TTWA: North Dakota

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TTWA Assignment:  Imagine you have moved to North Dakota in the midst of winter.  Write a postcard that will make Californians jealous.  

This task is quite easy.  I’ve always had a strong opinion about the value of winter.  Christmas in my humble opinion while certainly a religious holiday exists as a winter festival, a celebration of warm food, white lights and warm fires.  December and its holidays exist to chase away the fears and despair that accompanies the season.  Temperatures fall far below freezing; snow and ice coat the roads; the trees extend from the ground like the living dead.  Living things abandon the outside world; we hide in our homes and avoid any reminders that the planet has tilted away from the sun for the next four months.  

Christmas for my family chases all that despair away.  The smell of baked goods intermingle with pine wreathes.  Cranberries and cinnamon pepper our food.  As a family we draw close together before the oven and fireplace; lights dance across the treetops; children giggle beneath Christmas trees.

How far that little candle throws its beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world. — Shakespeare

I cannot imagine Christmas in Florida or California.  Sure, the holiday exists, but it has no meaning, no significance.  You can drink hot chocolate in San Diego but without the bite of winter, how good does that chocolate taste?  How can you revel in bonding with family when you are free to move outside?  Some of the greatest myths and stories exist because families and friends would sit around a fire and talk to one another.  In some respects, this may prove boring, but boredom often spurs creativity.  

Yes, winter is not pleasant.  Anyone living around the East Coast this year can tell you that, but all the good things associated with Christmas and the holidays are born of the cold and snow.  I imagine North Dakota would prove a similar experience. Except for the bears. With that respect you’re on your own. 

Fire and Ice

As I sit and write, the teachers in the science department are jamming out, banging their heads to Pink Floyd’s “Brick in the Wall.” Besides the obvious irony — my coworkers practically screamed ‘Teacher, leave those kids alone!’ — those students that have dropped by wrinkle their noses as if they caught us cooking chocolate-covered crickets.

Winter proves a difficult time for school.  Too little snow yields a figurative eternity between Christmas and Spring Break, while too much and you may as well cancel your summer holidays.  All in all, I’d to stay indoors by the fire with a good book and a pot of tea, a schedule broken only by my writing, gaming, napping, and jogging to the bathroom — all that tea, you know.

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A Tale of Two Stores

It is zero hour, and I’m trapped in Hell.  Not the fiery demon-haunted domain that the nuns would invoke when I pocketed a quarter from the sidewalk or considered the latest swimsuit calender, but the kind that involves screaming children and Christmas shoppers.  The Saturday before Christmas, Mom requires a few additional presents for her nieces and nephews.  Dad is rearranging furniture from one corner of the living room to another corner; Mom reconsiders the lighting and astrological signs and then asks said husband to slide said sofa or hope-chest fifty centimeters or five feet to the left.  I chose the better of two evils and depart for Toys ‘R Us.

One of the mysteries of the holidays that I’ve never fathomed is the proclivity of parents to tote their tots to the toy store days before Christmas.  To. Buy. Christmas.  Presents.  Just pull back the bloody curtain on Santa’s workshop, why don’t you?  While your at it, why not read the original ending of Anderson’s Little Mermaid: you know the one where Ariel turns into a murderous sociopath.

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Translations

College English professors shuffle the greater influx of language into two distinct categories: what is said and what is meant.  That is, what the greater number of these tenure-track sweater vests may define as ‘denotation’ and ‘connotation’ when restricted to single word or phrase, or those thinly disguised political allegories that has kept Orwell’s Animal Farm for years from the hands of Disney’s animators. 

“No duh,” the kids say. 

Frankly, plain honest integrity is a relic of the storybooks.  Most conversations require translators, word-sherpas to cut a path through the various layers of polite or veiled rhetorical BS.  Advertisers spin half-truths; politicians conceive full-lies; one girl I dated in college doubted everything but her religion: God exists here on Earth, dwelling in the body of one, David Matthews.  Don’t drink the water, indeed.

The only saving grace for our species lies in the unilateral agreement among peoples of all races to never say what they mean.  As such, our honesty depends entirely upon the propagation of lies.  The sweater-vests would call that ‘situational irony.’

Thus, for a moment, let us peel back the curtain, shall we?  Take a look at the truth behind the words for a change:

Ryan’s girlfriend, Mary, visited the house last Saturday.  The rest of the family had already left to the kalee, a month meeting of Irish dancers established by the state Hiberian Society — lovers of all things Irish.  Every month Mom, Dad and the kids visit a local lodge or Knights of Columbus hall to dance, cavort, and play cards until the music gives out or the ladies grow tired.  It’s all good family fun, so of course I try to avoid it like the slug shuns sodium.  Shannon and I sat downstairs engaged in a FIFA 2009 match on the Xbox, when Ryan shouted that he and Mary were leaving for the dance.

“Ryan, make sure bring home you know what!” Shannon shouted back up, scoring another goal on me.  In the background, Mary tutted.  “Mary, I know you’re thinking that I’m talking about alcohol, but I assure you that drinking is the devil’s brew!  If you booze, ya lose!”  He’s talking about alcohol. 

“Riiiight . . .” Mary muttered in the kitchen. She suspicious but clearly has no idea.

“Oh and Ryan!” Shannon screamed again.  “Make sure you get the dark stuff!”  He’s talking about Guiness.

“Are you talking about porn?” Mary retorted quickly after.  I . . . I have no idea what she’s thinking here.

Shannon and I burst out laughing.  Fade to black.

