Archive for the ‘holidays’ Category

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Christmas Tree Memories

December 17, 2015
"It should be," muses my friend, "twice as tall as a boy. So a boy can't steal the star."

“It should be,” muses my friend, “twice as tall as a boy. So a boy can’t steal the star.”

For many years when I was still teaching, as Christmas season approached I would present Truman Capote’s wonderful story “A Christmas Memory” to my classes. It is funny and sad and beautiful, weaving the themes of friendship, memory, and Christmas so magically together. We would spend time talking and then writing about how certain memories are triggered by a sight or sound or smell of the season as it was for Buddy in the story, his friend each year exclaiming, “It’s fruitcake season!” I know this well, for when December rolls around and it is time to get the traditional evergreen Christmas tree, a flood of these memories washes over me, plunging me into a period of nostalgia lasting well past New Years.

When we were young, my sister and I would go to bed on Christmas Eve filled with all of the expectations of a Norman Rockwell American childhood. Cookies and milk had been left for Santa on a lolly pole in the rumpus room and empty stockings hung on the fake fireplace our father had built. Upon awakening, we would dash downstairs to discover the cookies all eaten (and even a bit of beard hair somehow caught under the plate in Santa’s haste to complete his route), the stockings stuffed, and a Christmas tree all lit up and decorated complete with presents below. We assumed, I suppose, that Santa lugged our tree in along with the toys. It was only later that the normal process of parental acquisition became clear, and my sister and I eventually eased our way into our roles in the operation.

Our rumpus room Christmas morning.

Our rumpus room Christmas morning.

One year we had a real Charlie Brown kind of tree experience. Our father often worked a second job as a part-time seasonal janitor to earn extra money for the holidays. Things were tough in those days, so he had gotten our tree for free from the school he had been cleaning. It had graced that happy classroom for weeks but was now discarded since winter break had arrived. He brought the tree home Christmas Eve, and it was decorated as usual. However, when we ran down Christmas morning to revel in our usual festive glory, every last needle on the tree had dropped off and lay in a pile on top of our gifts. Apparently the cumulative effect of the hot school classroom had been too much for the poor thing, and the timing was such that the mass shedding took place in our living room at the most inopportune moment.

When we were a bit older, my sister and I got to participate in the decorating. In those days, most of the decorations were made of glass and were rather delicate, so my parents would put those on after stringing the lights, no small feat back in the good old days of series wiring (one goes out, they all go out). Our main job was to put on the tinsel. For those modern souls who may not know what tinsel is, it’s strands of very fine aluminum foil made to resemble glistening icicles. It came in flat boxes, all stretched out in neat rows, ready to become the final touch on somebody’s Christmas tree.

My sister, who is two years older than I, thought that she, in the absence of my parents, was the boss, a condition shared by most older siblings. I usually accepted her self-proclaimed rule, partly because I was lost in my own world of imagination and partly because she could (and would) beat the snot out of me.
However, in this instance, there was more to it; there was a major clash of philosophies. I was of the opinion that tinsel should be painstakingly placed strand by strand on carefully selected branches. My sister, on the other hand, thought that the haphazard flinging of clumps of tinsel was the best (and fastest–she apparently had other things to do) approach. It may seem like a minor conflict, but I was stubborn despite my age, and a battle of words would always escalate into pushes and shoves and finally the inevitable “MOMMM!!!” from whomever was getting the worst of it at the moment (usually me). Then came the ominous threat of being accused as the one to have ruined everyone’s Christmas.

My parents tried various methods to settle the dispute. One year they had us each decorate our own half of the tree. The result was a disaster that looked like a hurricane had struck just one side (guess whose). Another time they forced us to use each other’s method (one of those psychology-induced “learning experiences,” I suppose); that lasted about three minutes before turning into a tinsel-throwing brawl. Finally they imposed an every-other-year system on us. This worked during the decorating itself, but it didn’t prevent the continuous stream of whiney complaints and negative comments about the other’s “masterpiece” on alternate years.

