Saturday, December 10, 2016

Special Things About December: The Great Tree Hunt


Some Special Things About December are things, and others are beloved rituals.

Today we enjoyed the annual Christmas Tree Hunt Adventure. We’re still devoted to real trees – Michigan is the nation’s No. 3 producer of Christmas trees – and for years we’ve headed to the same

For years, we’ve been heading to the same family owned tree farm outside of Rockford. They have nice trees and other things going on that make the afternoon fun.

We grab a saw then head off into the rolling white fields, dotted with evergreens of varying size. Some families opt for the tractor ride, but we head out on foot.

The length of the search varies depending on the participants. Andrew, if he had his way, would grab the first tree he’d see. Caroline would like to explore every square inch of the farm, make a mental list of contenders, carefully consider the merits of each, review them a second time, then make a selection. And we have done this regardless of temperature and snow depth.

With the kids away, Julie ventured out with me today, and we decided upon a beautiful balsam fir in about 20 minutes.

There seemed to be an abnormally large number of families bringing dogs today, and Julie made the astute observation that we should beware of any tree circled by dog paw prints.

Once we’ve knelt in the snow and saw through the trunk, we drag the tree through the through the snow back to the buildings where crew stands it into a machine that shakes the heck out of the tree to remove loose needles and potential squirrels before sending it through a different machine that ties the branches close for easier transport.

Then we stop by the animal area to visit the sheep and the bad ass goats. 

I’ve never felt secure about stringing the tree to the roof of the Civic, so we fold down the back seats and manage to get most of it in the trunk. No matter how I try to wrap the tree in blankets, needles still get embedded.

The lining of my trunk is like a visit with the Ghost of Trees of Christmas Past.

“Hey, is this needle from the balsam fir of 2013?”
“Nope, looks more like the blue spruce of ’15.”


This is OK; a reminder of Christmas, and our fun family rituals, throughout the year.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Something Special About December: Frank's magical Christmas tie

I love classy Christmas ties. They’re a fun way to celebrate the Christmas season at work.

I have some nice ones. I wore one with Charlie Brown on it this week to a special work party. But that’s only because I needed to change the batteries in my favorite Christmas tie.

Yes, today’s Something Special About December is about the best Christmas tie ever.

I thought I was pretty festive at one of the Flint Journal’s annual Christmas parties. That is, until I saw Frank Ruggirello’s neckwear glowing from across the room at the Davison VFW Hall.

You see, Frank, married to colleague Linda Ruggirello, had a tie depicting a string of Christmas lights -- that actually light up. Different lights illuminate at different times. It is mesmerizing.

It’s a beacon of glad tidings, glimmering like a Christmas star attracting Wise Men. It brings joy to the world with a simple press of a button. It is, unquestionably, the best Christmas tie ever. 

If you think that you have the best Christmas tie, let me assure you, you do not.

And I know there are no others like this, because I spent the next several years searching. I could not pass a holiday tie rack without looking for one with bulb designs. I’d find one occasionally, but none of them ever lit up. They were inferior Christmas ties.

There are actually plenty of ties that play music and they are cool, until you are at a serious work meeting, lean forward on the conference table and suddenly hear and “Jingle Bells.” 

And once it starts, the song does not stop until is it is done. And everyone in the room looks at you as you clutch your tie hoping to muffle the sound. They do not break out in song. They just look at you.

Or so I’ve heard. It’s best not to dwell on such things.

Anyway, I’ve never found another light-up tie like Frank’s.

Then, one Christmas season, a package arrived from the Ruggirellos. Frank had decided it was pass on the tie and he knew only one person would appreciate its glory. Needless to say, that was a very merry Christmas.

So now, any time we have an important Christmas gathering, I know that my outfit is not complete until I add Frank’s tie, press the button and stride confidently into the party, joyfully – but silently – blinking Christmas cheer.

Thank you, Frank!

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Something Special About December: The sacrificial snowman and the worst Christmas song ever!


