Happy New Year

Each year during December, some well-meaning people tack on “and Happy Hanukkah” when they say “Merry Christmas.” It’s as if they feel a need to give equal time to their Jewish acquaintances. We hear this a good bit in our Judeo-Christian family, but I also see it other places, such as social media.

But the way to give equal time is to wish Jewish friends “Happy New Year” now.

Rosh Hashanah — Jewish New Year — begins at sundown today, Sept. 29, 2019, thus beginning year 5780.

For those of us who are Christian, Rosh Hashanah most closely corresponds to Christmas. The Church Year begins with Advent, which prefaces Christmas. But more significantly, there are two High Holidays in each religion. The Most Holy Day in Judaism is Yom Kippur; in Christianity it is Easter. Rosh Hashanah and Christmas are close seconds in importance.

There are Jewish festivals that occur near the times of Christmas and Easter, but — even though Easter has a historic link to Passover — Christmas and Easter are comparable to Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur, respectively, rather than Hanukkah and Passover.

Comparing Holy Days with festivals is like comparing apples to oranges. Comparing Holy Days to each other is like grapes to grapes, or ambrosia to ambrosia.

Autumnal musings on the first day of fall

Sept. 22, 2019: My calendar notes that “Autumn begins” today. I always heard it called “fall,” though I’ve known as far back as I can remember that “autumn” was another name for it.

As my world expanded to include more people from more places, I sometimes got the feeling that “autumn” was considered more sophisticated. I can’t prove that. It was, as I said, just a feeling. But maybe somewhat justified. Because a little research tells me that “autumn” — these days — is the British preference, while “fall” is more associated with North America. (Type in “fall vs. autumn” on an internet search engine and you’ll find a ton of references.)

Further research told me that “fall” is the older term, originating in England before American English itself originated in the colonies. “Autumn” entered the English language via the French automne. It’s apparently been around as long as “fall,” but didn’t gain a lot of traction until later. So it’s “autumn” in the UK, but originally it was “fall.”

We have “fall semester” with “fall sports,” yet here in a town in which both are significant, I once lived on Autumn Lane. The “fall equinox” is also called (by more sophisticated people?) “autumnal equinox.”

In their 1964 hit “A Summer Song,” Chad and Jeremy sang:

They say that all good things must end some day.
Autumn leaves must fall.


They couldn’t have said “fall leaves,” because that doesn’t scan. Even if it did, “Fall leaves must fall” is awkward. Anyway, they are British. The phrase, nonetheless, hints at why the season was originally called “fall,” since that’s what leaves do at this time of year.

Each season has something to offer, but fall edges out spring as my favorite season. This is partly because the new school year begins, bringing its new possibilities — long ago for me, then for my children, now for my grandchildren. Also, the heat of summer begins to subside and it’s more pleasant to be outside.

But more so, though the leaves die, fall and decay, I see this as a time of rebirth, the beginning of nature’s annual renewal. The first step toward the burst of life and color we’ll see in the spring.

Happy autumn.


As one who cares about language usage

This was the offending meme, the one that was one-too-many for one of my Facebook friends.

In my early years on Facebook, I not only posted grammar-themed memes, I also crafted occasional comments of my own on the subject. My primary reason was to vent about what I saw not only on Facebook, but just about everywhere, including newspapers. I guess I also held out some hope that somebody or another would be willing to learn — or be reminded. If not, I did know there were some individuals who cared as much as I about correct use of our language. I was confident they would enjoy the posts.

I still see errors that to me are analogous to fingernails on a chalk board. But I stopped commenting some six years ago. That’s when I posted the meme above, which I thought was concise and useful. Someone who was at that time my FB friend somehow took it personally, even though I never, ever aimed any comments at an individual.

The reaction included: “I feel like we are back in HS again and you are the grammar patrol. Bet you are wearing that little belt and have red pencils in your pocket protector just waiting to make a big circle around all mistakes.” Yet I never — ever — corrected anyone on Facebook.

As I explained then, I majored in English, did a lot of writing and editing in my professional career, and have a touch of OCD. Also, I think there are good reasons for us to try to follow rules of grammar and usage. The primary reason is to keep English speakers speaking a common language so that we understand each other.

Most people don’t get angry at people who advocate for proper grammar, but many seem to find us amusing or eccentric. Yet why should trying to speak and write correctly be considered abnormal? Why isn’t it the other way around?

Why ascribe names such as “grammar patrol” or “police” or “nerd” — or worse?
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Another N word

Though World War II ended two years before I was born, people my age grew up in its shadow. “Nazi” was not a word one used flippantly. It was not something you called anyone other than historical figures who were, in fact, Nazis. You certainly didn’t give a friend that tag.

Now some, ignoring or ignorant of history, find it amusing to append it to the word “grammar.”

