The Joy Thief

In every Christmas story. There has to be a Grinch. An Ebenezer Scrooge. A Heat Miser. A Daffy Duck. A Mr. Potter. A King Herod.

Bah humbug.

The character who steals the joy of others. The party ends when they walk in. They are transfixed in a state of dissatisfaction. Their grumpy dial is turned up to 11.

Christmas stories need these villains because it is through them that the power of redemption and the depths of grace are most greatly conveyed.

It is through grace that George Bailey discovers how desperately the town needs him to balance the evils presented by Mr. Potter. It is redemption that allows the Grinch's heart to grow three sizes - even after robbing the citizens of Whoville in the middle of the night. The ghosts of Christmas offer Scrooge redemption; in gratitude, Scrooge extends grace to those he has wronged.

For people like me, the pessimists, the melancholic, it is easy to be the miser in our own Christmas stories. We see joy in others and impulsively take it away. No, you can't be happy. Joy is not allowed. Bah humbug.

It's not that I intentionally want to be a joy thief. It's reactionary. It just happens. Like last Friday.

It snowed and the roads were slick and unplowed. After a full day of snow and roughly 3" - 6" accumulated, the city hadn't taken any deicing measures. Or at least they had not yet reached the north end of town. Rather than drive all the way home just to turn around and drive back up to church, we just stopped at church to hang out. Sure, we were an hour and a half early, but we could hang out and watch the worship band run through sound checks. My kids love music, and I enjoy being around the new friendships I've built with members of the worship band. It was a win-win scenario.

We sat down in the first few rows for a while as the band played. They were getting ready for the last weekend before Christmas, so many of the songs being played were carols. Christian was pretending to be asleep to annoy his sister, but the band started playing a song he knew. He shot upright and started singing along.


And off key.

Genetics is a cruel master. And when it comes to Christian's singing ability, he inherited it from me. In other words, he's tone deaf. But like me, he loves to sing and he emphasises the noise in make a joyful noise.

In that moment, I tried to hush him. I used the reasoning that the band was practicing and they needed to hear themselves so that they could get their parts right. Realistically, I was trying to protect him from the path I traveled. When I was younger, I was encouraged to sing. I had special musical numbers during Sunday evening services. I would sing in the Christmas pageants. I would enter talent competitions. But it wasn't until I was an adult before someone told me that I couldn't sing. Up until then, I thought I had a good voice. Aside from jokes and teasing from my peers, I had no reason to believe otherwise. If I had a bad singing voice, why would they let me sing in front of church? If I had a bad singing voice, why would people tell me I did a good job? If this, why that?

I harbor memories of feeling gross embarrassment over the realization that I was singing loudly and off key all the time. And that it annoyed people. That that it sounded horrible to everyone and anyone that complimented me were being polite.

So I robbed Christian of his joy. I tried to muffle his exuberance. I tried to silence his celebration. Dang. That might be one of the worst things I've ever done to him. To tell him that I don't care if he's happy or if he's enjoying himself. To tell him that it doesn't matter and he needs to stop.

This weekend, I had a couple of people point out the error of my ways.

The first voice of reason was a member of the worship team that was on stage singing when Christian decided to join in. She told me that she found the whole thing to be adorable. She said she loved it when he started singing. She didn't care that he was out of tune. All she noticed was the unashamed expression of joy.

"When he did that," she told me, "your son stole my heart."

Impressive. And enough for me to feel a little guilty for trying to hush him.

Then, Sunday afternoon, I was walking through the kids' area at church looking for music stands. Our children's pastor stopped me and told me that he loves having Christian in kids' church. Pastor told me that the best part was worship time. Doesn't matter if it was Christmas music or regular praise and worship, he said that Christian will sing along as loudly as possible. The pastor also said that he points out Christian to the volunteers and staff as an example of what it means to worship. He knows that Christian's voice isn't great. He knows that Christian will be off tune. But the other thing that the pastor knows is that Christian will pour his whole heart into it. And that's what worship is really about.

So I tried to pass those stories along to my son. I told him that I heard lots of good things about him and that I was pleased with who he is and what he does.