There are good things about the Christmas season. There are bad things about the Christmas season. And sometimes there are things that are so bad that they are good.
Today’s Something Special About December takes us to what I consider the worst Christmas song ever. This is a tale from the blog archives.
We’re not talking about the intentionally bad stuff, like “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer."
I mean the kind of stuff where someone sat down intending to create some holiday warm-and-fuzzy, completed the task and said, "Whoa, this is . . . awesome. I now know the true meaning of Christmas."
Years ago I stumbled across an album called "T.V. Family Christmas." It’s filled with, you guessed it, songs that were either included in very special Christmas episodes of sitcoms, or holiday albums that were rushed out to cash in on a show’s popularity.
And you’ve got some sad stuff, like Gene Autry’s "Nine Little Reindeer," an obvious sequel to his Rudolph hit that is as good as "Caddyshack 2" and about as welcome.
But included in the schlock is "A Crosby Christmas," which is the "Billy Don’t be a Hero" of Christmas songs.
It’s a medley of mostly some bland stuff like "I’d Like to Hitch a Ride with Santa Claus."
Things go completely off the rails when some of the Crosby kids break out with something I think is called "The Snowman." Here are the lyrics:
"On a Christmas Eve
A happy snowman
Stood and dreamed beside
A cottage door
How the children loved
Their friend the snowman
And the funny fedora
That he wore
When they said "Good night,"
They told the snowman
That a gift for him
Was on the tree
So he called himself
A lucky snowman
Just like one of the family
Was he"
OK, this is pretty lame so far, but nothing too freaky. We’ve all made snowmen and added hats. Once I made a cool one with a Wiffle ball bat and Mets batting helmet. And for the sake of holiday cheer I’ll buy into the premise that this snowman can think and dream. The snowman might be somewhat delusional if he thinks he’s really part of the family, but they did promise a gift.


But things are about to go horribly wrong. Back to the lyrics.
"The cottage porch
Looked beautiful and bright
The holly wreath
Was hung up for the night
When all at once,
It caught on fire and fell
He couldn’t knock
He couldn’t ring the bell
He couldn’t run for help
He couldn’t call
But then he had
To save the children after all
He knew he’d melt away
But then the snowman
Threw himself across
The burning floor"
What the heck was that?
First we have a Christmas wreath that is hung on the door "for the night" as if it hasn’t been hanging there since the week after Thanksgiving.
Then, this wreath spontaneously ignites? How? Why?
We established earlier that this snowman can somehow think and reason. But he can’t speak?
And how come he can’t run for help or ring the bell, yet can somehow drag his icy butt up the stairs and hurl himself on the flaming wreath, regretting that he had but one life to give for his family?
It’s just not consistent. Either he’s a magical snowperson or he’s not.
And how are we supposed to feel happy about all of this? "The Gift of the Magi" story is all about sacrifice — and really isn’t one of my favorites — but this downer ditty takes it to a new level. It’s one thing to give up your hair or watch, but another to accept a fiery death.
Back to the story:
"How the children missed
Their friend the snowman
But they’ll always remember him for
A heart that was brave
And the joy that he gave
And the funny fedora he wore"
And then Bing, looking to transition to the next part of the medley, says:
"Ohhhh, great little guy, the happy snowman. I’ll never forget him."
"Great little guy, I’ll never forget him?" That’s what you say about a neighbor who helps you dig your car out of the snow bank. Bing, the snowman took an early exit — sacrificing both his life and the gift on the tree — to save you and your family. And that’s the best you’ve got?
And technically they still have the funny fedora, though soggy, to give to the next snowman — unless the kids are too traumatized to build another one.


Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Something Special About December: Lansing's Capitol Christmas tree


Today’s Something Special About December has us thinking about Christmas trees, but this time they’re much bigger.

One of the best parts about working in Lansing is seeing the gigantic Christmas tree placed on the east side of the state Capitol.

Starting in 1987, the tree lighting ceremony became part of Lansing’s Silver Bells in the City celebration, which has grown into an event that includes an electric parade and fireworks.

Now, normally with civic trees, there is a lot of oohing and aahing when the switch in flicked, but the tree pretty much looks the same year in and year out.

