Dec 232012

Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays! I love this time of year. There are many wonderful traditions surrounding the many holidays that coexist at the end of the calendar. It seems everyone has something to celebrate. Whatever your inclination, I hope this time of year is wonderful for you and yours.

Growing up, my family had so many traditions around Christmas. We used to hike into the woods and cut down a Christmas tree (always cedar). There was inevitably a bare side we had to disguise with something. Christmas morning, we had to make our beds, get dressed, make breakfast and have the table ready before we could wake Mom and Dad. Then we had to eat breakfast together before we could go see the tree and what Santa had brought. What an excruciating experience for a young child! Those few minutes seemed like weeks to me.

Many of my childhood traditions have hung around for my own family. We have a caroling party every year. We invite a few families over and we wander the neighborhood, singing to anyone who will listen. Once we get cold, we head back to the house for lots of goodies and hot chocolate. I remember doing this for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid, we did it Christmas Eve, probably as a method of killing time and tiring us kids out. I remember some of our neighbors checking with Mom and Dad early in the month to make sure we were coming, as “it wasn’t Christmas without the Strattons coming to sing.”

Another tradition is having little green army men hiding in our Christmas tree. That started the year Toy Story came out and our son received a Bucket Of Soldiers. Santa Claus took a few extra minutes out of his schedule to hide them all over the tree. The tradition stuck. Every year, no matter how much I protest, soldiers show up in our tree. We are down to only one this year, but he is on guard, up near the top, next to a silver ball. His lonely vigil is almost sad, yet wonderful. I hope we don’t lose this one.

That is the challenge for this week. Honor your family traditions. Make a few new ones. Step outside your comfort zone. Let us know your favorite traditions we might incorporate ourselves. What are your favorite memories? Please share!

 Posted by at 6:00 am
Jun 152012

Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir That Inspired “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey” by Margaret Powell   [rating=5]

I am a fan of British drama. I have enjoyed many British TV shows as well. One of my favorite is Lark Rise to Candleford. We watched a bit of Downton Abbey, but was turned off by the soap operatic nature of the stories. It did lead us to the delightful book Below Stairs.

Margaret Powell “entered service” at the age of 13. Even though she had won a scholarship to continue her schooling, their family couldn’t afford to not have her work for another five years. When her father was drafted into World War I, the destitute situation of the family required she leave home and begin working keeping house for others. She worked six hours each day, seven days a week for 10 shillings, which if my calculations are correct, would be worth about $1.20/hour today. The work was hard and unappreciated.

Powell bounced around from small job to job until she was fifteen and became a kitchen maid. From there, she worked her way up to cook over years of practice and buying a cookbook. Her stories and descriptions of life in service describe the conditions and difficult life. It is no wonder this book became the basis for British drama, looking back at the way the “other half” lived in Victorian England.

Even though Mrs. Powell became a very good cook, it is obvious she has a knack for story telling. Below Stairs is a page turner, packed with story after story, some tragic, most amusing, of life in service. Her views on the gentry were quite opinionated and deservedly so. Most families she worked for were quite harsh in the treatment of those who kept their houses running. A few were quite kind, such as the house that was the basis for Downton Abbey. The job was only three months while their regular cook was recovering from illness. They treated their staff well, giving them gifts at Christmas and even the day off. Most, however, did not treat the people who cared for them as much better than slaves.

After years of cooking for fancy parties and dinners for scores of people, Mrs. Powell eventually married and was able to leave service. It was rather ironic that she struggled to cook for her family, as none of the recipes she had created and mastered would fit into the family budget or her husband’s tastes. She continued to hire out to cook on occasion, but only for special events where extra help was required.

It was interesting to compare Mrs. Powell’s experiences in service as compared to the descriptions given by Bill Bryson in his book At Home, where he details the servants life as well. His descriptions were much harsher of the life, but I felt it matched quite well with those of Below Stairs. Had I lived at this time, I have little doubt I would probably have lived this life. While I enjoy reading about it, I certainly wouldn’t want to live it.

 Posted by at 7:00 am
May 162012

(c)2012 Emi Watanabe Daines

I saw The Avengers over the weekend and mentioned how much I enjoyed it on Facebook. One of my friends replied, asking which Avenger I would be, if I were a superhero. It is an interesting question. I think there is a desire to be a superhero in all of us.

Where did the concept of a superhero come from? Mankind has looked for help to solve overwhelming problems since before the ancient days of Greek and Norse mythology. Now, we love a good superhero story, people who have superior strength, special powers or crazy-good skills that can protect us from the “forces of evil”, no matter what form they take. It makes for great cinema.

However, what forms do superheroes take in real life? Who do we look to in times of trial to carry the load for us? There aren’t any mythologically endowed men and women flying around in special suits or tights. We have to solve our own problems.

The heroes we look to in real life wear a policeman’s uniform or a doctor’s coat, carry a teacher’s textbook or a mother’s first aid kit. The superheroes of today are all of us, quietly doing our jobs, helping and improving wherever we go. Yesterday, I watched my wife work with a child to improve her ability to speak clearly. How does one measure the impact this will have over the coming decades? We call her a speech therapist, but to this little girl, she will be a superhero who changed her life forever.

We may trade a few paper and coins for these superhero services, but it doesn’t really represent the impact on the lives in the long term. Small acts of kindness do more to “save the world” than any mythological, heroic effort. There isn’t a Bat Signal to call in a superhero; we must watch out for each other. Every day, we need to be aware of those around us and find a way to lend a hand. When we do something for someone else, it may be a small effort for us, but because the other person can’t do it for themselves, it is a Herculean task from their perspective.

I initially answered my friend that I would like to be Tony Stark/Ironman because he has all the wonderful toys. Since then, I have been rethinking that choice. I think I would more likely be Agent Phil Coulson, the man in the dark suit who facilitates for all the others. He doesn’t have any special powers beyond a cell phone, no super abilities beyond calm, determined purpose. It is he who brings the egos together and provides the catalyst melding others into a team. Agent Coulson is my kind of superhero. He just quietly gets the job done.