Without fail in late November and into most of December, I begin to see social media posts from convicted souls proclaiming to us all what Christmas is really about. These gentle reminders are often delivered in the form of worn and faded phrases such as “Jesus is the reason for the season” or “Keep Christ in Christmas.” Are any of these folks celebrating the Holy Day one bit different than most everyone else? They are most likely rushing around for weeks – enduring thick traffic, unruly crowds, unintelligible websites, and supply-chain woes – trying to get just the right gifts for family, co-workers, and the people they love. How many of these defenders of the faith are spending more time with worship and liturgy than they are all the secular trappings of the holiday season? Very few if any, I suspect. So, with respect to Christians who feel the need to defend Jesus and the commemoration of his birth, here is a list of gentle and not-so-snarky suggestions for future Christmas seasons.
1. Please don’t get offended if someone wishes you Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. Accept the greeting as an example of someone who understands that Christianity isn’t the only religion that celebrates holy days near the end of the year. God rest ye merry gentle people, let nothing you dismay.
2. Please stop insisting that the word “Xmas” is a communist plot to take Christ out of Christmas. For the love of God (you know, Jesus’s father), Google it and stop that nonsense. How long did you sing the phrase “in excelsis Deo” without having a clue what it meant?
3. Please don’t get irritated with people in the service industry at any time during the holidays, for just about any reason at all. They probably have a much suckier job than you do. Tip them extra and spread some of that joy to the world we like to sing about every year.
4. Please resist accusing the government, social media, the press, Bill Gates, or anyone else in this country of trying to get rid of Christmas. It ain’t happening, even if some of the new atheists would like to see it go away. If you still believe that thick slice a bologna, your gullibility score is flying higher than the angels we have heard sweetly singing o’er the plains.
5. Please rethink the idea that the only way to honor the advent of the baby Jesus is to spend a few hours in a church listening to choirs, singing carols, lighting candles, reciting Bible verses, praying, and taking Holy Communion. All of these traditional rituals are perfectly appropriate and meaningful to millions of believers; however, when people choose to celebrate the occasion by spending their time and sharing their love with family and friends outside the formal walls of worship, it doesn’t mean they are getting it wrong or missing the point. Perhaps the reason for the season is to find new opportunities for expressing compassion, grace, and charity, which should happen no matter where we are. If we ever get that part right, maybe more people here and around the world can sleep in heavenly peace.
I have written about language and communication in previous posts on this blog, mainly because they interest me and because a good portion of my professional life has focused on these topics. The most popular blog post I have published to date is the “Southern Word of the Day” (there are five installments so far), which is a rip-off of Jeff Foxworthy’s hilarious observation of the thick southern accent. I have also taken a more serious approach of examining how sophisticated written language sets humans apart as a species in a post titled “What Separates Us from Dogs and Cabbage.”
We all know that language is sometimes inadequate in expressing thoughts and emotions, illustrated in the common expression that words fail us. At times, this shortcoming is terribly frustrating and even heartbreaking. We are also aware that our brains, along with the mouths and ears they control, are occasionally responsible for epic blunders that can lead to hurt feelings or even catastrophe. Fortunately, most of these miscommunications just end up being incredibly funny, at least after some time has passed.
The worn-out party icebreaker game of Pass the Message or Chinese Whisper illustrates how anyone can mishear a statement and pass it down a line of listeners, ending up with an absurd distortion of the original message. I think there is a funnier, real-life example. With the advent of the Internet it happens less often now, but who hasn’t had the experience of singing a song for years only to discover that you’ve been singing the wrong words all along? Perhaps the most memorable one is the line from the old Creedence Clearwater Revival song that most people from my generation misheard as “there’s a bathroom on the right.” My favorite personal experience goes back to my teenage years when my father was trying to acclimate himself to pop music. One day, out of the blue, he asked me, “Have you heard that song where they keep singing ‘shake your fool head?’” Of course, he had been listening to KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Shake Your Booty.”
