Friday, December 26, 2008

An Unexpected Christmas

The Barnes clan – Ryan and Megan Smith; Jorge, Dana and Lori Hernandez; and Trudi and I – had an unexpected and special Christmas yesterday. We started off with our traditional Christmas breakfast and stockings (we're into stocking stuffers). Then we gathered around the tree and began opening our presents.

It was a very blustery day in Menlo Park. On days like that you can pretty much count on tree branches falling and power going out somewhere. This was our day. At 10:00 a.m. the lights went out. Power came back on at 2:00 in the morning. The in-between time would become one of our most memorable... and blessed... Christmases ever.

Thankfully, we had plenty of candles, lanterns and flashlights. I prepared our traditional spaghetti sauce by flashlight, and while it simmered on the stove all afternoon (thankfully, our gas stove still worked), we visited around the fireplace, napped, read, went for a walk and played with Lori. In the evening it started to get a little cold, so we bundled up and played charades and other guessing games in front of the fire. All day, all night, it was just us, enjoying each other's company and getting to know each other even better.

I hope your Christmas was as special as ours!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Special Party

On Monday, Jorge Hernandez and I hosted a party for brother/son-in-law and father-to-be Ryan Smith. Ryan's son is due around the first of February. A group of Ryan's friends gathered at my house for a "Texas Load 'Em" party. This is a special variation on Texas Hold 'Em; the rules are the same, but the buy-in is a package of diapers. Ryan is a reeeeally good poker player, and it's important that he become equally adept at changing diapers. He'll need a lot more diapers that the guests provided, but it's a start.

It was a great evening: burgers, a football game on in the background, and a lively game of poker. I'm a pretty marginal player, so I was out of the game soon enough, serving from then on as card shuffler and student of the game. As I looked around the table, which included Ryan's father, Dale, I was reminded of how important it is for dads, especially new dads, to be surrounded by good friends and role models.

No matter how well you prepare for parenthood, no matter how much you learn in advance, you'll never know what it's going to be like until you're in it. Because the biggest unknown is your child. You've got to learn as you go. That's why books are important, expert advice is invaluable, but having friends who can come alongside you, encourage you and support you... well, that's priceless.

I've seen Ryan with his niece, Lori Hernandez. If that's any indication, he's going to be a good father. And with a circle of quality guys around him, he'll be a great one.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

How To Get Great Deals

This being the Christmas (shopping) season, I'm reminded of someone who always seems to get great deals from merchants... a discount, a favor or a free this or that. Seriously, this happens all the time, like when they received a small pot of baby roses because the florist had extra. People often ask, "How do you do it?" or "What's your secret?"

I've watched this person for many years and think I've figured out the secret. Here it is:

  • Get to know the salesperson. Start with their name, but don't stop there.
  • Create opportunities to learn more about them (in other words, shop there often). Find out about their likes and dislikes, their family, etc. In short, know their story.
  • If you're in the store on their birthday, wish them Happy Birthday. If their coworkers aren't doing anything special for them, go and buy them a cake and have it decorated with their name.
  • If it's their anniversary, give them a card or a little something for them and their spouse to enjoy.
  • If they're in need of a job connection, make some calls.
  • If they're a single mom who's struggling financially (as many are), give them a little gift at Christmas, and one for their child.
I could go on and on, but you see the pattern. The secret, then, for getting good deals from merchants is... don't try. Don't make it your goal or hidden agenda, in fact, don't give it any thought at all. Just care about the merchants and servicepeople in your world and treat them as you would your neighbor.

I've got a long way to go to live up to my friend's example, but I'm hopefully taking a few baby steps in the right direction. The guy who picks up the trash and recycling at work is named Alberto. He lives in San Jose. Fred delivers our Fed Ex packages. He's studying nights to be a paralegal.

It's a start. Many more steps to go. Blessings to all this Christmas season.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

It Was 31 Years Ago Today

There are pivotal moments in world history, for example, Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, 1941, "a date that will live in infamy" as Franklin Roosevelt so aptly put it. And then there are pivotal moments in our personal histories. December 17, 1977, is mine. Trudi and I were married 31 years ago today.