Not so in Lansing.

I’m not sure who gets the credit for this, but the lighting theme is different each year. Sometimes the bulbs are all white, sometimes they are multi-colored, and sometimes there are limited colors.

One year the tree had different sections of colors, and that wasn’t especially popular. But I give them points for trying something new.

This year, there is a brilliant white star atop the tree – the first time I’ve seen that.

I like to pause on my way home and walk under the tree and look up at the lights and over to the Capitol dome, bathed in light and gleaming, a year after its restoration.


It’s a sight I try not to take for granted. I don’t know what the future holds or how long I’ll work in Lansing. It’s a special place.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Something Special About December: Nana's Tree

 
Today’s Special Thing About December comes from my awesome mother-in-law and is becoming an office tradition.

In 2012 Mom Nelson – otherwise known as Nana to the kids -- wanted to downsize her tree a little and we wondered what to do with the suddenly available six-foot tree that had been set up in her living room for years.

I was in my new role as community engagement specialist at the Grand Rapids Press, and was looking for a way to bring our team together for the holidays. 

Nana’s Tree became the newest addition to the newsroom, and everyone was asked to bring in an ornament that represented them in some way. And, we had cookies.

The next year I was working in the Governor’s Communications Office, and we definitely needed some holiday spirit. Nana’s Tree reappeared, and we decided to use some Michigan-themed ornaments to decorate. We didn’t have too many, and the tree looked a little bare. But we had some cookies.

People on the team liked the tree and the Michigan ornaments. One of the coolest parts about my job is that we get to travel around the state seeing things and meeting people. Everywhere we go, I try to slip into a store and see if there are ornaments that we can add to the collection.

From the Upper Peninsula to Detroit and all points in between, I’ve been able to find ornaments. You’d be surprised how many are out there once you start looking for them.

Some are mass-produced decorations, usually depicting the Detroit sports teams. Some are craft-show creations. Some commemorate special places or events, and some are just the shape of our state. All of them are Pure Michigan fun!

We had a Communications Office open house last year. The team brought in treats – including cookies – and we had the ornaments on a table. People from throughout the building were invited to come on down, have a treat, spread some holiday cheer and hang an ornament on Nana’s Tree.

I’m in a new role in a new building this year, and I wasn’t quite sure what the new crew would think about the tree and the ornaments. The new guy is a little quirky. But they’re a pretty festive bunch.

So late Friday afternoon we set up Nana’s Tree in our third-floor waiting area. By this morning, colleagues brought in some of their own – two beautiful Pewabic tiles and a perfect Petoskey stone snowman – and promises of more to come.

And, the folks who are in charge of our Angel Tree decided that the gifts would be collected and placed under Nana’s Tree until it was time to distribute them.


And, we’ll have cookies.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Something Special about December: Learning to shine through advent devotionals


I attend an amazing church. 

Even though it’s pretty large, it finds ways to include everybody and provides opportunities to get to know congregation members who you might not get to encounter too often.

So today’s Special Thing About December comes from my church – and I got to help! Each year Trinity publishes an advent devotional booklet. Every day there is a Bible verse, and a different member of our congregation writes a few paragraphs about what the verse means to them.

People share things about their lives – their challenges, their reasons to cheer and how they look to their faith to give thanks for their blessings or look to it for strength in the tough times.

It’s inspiring and a nice way to share with our church family.

We’re supposed to read one a day until Christmas. I’m not that patient. My entry isn’t until Dec. 22, but if you want a sneak peek, read on:

Psalm 96: 1-3: Sing to the Lord a new song, sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless the name of the Lord, and proclaim God’s salvation from day to day. Declare God’s glory among the nations and God’s wonders among all men.

I enjoy Christian rock music and love hearing it played live, be it in a big arena or during our Rejoice services – especially when Faceless performs! I’m inspired by the energy and fellowship.

Matthew West is one of my favorite artists, and I have the lyrics to his song “More” taped to my monitor at work. I think about these words often, and I like to think they change the way I approach people and life.