It’s fascinating to me that human beings are so impressionable when it comes to language, especially with accents. Someone who was raised in Minnesota can spend a few years in Alabama, and upon returning to his home state, he finds that his old friends are recognizing a southern twang in his voice. However, sometimes that effect can be more immediate – much more immediate in the case of my mother. She went to the emergency room one time complaining with pains in her upper abdomen. The doctor on duty that evening was most likely from India, and his distinct accent was characteristic for someone raised in the subcontinent. He asked her, “Where does it HUT?” Pointing to her lower chest, my sweet mother replied with no intention whatsoever of mocking her physician, “It HUTS right here.”
When thinking about strong accents, I am always reminded of the nasal magnolia brogue of the Georgia writer Flannery O’Connor. There are recordings of her reading from her own work and being interviewed on television, where we can hear her deep southern pronunciations in words like “wrytah” (writer) and “stawries” (stories). There is the now apocryphal though not unbelievable account of the occasion when O’Connor, as a student at the State University of Iowa, walked into the office of Paul Engle, director of the Writers Workshop. She introduced herself, but her strong accent forced Engle to ask her to repeat herself several times. In a state of exasperation, he finally told her to write down what she was saying so he could understand her. Supposedly, she wrote, “My name is Flannery O’Connor. I am not a journalist.” Apparently, this was her way of communicating to Engle her desire to give up pursuing a journalism degree and to be admitted into the Workshop.
Anecdotes of the breakdown of language are probably endless, but I will close these comical contemplations with one of my favorites of all time. Noisy conditions, bad phone connections, and poor hearing are just a few contributing factors to misunderstandings and even the dissemination of inaccurate information. However, sometimes communication is sabotaged by inexperience, carelessness, or downright stupidity. I won’t attempt to classify one of the best examples of being misunderstood that ever happened to me. I will leave that to the reader’s judgment. I was being interviewed over the phone once by a reporter from a local small-town newspaper. At the end of our conversation, the young woman asked me for my title, to which I replied, “I am the executive director of the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation.” The story in the newspaper the following week identified me as “the executive decorator of the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation.” Some of my friends thought I had gotten a promotion.
The industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie wrote, “There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.” An avid reader for most of his life, Carnegie was responsible through his generous financial support for opening hundreds of public libraries across the country in the early 20th century. Although they disagreed on significant policy issues, Andrew Carnegie and President Franklin D. Roosevelt both recognized and publicly expressed how important libraries are to the health of a society. Libraries have a responsibility to their patrons to provide the resources for developing information literacy skills necessary to participate in the democratic process.
Having grown up in Macon, Georgia, in the 1960s and 70s, I can recall my mother driving me downtown to the main branch of the public library where I could roam through the stacks to find books to read. At the time I had no real appreciation for the privilege this simple activity represented, but when I left home to attend college and worked toward completing degrees in English and history, the value of library resources became much clearer. With an MA in history, my first full-time job was working as a cataloger in the public library of a small town in middle Georgia. Over the next two years, I commuted to Emory University in Atlanta to complete a Master of Librarianship degree. I continued in the profession for the next twelve years, eventually becoming the director of that same library.
To say that libraries have changed since my childhood is an obvious understatement to anyone who has benefitted from these institutions. There is no shortage of literature about how the advent of the Internet and electronic resources has transformed the way libraries operate. Several standard textbooks have been available for over ten years that cover library services in the context of the information explosion of recent decades. Some studies are now focusing completely on nontraditional library sources — collections that have only existed in electronic format. In their 2016 book titled Discover Digital Libraries: Theory and Practice, authors Iris Xie and Krystyna Matusiak explore different digital library issues and synthesize theoretical and practical perspectives relevant to researchers, practitioners, and students.