Eventually the problem solved itself. My sister became involved in other activities (boys) and was content to leave the decorating to me. I actually kind of missed the battles we’d had, though I was glad to not have to look at Christmas trees buried in a disorganized avalanche of silver.

So as I put the tree in its stand each year and smell the scent of pine filling the room along with the sound of seasonal music, my thoughts inevitably drift back to those good old days. I remember the unbridled joys of childhood tearing open the wrapping paper in our pajamas as we sat on the floor around the glittering centerpiece we had helped create. As I decorate, I think of my big sister and the raging tinsel wars we had. Though I no longer use tinsel, most of the decorations I do use are filled with memories as well: some of the old glass beauties I had saved from my childhood, various humorous ones received from students through my years of teaching, the gingerbread hands of my niece Emma from when she was a tot, the handmade paper and clay creations from my nephew Luke. I linger during the process, pausing often to reflect and sigh, savoring each image as it wafts up from the depths of my past. And though I realize Christmas can never be the same as it once was, this ability to preserve and relive it in memory has become perhaps the most precious gift of all.

emma hand

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Gratitude

November 26, 2015

gratitude-1I’ve been thinking about gratitude. Yes, because of Thanksgiving, but for reasons beyond that as well.

 

Thanksgiving started as a gathering in gratitude by one of the original groups of immigrants to this country, people we know as the Pilgrims. To leave the strife of their homeland, they came to a new land knowing nothing of the endemic language, culture, or way of life. Many did not make it. Those who did owed their well-being to a group of residents who made the decision to help these needy newcomers to their shores. Not all of the residents felt the same way, but because some did, the newcomers thrived and became a part of the multicultural tapestry that is America.

If this sounds somewhat familiar, it should. This scenario has been repeated throughout the history of our nation. There were different times, different groups, and different reasons for leaving their homelands, but it played out pretty much the same way. Some residents made the decision to help, and some did not. Those who did not attempted to create barriers of all kinds to keep the latest group of newcomers out. They used social rejection, making it abundantly and publicly clear that the group was unwanted. They used government legislation to control them or keep them out entirely. Some even resorted to violence.

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The sad irony of America, the land of immigrants.

But the newcomers came nonetheless. They assimilated nonetheless. And by and large, they succeeded nonetheless. Just ask your parents or grandparents or great-grandparents because unless you are a Native American Indian or the descendant of a slave, your family most likely belonged to one of these groups. And after great struggle and perhaps some bitterness along the way, they too were able to share in the gratitude of being American.

This continues still. Different time. Different groups. Different reasons.

One of my adult ESL students, a young woman recently arrived from Cameroon, asked me during class what Thanksgiving was. I tried to explain the events leading up to that first celebration as best I could with the somewhat limited vocabulary understood by the class. I told the story of the people who left their homeland, about how they arrived in what was a new world for them ill-prepared to deal with such a different existence than they were used to. Though many were not, some of the native people were kind to them and helped them survive their difficult first year, and they had this celebration to give thanks.

The young woman looked at me, eyes wide, and said, “Just like it is for us.”

Yes. Yes, indeed.

Gratitude

 

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The Rockets’ Red Glare

July 4, 2015

BOOM!

It is the 4th of July. The sound of distant fireworks has been echoing in the late evening air the past few days. Tonight will be the really big events, huge televised pyrotechnic productions replete with coordinated soundtracks. But these displays always bring back memories of the simpler days of childhood when the local July 4th fireworks were a really huge deal for all the kids in the neighborhood.

Living across the street from Memorial Park in Bergenfield had some distinct advantages. I could always get there first before the freshly fallen snow had been besmirched by footprints (there is nothing like a snow angel made in the middle of a virgin field of snow). In the summer, I was bound to find used but still serviceable sports equipment lost in the weeds at the fringe of the woods: cracked baseball bats that a little electrical tape would fix up just fine, baseballs with the cover coming off (back to the electrical tape), well broken-in mitts minus most of the padding (that’s what old socks were for), rosin bags, and even, on a lucky day, an umpire’s ball-strike counter.

