Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New Year's Eve

Well, here's another one for the record books. 2013 is history. Are you satisfied with your conquests this year? Are you looking to repeat your performance in 2014? If not, does melancholy over what might have been dampen your enthusiasm?

How about the New Year starting tomorrow? Are there plans to make it a banner year? Have you outlined strategies to tackle your objectives and achieve your goals?

Whatever state we find ourselves in, the New Year is all about (Surprise! Surprise!) new beginnings or, perhaps better stated, a chance to radically revise some old habits from the year before. Sure, it's just another flip of the calendar page, but it can be more.

And with that, enough said.

May your New Year be the start-or perhaps the continuation-of great things in your life. May your relationships improve; may your direction be clear and reasonable to navigate; may your health and well-being take you to new highs. Above all, may your determination to become the best person you can be-to your wife or girlfriend, you family, your friends, and yourself-find you satisfied with your efforts 365 days from now.

Happy New Year from the Men's NetWork!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Eve

By the time you get this, your Christmas Eve should be in full swing. Hopefully, everything's bought that's going to be bought, and everything's up that's going to get put up. For grown-ups with kids there may still be some wrapping of presents, a little, last-minute decorating, or some other odds and ends, before the kids hit the ground running at 5 a.m. But for the most part ... preparations should be nearing an end.

As a kid in Chicago I remember one Christmas in the 1960s when I got my first G.I. Joe. That year my Dad was managing a neighborhood grocery story, my oldest brother was in Vietnam, and my Mom was on pins and needles. Around the house it was Johnny Mathis on the turntable, A Charlie Brown Christmas on our black and white TV, and wassail wafting from the kitchen. I was reading -- for the umpteenth time -- my Dennis the Menace Pocket Full of Fun Christmas edition, and watching quarter-sized snowflakes steadily cover the street outside our home, which was in the back of the laundry my Mom operated.

What a time of the year Christmas is for kids! I hope it's as fun these days as it was for us back in the Middle Ages. Things were less frenetic then, more homespun and simple. Certainly, the distractions were fewer. The fact that four-year-olds can follow a series of commands on a hand-held computer is nifty, but somehow with all this connectedness (and the stream of choices that goes with it) there's a disconnect too.

Sadly, it's often the same for adults.

As this evening rolls on and quickly disappears, take a moment, no, better yet, seize a moment to contemplate what it's really all about. Beyond the warm glow of flickering lights, beyond the heady aroma of baked cookies and sweet breads, beyond the prospect of unwrapping that present you're biting at the bit to unwrap, there was a life born in this world 2,000 years ago that changed everything-for everyone-for all time.

May your Christmas be merry with the gift of Good News that's yours 365 days a year!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Family Reunions - the Hard Way

It's a familiar story. Everybody in attendance hasn't seen most everybody else in attendance since the last time a family member died. Now, I may be wrong in this, but the fact we're all seeing each other more frequently is not the best of signs. Keeping up this pace is not the ideal either, as it means there are going to be fewer reasons for getting together -- and fewer people to get together with when we do.

And so goes life -- and death. When I was a kid, death was far away. The thought of losing my parents would send me into a sudden, cold shiver: a gut-dropping sensation would overtake me when the thought turned into a real possibility, no matter how remote it seemed at the time. Still, then, I could shake the feeling pretty quick. After all, I was young. My folks were sort of young, and everybody seemed to be in pretty good shape.

But, oh, how things do change. In the last four years, I've seen my Dad, my aunt, my Mom, my brother-in-law, and now, just this past week, my uncle, exit this mortal vale. There are births and babies, of course, graduations and marriages too, but the old guard is making its final exodus now, permanently relinquishing their posts as patriarchs and matriarchs of the family. And as they go, so have some of my dearest confidants, best friends, and closest allies.

Commenting on this at last week's visitation for my uncle, a cousin of mine was telling me how our fragmenting brood needs to find time to get together and reestablish the pattern of family outings that were so much a part of our lives when we were all kids.

I said, "Yeah, we do!" (Or something like that).

That was the easy part.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Best Present

I must confess I like giving presents. I especially enjoy giving Christmas gifts to my family. There are few things in life I enjoy more than watching my loved ones open their gift from me. It is then I might get a gasp, a smile, a squeal of delight, a tear, or an exclamation as they see what I have given them.

There's a little method to my gift selection I can pass on to you. I pay attention. That's right. I pay attention to those around me throughout the year, listening for some indication of what gets them excited, what they're really interested in. For example, my mind tunes into their hobbies, collections, interests, etc. A friend who's into pens gets a special pen; a friend who golfs, well, he gets golf stuff; the one who enjoys trains gets a train set, etc. I know. It's a pretty complicated method.

I've also been known to be so bold to just ask what they would like for a gift. This tactic can sometimes be frustrating, however. For when the loved one mentions the best gift they could ever get just so happens to be the best gift everyone else wants, well, then, it's often difficult to find it. It's then I go into my super-quest mode: determined to pull all of the stops to obtain that item which is unattainable so that my loved one is especially excited come Christmas morning.

Over the years I've had my share of successes, giving those special gifts that elicit a gasp, smile or squeal. One time I even got tackled as my loved one ran to give me a hug.

One thing I've noticed -- no matter what the gift is -- the best time of the day is simply being together. I have come to realize I could wrap up just about anything and the gift would be appreciated. Okay, maybe not anything, but you get my drift.

This brings me to one last item, and it's the most important point I want to leave you with. Guys, the best present you can give your loved ones at Christmas is your presence -- throughout the year. When you are home for meals, cheering at sports events, sitting next to your kids as they do their homework, reading a bedtime story to your youngster, or just taking a walk -- being with them is a gift they can't replace -- nor would they want to.

Most every present under the tree will be worn out, broken, lost or outgrown over the years. Not so with the memory of the times you've spent together. And in these times of pinching pennies, isn't it nice to know the most enduring gift you can give is yourself?

So the next time you wonder what's the best present you can give that special someone, try giving yourself -- your presence.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Christmas Decorations

As I drove through my neighborhood last night I was impressed with the number of houses decked out with festive lights, innovative lawn displays, and other yuletide items -- all hung, nailed, tacked, strung or otherwise fastened in the name of this merriest of seasons. There was one house in particular that looked as if it might double as an airport beacon, casting forth enough illumination to be visible from outer space.

Now, lest one deduce me to be the Grinch himself, I did put up my lawn decorations and house lights last weekend too. So it's not the idea of decorations I am opposed to, it's being tacky.

Now tacky I realize is a subjective measurement, for one man's plastic Santa placed next to a set of blow-up penguins playing keep away from a snowman using his head for the ball may be the next man's piece de résistance. Still, I find that for me, at least, the most meaningful houses are the ones with decorations honoring the magnificent spirit of this season.

I like lights strung along gutters and eaves that simulate icicles; I like trees decked out in lights. And I really like a crèche in the yard, depicting Mary, Joseph and Jesus.

Our Lutheran Hour Ministries' building has a large, lighted set that features snowflakes on either side of Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus.

My home has a crude wooden stable with the figures of Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus.

Of all the lasting childhood Christmas memories I have, the one that means the most to me today is when my dad would set out the manger scene. Every year there was one under the Christmas tree, and most years he placed one front and center in the yard. He would have us kids help him set up the figures and run the cord for the spotlight; then he would share with us his words immortal: "Boys, this is what Christmas is all about, not all that shopping stuff!"

I couldn't agree more.

Men, it's never too late to begin sharing a CHRISTmas decoration. If this is something you can add to your Christmas celebration, may this year be the start of a tradition your kids will remember 30 years from now.