(On the “Seinfeld” episode about the “Soup Nazi,” the character Kramer never calls him that. A couple of years ago, we took the Real Kramer tour in NYC. The first stop was at The Soup Man — the real shop on which the episode was based — for a cup of the best soup in the world. Kenny Kramer — the real person on whom the character was based — never referred to the business’s founder as a “Nazi.” But I digress.)
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Back to the high school reference, I was not a member of any “grammar patrol.” I hadn’t worn a patrol belt since elementary school and then my duties concerned behavior, not grammar. I had no pocket protector, nor did I carry a red pencil.

I was a student, learning from my mistakes. I appreciate my teachers’ having corrected them.

Obligatory moon-landing story

I had just graduated from college and was headed to Boston for graduate school in the fall. Part of my existence and a big part of my identity for several years before and after was as a musician. I spent most of that summer performing folk and folk rock at a small club in Augusta GA, Monday-Saturday nights from (I think) 8 or 8:30 p.m. till closing.

By mid-July, I was ready for a short retreat back to Asheville, where my parents and brother still lived in the family home. Saturday closing was at midnight, as opposed to 2 a.m. the rest of the week. On Saturday, July 19, I headed north as soon as my last set ended. I got there at 4 a.m. My brother, eight years older, came in shortly after that from an “all-night” gospel-singing concert in the Asheville City Auditorium.

Apollo 11 was orbiting the moon. It had been only 66 years since the Wright Brothers’ first flights at Kill Devil Hills NC, and yet now three men were flying all the way to the moon. They would land that very day, July 20, 1969.

My life-long friend, Larry Freeman, was living at his grandparents’ house across the street. I had gotten to know him from his frequent visits and some-time residency at their house, beginning as far back as I could remember. He was almost two years older, and by that point enjoying a successful career as a jeweler and watch-repairer.

He came over to visit and watch the moon landing with me. I’m sure that our childhood fantasies, at one time or another, included being spacemen. Now we were 20-somethings having our minds blown by surreal reality.

I was impressed with Neil Armstrong’s cleverness, when he seemed to ad lib the “giant leap for mankind” quip. I was disappointed some years later to learn it was scripted. Nonetheless, it was an impressive event, to say the least.

I was back on stage Monday night. I was refreshed from the short trip. I find myself wanting to say something dramatic such as, But I was a changed person, because the world had changed. Seems a bit over the top, but something was different.

It would take the astronauts a few more days to return to the Earth.

Rounding down — You have to laugh

Someone once suggested to me that I try stand-up comedy. (Well, OK, that person was a therapist.) I guess if I ever did try to craft a humorous monologue based on my personal experiences, one direction I might take would be Keilloresque, making light of an ingrained inferiority complex. Garrison Keillor notes that Minnesota calls itself “The Land of 10,000 Lakes,” though in fact the state contains 11,842 lakes, and he goes on from there.

I was subject to the same calculation method. Here are some incidents that someone with more comic talent than I (see what I did there?) might craft into a series of jokes.

We walked about a mile to elementary school. I don’t know if anyone ever really clocked it, but neighbors all said it was a mile. In our house, though, it was “nine-tenths of a mile.”

I hit puberty earlier than most kids. (That could be a whole comic routine there.) I had an identifiable mustache by the time I became a teenager. I never really looked forward to shaving (still don’t), but self-consciousness over looking different began to outweigh the macho feeling of displaying facial hair. I was close to taking the razor plunge when some adult in some context commented on the dark hair on my upper lip. To which my father replied, “I keep thinking he ought to rake that fuzz off.” Well, I thought, if it’s merely “fuzz” that can be “raked off,” why bother? I kept it a good while longer.

Our family finally got a new car when I was in junior high school. The previous car was at that in-between age, old enough to be embarrassing but not old enough to be cool. The new car, a small Ford, got better mileage than any car we’d had previously. Not good by today’s standards, but in the early ’60s anything approaching 20 mpg was considered good. I liked the car, and meticulously computed the mileage on early trips. It was between 17-18 mpg. My father, who didn’t like the car, would tell people it got 15 mpg.

Speaking of cars, during my college days, I drove between Asheville and Chapel Hill several times a year. It was a longer trip then than it is now, because two sections of I-40 were still on the drawing board. At some point, I checked an official reference — a state-issued road map, I think — and found the distance to be listed as 234 miles. It was a few miles further from our house, since we lived on the western edge of town, and Chapel Hill was to the east. Despite my having shared this number, I still hear my father commenting at one point that “it’s about two and a quarter,” lopping off a good 10 miles.

A closer rounding would have been 240. Many people would have said 250. In fact, I think some did. But many people give themselves full credit, and their default rounding is up, rather than down.