But the biggest advantage was on July 4th, for it was there, right across the street from my house, where the fireworks show took place. The buildup was intense with neighbors jockeying for favor in the can-we-put-our-lawn-chair-on-your-front-lawn sweepstakes and decisions to be made about the snacks and the debate about on which block the Good Humor man would be parking his boxy white ice cream truck.

The crowds would begin arriving shortly after supper even though dusk was only just beginning to creep in. Families would stake out their spots with blankets on the field behind the temporary fences. Kids would lean their bikes along the backstop of the baseball field and proceed to run around, raising dust and the eyebrows of disapproving adults. Some older kids would manage to set off a few firecrackers of their own in the woods just to whet our appetites for the real thing.

As darkness began to gather and all but the late-comers had settled in, the first of the test rockets would go up with a BOOM and a puff of dark smoke, setting off the barking of dogs and wailing of children too young for such things. My sister and I would nervously fidget, engaging in animated discussions over how soon the real thing would begin.

And finally it did. At first, the rockets were paced, launched separately so the crowd could savor each in its own glory: the star bursts, flying fish, falling leaves, and willows, each with its array of colors and sounds — bangs and crackles and hums and whistles. Next, interspersed with the sky rockets, would come the ground displays: the whirligigs and Roman candles and fountains and the perennial red, white, and blue American flag. Then the pace picked up, and we all knew what was coming — the Grand Finale! Multiple rockets going up at once, the sky filled with sparkling colors and the tremendous thundering of the final barrage that always brought the show to its rousing conclusion.

Some years there was added excitement if the breeze was blowing south, for it would carry some of the glowing embers across the street and onto the roof of our house. The frantic dash for the garden hose always turned out to be unnecessary since they would quickly fizzle out on their own, but the prospect of having a fire at your house caused by the fireworks would make a great topic of conversation amongst your friends for the rest of the summer.

I’m now “too old” to worry about such matters as going to see fireworks on the 4th, but as we strolled down the block back to our house last night, I felt the little kid in me stir. Though some of the details may change, the essence of this grand American tradition lives on. Maybe next year we’ll pull out the lawn chairs and make our way over to a neighboring town and bring ourselves back to the good old days of craned necks, sky full of bombast and colors, and partake in the oohing and aahing with all of the other kids.

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Christmas, Room 26

December 18, 2014

The Christmas season is one like no other. There is an infectious good spirit in the air, and for kids, an atmosphere of anticipation that is palpable. It is also a time of year steeped in tradition, and during my twenty-five years in Room 26, I came to institute several of my own.

That was the English classroom in which the eighth graders of Pierrepont School spent their agonizing days waiting for Christmas to arrive. Always a time of considerable rambunctiousness and lack of concentration, I thought about what lessons I could teach knowing full well that the battle for their attention would be fierce. I wanted something that would capture the humanity embodied in the Christmas season regardless of anyone’s religious affiliation or cultural background while still containing educational value.

At first I decided upon a story that happened to be in the literature anthology we used. “A Christmas Memory,” wonderfully seasonal, touching, and well-written, had all the qualities I wanted. The author happened to be Truman Capote, whom I knew only from In Cold Blood, a work most definitely not seasonal. I found out that this was the story of an episode from his own childhood, a time when his parents had left him to live in Alabama with strictly religious and somewhat cold-hearted relatives. The one exception was an elderly cousin, a woman who is written about with such tenderness even though we never even learn her name. Capote introduces her to the reader in simple but beautiful description (the point of the lesson, as far as the anthology was concerned):

“A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window. She is wearing tennis shoes and a shapeless gray sweater over a summery calico dress. She is small and sprightly, like a bantam hen; but, due to a long youthful illness, her shoulders are pitifully hunched. Her face is remarkable—not unlike Lincoln’s, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-colored and timid. ‘Oh my,’ she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, ‘it’s fruitcake weather!’

