Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Season's Greetings

Merry Christmas! I hope you're not offended that I used the C-word, but in my defense, I am not a particularly religious holiday observer. I attend Christmas Eve church services when we are at one mother's house or another, but this holiday has always been about presents, decorations, family, and goodwill in my book. You show me a day when every store in America is closed,* and I will show you a secular holiday.

I suspect Christmas gains at least some of its power from its ties to the winter solstice and the beginning of a new year. Combining the message of peace and goodwill with the reflection and renewal of year's end creates a potent cocktail of emotion. Evergreen foliage, drinks made from eggs and cakes full of fruit, red, green and gold color scheme -- it's a Technicolor holiday for sure.

Life is a chain -- a line made of circles -- and this is the time when one link is closed and the next begun. Not coincidentally, December and January see more funerals than any other months of the year. (The most births are in August.)

There is comfort in the constancy of the seasons, and a reminder that history repeats, or at least rhymes.  Boxing up an old year and opening a shiny new one flavored with Christmas cheer brings a sense of relief and hopefulness, despite the fact that exactly nothing has changed except the date. Our traditions fortify these feelings.

I haven't written as much this year as some others, either professionally or here. I have always been a cyclical journalist, so I am neither particularly surprised nor distressed. Writing for me is inherently reflective, and I have been looking forward and outward this year, acting more than thinking.  My career change to academia inspired a great deal of self examination. I feel now like I am finding my identity, and steadily becoming a more competent professional me. My home life is as pleasant and stable as it has been at any time in my life. In short, I am currently too happy and boring to have much to write about.

But life is change, and this year is likely to see its share. A number of potential disruptions are floating about, personally and professionally. Career opportunities, home projects, unexplained rashes. I may buy a new car. And there will be the unexpected gifts from the fates. The quiet times never last forever, partially because I get bored. I try to savor the constancy while it lasts.

I hope you have a great holiday season and a wonderful 2015. Let's be careful out there.

* With the exception of Asian restaurants and movie theaters, of course.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Infamy passing

It has been three years since the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association officially disbanded due to the advanced age and ill health of its remaining members. Their dwindling numbers at the commemorations is a tangible reminder that the event that defined my parents' world -- and to a great extent mine as well -- is on the verge of receding into history. Within a decade, or maybe two, all who remember the worldwide conflagration will be gone, or entombed in rapidly failing bodies.

Image from here

I don't think we can imagine what December 7, 1941 meant to this country. We like to make comparisons to 9-11, and the general idea is probably similar, but the scale of the attack and ensuing conflagration make 9-11 look like a convenience store robbery by comparison. No one said, "Go back to the mall and try to live normal lives" on December 8th. The nation transformed itself in a matter of months into a weapons factory of almost unbelievable productivity. Factories were converted (in many cases literally overnight) from making cars, stoves, or clothing to production of bombers, artillery, and parachutes. Millions of men left farms, factories, and offices to join the fight, and millions more women shed their aprons to replace the men at work, or wear different uniforms.* Everyone was expected to do their part, and those who shirked were labeled bums, or cowards. Roosevelts and Kennedys fought and died with everyone else, though they probably wore better fitting uniforms than most.

More Americans died in an average two-week period -- and on a few unfortunate single days -- than were killed in ten years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army Air Corp (forerunner of the Air Force) lost about 80 heavy bombers and over 600 men in a single raid. Over a million Germans and Russians are believed to have died at Stalingrad alone, and best estimates are that more than 20 million Soviet citizens and soldiers died during the course of the war.

When it was over, much of the industrialized world was in ruins, with the notable exceptions of the United States and Soviet Union. It is no coincidence that those two nations dominated commerce and politics for the next half century. The first salvos of the Cold War were fired even before the war in Europe was concluded, and more than one Allied leader recommended pushing the Soviets back within their borders. If America were not still embroiled in a vicious battle in the Pacific, they might have tried it. As it is, some strategic German cities and facilities were bombed in the closing days of the war expressly to deny them from the communists.

I spent several days recently with a colleague who grew up not far from Berlin. His parents were about the same age as mine, and the war shaped their lives absolutely. The habits they formed were imprinted so strongly that they have not faded to this day.  For instance, if there is food on their table it must be eaten before anyone gets up. Leftovers are not a luxury they could afford.

I try to take a few minutes to reflect every year on the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. (Some years go better than others.) It is a day commemorating sacrifice and war, situated between major American holidays of gratitude and peace. The people who experienced that war learned to be thankful just for living another year. Peace was a tangible goal to work toward, not an abstract concept discussed in church.

The Pearl Harbor generation shaped our world, and our expectations of our world, for better and worse. The world -- and Fox News -- will miss them.

* This surge of responsibility, and disillusionment when it was unceremoniously taken away at war's end, planted the seeds for the Women's Liberation movement.