He stopped me before I could finish. "But Dad," he said, "I thought you told me that they didn't want to hear me sing."

"I was wrong." I said.

And I was wrong. Sure, his voice will never be his path to fame. But that doesn't matter. What matters is that he loves expressing his joy through singing. No shame. No reservations. Just singing.


And off key.

Yet filled with joy.

Because that's who he is. And thanks to the reason churches celebrate Christmas, he has great reason to be joyful. Shame on me for trying to take that away.


Oh Christmas Tree

There were two different species of trees that made their way into my childhood home each Christmas. It's because my parents had different tastes in evergreens. My dad preferred the Colorado Blue Spruce with its asymmetrically spaced branches. My mom though the Blue Spruces looked like Charlie Brown trees. She favored the fuller bushiness of the Douglas Fir.

They compromised and set up an every other year swap. One year, it was Dad's choice. The next year it was Mom's.

Every year, we would drive up toward Darrington to a tree farm along the North Fork Stillaguamish River. We would trudge through the snow - hiking until we found the perfect tree according to the prescribed parental variant. Then we would take turns with the saw until the tree came down. It was paid for and strapped to the top of our car, then we would return home for chili and cornbread while the wet tree dried out on our back porch.

When Aaron graduated high school, my folks found a tree farm just outside Arlington - a shorter drive from home. By the time I was out of high school, they had settled on selecting a tree from a parking lot somewhere in town.

I grew up with real trees for Christmas. Looking back at the few holiday traditions my family practiced, the tree selection was my favorite. Even more than opening presents on Christmas Day.

It didn't snow much in Marysville. We were at sea level and in a snow shadow cast by the southern end of Whidbey Island. It would snow in Everett to the south. And in Arlington to the north. East of us, Lake Stevens and Granite Falls would get snow before anyone else. But in Marysville, snow was rare. And I love snow. The trek out to Darrington to get the tree was the one time of year that I knew for sure I would be able to play in the snow.

Now, in North Idaho, I get snow every winter. Some years more than others. (And this winter is starting to look like one of those other years.) Going to the tree farm to see snow isn't necessary; I can just look out my window. I haven't had a real tree in several years. Pine needles (or spruce or fir) are nature's glitter; one needle breeds and turns into hundreds that you're still vacuuming up months after the tree is gone. It is nice to not be cleaning up after real trees, but I do miss the smell.

This year, space is limited so there isn't a tree (real or fake) at my place. Well, not in the traditional sense. But my son provided one for me. It might just be the best tree I've ever had.

As for the smell? I have candles.


Feeling naked at work and other tidbits

Yesterday, I walked out the front door without my wallet or my checkbook. I didn't realize it until after I was at my office. About lunch time, I recognized an emptiness in my back pocket that is not usually there. So today, I made extra effort sure I had my wallet and my checkbook when I left for work. However, I forgot my phone. I intended to take a break to run home and get it, but that break never happened. A full day at work with out my phone.

I felt naked.

It's weird what technology has done to us. When I was in high school, I felt naked when I wasn't wearing a hat. Now, I feel naked when this rectangular object made from aluminum, glass, and circuitry isn't with me.

When I was a kid, the phone was attached to the wall, now it fits in my pocket. When I was in high school, I had a walkman with me everywhere I went. I now have an iPhone to play and make music. I used to have a heavy TV/VCR combo and the original Playstation. Now I watch TV, watch movies, and play video games on my phone. It's my camera and video camera. It's my planner. My Bible. My calculator. My encyclopedia. My cookbook. My flashlight. My comic book collection. My guitar tuner. I use it to make spreadsheets, write blog posts, track my weight loss, discover celestial constellations, and keep in touch with friends and family. The me from twenty years ago would geek out over the power I now usually carry around with me.

Except today. Today, I was phone free. Today, I felt naked.

Also today...

A coworker walked into my office, set this big thing on my desk, said "Merry Christmas," then turned around and walked out.