The person to whom she is speaking is myself. I am seven; she is sixty-something. We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together—well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other’s best friend. She calls me Buddy, in memory of a boy who was formerly her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880’s, when she was still a child. She is still a child.”

Capote proceeds to tell how they went about making those fruitcakes, an annual enterprise that took quite a bit of time and effort, as well as their preparations for Christmas. During the many small adventures they encountered along the way, we come to know the heart and soul of this cousin well. On the surface this may sound torpid, but it is anything but. Such pure and simple beauty shines through both the words and the people who inhabit them. The relationship between Buddy and his friend resonates strongly for anyone who has had this kind of intimate connection with someone else, and I still remember passages from this story — especially the heartbreaking closing one —  to this day.

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Several years later, I discovered quite by accident another story that I knew I just had to use with my classes. We spent Christmases with my wife’s family, and while we were at my sister-in-law’s house, she brought out a book of Christmas stories with the idea that somebody should read one to enhance the Yuletide spirit. However, these stories from a collection entitled Children of Christmas by Cynthia Rylant were not the traditional ones I had expected. I thumbed through it and saw a title which drew me, “All the Stars in the Sky.” Since no one else had volunteered, I began to read aloud.

It was the story of Mae, a homeless woman and her three dogs (sadly only one of whom had a name), who had been on the street for so many years she no longer remembered her past. That included Christmas. Feeling poorly and in search of food, she stumbles into the unlocked door of a library closed for the night.

After finding food for herself and the dogs, she comes upon a Christmas display. She sits on the floor in the liquid light of a fish tank and sees a basket of books. She begins to look at them, first one with pictures about a snowman who comes to life and flies off with a boy, and then another:

“It has words, so Mae nearly puts it back down, but the pictures of the woman and the baby and all the stars in the sky hold her and Mae turns the pages slowly, curled into her cushion, and breathes deep and quiet, and looks.

Mae looks at every book in the basket while her dogs sleep. Every Christmas book in the basket.

Then she lays her head against Marty and she sleeps too.”

Some small ember still alive deep within Mae, some distant memory of her own childhood and Christmases past, is stirred even if Mae is not conscious of it. She leaves the library in the morning:

“Mae walks with her dogs, her stomach full, not sick anymore, and a sign in a store window says ‘Merry Christmas!’ but Mae sees only a snowman flying and a woman and a baby and stars and stars and stars.”

It brought me to tears as I read, voice quavering with sobs, startling my wife and sister-in-law, some deep well of emotion within me tapped by this story. I’m not sure why this was so. It has the same effect on me to this day.

When my students read it, I could see many of them felt the same way. I always asked them to answer a question about whether or not this story should be read by kids. A few of them said no because of its sadness, but the majority said yes. They believed it served as a reminder to those of us who have families and a warm home and people who care about us not to take those things for granted. That recognition alone made this lesson worthwhile.

One last addition was made to my December repertoire that became a real favorite both for the students and me: A Christmas Story. For years during breaks in our holiday dinner at my mother-in-law’s house, I had watched together with my young niece and nephew Jean Shepherd’s whimsical tale of childhood desire for the perfect gift. When I came into possession of a VCR copy, I immediately installed it as a permanent part of my pre-Christmas lesson plans.

It was perfect. It had the timeless humor of the misadventures of a kid growing up: struggles with the neighborhood bully, attempted manipulation of parents and teachers, stupid acts spurred on by the dares of a friend, and navigating the oddities of the various personalities surrounding us as we grow up. But there was also great tenderness between the very people who sometimes experienced a clash of wills, all of this in the delightful atmosphere of Christmastime in small town America.

