details.

I believe that good makes more sense than evil, because good leads to harmony whereas evil leads to chaos; therefore it is incumbent upon each of us to try to improve this world in any way that we can.

I don't know what, if anything, lies beyond death, but I believe it will take care of itself as long as I stay true to myself and my beliefs. If there's nothing beyond death, then I will neither know nor care after I die. If there is more, then I will discover it with the same fascination with which I've discovered this world since being born into it.

So, getting back to my original question, why was I in church last Sunday? Because I need to feed my spirituality somehow and, for all of its imperfections, the faith in which I was raised still accomplishes that. Once in a while, I still find ideas there that are worth meditating upon.

If I some day find myself standing in judgement before God, I will not say "I believed", nor will I say "I disbelieved". I will say "I didn't know, but I did the best I could with what I was given, and I tried to treat others the way I would want to be treated, most of the time, anyway." I don't think I would much care for a God that would condemn me for that.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Christmas Lights

Last week, I hung our exterior Christmas lights. I never hang Christmas lights until December and I'm bothered by people who hang them and turn them on "too early". In my part of town, I've been seeing Christmas lights shining from certain houses since mid-November. That, in my opinion, is too early. Never start in about Christmas before the Hallowe'en candy's been eaten, so say I. Now, I understand that some people like to hang their lights early, before the weather turns too cold and disagreeable, and I have no objection to that, as long as they don't actually turn them on.

I'm not humbugging Christmas. Quite the opposite, in fact. I just feel that, when you flog an occasion too early or too often, you reduce it's specialness. I mean, why don't we just shine Christmas lights all year round? Because then, come Christmas, they'd be ordinary; routine. "Christmas comes but once a year," it's said. So does winter but, by March, most of us are tired of it.

Be that as it may, last week my calendar, which never lies, announced that November had become December, so I finally agreed that it was time to herald the coming of the holiday and hung our lights.

At the left side of our house is a large evergreen bush, really more of a dwarf fir tree, which I adorn with strings of LED lights each year. This bush happens to be home to a family of house sparrows, all of who got somewhat perturbed by this massive human clambering about their home and stringing wire all over the place. I wondered what thoughts must pass through their avian minds when this sort of thing happens.

"What in blazes is that human up to now? Can't a bird relax in the comfort of his own bush without these neanderthals creating a ruckus? And what is this stuff he's draping all over the outer branches? Some kind of trap, maybe? Pretty stupid one, if so. I mean, I can plainly see it." (After cautiously examining the strand and pecking at a light bulb or two:) "Well, it seems harmless enough, I suppose. But what's it for?"

I wonder what their reaction is when the sun goes down and the lights come on. Do they find the lights pretty, or are they annoyed because the brightness keeps them awake at night? "Jeez! It's like trying to sleep in the lobby of Caesar's Palace! That's it! I am gonna take such a crap on the human's car tomorrow! Let's see how he likes someone else 'decorating' his stuff!"

I'll bet the sparrows are glad I wait until December to hang the lights.