The breadth of Internet resources is mind-boggling; however, the depth of those same resources can sometimes be deceiving, which has created a false panacea for information illiteracy. In past generations, library patrons viewed librarians as the trained sentinels of printed resources, the official concierges that users needed for reading recommendations, research assistance, facts, figures, dates, and answers to almost any conceivable question. One could argue that this sense of importance was a bit exaggerated; nevertheless, librarians had a clearly defined function and role in their organizations and the communities they served. Affordable computers and mobile devices with Internet access have been challenging the significance of librarians, and even libraries, over the last fifteen years.
In a recent article in the magazine American Libraries titled “Ten Reasons Libraries Are Still Better Than the Internet,” Marcus Banks explains that these institutions still provide tangible services along with less obvious benefits such as access, privacy, and intellectual freedom. While Banks sees the Internet as “an indispensable and irreplaceable tool for modern living,” he argues that “it is not a library and will not replace the work of librarians.” Of course, what should we expect to read in a trade magazine for this profession, right? No surprise either that I tend to agree with Banks. Professional librarians have always taken seriously their responsibility to lead patrons to the most accurate and reliable information available, either in their own libraries or in those with which they have reciprocal lending privileges. The introduction of the Internet has not altered that mission at all. Only the methods of delivery have changed. As Banks observes, “a conversation with a librarian can clarify exactly what you are looking for and figure out the best way to use Google — or many other resources — to find it.”
One of the major impacts electronic resources are having on libraries is in the use of space. The average desktop computer connected to the Internet, including subscription services provided by the library, gives the user access to resources that thirty years ago could not have been contained in a building the size of the Pentagon. Libraries no longer need stacks and stacks of reference books and bound periodicals. Certainly, many readers still want “real” books — the kind with bindings and paper pages. Reading an e-book will never replace the experience of holding a traditional book in their hands that requires no machine, no batteries, and no WiFi connection to download. But, as library budgets continue to shrink and librarians are forced to become even more creative and innovative in allocating the limited funds at their disposal, they will stop purchasing many print sources that are so readily available in a more cost-effective electronic format. They will also convert sections of the library that were once occupied by stacks to other high-demand options such as public-access computer stations, study rooms, audio/video booths, leisure reading areas, and even coffee lounges.
I recently read a Facebook exchange by my friends and mentors who are also retired college professors. They were bemoaning the changing landscape of libraries. One of them expressed her conviction that libraries to a certain degree should be “rather intimidating, evocative of all of the great minds whose ideas reside in books therein, yet nonetheless something of a magnet to all of us who want to know things.” I absolutely understood her sense of loss when she pined for browsing the stacks and even smelling the pages of old books. The sensory pleasures of reading are understandably treasured by so many people. At the same time, this “discussion” about libraries and books and nostalgia was taking place on a social media platform that was born and has lived its entire life exclusively in the realm of the Internet. FaceBOOK has never had a single association with pages and bindings. The irony was palpable.
As the platform for the creation, exchange, and storage of information continues to evolve, and even more rapidly in the age of electronic media, perhaps the differences in function of libraries and archives are becoming more relevant and more distinct. To my way of thinking, libraries are designed to provide information created in the present and the recent past. As such, electronic sources will naturally continue taking the place of more traditional print sources. Also, weeding out books that are no longer read by patrons has been a normal task of librarians for ages. Archives offer access to sources that have more historical value and are still considered useful for research and institutional documentation. Considering the fact that archival collections are moving to digital formats at blazing speeds, even these resources will soon be available more by computers than a trip to a physical repository. As for the nostalgia of holding an old book in our hands, doing so in the future may involve visiting a place that functions more like a museum than a library or archive. As sad as that may sound, I would rather see ancient books placed in acid-free storage containers than scanned and made available only as an image on my monitor.