My only worry was that my students would have already seen it. This turned out not to be the case. Some students were totally unfamiliar with it. Others had seen bits and pieces but never the entire thing. Those that had seen it in its entirety were enthusiastic about seeing it again. I understand why; I must have watched this gem scores of times and have never tired of it. Each Christmas I along with my now-grown niece and nephew laugh anew at so many of the unforgettable scenes: Ralphie’s bunny pajama present from his aunt, his father’s “major award” leg lamp with fishnet stockings, Ralphie’s first big curse in front of his father, Flick’s triple-dog-dare-caused tongue stuck to the flagpole, the dinner at the Chinese restaurant. Each vignette becomes a reference point to episodes in our own lives as we watch the trials and tribulations of Ralphie in his quest for that Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle. In spite of the time period of the story, so much has remained the same about childhood Christmases, and this story manages to capture it.

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I often wonder if my students remember any of these stories from back then, or if encountered again now do they recall their experience with them in my class. Even though I’m no longer in that room at this time of year, I still think back to those days sharing both the sorrow and laughter of Buddy and Mae and Ralphie in the spirit of the season, and at least for me, these stories we savored together are forever part of the fabric of my own Christmas memories.

 

 

 

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Christmas With Mary

December 22, 2013

The celebration of Christmas in my life is divided into two distinct periods. The first is the Christmas of my childhood with my mother, father, and sister. These were the Christmases of leaving Santa Claus milk and cookies by the lolly pole and quarrels over decorating the tree and the stockings hung by the fake fireplace my father had built and the wild pleasure of new toys. These Christmases, now preserved in fading photos, ended when my sister and I became preoccupied teens with interests beyond our own home.

Christmas in the rumpus room

our rumpus room Christmas

The second is the Christmas at Mary’s house. Mary, my wonderful mother-in-law, the matriarch of the family and the impresario of the all-day Christmas dinner. These were the Christmases of all the Uncles stopping by after church for a glass of Jezynowka Blackberry Flavored Brandy or a shot of something stronger, my mom and dad arriving later to join in celebration with the loving and boisterous family I had married into. The Christmases of my niece Emma, the little princess and star of the show in her festive velvet Laura Ashley dress opening presents on the living room floor and mugging for the ever-present camera, a few years later joined by her brother Luke, always with a frisky Schnauzer — first Teddy and later Rocky — scurrying around amidst the mountains of wrapping paper. The Christmases of Uncle Sammy sitting at the end of the table telling his colorful stories that prompted the birth of the “paratrooper alert” by Paula to signal the need to edit a bit for her children’s sake.

The joy of Christmas at grandma Mary's

The joy of Christmas at grandma Mary’s

These are the Christmases of most of my adult life that I enjoyed so much and remember so well, sitting around that oval table in the dining room surrounded by family photos and Mary’s Hummel collection, hearing the bustle of cooking coming from the small kitchen with Mary emphatically directing the operation. And the food — oh, the food! First the antipasto, the plates of capocol, pepperoni, salami, prosciutto, and tangy chunks of provolone, the bowls of olives and peperoncini, home-roasted red peppers in garlic and olive oil, crunchy celery and fennel, tuna fish and crusty Italian bread, and highlighted by Mary’s specialty, stuffed mushrooms, all enough for a meal by itself. A time for more wine and lively conversation, and then the arrival of Mary’s piece d’ resistance, lasagna, a massive steaming platter of pasta layers filled with ricotta and tiny meatballs and topped with melted mozzarella and her incomparable red gravy. My mouth waters merely thinking about it.

Some of us would retreat to the breezeway between courses to digest and watch a few segments of A Christmas Story. Uncle Sammy would plop himself into the well-cushioned arm-chair and soon nod off as Emma, Luke, and I laughed at Ralphy’s dilemmas even though we’d seen them countless times before. We’d be called back to the table as the ham and sweet potato and vegetables and salad made their appearance, belts loosened to accommodate the abundance. The glorious day of stuffing ourselves came to a conclusion with coffee, pignoli cookies, and Mary’s homemade cheesecake. It would take until New Years to fully recover.