I'm not going to share any sage advice in this post, though I know what's worked for us. Today, I'm just going to celebrate what I've got now as a result of that one "I do" so many years ago:
  • A wife of both inner and outer beauty, the "jewel in my crown," who has grown and changed in countless ways over the years, yet in so many ways... in all the right ways... remained the same
Here's Trudi in 1977...

...and 2007

But wait, there's more! I've also got...

  • Two grown daughters who, while different as night and day, share the same tender heart and caring nature
  • Two fine sons-in-law, gentlemen both, who have blessed my life in countless ways and rounded me out as a father and as a man

  • Two awesome grandchildren, one just beginning to explore her world, and one awaiting his arrival into this world early next year

  • A fabulous extended family that, like my own nuclear family, continues to grow in number and character

  • An abundance of friends who have accepted me, enriched me, challenged me, forgiven me and generally "done life" with me
Does this read a little like a Hallmark card? Oh, I hope so. Is this maybe a little overly sentimental or corny? Sure, but that's how I am. Has it always been sweetness and light these past 31 years? Of course not. Like every other couple, we've had our share of tough times.

But this is my anniversary card, and it's from the heart. Happy anniversary, Trudi!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Uh Oh!

Lori Hernandez has always been a very physical kid. She's not yet 8 months old and is crawling and climbing everywhere. She has the strength and determination to get herself into all sorts of mischief. And the challenging thing with a kid like this is that they have all of the physical skills to get into everything, but they don't even understand the word "No" yet. (Come to think of it, a lot of us adults are like that!)

These photos say it all. Dana and Jorge, it's time to baby-proof the house!

This little table is one of Lori's favorite "tunnels." It seems that any time she crawls from one side of the room to the other, she has to climb through this table. Go get 'em, 'retta Joy!

This is supposed to be a baby seat, though I don't know if it got much use that way. But it will get plenty of use as "Baby's First Trampoline." Hey, Lori, how about a one-and-a-half gainer into the laundry basket!

I'm looking forward to seeing everyone at Christmas!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Favorite Christmas Flicks

Two Christmas classics top my list of holiday favorites, and they couldn't be more different...

A Christmas Carol (1951) - There have been many adaptations of Dickens' holiday classic, but the 1951 version starring British character actor Alastair Sim in the lead role is the definitive version. Filmed in black and white, the modust production values are more than offset by stellar performances. Sim's portrayal of the Ebenezer Scrooge is nothing short of remarkable. He is absolutely detestable as Scrooge the miserable miser and positively delightful as the transformed Scrooge. Thankfully, this classic was recently restored, and the quality is much improved over earlier VHS versions. If you absolutely need color, there is a colorized version, but you don't need it. Seriously, everybody should see this.

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation - What can I say, this is one of my favorite movies, period. We watch is every Christmas season. A lovable, laughable tribute to everyone who's watched their holiday gatherings slowly degenerate into the "Christmas from hell," this movie has so many great scenes you can't count them all. The Griswold family's pursuit of the perfect Christmas tree and Chevy Chase's lightning fast snow dish ride are but two of the great moments in this movie, which is filled with great moments.

Any favorites of yours?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Carols Without The Music

An odd title, but hear me out...

Several years ago, I was looking for a Christmas "fake book" that had lyrics and chords to all of my favorite holiday songs. Not finding one, or rather, finding some that were incomplete and others with arrangements I didn't like, I undertook to create my own in Microsoft Word. Yeah, I know, kind of a nutty task.

I gathered song sheets from multiple sources and then began the time-consuming task of typing in the lyrics and chords. As I did this, without the accompanying music in my ears, I was able to reflect on the lyrics in a way I never had before. No, not songs like "Little Saint Nick" or "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer," though these fun tunes are in my song book. I'm talking about the yuletide songs of the faith, like "Angels We Have Heard On High," "The First Noel" and "Angels We Have Heard On High."

I ended up with over sixty songs, including church hymns, traditional carols, popular tunes and novelty songs.

Among my very favorite carols to read as poetry is the simple yet beautiful "O Little Town of Bethlehem":

O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight

The last verse is a sweet prayer:

O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born in us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel

"Emmanuel" - "God with us." I can't think of anything this troubled world need more, both now and every season, than to know the love and peace of God. That's my prayer this season.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A Few Of My Favorite CDs

I thought I'd share a few of my favorite Christmas CDs.