My wife and I recently took another one of those “trips-of-a-lifetime,” to a place neither one of us had ever visited: Paris. After we had been married for a couple of years we began planning a trip to Paris for our fifth wedding anniversary; however, we changed jobs and moved to a new place. We had to start over banking vacation time, plus we needed a year or two to get adjusted in our new location. So we postponed the Paris trip but continued to keep it on our short list. Then an opportunity presented itself to us last year when the president of the college where we both work announced that he would be giving an organ recital (he is a highly-acclaimed concert organist) at Westminster Abbey in London. We decided right then that we would be in London for the event, which was scheduled for a Sunday afternoon, and then we would head over to Paris to enjoy the rest of the week as tourists. We spent the better part of a year making arrangements: learning as much as we could about the city, finding accommodations, deciding what we wanted to see and do, purchasing tickets, arranging transportation, and booking flights.
We have never flown first or business class, except once when we were upgraded on our flight back from Jamaica last December. For the trans-Atlantic journey to Europe though, we decided to cash in all of my wife’s Delta Sky Miles and splurge on first class, where the seats completely recline to a vertical position. I have a difficult time sleeping upright in the typical less-than-comfortable seats on a plane, and we really needed to sleep during the overnight flight to London. What a luxury first class was for this trip, going both ways. With a little bit of help from a half-dose of Dramamine, I slept pretty well flying over Iceland and the north Atlantic. I really wish we could fly first class all the time, but alas, we are travelers on a budget. And, I’m not complaining because our budget allows us to go places that the majority of Americans only dream about or see in movies. I am grateful.
Paris exceeded all our expectations. It is a beautiful city with so much history, character, personality, and charm. In London and Rome, we were never too impressed with the food, but in Paris, every meal was amazing and delicious. The bistros and cafes are usually small, but each has its own signature appeal. You can’t walk a hundred yards in the center of Paris without passing some place to eat. We had breakfast every morning at a bakery just down the street from our apartment. The pastries were so delicate, and the banana-chocolate one was to die for! Every night we tried something different for dinner and were never disappointed. I ate escargot for the first time and was surprised how similar it was to fresh clams. Swimming in salty pesto, it was truly a delicacy.
Writing about our trip to Paris will certainly take more than one post. At this point, suffice it to say that this is one of those places where it is almost impossible to take a bad photograph. I took this shot with my cell phone, standing on the platform on the Pont de Bir Hakeim, one of many bridges that cross the River Seine that bisects the city. I think it is one of the best places to get a good view of the Eiffel Tower and the Seine. The tower is so tall and commanding that you really have to be a little distance away to appreciate its magnificence. Paris is filled with scenes that present themselves to the visitor and beg to be recorded in a photograph. It is an irresistible city on so many levels. I look forward to many more traveling adventures, and we are already making plans for future trips. Still, it will be difficult to top our week in the City of Love. If we never get to return to Europe, and I certainly hope we do return someday, I will look back on this time with such fond memories and shamelessly steal Rick’s line from Casablanca, “We’ll always have Paris.”
Here is the latest installment of my favorite Southern words, and perhaps Jeff Foxworthy has used these too. No plagiarism is intended here; I can only plead ignorance, which for me is not a stretch at all.
Iota. Usage: “Just heard from the accountant that iota IRS some more money for 2015.”
Fawn. Usage: “I never woulda believed it could happen, but I think Billy Bob is fawn in love with Charlene.”
Defensive. Usage: “The deer ain’t able to jump defensive you make it high enough.”
Napkin. Usage: “If I get drowsy after lunch, taking a quick napkin usually get me through the rest of the day.”
Conjure. Usage: “Billy Bob, I can’t believe you conjure way out of going shopping with Charlene this weekend. What kinda story did you make up this time?”
Urinal. Usage: “Charlene heard about us going out last night, Billy Bob, and now urinal lot of trouble dude.”
Foamy. Usage: “It’s gettin’ cold in here. How about shuttin’ that door foamy.”
Avenue. Usage: “I heard they avenue ride at the fair this year that’s making everybody puke!”