There were other examples, but you get the picture. Any one single incident would be fairly innocuous, but over time they add up. None of this ever sounded funny to me, but maybe with the right delivery . . . .

Some thoughts for Trinity Sunday

When Don McLean, in his hit “American Pie,” refers to “the Father, Son and Holy Ghost” as “the three men I admire most,” I suspect many people find that consistent with their own view of the Trinity. There is much that can be said about the anthropomorphic and gender problems with the word “men,” and I am among those who have a problem with those, but that discussion is for another time. I want to look at the number.

I think that most, if not all my Trinitarian friends will easily affirm a belief in One God. Yet the way many talk about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit sounds polytheistic at times. Thus, I can understand why my Unitarian friends can be led to scoff at such a notion.

I ascribe to the doctrine of the Trinity, yet I am a monotheist. Is that possible?

One God in three forms. Is that simple or complex? It seems simple until someone starts talking about the Trinity as “three men” or three seemingly independent beings. Why go out of the way to say “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” when it’s just one Being?

I saw a program on public TV many years ago that attempted to show how a two-dimensional being (i.e., length and width, but no depth) would experience a three-dimensional one.   As the three-dimensional being passed by, it would appear to the two-dimensional one in changing, two-dimensional forms. The 2-D cannot experience the 3-D any other way.   It has been suggested that our ability – or rather shortcoming thereof – to understand a Triune God is kind of like that. God has more dimensions than we do, thus appearing to us in different forms in different circumstances.  

Countless volumes have been written about the nature of God. I could write a lot of  words in trying to explain what I may understand on this topic at this point in my life, but I’m aiming here for a page, not a book.  Many words and phrases come to mind, including “Creative Force,” “Sustainer of Life,” “Power” and, especially, “Love.”   I grew up hearing the Bible verse “God is love.”   In recent years, I applied the “if A=B, then B=A” logic and have found it helpful to say also “Love is God.” 

And here’s something I don’t believe: I don’t understand God to be some white-haired and -bearded man in a robe sitting in some large chair somewhere up in the clouds.

I’ve always resonated well with the rock song “Jesus Is Just Alright with Me.” I find that I refer to “Jesus” in couple of differing, though related ways. In the past tense, I mean the historical figure who taught us a lot about God and how we should live. In the present tense, I am referring to God as revealed in the teachings and personal example of the historic person. “Christ,” to me, refers to the special and mysterious way in which God was present in the historical man, and to the spirit that he engendered and which lives on today in many people.

I’ll admit I’m a little hazy in distinguishing between “Spirit of Christ” and “Holy Spirit.” But maybe that’s OK, since both refer to God’s presence within us. I think perhaps one distinction may be that “Spirit of Christ” has to do with how we want to live and “Holy Spirit” how we can more nearly do so. Maybe “Christ” is the Love; the “Spirit” is the Power.

I’ve also learned that “Christ” means “God incarnate” – Jesus in the first Century and now the “Body of Christ,” which is the Church – and that the “Holy Spirit” is the “breath of God.” This suggests to me that the doctrine of the Trinity is a reminder that God is living and breathing. That’s helpful to me, as is remembering that “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” can mean “We honor You in all the ways we experience Your Presence.”

At this moment in my journey, I find that I identify as a Unitarian Jesus freak, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

The Golden Rule reconsidered

Being never-too-old-to-learn, I’ve recently been led to refine my understanding of The Golden Rule. I’ve always interpreted “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” as “Treat everyone exactly as I want to be treated.”

When I began to hear what I took as challenges to The Golden Rule, my first reaction was, “How could they? This is basic to all major religions. This simple rule is how we could all get along, if we followed it.” When I got out from behind my unnecessary defensiveness, I realized the challenge wasn’t to the rule but to how we often interpret it.

What if someone doesn’t want to be treated the same as I want to be treated?

Some examples that come to mind are almost frivolous, others more serious. If I am offering someone coffee the way I want it, I will not provide them sugar or cream. It’s the way I want it given to me, but I’m not being hospitable. Many people enjoy engaging in trash talk. They give it out, because they like to give and receive such banter. But for some of us, maybe a small few, this interaction is not fun at all. In these incidences, people are treating others as they themselves like to be treated, but it’s not working for the others.

On a deeper level, there are psychological, cultural and physical differences to consider. One example: Say someone is at a stage in the grief process at which he needs some alone time, whereas I, at that same point, would want someone with me. If I insist on hanging close right then, my treatment, though well-intended, isn’t golden.

I still think my old way of looking at it was pretty good, but it falls short. Maybe a better way of looking at it is: I want to be treated a certain way. Doing unto others the same suggests trying, in so far as possible, to understand how others wish to be treated and then treating them that way. We aren’t all wired exactly the same.