Over the years, these Christmases suffered losses, first my father, then my mom, and then Uncle Sammy, but the tradition carried on. The past few years, because of Mary’s failing health, the job of preparation and cooking had to be taken over by my father-in-law Tony and Bernadette and Paula, but they performed admirably, and Mary sat there in her customary spot, agreeing with a smile that they had indeed done a good job on the lasagna, although never quite as good as hers. Last year we moved Christmas to Paula’s house for the sake of logistics, but Mary still enjoyed the evening surrounded by good food and loving family.

2010, our last Christmas with Mary.

2012, our last Christmas with Mary.

This will be the first Christmas without Mary. We will convene again at Paula’s, and I’m sure the stories of our Christmases past will be told with much laughter as well as a few tears. It will not be the same, though, Mary’s familiar spot now empty, her smiling approval of the stuffed mushrooms and lasagna missing. But the gift of all of Mary’s Christmases shall remain with us, kept alive in memory and story alike, and each year as the family gathers once again, Mary’s presence will be felt, and her indomitable spirit will live on as we celebrate Christmas together.

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To Honor Those Who Have Served

November 11, 2013

Remember

Today is Veterans’ Day. For many Americans, it is not such a notable holiday. There are parades here and there and a few stories on TV news magazine programs. The Post Office, government offices, and courts are closed as are some schools (their option). But I wonder about the emotional connection that seems to be missing. I fear that the impact of the significance of this day is minimal for far too many Americans .

However, for some Americans, this is a day that cannot be ignored. These Americans are the ones who have served in war. They are also the fathers and mothers, the sisters and brothers, the husbands and wives, and the sons and daughters of those vets.  This day is a time to acknowledge the sacrifices they have made, something in my opinion that should be done at every opportunity, not just on one day.

Since its institution as a holiday in 1919 to commemorate the November 11, 1918, cessation of fighting during World War I — supposedly the “war to end all wars” — there have been numerous occasions for American soldiers to be called to take up arms. World War II. The Korean War (or Korean Conflict for those who like to overlook reality). The Vietnam War. The Gulf War. The Iraq War. The War in Afghanistan. And if history is any indicator, there will be others yet to come.

We need to pay tribute to these Americans who have heeded that call even if we are not one of them. We need to think about those who went to war and returned forever affected by their experience. We owe them that much.

If you are not a veteran of war, if you have not been sent away from your home and friends and family to a strange and hostile far-off land, then you can’t know what it’s really like. You have not had to experience the often random and brutal death and destruction that is part of war. That is understandable. But you can do something to open your eyes to the realities that others have lived through on your behalf.

Read what those veterans who have served have written about these realities. They wrote what they did to try to get you to understand — at least a little bit — what it was like to be there, and what it is like to carry the scars, both physical and emotional, back home again. Read the poems of Yusef Komunyakaa about the soldiers’ perilous life in the jungles of Vietnam or those of Brian Turner who writes with such insight about the trials of serving in the Iraqi desert. The time and location may differ from war to war, but the essence of the experience remains the same. Whether you agree or not with these or any other wars, the people who are sent and who must make the sacrifices deserve your attention.

Visit the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. Touch the names on that shiny black wall and watch those who come to mourn or remember. Talk to a veteran, at the very least to thank him or her for their service. Talk to their family members to perhaps feel some of their emotion and reflect on the situation in which they have found themselves. Better yet, do something positive to aid a vet who is in need, or contribute in some way to those who are already doing so. The Wounded Warrior Project is one such organization which has been doing wonderful things. Check out their website. Help in whatever way you can, even if it’s making a small donation.

So today is Veterans Day. Do what you can to recognize them today. Pay attention to their stories in whatever form they present themselves. Remember their stories on normal days as well because their normal days in many cases have been forever changed. Though it is, I believe, our obligation to do so, start to look at it as a privilege to honor those who have served.

To paraphrase the words of my friend Sarah, the proud daughter of a Vietnam vet, Happy Veterans Day to all the people who left everything behind to fight for our country and who teach us about the true sacrifice of war.