“I love you more than the sun
And the stars that I taught how to shine
You are mine, and you shine for me, too”

I’m a flawed person, and despite these flaws, the Lord loves me and I can shine for him. I’m not great at evangelizing, but people seem to think I’m an upbeat person – which is easy when you know that God loves you despite your flaws. My hope is that folks who might not have embraced a faith see that positivity and realize the source, and be inspired to learn more. We all can be an example.

I also remember that if God loves me despite my flaws, then he loves other people despite their flaws. And if he loves them, well, I can be a little more accepting and try to be more understanding.


Heavenly Father, may we always bask in your warm embrace and shine like beacons in the night on your behalf. May our eyes be opened to the challenges faced by others and give us the strength to reach out and assist in this time of celebration – and throughout the year.

Saturday, December 03, 2016

Something Special about December: 'Do You Hear What I Hear'



There is one big reason record companies like Christmas albums: Free music!

We learned this on Tuesday when we attended a glorious concert Tuesday, with MercyMe teaming up with the Grand Rapids Symphony and the Resurrection Life choir.

The show was a wonderful way to kick off the Christmas season, and each day we’ll post something cool about the holiday season.

MercyMe has two great Christmas albums, and lead singer Bart Millard explained that record companies really, really like it when artists pick songs from the public domain because they are, well, free to use.

When it became time to record “It’s Christmas,” Millard said the record company presented the band with a list of songs in the public domain.

The band picked “Do You Hear What I Hear,” and came up with a new arrangement of the classic.

Then, when the band was getting ready to distribute the CD, someone discovered that “Do You Hear What I Hear” is actually not in the public domain. And when you record someone’s song and dramatically rearrange it, you have to seek permission from the people who hold the rights in addition to sending a check.

Millard said the band send a recording of the song to the New York family who owns the rights and nervously waited to hear back to see if permission was granted.

Luckily, the family loved the MercyMe’s rendition, he said. It’s pretty cool, evoking a “Kasmir”-like Middle Eastern sound. And it sounded spectacular with the symphony joining in.

There’s a cool story behind the song.

It’s actually fairly new, at least compared to a lot of Christmas standards. “Do You Hear What I Hear” was written in October 1962 by Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne Baker.

That was around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the world was a scary place. The couple added the line, “Said the night wind to the little lamb, do you see what I see? Pray for peace, people everywhere.”

The line, “A star, a star dancing in the night with a tail as big as a kite” is intended to evoke a nuclear missile. So it’s sort of an apocalyptic Christmas song.  

The song was quickly recorded by the Harry Simeone Chorale – which also has the classic version of “Little Drummer Boy” -- and was a big hit.


But check out the MercyMe version because it’s awesome.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

What do we save to remember a campaign season that many would like to forget?


So, what do we save to remember an campaign season that many of us would just as soon forget?

Our final spin through campaign collectibles of the past will focus on this year's contest.

Honestly, it was a bit of a struggle. It might be saying something when the best campaign collectibles were found at Chow Hound, Meijer and Hallmark.

It was especially difficult to find the traditionally fun things.

Campaign pins have been largely phased out in favor of stickers, but I struggled to even find those in Michigan for Secretary Clinton.

But the things I did find were pretty cool, and I'm sure will appear cooler once some time has passed. A lot of time.

First, the giant masks were in the Halloween section at Meijer, along with giant baby faces, cats and chimps. Note: The stores had the traditional rubber masks. I've never bought those. I think they're kind of creepy.

The cat toys are pretty fun. At least Tug thinks so. He's found them twice. He seems to have chewed on each of them equally.

The pen is a hoot. Tap on President-elect Trump's head and the pen plays eight examples of the candidate's hyperbole. I've heard there is a Clinton version, but I've not been able to find one.

Finally, I have a small collection of stickers and pins. I always like to find pins with the official logo and with photos of both candidates, so I was mostly successful. But I had to resort to eBay, which isn't as much fun as finding them at rallies or campaign offices.

It's been a lot of fun looking through the collection, researching campaigns and recalling some experiences. I have great respect for the presidency, and each of our chief executives is a fascinating story.