While talking with one of the girls on my team, I was discussing improved time management. I was attempting to explain that everyone wastes a little bit of time from janitors to CEOs. Researchers believe that little breaks are mentally healthy for us and that's why we have smoke breaks and lunch breaks built into the typical work day.

But when I said, "Everybody wastes time," she responded, "That sounds like a book."

"It is a website, but not a book." I said.

She didn't accept that answer. She said, "It sounds like a book - 'Everyone Poops.' You could totally write a book like that, just call it 'Everyone Wastes Time.'"



Today was out of the ordinary. I usually head home for lunch and relaxation after church. But today, I stayed after the second service to strike the stage. The kids Christmas program ran this weekend and the risers had to be taken off stage and the piano, drum set, keyboard, mic stands, and other assorted equipment had to be returned to their normal place.

But then I did something I don't ordinarily do. I stayed. And stayed. Until 6pm. Listening to the band rehearse. Chatting with the sound guy. Laughing and fellowshipping with the team.

Instead of going home and playing video games, I spent the whole day with these wonderful people who have become my friends over the past few months.

Music is therapeutic. And today, I got the best sort of therapy I could ask for.


All Zu wants for Christmas

If you ask my kids to identify their favorite Christmas carol, you'll hear songs that are typical for kids their age. Frosty the Snowman. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Away in a Manger.

We play a lot of Christmas music at my house. It's my coping mechanism to help me enjoy the holidays. When the kids ask to hear a certain song, it's one of those listed above.

As for my daughter, she'll make the same requests. "I want to hear Frosty. I want to hear Rudolph." She'll sing and dance with the music, and when the song ends she'll sing and dance with the next. She loves Little Drummer Boy, O Come All Ye Faithful, Sleigh Ride, and The First Noel. She might even tell you one of those songs is her favorite.

However, actions speak louder than words. She enjoys those songs. But none of them are here favorite. After one particular song, she will sneak over to my computer and click a couple buttons in iTunes to start the song over from the beginning. Only one. Sometimes, we'll listen to that song three or four times before she let's the music continue to another tune.

That song? All I Want for Christmas is You.

And it doesn't really matter which version is played. Mariah Carey's original. Dave Barnes' bluesy take on the song. The modern rock versions from House of Heroes or Dave Melillo. Even more recent interpretations from Newsboys, Anthem Lights, or CeeLo. Without fail, she will sneak her way to the computer to hit repeat.

All I Want for Christmas is You. It is my daughter's favorite Christmas song. That is enough to melt this daddy's heart.


iPods and coincidences

If you happened to see a laughing pedestrian walking across the bridge over I-90 on your evening commute home along Northwest Blvd ... that strange figure lost in a guffaw above the freeway traffic was me. It's not often that I audibly laugh while walking alone. And I myself wonder about the mental health of strangers when I see them chuckling and giggling to themselves while they stroll down the sidewalks.

I'm sure I looked odd. Baggy jeans, old and worn work boots, dirty ski jacket, a crooked beanie atop my head, and a week's worth of stubble (manly beard growth?) covering my face. Anyone driving by me would have every right to assume I was insane.

But I had reasons. Good ones.

As I approached the freeway, I noticed the tell-tale blue and red lights of a police officer. The closer I got, the more obvious it became that one of Coeur d'Alene's finest had pulled over a motorist. That's not what I found funny. I was laughing because the random setting on my iPod had the predictive sense to match the music to my surroundings.

The song changed as I walked past The Outback Steakhouse. Next in the playlist: Public Enemy's Fight the Power. My first glimpse of flashing lights and the unlucky driver synced up with the moment that Chuck D first chants, "Lemme hear you say 'Fight the power' We've got to fight the powers that be."

I couldn't help it. I started laughing. Out loud. My breath visible in the frosty air dancing as it left my snickering lips. Part of me wanted to raise my fist in the air as a symbol of solidarity, but I knew that that would be too much. Even for me.

The moment passed. The ticket was written and delivered. Flashing lights switched off. And I kept walking.

I traveled the rest of the way home with a big smile on my face though. The next song was Can I Kick It from A Tribe Called Quest. And Arrested Development's Fishin' 4 Religion was on as I walked through my front door.

