The truth about Christmas

The Christmas season is upon us once again, and no joyous season would be complete without the bitching and moaning of the sanctimonious killjoys. And by that, I mean two types: those who think there is a 'war on Christmas' (Christmas Crusaders) and those who are humbugs about the holiday as it really is (Charlie Browns). Lets review these two sad groups and how wrong they both are to build up some yuletide cheer.

Here's my Christmas disclaimer: I am not a Christian but have always loved Christmas. And I see absolutely no conflict there, for the reasons listed below.

First, the Charlie Browns who bah-humbug Christmas for being too 'commercial' and fear that people are going to forget the 'true' meaning of the holiday. These folks are usually older and somehow remember a time when the holiday was not so commercial. They are either ignorant or rabidly unattached to reality about Christmas or they're just really griping about how old they are. In the 70s, when I was little, I remember adults complaining about how commercial it had gotten. Now I hear people my age say the same thing. Nothing is changing, it's just the effects of aging and selective memory. The Charlie Browns are not that bad though. Many had a perfect Christmas once and they're upset that it can't happen again. But I wish they would stop worshipping that Prozac-inducing Christmas special.

At least they're only trying to depress people, which is less harmful than what the Christmas Crusaders intend. And naming these nutjobs is almost as good as a description of what they believe. Fox News, Bill O'Reilly and most recently John Gibson, who is putting out a book about how evil invisible liberals are trying to kill Christmas.

Under a thin guise of aggrieved victimhood, they are trying to hijack the holiday and turn it into a Christian-only holiday. These guys think that not being able to sing religious Christmas songs in public schools is somehow going to stop millions of people from celebrating Christmas. Every utterance of Happy Holidays is an insult to them, and they actually keep track of what stores are not saying Merry Christmas in their ads and to customers. (Note to nutjobs: there are actually other holidays during this season and they don't all revolve around your religion. Also, if you hate the commercialism of the holiday like the Charlie Browns, wouldn't you rather have the stores leave Christmas out of their sales circulars?)

While they complain that non-Christians are trying to ruin the holiday by de-religioning it, what they're really trying to do is finally hijack it and turn it into a Christians-only holiday. There's a long repressive history here. Cromwell tried the same by outlawing Christmas in England in the 1600s because it was too joyous and Massachusetts own Puritans tried to ban any kind of fun or celebration other than church services in the same century. They hate Santa, see, and that's un-American. Your on notice, nutjobs.

For the Crusaders and the Charlie Browns, they really wish that Christmas would return to being a holiday it never was, namely a pious celebration of the birth of Jesus with no commercial, earthly or material falderall. Boy, is that going to be an uphill battle - Lucy has been pulling the football away on these losers for about 1600 years now.

The history of Christmas is pretty clear - it extends way before the birth of Christ. It's a winter solstice celebration that the days will get longer, the sun will return and life will blossom again in the next year. It has often been a celebration of the coming of spring and the worshipping of various gods, such as the Mesopotamian god Marduk, the Egyptian god Ra, the Persian god Mithra, the Roman god Saturn, the German god Oden, etc. The holiday itself has been called, among others, Sacea, Saturnalia, and now Christmas. The truth is that it has always been about the partying and good times - the religious flavor of the day has just been an excuse. And the fact that middle-aged Christianity (several centuries after Christ died) felt the need to snuff out the fun by dropping a solemn religious celebration on traditional partying is a wine stain on Christianity's starchy cassock.

So as the O'Reilly types of the world try to get everything renamed Christmas in a our-religion-is-more-legit-than-yours move, I say go ahead. All of us revelers will continue to rip the religious meaning out of it like we do the presents out of wrapping paper that morning. Let's get all the non-Christians celebrating it as well, like it were the July 4th. It will be as non-Christcentric as our calendar year is, which is to say, not at all. People will ask, why do we call it Christmas, just like people have to dig around for what Halloween means. And they will hear this odd tale that by and large has little to do with how they celebrate the holiday.

No offense to you Christians, but you tried to rip off the best holiday of the year and it will never work. You all can keep Easter, which you actually did hijack and then banned all the sex-drenched traditions from, turning it into a pastel Halloween. That's okay, it never involved blinking lights and presents anyway.

And that horny Easter bunny is no Santa, who does exist, by the way.

Polonius Jones explains the joke

You've asked yourself this after reading the top of this blog, right? You don't get the joke? You didn't know there was a joke?

Yes, it's a joke and at the same time it's a philosophical statement. Just as "Trackball of Truth" is a measure of the serious but humorous nature of the blog, the joke is a joke designed to work on a couple of levels.

If you want to go through the painful process of having the joke explained to you, please read on...

Okay. Polonius is the dude from Hamlet who says to Hamlet perhaps the best life advice I've ever heard:

"This above all: to thine own self be true,/And it must follow, as the night the day,/Thou cans't not be false to any man."