If you get some time, the Washington Post this year offered a podcast -- "Presidential" -- that looked at each of our leaders.

Reporter Lilian Cunningham did a good job, talking to historians and experts. I saw some presidents in a new light, and there are many triumphs and heartbreak along the way. It's made my Monday morning commutes more enjoyable and I encourage you to binge listen now that they're all available.

And, if you are passing through Mount Pleasant before January, check out the Clarke Historical Library's exhibit in the Central Michigan University library dedicated to campaigns, focusing on the folks who fell just short. Trust me, it's awesome.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Campaign collectibles from a calmer time: Gerald R. Ford's sacrifice for the greater good


In these turbulent times of electoral tension, I offer Gerald Ford.

Today's campaign collectibles from a calmer time takes a look back at 1976, when the nation's first unelected incumbent ran against Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter.

Ford was the right person for the right time because he put what was best for the country ahead of what was best for himself.

His re-election was probably doomed a month into his tenure when he pardoned President Nixon.

It took years, but even the president's harshest critics came around to see that was the right decision.
We're blessed to have the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum here in Grand Rapids, and for a time the gift shop sold original campaign pins.

My favorite is the lenticular pin that shows the president's portrait and the his name when you turn it slightly.

I think we're going to need a calm, assuring and confident leader like Jerry Ford again.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Campaign collectibles from calmer time: Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and the best corn ever


Today's campaign collectibles from a calmer time includes the best recipe for corn on the cob, ever!

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney fell short in his primary bid in 2008, though his foam baseball glove campaign sign is an all-time classic.

But Romney won the nomination in 2012, and one of his events was a rally at a Michigan farm with running mate Paul Ryan.

My daughter came with me, slipped away from the media pen and got very close to the action, snapping one of my favorite campaign photos.

All during the event, the folks hosting it had a large barbecue fired up, handing out ears of freshly grilled corn.

Once the candidates and crowd departed and I wrapped up my story -- with my daughter's sweet photo -- I wandered over to the grill area and was handed an ear of corn, with the husk still attached, but pulled down to reveal the bright kernels.

This was, without question, the best, tastiest, juiciest corn on the cob ever.

I passed my compliments to the grillers, and they shared their secret.

1) Throw the ears of corn, husk and all, in a bucket of water for several hours prior to grilling.
2) Throw the ears, again, husk and all, from the bucket right on to the grill.
3) Let them stay there for a while. It's OK of some of the husk is blackened. You're not going to eat that.
4) When ready, peel back the husk -- you'll need oven mitts -- and enjoy the best corn ever.

We've made corn this way, renaming it "Romney corn," ever since the rally.
You just never know what you are going to learn at a campaign event.

Campaign collectibles from a calmer time: Barack Obama, John McCain and the most-accurate poll


I don't place a lot of faith in polls these days, unless they are conducted by a hockey team with bobble heads.

Today's campaign collectibles from a calmer time brings us to my favorite hockey team -- the Grand Rapids Griffins -- and the 2008 election.

The Saturday before the election, the team conducted a "Bobble the Vote" promotion, allowing fans to pick a bobble of the candidate of their choice.

These bobbles are cool, depicting Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain in Griffins sweaters. The team promised to announce which of the bobble heads was the most popular by the end of the game.

All 1,000 of the Obama bobble heads were claimed, and there were 102 McCain bobbles left over.

That gave the Illinois senator 52.7 percent of the vote, with the Arizona senator 47.3 percent.

On Election Day that year, Obama earned 52.4 percent of the popular vote, and McCain earned 46.3 percent.

That's pretty close, giving the Griffins one of the most accurate polls of the campaign season.

There's a chance I skewed the results slightly. Naturally I wanted one of each of these awesome collectibles, so I brought my son to the game. I picked up a McCain and Andrew was instructed to snag an Obama.

Kudos to the Griffins for both the cool campaign items and a pretty accurate poll. Alas, the team didn't repeat the promotion this year, so you'll have to wait until Tuesday night to learn the winner.