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

Special Thing 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.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Campaign collectibles from a calmer time: Richard Nixon, John Kennedy and one of the closest elections ever

Today's campaign collectibles from a calmer time takes us back to 1960, one of the closest elections ever, hotly debated to this day.

Sen. John F, Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon were separated by 112,827 votes, a 0.17 percent difference.

Kennedy's electoral vote margin was larger, 303 to 219. But consider that six states -- Hawaii, Illinois, Missouri, California, New Mexico and New Jersey -- were won by less than 1 percent, and five of the six went to Kennedy. Switch a couple of those states around and the electoral vote gets closer or changes hands.

There continues to be some talk about voting in Chicago, and Texas where there were some counties in Texas where there were more votes counted than there were registered voters. Both states went to Kennedy.

But Kennedy also lost 14 electoral votes in the South, where "unpledged Democratic electors" were on the ballot. Southern Democrats were opposed to the civil rights and voting rights platforms in the national party's platform, and electors instead cast their votes for Virginia Sen. Harry F. Byrd, a segregationist who wasn't even running.

A couple cool fast facts: The 1960 election was the first in which 50 states participated, as Alaska and Hawaii joined the union the year before. Both had three electoral votes. Alaska went to Nixon and Hawaii to Kennedy.

The election also was the first to feature presidential debates, where a tanned and relaxed Kennedy is said to have gained an advantage over Nixon, who had just spent two weeks in the hospital because of an injured knee, sweated and declined makeup.

As for collectibles, there are lots of Kennedy items to be found. He's a popular president and there are many reproductions of his famous pins out there.

You don't see too many affordable pins with photos of Kennedy with running mate Lyndon Johnson and Nixon with Henry Cabot Lodge.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Campaign collectibles from a calmer time: Thomas Eagleton, vice presidential candidate for 18 days in 1972

Today's campaign collectible from a calmer time focuses not on George McGovern, but on his running mate for 18 days.

The Democrats were in serious disarray in 1972. Incumbent Richard Nixon was cruising to re-election, and the Dems endured a rough and tumble run-up to the convention.

McGovern in the primaries was stung by a Robert Novak column quoting an unnamed senator who said McGovern favored amnesty for war deserters, abortion and legalizing marijuana. But he prevailed.

Facing likely defeat against Nixon, McGovern struggled to find a running mate. Eventually he settled on Missouri Sen. Thomas Eagleton. At the rowdy convention, Eagleton wasn't declared the winner until 1:51 a.m. He and McGovern weren't able to give their acceptance speeches until 2 a.m. So much for prime time.

Things got worse from there. After about two weeks, Eagleton confirmed whispers that he once suffered from depression and had undergone electric shock therapy -- a fact he kept from McGovern.

McGovern said he backed his running mate "1,000 percent," which lasted about a week. Eagleton withdrew from the ticket following the national uproar, replaced by Robert Sargent Shriver.

Eagleton had a distinguished career in the Senate until 1987, and continued as an attorney, commentator and professor in St. Louis.

After Eagleton's 2007 death, Novak revealed the source of the anonymous quote that hurt McGovern in the primaries: Thomas Eagleton.

Given the narrow window of his time on the ticket, finding campaign pins featuring both McGovern and Eagleton can be a challenge. That makes the single one I've found to be a favorite.

Friday, November 04, 2016

Campaign collectibles from a calmer time: McKinley and Bryan, a study in contrasts

Today's campaign collectible from a calmer time takes us all the way back to 1896 -- my oldest collectible! -- and a study in contrasts.

Ohio Gov. William McKinley squared off against Democrat William Jennings Bryan.

McKinley raised $3.5 million, which at the time was a staggering amount of money, spending five times more than his challenger.

McKinley also didn't leave his home much, conducting a "front porch" campaign, with more than 500,000 people heading to Canton.

Bryan went completely in the opposite direction. He criss-crossed the nation by train appearing before millions of people. He was a famously gifted speaker and it was a novelty for people to see a presidential candidate in person.

He gave more than 500 speeches, including 36 in one day.

McKinley won in a fairly close election, with 51 percent of the vote, though it was pretty decisive in the Electoral College.

McKinley's running mate was Garret Hobart of New Jersey, who, in 1899, became the sixth vice president to die in office. That paved the way for Theodore Roosevelt to be added to the ticket the following year.

Bryan lost to the McKinley-Roosevelt team in 1900, and lost again to William Howard Taft in 1908.

I know the McKinley pin is from 1896 because it includes Hobart, and is actually a stud, designed to fit in a button hole. It's the oldest campaign treasure in my collection.

I can't tell which election the Bryan pin is from, though the color makes me suspect it's one of the later contests.