Those three songs were enough to make my day. Today was a good day.


Make it Snow

It's been cold in North Idaho. Bitter cold and mostly dry. We received a little dusting of snow this weekend. Our forecast calls for more. There's only one thing I can say about that outlook. Make it so.


My not-so grown up Christmas list

To be honest, I really don't want anything for Christmas. Not really. I can't think of anything that I truly need. What I don't need is more stuff - I have enough of that all ready. However, there are a few gifts that would make me squeal like a school girl with front row tickets to a 1D concert if I found them wrapped with my name on it on Christmas morning. And no, front row tickets to a 1D concert is not one of those items. Like these:

Star Wars Totem t-shirt

Doctor Who Weeping Angel Stress Toy 
(I know... not available until January)

Really, I don't need anything. But the geek in me dreams of a nerdy Christmas. A very nerdy Christmas.


What would it take for a piece of blue cheese?

Christian doesn't like cheese. Texture issues. So when the other kids sprinkled finely shredded mozzarella onto their angel hair pasta, he shied away from the topping for his own meal. Zu generously offered some of her own and he refused.

"I would never eat that," he said, "not even if some one offered me a million dollars."
"I would," I replied.
"But you like cheese."
"This type I do. But not all cheeses."

Christian looked at me funny. He's never seen a cheese I don't like.

"Blue cheese," I said, "don't like it."
Zu piped in, "Blue cheese? Is it really blue?"
"A little," I answered, "sometimes a little greenish."
"Ew," she said. "No one could ever get me to eat blue cheese. Yuck."
"Not even for a million dollars?" Christian asked.
"No, not even for a million dollars."
"What if," my turn. "What if someone said they'd give you every My Little Pony toy that has ever existed if you ate one piece of blue cheese? Would you eat it then."
"OK," Zu replied. "For that, I would eat one tiny tiny slice of blue cheese."

In my daughter's world, My Little Pony is better than money.


Youth group alum? No, try survivor.

Yesterday, Rachel Held Evans launched a barrage of the funniest tweets I've read in a long time. She asked her followers to remember potentially dangerous youth group games we played when we were actually in a youth group. Then she proceeded to retweet every reply so that we could all see the hilarious atrocities endured in years long gone. I can't imagine how much fun she had reading through all of those responses.

Looking back, it's amazing that I survived youth group. And I'm not talking about safely navigating the popularity games because we all know I lost there. Nor am I talking about the trip Shane and I took to Nampa during our sophomore year where we (bored and unsupervised) snorted some Altoids and engaged in a two man game of tag. In the dark. Long story.

The grace that allowed me to fondly contribute to Rachel's invitation to reminisce is the miracle that I survived the officially sponsored activities horrors.

I am convinced that the 90s were a special time in youth groups. A time where the risk of life and limb were permissible as long as alcohol and foul language was not involved. A time when youth leaders were convinced that making kids fear for their actual safety was some sort of spiritual lesson we all needed to learn. A time when relay races were scientifically designed to risk either injury or humiliation. Those with no shame and no timidity prospered. I am also convinced that no youth group existing today would be able to do half of the stuff we did without a lawsuit.

There was the camp crowd favorite: Eat That Food. This was a game similar to Name That Tune, but instead of identifying songs, contestants had to eat a food. In as few bites as possible. Through my tenure as a teenager, I witnessed the following feats of Eat That Food: a grown man shoving an entire can of Spam into his mouth, a girl chug a 48 ounce jar of applesauce, and a camp counselor dump a full tin of Altoids in his mouth. Witnessing this game played many times over the course of six years, I saw things I never wish to see again.

There was the Caterpillar Relay. This was a race where teams laid face down and shoulder to shoulder along the beach. The last person in line rolled on top of his or her team mates to the front of the line. This created a new person at the end of the line who also had to roll over and over their teammates to reach the line's beginning. Thus creating a "human caterpillar." The first team to get their caterpillar across the finish line won.