You have to be true to who you are and honestly face the consequences of that reality. Once a person can do that, their entire life can take off. Much of what this blog covers is people deceiving themselves about the world but also about themselves. That just drives me crazy. Plus, it's a Shakespeare quote, a writer who managed to hit on many truths of human existence while still being funny.

The other quote is from Indiana Jones, famed archeologist from the Spielberg/Lucas movies, when his old flame Marian mentioned that he was not the man she knew ten years ago. In a classic Harrison Ford ad-lib, Jones replies, hurting:
"It's not the years, honey, it's the mileage."
One of the life lessons that I've picked up over the years is that it's not how long you live that dictates your physical and mental condition, it's how you live, the mileage that you put on. Whether it's eating, physical injuries, mental negligence, many people pack on the mileage and age much faster than their years. The secret to realistic immortality is getting the lowest mileage per year. Plus it's a terrific movie in-joke.

And by combining these both in the form of Polonius Jones, pop culture meets literature, it's funny, serious, meaningful and a cute synthesis. Polonius Jones sounds like the name of a really cool kick-ass character in a book or movie, and that's no accident either. If all that doesn't convey a sense of what this blog is about, I don't know what does.

See? The joke is never that good after it's been explained.

No thanks to Thanksgiving

It's that time of year again, for the usual crap about Thanksgiving. Truth is, I've never felt good about this holiday. As a kid, there were several Norman Rockwell-like Thanksgivings I attended where I ate a banana and nothing else. It's a drab holiday with no fun elements at all - no pretty lights, costumes, fireworks. It's just a meal, an American holiday about giving thanks that in the end is all about the food.

And what a meal it is. Now that I'm an adult, the blandness and ridiculousness of the meal has taken on a new meaning. Since the less you eat in this culture, the healthier you are, Thanksgiving now has darker overtones. In obese America, the real glory of this holiday is not about the stuffing in the turkey on the table but about the stuffing of the turkeys at the table. This holiday is a testament to the idea that the mileage you get from your corporeal form is direclty related to how much you abuse it over the years. Think I'm wrong that food is the end all be all of the holiday? No one refers to the holiday and says "geez, I really thanked myself silly." No they overeat, pigout, tank up. All anyone cares about and talks about is how much they ate and their waist line.

And check out the heart attack on a plate that this meal consists of. Dark turkey meat drowned in gloppy gravy, bland mashed potatoes, buttery bread stuffing, apple and pumpkin pies, rolls with butter, sweet potato with marshmallows. Even green bean casserole has the fatty soup and french fried onion thingies. And for those insufficiently polluted, they deep fry their turkey. Yeah, there may be squash and other veggies, but typically in the rush of gluttony, they are rendered useless with butter and excessive steaming. When the menu causes everyone to fall into a near-diabetic coma afterwards, it's time to rethink the whole thing.

The only ones concentrating on the thanking are the religious wackos, and all they want to do is thank their god over and over, which they do every day anyway. Then they haul off to the couch and let the women continue their thankless drudgery of cleaning up after them. If anyone thinks I'm being a killjoy here, take a gander at them.

We Americans already pig out on all the rest of our holidays. How many of us have the same food at Christmas anyway? I submit that these other pigouts are better because the food is more limited and the focus of the holiday is on something else: presents, costumes, spring, swimming, patriotism, etc. Food is secondary because there's other fun stuff going on. Thanksgiving has nothing except the meal. The parade, the football and the day-after shopping are desperate attempts to distract from the soul-throttling emptiness of this holiday. Witness the swollen movie theaters.

So this is one holiday the country could do without. If the thought of millions of swollen Americans quadrupling their double chins by bowing their heads to sincerely thank Providence for their blood pressure and cholestorol medications and all of this wonderful food makes you a little queasy, you see where I'm at. Almost makes you wish for a day of fasting, doesn't it? Perhaps a light menu of popcorn and toast?

I am and am not Keef Vango

Video gaming has come a long way during my life and there's times now where gaming and real life seem to be intersecting and criss-crossing in odd ways. If you're not catching my meaning, check out the Sims, where you can build yourself as a virtual person and run their virtual life. I once programmed in my entire family and had the out-of-body experience of watching my family's life from above. It was quite unnerving. When you sit at your computer and play a game where your virtual you sits at his computer playing a video game it's like putting yourself in between two mirrors.

For a long time I played Star Wars Galaxies. This is an MMORPG, or massive multi-player online role playing game. You build a character and they live in the Star Wars universe where thousands of other actual people are playing and interacting at the same time. You can get together, socialize, explore several different planets (each over 15 km square) or even build a starship and explore outer space. Your character can build a home, join a town, be an artisan, hunter, soldier, politician, entertainer, etc. There is an actual in-game economy that has been studied on various sites. For me this was a childhood dream come true.

