Sunday, December 17, 2006

Noise noise noise noise

I finally put pictures of the Christmas tree up. They're at my Flickr site, which you can link to from the bookmark over on the right. The one that says "My Photos."

I spent most of this past weekend with family members, especially many small children. And some not so small children. I know this is something everyone says, to the point of sounding trite and cliched, but kids really grow up fast. I have a mental picture in my mind of my step-brother changing my niece's diaper on the floor of my father and step-mother's house on Christmas eve. I can here all the sounds and conversation going on around me, I can smell the food that was being served in the kitchen, and most of all I can remember thinking how silly she looked getting her diaper changed. She was just kind of looking up at my step-brother and waiting for him to be finished (she was probably about two and wasn't going to be in diapers too much longer). I don't remember the exact year, but it had to have been well over ten years ago because I saw her yesterday at my step-sister's house and she is three inches taller than me (in heels) and a sophomore in high school.

Having the chaos of children around reminded me of something I though of in church a couple of weeks ago. The Episcopal parish I go to does Sunday school in the parish hall up to the point in the service where the congregation exchanges the peace of Christ. As we shake hands and get ready for the Eucharistic part of the liturgy, the kids pour in and join their parents in the pews. They help with the collection, and then generally buzz and hum about until the end of the service. This means that while the vicar is telling the story of the Eucharist, and blessing the bread and wine, and during the recitation of the Lord's prayer, there is a lot of giggling, chattering, wandering, and occasional squalling going on. The more experienced parishioners make no attempt to hush or huddle their children.

I can imagine some parents going crazy with this type of activity going on during what is the most solemn and important part of the service, and I have often imagined a kind of dialogue in my head between a more strict parent and the parents of St. John's. Two things occurred to me, which made it clear that not only does this method of dealing with restless children in church not do any harm, it adds something very useful to the experience.

First is what the distraction of children's voices and footsteps during the Eucharist provides for adults. It is a challenge of sorts. We are constantly distracted and preoccupied in our daily lives, and yet Christ (or God or whatever your flavor of faith is) expects us to stay focused. We acknowledge the distractions, we deal with what we have to, but we get our minds back on the task at hand and stay connected to our faith. If we concentrate and find balance in our minds, we will hear the most important parts of the message of faith through the din of the everyday world.

The second realization I had concerned the children themselves, and my response to someone who felt that they should be compelled to pay attention during the service. The benefit children get from going to church, especially very young children, is hardly in the specific lessons and words they hear there. What is most important is the model of behavior they see being set by the adults around them. If they are being scolded by parents who are focusing more on being in control than they are on the transcendence of the moment, they won't come away from the churchgoing experience with any sense of the peace and reassurance that regular worship brings. After all, how many kids who were forced to attend church every Sunday throughout their childhood abandoned it the moment they had the freedom to? And how much good is it doing for those people who go only because it was programmed into them?

After spending the last two days surrounded by tumbling, chattering, squawking, crying, laughing and questioning voices, I have reached a sort of indifference to it. Not an indifference to the kids, but an ability to squelch the noise and filter the distractions and not lose my mind. I imagine this is what most parents learn to do, eventually. When I think of all the adults in my life when I was a child, I am amazed at what they accomplished while my brother or cousins or friends and I were raising a ruckus. They carried on conversations, played card games, read books, watched television and a host of other things. You must just get used to it after a while.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

O Tannenbaum

After six years in school, I am beginning to associate the holidays with panic-stricken paper writing. With the exception of one fall term when the school fiddled around with the schedule -- and the term ended after the new year -- the Christmas season has also marked a period of multiple assignment deadlines. I'm actually enjoying it this year; it adds to the whole intense, expectant, anticipatory mood of the season. And I would like to think I am getting better at slamming out papers, so it is getting easier (but I'll wait to say that with 100% conviction until after I get this term's grades.)

Right now I am trying to decide whether I am going to go out shopping tonight, or finish the last of my papers. I really need to get some presents for a family get together this weekend, and I can write during work hours tomorrow and Thursday (when the paper is due). But tonight I just don't feel like shopping. I have no idea what to get, anyway. I need some presents for little nieces and nephews that I don't see very often, so I'm not sure what they're into. And I am looking forward to writing this paper.

The whole process of writing is getting easier and more enjoyable for me. I outline things in my head and literally visualize the paper coming together. I picture a body, like a lizard or a cat, and the main idea is the spine. The head is the introduction, that has a little bit of everything in it. The legs are the specific points I want to concentrate on, and the tail is the re-statement of the most important point I am trying to make. Once all those parts are filled in I can sit down and knock off how ever many pages I need just by adding to each part.

The hardest part of writing academic papers is digging through sources for references. I have to develop a system of keeping quotes and citations easy to access, so I can drop them in at the appropriate place and not spend 45 minutes flipping through a book or article looking for the few relevant words I know I read somewhere. I'm sure there are software tools for this, but I have to get used to using them. I have a nice outlining software for Mac that was free, but I never use it. The university also licenses EndNote software for bibliography writing. If I were smart I'd start a database of my sources now and save myself all that typing come dissertation time.

Last but not least, we got our Christmas tree up this past weekend. I'm going to post some photos later. It is a great tree - shaped like a perfect triangle, and decorated to perfection by the missus. She's kind of particular about it. I try to help, but I usually end up doing a crossword and watching "A Christmas Carol" while she agonizes over ornament placement. I do the take down. It used to depress me, but I get as excited by the end of Christmas (and the start of a new year) as I used to get by the beginning of it.