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New Year’s Eve

December 31, 2011

So here we are again at the end of another year. Time to take stock, look back, look ahead.

2012. It seems so unreal, this combination of numbers representing the year we now enter. It is especially hard to conceive for my generation who grew up with George Orwell’s 1984 still being part of the distant future. 2012…oh, my.

Bernadette is working today, so I’m left alone, rattling around the house with my thoughts (always a dangerous thing). The needles are starting to drop from the Christmas tree, and I noticed that multitudinous spiders have taken up residence in the corners of certain walls, but I am distracted. In another place. Nostalgic. The spiders are apparently unconcerned about such matters. Maybe I’ll just take out the vacuum cleaner and show them a thing or two.

I once saw a documentary segment about nostalgia which mentioned how at one time it was considered a form of depression. One modern expert put a somewhat different spin on it. He said it is a way we can help to view ourselves relative to others who came before us. Since this is the time of year when the remembrances of those who have left this plane of existence in the year just ending are revisited, it’s a perfect opportunity to test his theory.

It is quite a procession of notable people who impacted our lives — sometimes significantly and sometimes tangentially — and to realize that they’re no longer present is always unsettling. Inevitably it leads me to think about how much some people manage to accomplish in their lifetimes. Then, a singularly provocative question: how do those of us who spend most of our allotted time seemingly just muddling by expect to stack up?

This was especially true this year for me. Two of the departed were personal heroes of mine. Neither particularly captured the public spotlight in life or death, but they had a powerful effect on me.

R. Sargent Shriver was the man most responsible for the creation of the Peace Corps in which I proudly served. He led a life of public service dedicated to the proposition that poverty was a condition unacceptable in a society where prosperity was the hallmark. Setting aside personal aspirations for what could have been a brilliant career in politics, he dedicated his time and energy in a valiant attempt to actually do something about the problem. After serving as the director of the Peace Corps, he helped create the Office of Economic Opportunity and was its first director. The array of social programs he founded is unparalleled: Head Start, VISTA, Job Corps, Upward Bound, and numerous legal services for the underrepresented and dispossessed. Most people don’t realize the profound contribution of this incredible American. He fell victim to Alzheimer’s on January 18.

Milton Rogovin also focused his talents on the forgotten in our society, but as a photographer. His documentary photos of common people — the workers, the poor, the otherwise faceless masses — were done with dignity, clarity, and an honesty that conveys the often ignored humanity of his subjects. His aptly entitled documentary film, “The Rich Have Their Own Photographers,” captured his social consciousness and brought his quest to remedy social injustice to a wider audience (though not wide enough, as far as I’m conerned). He was a simple man, an optometrist by trade, but he could not ignore the wrongs he saw, and he too did something about it. And, like Sargent Shriver, he also left this earth on January 18.

There were many others I admired now gone:  civil rights activist Fred Shuttlesworth, Czech writer-turned-president Vaclav Havel, the incomparable marathoner Grete Waitz, actor Peter Falk (ah, Wings of Desire), and saxophone wizard Clarence Clemons, to name a few. Their achievements will stand long after their departure.

I do understand that not every human will make a mark as memorable as a select few manage to do. I recognize that, in taking stock, though most of us won’t quite measure up to the incredible levels of the finest among us, if we have made an effort to do something that has made the world better in some small way and we use their example to inspire us to perhaps do a little more, we can enter the new year with some solace or satisfaction.

So I shall be of good cheer after all. I feel as though I am still contributing with my new teaching “career” in spite  of retirement. My health, though not what it once was, is not bad. Bernadette still puts up with me. I continue to be easily amused and captivated by simple things. My life has been filled with plenty.

I therefore resolve to celebrate a more positive view of the nostalgia I’m awash in. Spiders, you have a reprieve. Bring on the dropping ball, 2012. Ready or not (well…not, but anyway), here I come.