So I created a character named Keef Vango. He was very unlike me: tall, blond and blue eyed, a great shot and good at building things with his hands. His continually running mouth always got him in jams though. I played casually, usually a couple of hours a week for over two years. Keef did pretty well, amassed over 7 million credits, joined the Rebel Alliance, bought a house, arbitraged commodities in the economy and built a pretty cool X-wing fighter. He didn't master any expert level professions or top out in skills because I just didn't have the time.

I gave up playing though. I wasn't in the game often enough to form relationships with other players and a lot of the game seemed like a grind (tediously repeating tasks to gain experience and skills). After all that time and despite being an expert in blaster use, Keef still couldn't take on a single stormtrooper, the point of minimal credibility for anyone in the Star Wars universe. He did well at lots of life's metrics, but it was a very hollow experience. I didn't have a series of memorable adventures with other players. I wasn't involved in any major battles or cross any intergalactic gangsters. I knew others were more deeply immersed: the hard-core gamers, the ones who devote their lives to the game and chew up the content (missions, advancement, etc.) and organize the community.

So I let the $13/month subscription expire. Keef retired to his furnished little house on Corellia, kneeled in a meditative trance and I logged off for the last time. No one noticed.

The thought occurred to me - am I a real life Keef Vango? Am I plodding through life, virtually unnoticed, doing well by the standard metrics but leading an otherwise hollow existence? I have a few friends, but not a bevy of them. The number of friends from high school, college and grad school that I regularly keep in touch with I could count on one hand. Extended relatives like cousins are barely communicated with. My social life never has been a whirlwhind. I've lived on my street for almost five years and other than the immediate neighbors, no one has more than a vague idea of who I am. And that's much better than the last two places I lived where almost no one had any idea who their immediate neighbors were. At work, I rarely interact with people who work just down the hall. Acquaintances from training classes and former co-workers are soon out of sight, out of mind.

But I know I am not unique in this respect. Block parties on my street are an exercise in people reintroducing themselves to one another and getting wrong how long each other has lived here. Since my work phone isn't ringing off the hook, the same seems to have happened to past acquaintances. Are Galaxies and the other MMORPGs just a microcosm of modern life, where most of us are unnoticed characters exploring our own world, rarely connecting with others and connecting only for the most superficial of reasons? Have they inadvertently recast real life, stripped to its essence of a mostly atomistic human community with a couple of social overachievers?

Then I'll run across the social overacheivers who are frustrated that all of us Keefs are running around past each other without pausing to hang out together. They're the ones who organize the PTA events, the block parties, the interoffice lunch outings and the family reunions. There's about one social overacheiver for every 9 Keefs.

So in a way, you and I are Keef Vango and there's not much that's wrong with that. The solitary existence that is life won't change for me or most everyone else, I bet. You're either hard-core about these things, or you're a ghost in the machine of life. It's a matter of point of view, though, because we're too busy being hard-core about other things, like our own families, careers or internal lives to be nothing more than a Keef to the outside world.

The Truth about Trackballs

Truth is, a trackball is better than a mouse. Mice might be more prevalent, but that's another sign of what's wrong with the world. The trackball preceded the mouse. It has a superior design - the whole point is to move the ball in the first place, so why not move it directly? No need for a mousepad, no need to pick the entire device up and reposition it when it gets to the edge of its little square. The trackball just becomes part of your hand. Many of them only require one or two fingers to operate. And the heel of your palm does not become an aching pivot point.

A mouse is eternally separate from your hand, clumsy and non-ergonomic. It's the equivalent of putting plastic vampire fangs on your teeth and trying to eat and talk with them.

But Steve Jobs or some other Apple genius decided to flip the trackball over and create a 'mouse' that was more inefficient but easier to name with a cutesy Apple metaphor. "See, computers are easy to use because we've named the odd parts after rodents that scare you to death." Here you see the fault line in the style over substance-esque dichotomy of the design rhetoric vs. marketing reality behind Apple's products.

Alas, the world has voted with its feet for the more inefficient, clumsier mouse (and at the same time for PCs over Apple: oddly planting the stupid mouse decision within the smart PC decision). And the makers of wrist splints rejoiced. For millions of people have wrenched their wrists into impossible positions to use these clumsy perversions. They revel in obtaining superfluous mouse pads where their computing experience will resemble running in place on a pretty manhole cover.

But show 10 people a trackball and 9 of them will look perplexed and disturbed. Then they'll stay with a mouse and continue to complain about wrist pain. Why? Because there is an indescribable, incomprehensible desire on the part of some hunk of the populace for the inefficient, the painful, the inconsistent; the path of being consciously stupid. I don't know where this comes from or what mental comforts outway the bone-grinding, productivity-sapping costs. It might be familiarity, or laziness, or resistance to change, or a desire to bang one's head against a wall.

Yes, this could be chalked up to a matter of taste. That is, if you consider taste a matter of closing oneself off to alternatives without much thought or preference. I'm not denying people the choice, put as a fully certified lazy person, I just don't get why they'd make it. And I'm totally and utterly perplexed as to why they would be proud of it.