When we went snow tubing, some were too lazy to walk all the way back up the hill so they would try to jump onto other tubes sledding down the hill. It was at one winter retreat that I got buried under four other riders; our overloaded and top heavy inner tube hit a jump and went flying without the tube. When we came down it felt like everyone landed on my head and the side of my face was ground into the ice and slush. I had to go back to the cabins with an eye-patch and a concussion.

Games of tag. Blindfolded. In the woods.

Games of hide and seek that had us kids traipsing through poison oak, poison ivy, and occasional bee hives.

Games of Sardines (like hide and seek, but only one person hides and everyone that finds that person hides with them). At night. No lights allowed.

Blind-man's volleyball. The volleyball net was covered with a tarp so that you were unable to see what the other team was doing. Then the ball was usually replaced with something hard and heavy. Or a water balloon.

Four-way tug of war.

Slip'n'slides that were carved into the slope of a steep hill.

Touch football matches that often turned into tackle football.

Full contact Ultimate Frisbee.

Camps were always the Super Bowl of dangerous and/or embarrassing entertainment. Every year had a different theme and those in charge of group recreation worked hard to have games that fit the theme. That meant many of the games during the year of "The Doctor Is In" involved bedpans. Two memorable relay races sent participants from one end of the field to a bed pan waiting at the opposite end. In one race the bedpans were filled with warm rootbeer and we were expected to drink as much as we could through a straw while laying on our stomachs, without using our hands. In the other race the bedpans were filled with baking flour and a package of M&Ms hidden in the powdery white mess; first team to find 20 M&Ms (again, without the use of hands and laying on our stomachs) were the winners.

Every year, the pinnacle of camp fun was the annual shaving cream fight. During the week, campers and counselors could purchase cans of shaving cream to save for the final night of camp. On that last night, a section of grass about the size of a tennis court (singles not doubles) was roped off with water filled garbage cans at each corner. All those who wished to participate would climb inside the cordoned area and wait for the whistle to blow. After the shrill cry of the referee's whistle, that small patch of grass turned into a battlefield. The ensuing pandemonium resembled what would happen if the food fight scene from Hook was set in Mad Max's Thunderdome. The war raged until the last man standing or until everyone ran out of shaving cream. The grass and surrounding field was stained a foamy white. Muscles and egos were bruised. And participants still smelled like shaving cream the next morning.

But at my church, when it was just us - the kids in our youth group - our favorite game was Wink 'em Blink 'em. This was an incredibly violent and flirtatious mash up of the Hunger Games and Blind Date. The girls would sit in a circle with one empty seat and a guy would be standing behind each chair including the empty chair (or the guys would sit with the girls behind them). The guys (or gals) would be staring at the top of the head of the person seated in front of them... all except the guy with the empty chair. He would be looking at all the girls and eventually, he'd wink at one of them.* The girl he winked at would try to escape her location, move across the circle, and sit in the empty chair. The guy standing behind her would attempt to catch her before she got away. Or roles reversed with a girl winking at a guy and that guy trying to flee the girl behind him. During my first years in the youth group, a simple tap on the shoulder was enough to keep the sitter in the seat. But as I got older, we got progressively more aggressive. Soon, the person that was winked at was permitted to continue away the single handed tap of the peer behind them. Both hands had to touch the shoulders. But then a two handed tap (one hand on each shoulder) was not enough; the person trying to prevent the escape had to hold the runner in place. Then we allowed those that were winked at to do all they could to elude the grasp of the person behind them.

By the time I was a high school senior, our rounds of Wink 'em Blink 'em produced more rug burns and bruises than I can possibly count. I can recall a few torn shirts. Jimmy got a set of fingernails scratched down his back that tore through both cloth and skin. Hair was pulled. Eyes were blackened. And there was at least one bloody nose.

I can't believe our youth leaders remained trouble free with our parents for such games. I hope my kids never have such insanity inflicted upon them. However, I wouldn't trade those days for anything.

We were young. We were wild. We were free. And we were unashamed. Sometimes, it would be nice to feel like that again.

* Now that it's in print - Wink 'em Blink 'em sounds way creepier than I remember.