I'm a BIG fan of soul and R&B music, and one of the best CDs you can find in that genre is Michael McDonald's "In the Spirit - A Christmas Album." There are a couple of standards here, which are only so-so, but the rest of the CD is full of stellar originals that cover a wide range of seasonal sentiment, from the joys of family to the coming of the Savior. It's hard for me to pick a favorite; they're all great. The lyrics, particularly the song "Peace," reflect an abiding faith in God.

Vince Guaraldi's "A Charlie Brown Christmas" is so familiar to those of us who grew up on the Peanuts TV specials that we can often overlook the fact that it's just plain fine jazz. Guaraldi has a free, joyful improvisational style that breathes new life into many Christmas favorites. The CD also includes classics like "Linus and Lucy" and "Christmastime is Here."

If you want a good country Christmas CD, check out Tricia Yearwood's "The Sweetest Gift." Yearwood's voice is so strong, yet so sweet, and she can "sell" a song as well as anybody in country music. Among the gems on this CD are "Sweet Little Jesus Boy" and "Take a Walk Through Bethlehem," the latter being one of my favorite contemporary Christmas songs.

Just plain fun is "Christmas Gumbo," a collection of songs from various Cajun/Creole artists. The most pleasant surprise on this CD is "Peace in the World" by the Subdudes, which belongs in every Christmas catalog. Tons of great listening here, including "Christmas Gumbo," "Louisiana Santa" and "Papa St. Nick." You'll love this one, I garontee!

Chris Isaak is another artist I enjoy a lot, particularly his "Baha Sessions" album. His holiday offering, "Chris Isaak Christmas," serves up a pleasant collection of Yuletide classics as well as originals, all done in Isaak's trademark style, a blend of rockabilly, country and 50's/60's rock and roll. Be sure to check out "Brightest Star," an original penned by Isaak. I don't know and haven't read anything about Isaak's faith, but the lyrics speak of a young but growing faith in Christ.

People either love or hate Aaron Neville's distinctive vocal style, with its over-the-top, warbly vibrato. I've always liked him, ever since his soul classic "Tell It Like It Is" hit the charts in the 60's. Neville's "The Best of Aaron Neville - The Christmas Collection" is a wonderful compilation of songs from Neville's several Christmas releases. It contains classics like "O Holy Night," soulful tunes like "Please Come Home for Christmas," and rollicking goodtime songs like "Louisiana Christmas Day." You gotta check this one out.

That'll do for a start. Tell me about your favorites!

Monday, December 1, 2008

'Tis the Season

It's now December 1, and while the retailers kicked off the Christmas shopping season a month or more ago, I've been holding out until after Thanksgiving to start bringing out the decorations and playing Christmas carols. Don't get me wrong, I love the Christmas season, but I get Scrooge-y about the rampant commercialism. But post-Thanksgiving, we really get into Christmas. No radical house decorations timed to music or anything, but plenty of festive things to help us celebrate Christ's birth.

Yesterday, Trudi and I put up the lights across the front of our house. They're the icicle style lights, and I wish I'd invented them. Makes our house in-yo-face festive! I think Trudi and I are getting this down to a science. Climbing up and down a ladder a bunch of times and crawling around on the roof are way down on my list of fun things to do, and I can sometimes get a bit testy. But this time things went really smoothly. Long as I was up on the roof, I cleaned out the gutters, which had filled up with leaves from the birch trees, and brushed off moss that had begun growing in some of the shadier spots.

I also played my Christmas playlist on my iPod yesterday. Just let it run in shuffle mode. I've got well over a hundred carols, ranging from instrumentals and contemporary to Cajun and R&B. Every year I try to pick up a CD or two.

We'll get our tree this weekend, probably at the Nativity tree lot, which always seems to have a good selection of noble firs, which is the style of tree that we like. Lots of sturdy branches for hanging ornaments, and after 30+ years, we've got a bunch of those. In years past, we had to hang the breakable ornaments up high, out of the range of our lab's tail. This year, we'll have to protect the tree from our mobile, insatiably curious and determined granddaughter, Lori! And speaking of Lori, we may well go a bit light on the inside decorations this year... at least the ones that would be in reach of the kid. I just saw a video clip of Lori starting to climb up on things. Yikes!

More to come, including favorite movies, CDs, recipes and Christmas traditions.