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Silence

The lady orchestrating the morning’s events cracked the first joke, the loud and obnoxious type.  This was to be expected of Kevin’s Confirmation coordinator.  She would need to enervate children and sponsors alike from their  agnostic and mostly private social habits.  Her goal now was to inspire candidates and their sponsor to talk openly about their faith among strangers, people who like Pat and me possessed little desire to regurgitate age-old religion lessons from grammar school or weep blood.

Yet if that’s what it took to get us out of there by twelve, then so be it.  Frankly, I was feeling a little teary-eyed myself after the previous night’s combination basketball match and Nazi Zombie game-a-thon.  I yawned loudly, stirring lukewarm coffee while searching for our designated table, labeled Yellow with yellow marker.  On white paper too.  Wonderful.

Pat just rolled his eyes.  Our cousin Kathleen, his candidate, dragged him to their table across the room.  Kevin simply sat down and stared out at the snow falling outside the window, no doubt anxious to begin plowing when we returned home . . . if we returned home.  Mom had suggested the chance of snowfall the night before, but the flakes fell thick and fast, nearly covering the nearby lawns in seconds.  The roads alone still resisted the assault of ice, but as the temperatures continued to drop they too would be overwhelmed.  The aspect of bunking overnight at the kids’ elementary school with a crazed Confirmation teacher did not excite me in the least.  Still as far as Saturday night’s go, I’ve had worse.

Swarming around Ms. Rachel buzzed the hyper, overly-enthusiastic giggles of past year’s confirmants — three girls and two boys — all wearing brightly colored t-shirts which I learned later corresponded with the various table labels.  Team yellow was led by a relaxed kid in a sunshine polo, who introduced himself as Mark.  The other two kids likewise appeared bored but emotionally stable individuals, their personalities easily overshadowed by the last two girls who introduced themselves in song.

“Hi, my name is Crystal and I’m in love with God . . .”

10:00AM  Half-an-hour into the retreat and already I found myself clock-gazing.   Around the table we began introducing ourselves to the other candidates, mostly girls.  And their mothers.  I shoot Kevin a sympathetic grin but he ignores me.  I hear him murmuring Ford F150 and ‘sucky GMC plows’ and ignore him.  Pre-arranged questions in sealed envelopes are passed around as a means to break the ice.  The girls and their sponsors seemed hesitant to talk but nevertheless kind and down-to-earth.  Betty likes the beach.  Julie paints and runs track.  At an adjacent table, I caught Pat rolling his eyes.  Afterward he admitted that one of his neighbor’s wrote love songs to Jesus.

“I just didn’t know what to say to that . . .” he said.  “I just nodded and tried not to laugh.”

Of late, I treat most religious discussions with a fair bit of cynicism.  Though my religious faith remains unshaken, my faith in the religious wavers.  Most sermons — especially those outside mass — come off as fake and though not entirely dishonest, still very much lacking in honesty like a sales pitch for spray-on hair.  Too many people seem to have too many answers, flooding classrooms and auditoriums with words and not enough actions.  Singing songs and playing Bible games feels like ample carnival fair but cannot replace honest discussion.  Frankly, I’d be satisfied if Ms. Rachel removed the press-on nails, toned down her voice several decibels, and spoke simply, quietly: “This stuff makes sense to me.  These teachings have helped me become a better person.  Give me a few hours of your time and perhaps you’ll find something worthwhile as well.”

Instead we played games.  Name two gifts of the Holy Spirit.  What does the bishop carry with him during the ceremony?  Name two Sacraments of Initiation.

Admittedly it was interesting and fun to tease Kevin a bit.  Particularly around the girls at our table.  After announcing his favorite animal was a cheetah, there was only so much I could do.  Next Junior Youth Brigade herded Yellow and Purple tables into an adjacent room for a short video on Silence, why it’s so important, why we have so many distractions in our lives, and why does not God take up more of that time.  They threw candy at us beforehand to contrast with sudden and long silences dispersed throughout the program.  Stacks of paper were passed around for notes.  Yeah, right.

Outside the snow continued to fall, now covering the sidewalks and collecting lightly on the roadways.  Words flashed on the screen, much too fast for Kevin and his dyslexia to catch.  Pen in hand, we played tick-tack-toe until someone turns on the lights.

When we returned to our tables, I grabbed myself another cup of coffee while the second group including Pat and Kathleen left the room.  I gave them a hearty thumps-up as they shuffled outside.  Returning to our seats we began another Powerpoint presentation on faith and began discussing God as the whisper or God as the storm.  ‘How did you feel after watching the film?  Do we live our lives looking for the divine in silence or through iPods and television?’

Personally, I felt the conversation a little one-sided (In a large Irish Catholic family, silence are bad omens and often follow shattered porcelain or report cards.) not to mention a little condescending but shrugged it off with a few well-practiced answers from my Jesuit days.  No one wanted to discuss anything anyway.  These silent discussion about, well . . .  silence grew louder as conversations bubbled over into Christmas Lists, video games, and the snow ball fights.  By 11:30 we were all anxious to leave.  Even Ms. Rachel’s color-coded minions seemed a little less enthusiastic, abandoning the Powerpoint for their phones.  Tetris themes were heard over the intercom.  Pat returned from the media room and rolled his eyes for the twelfth time that morning.

As noon rolled around, we were quickly dismissed, eager to test my Explorer on the slippery slush of the highway.  The entire parking lot was an arctic tundra, cold, icy, beautiful.   I looked out at the falling snow, white fields and frosted trees, like an eraser in a cartoon expunging the scenery: blanketing all color, all grime, all noise.  It was probably the most religious experience I had all day.  Quickly, reverently and noisily we piled into the car and drove back home.  Laughing all the way.

Mom was making cookies.  It was snowing.  And Bing belted out the hits on the radio.  Life was good.