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Category — Christmas

Another holiday flies by

One of the biggest changes moving from academia to being an employee of the U.S. Government was that I now have to keep track of vacation days–I get 19.5 per year, in addition to the 10 federal holidays. So I don’t always take the entire week between Christmas and New Year’s off, but this year I did, using up four vacation days to get an 11-day stretch at home. (The President was gracious enough to give Federal employees Christmas Eve day off.)

As with most vacations, I had anticipated making progress on a whole list of projects, but, as is also usually the case, I hardly touched most of them.

Let me say right off that the first problem is that the ‘to-do list’ mentality is not really the appropriate way to describe spending time with my son. I played with him and photographed him and read to him, and the fact that I didn’t get to cross any of these things off a project list is really irrelevant.

But still, it does seem like a whole bunch of time went by without much productive being done. And I think it’s partly because even though I do have some to-do lists made up, I didn’t really plan my vacation.

Planning might seem line anathema for vacations, an unwelcome imposition of order onto what ought to be relaxing, but I’ve come to differ. You must, at some point, plan your time: one way or the other, you’re going to have to figure out what you want to do. At the most inefficient, you can use up your vacation time deciding what to do, and in the end I think I don’t think that ends up very satisfying.

I think our sense of elapsed time–whether a vacation has flown by, or seemed like a good break–is strongly correlated with the number of changes we experience throughout. A “leisurely” day–getting up late, eventually eating and getting dressed, thumbing through the newspaper, and then thinking about what to do, to be followed, perhaps, by actually doing something in the afternoon–does not put one through very many changes, and seems to go by quickly. (This does describe a large number of my eleven days off.)

By contrast, I think of two-day conferences I’ve been to, with separate events in the mornings, afternoons, and evenings–lots of changes–and recall that they usually end up feeling satisfying, or at least, I can’t recall feeling like time flew by with nothing being done.

Planning out vacation time in advance becomes more important if you’re traveling somewhere, because then, your time at your destination is very rare and very expensive. What a waste to spend your time sitting in a hotel room flipping through a guidebook!

When my wife and my mother-in-law and I went to Korea, we did a lot of planning: to know what the bus and train schedules were, and what days the museums we wanted to see were open, and how to get from a hotel to a site of interest. And the planning paid off: we still marvel at how much we saw in ten days. Quite a contrast to this year’s eleven days of holidays.

January 2, 2008   No Comments

A (small) Christmas flood

Our houses protect us from the elements, keeping us in an environment that’s usually more comfortable than that of the outdoors. I can deal with a house that’s too cold in the winter, or too hot in the summer. Water, on the other hand, I’m more touchy about. I expect a house to keep water in it’s place, and really get agitated when water appears in places it isn’t supposed to be.

Which is what happened Christmas eve day.

It started a month ago or so, with a leaky toilet. Not very leaky: there was just a steady drip, from one of the bolts that holds the tank to the bowl. When I discovered the leak I didn’t really want to figure out what the problem was, so I put a bucket under the toilet to catch the drips. The bucket couldn’t fit under the place where the drip was coming from, so I had to make a little plastic chute to direct the water into the bucket. This is the way I’d left it for several weeks.

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December 27, 2007   No Comments

The reason for the season

The solstice is the reason for the season, of course, which usually fell around December 25th in the old Julian calendar. The moment of the solstice, of greatest angular tilt, happens on different days this year in the US. In the Eastern and Central time zones this year, the solstice is actually early morning of December 22nd, at 1:08am EST. But since I don’t consider the day to really change over until 3:30am, today is solstice day. Days will get longer for the next six months!

The morphing and mixing of various winter-solstice celebrations eventually gave us Christmas. Much of this happened when Pope Gregory I told his missionaries to re-brand Pagan traditions as Christian. The pagan roots of Christmas celebrations and, no doubt, the fact that seventeenth century English celebrations of Christmas had degenerated into something that resembled a cross between Mardi Gras and Halloween were part of the reasons that the Pilgrims started the War on Christmas by outlawing its celebration. Now, I don’t particularly extol the puritanical approach to life, but as an atheist whose cultural background is nominally Christian, I have occasionally been conflicted about whether to celebrate religious holidays, including Christmas. In the end, I decided that I’m comfortable keeping those Christmas traditions that the Christians borrowed from the Pagans, which fortunately covers most of the good stuff.

Including, of course, gift giving. The Pagans were well-attuned to the natural world, and knew that as the winter Solstice approached, the sun was sinking lower and lower in the sky. They believed that through an intense flury of forth-quarter consumer spending, the invisible hand of the market economy would pick up the sun and move it higher in the sky. Which is more or less what everyone believes these days.

December 21, 2007   1 Comment

Gift giving

This weekend I begin my Christmas shopping, and it’s of course the first year I’ll have the opportunity to buy Christmas presents for my son. He will not quite be old enough to understand what’s going on, though, for his first Christmas. The concepts of owning things, having things, and getting things are several months away, as is the notion of how fun it is to get new things. Next year will be different, of course, but for now we can get away with things mostly for our benefit, such as books we’d like to read to him, or outfits we’d like to see him wear. With a child in the house, though, the focus of Christmas changes completely, and this gives me an opportunity for me to reflect on the whole enterprise of gift-giving.

My theory on gift-giving is that there are two elements to a good gift: that it is something the recipient will appreciate, and that it is something which the recipient would not have acquired otherwise. Additionally, there should be some element of surprise; the recipient should not know in advance what the gift will be. It sounds straightforward enough, but it has very different results for children compared to adults. For children, the primary reason they haven’t already acquired something is that they don’t have enough money to buy it. That doesn’t really work with adults: when I want a book, or a new frying pan, or new hiking boots, I just buy them. (Well, I used to, before we had to rein in our spending to make sure we had enough money for child care.) Adults have a whole host of other reasons not to have acquired something, even if they would appreciate it: they don’t know about it, they haven’t had time to find it, they haven’t had time to select the most appropriate version. Or, something has seemed too much like a splurge. But it’s always seemed silly to me to ask (financially stable) adults what they want: if they want something, why not just go buy it? If its the thought that counts, whose thought is it?

Of course, it’s not always easy to pick something that the recipient will appreciate; I’ve been hit and miss over the years but I do think overall the usefulness of the hits makes it worthwhile to try. Some of the best things I’ve given and received over the years: a nightcap, an electric kettle, a laser pointer (before they became ubiquitous), my first coffee grinder, an iPod. I wonder, in the coming years, what sorts of things our son will consider to be his favorite gifts–and will I have to assemble them Christmas eve?

December 14, 2007   No Comments

History in a Christmas Tree

We cut our Christmas tree today, at Butler’s Orchard, where we’ve gone for our tree every year since 2004. Tree harvest was from a new stand of trees this year–we got a Douglas Fir (they also had White Pine); there were no Canaan Firs as in previous years. By and large, the trees in this field were beautifully sheared, giving them near-perfect conical shapes. (How long before someone introduces topiary Christmas trees, I wonder?)

Counting the rings on a slice of trunk, I guess the tree has been around a few months longer than we’ve been in DC. Here’s an annotated picture:
History in a Christmas Tree

November 24, 2007   No Comments