(Here is a Christmas column from a few years ago.)

During the week before Christmas the rains came and washed away all the snow. It was a cold, dripping rain that only added to the early darkness and made the gloom of a hard year a little deeper. Rain in this part of the country at Christmas seems unnatural, like the presidential campaigns that continued right up until Christmas Eve. There was no good news and each candidate’s sound bites made you hope that this one, at least, would never be elected.

Everywhere I went the neighbors and friends with whom I exchanged more than a passing greeting seemed wrapped in apprehension. The cost of everything we needed was going up, while only things we could do without were getting cheaper. It was a good time to turn off the radio and forget about the stock market and the falling dollar, and not worry about how to pay for the gifts already under the tree. It was a good time to ignore the last campaigner’s desperate sound bite and go and look for a star and see the Christmas angels.

When we got to the church in Spring Mills at 5 pm on Christmas Eve, it was already dark and the parking lot was filling up with cars. The trees dripped rain and Penns Creek was a shadow beyond the grassy slope. Children streamed through the lit doorway of the little church to get on their costumes and prepare for the play. This year’s nativity play was more ambitious than in years past. Ms. Songer, the drama teacher at the high school, wrote parts for 20 actors, with entrances and exits, songs and rhyming dialog. There were second graders playing shepherds and sheep; teenagers in the roles of Mary and Joseph, the narrator, angel Gabriel, and the star of Bethlehem; and the middle-school-aged girls were the heavenly host of angels. Three adult men were singing Wise Men, and I was typecast in two small parts as the evil King Herod and the heartless Innkeeper who sent the weary couple off to the stable to bed down with the goats and donkeys, also played by young teenagers. Except for the bath robes and cardboard crowns, the play might have been performed without much change a hundred years ago, and the parents could have watched the young children and the beautiful angels with the same awe and delight as on this Christmas Eve.

There is a timelessness to this story that affects me each time I see it. The rest of the world shifts its shape around us, but we haven’t changed much on the inside since the days of Herod the king. Like Mary and Joseph, we are on a journey through a strange land, following whatever star we can find. But it is mostly an inner journey, and we cannot take our Blackberry or IPod for entertainment.

The world is too much with us, the poet says, and once in a while you need to step away, out of the darkness into the light, cross the parking lot and come in among the angels, follow the cardboard-and-gold-foil star along with the Wise Men. I made the most of my half dozen lines, basing both of my characters on Snidely Whiplash, the arch villain from the old Dudley Do-Right cartoons. Despite that, the show went off well. The sheep baaed on cue. No one dropped the baby Jesus.

And when the play was over the overhead lights were dimmed as we lit our candles, passing the flame from row to row, making small holes in the darkness. There were angels in Spring Mills this year, and shepherds, and animals that sing. They have all taken off their costumes, but they are still with us in their human forms. The winter is long and dark, but filled with amazing things.


We went out with friends last weekend for dinner and a movie, the mind boggling science fiction extravaganza called “Interstellar.” Once I got over the sticker shock– the price of a ticket has crept up by two bucks in a couple of months — the experience was well worth the three hours and the inflated ticket price. I don’t think I would have felt the same about “Dumb and Dumber To.”

The film plays with an old science fiction theme — that time runs at different speeds for an observer on Earth than it would for someone travelling close to the speed of light. Robert Heinlein used the device well in a novel from the 1950s called “Time for the Stars,” in which telepathic twin brothers communicate as one ages and the other stays young as he travels between stars. In “Interstellar,” the twist is that time slows down in the vicinity of a black hole as the immense gravity warps space and time according to Einstein’s theories.

Thinking too much about the science of wormholes and time dilation can give the typical viewer a headache, but the plot is not bogged down by more than one or two pauses for explanation. Much of the excitement of the movie is in the cinematography and in characters you can actually care about. The winds blow in towering dust clouds across an Earth devastated by crop failures, but all of it is told through the lens of a family and a small town in the far West. Dust covers everything until it is hard to take a breath. Anyone who lived through the Dust Bowl of the 1930s would recognize the scenes of dinner plates laid out upside down to try and keep them clean as the dust filters through any small opening.

There is obviously some resonance with the predictions of climate change, but there is nothing explicit in the film that blames the crop blight on a warming world. It’s closer to that classic British disaster novel by John Christopher, “No Blade of Grass,” in which a virus destroys the world’s food crops. The British made a specialty of catastrophe in the fifties and sixties, led by Christopher and John Wyndham. Who could forget “The Day of the Triffids,” walking plants with poison tentacles?

Nevertheless, science, human creativity and courage (and the help of gravity creatures from beyond time) triumph, and I was left with the feeling that three hours had passed like 20 minutes. Could it be time dilation?

A book landed in our post office box last month, a birthday present that my wife chose for me for reasons that remain obscure, though I have my suspicions.

She is well aware that my general outlook on life tends toward the gloomy. I love the melancholy of autumn and the slant light of October. Contemplating the vastness of the universe, in which the stars are like grains of sand and we are like nits in a flea’s ear, gives me a sense of mordant delight. I tend to distrust the perpetually cheerful, the optimists and true believers of all sorts. So, a book on the science of happiness could be considered a hint. And since I opened it, I have, uncharacteristically, been thinking about what it means to be happy, and what it might be like to pursue happiness.

The book is Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, sometimes called the father of positive psychology. The field of positive psychology is quite new, originating in the late 1990s, but it builds on insights from the early Greeks, including the Epicureans, Zen Buddhism and modern psychology, such as the well-known hierarchy of needs created by Abraham Maslow in the 1950s. Instead of focusing on curing mental illness, positive psychology tries to understand what constitutes mental health and well-being.

Flow is a very practical book. It is based on surveys the author and his coworkers took from thousands of individuals in which they were asked to write down their emotional states at various random times throughout the day whenever a beeper they carried went off. Those surveyed included athletes and dancers, musicians and surgeons, practitioners of yoga and martial arts, mountain climbers, as well as visual and literary artists. From the surveys they discovered common themes that tend to indicate a path to a heightened sense of life satisfaction.

They found that people who were deeply engaged with a task that required concentrated effort, but that was within their abilities to perform, reported a profound sense of satisfaction. On the other hand, sitting in front of the television or computer screen added little or negative long-term satisfaction, though it might seem pleasurable in the moment.

One commonly reported effect of intense concentration was a kind of time distortion. For athletes and martial artists, time might seem to slow down. For a painter at her easel, hours might pass without notice. I’ve experienced the same lapse of time when concentrating on an enjoyable piece of writing. The minutes slip by while the shadows lengthen. I step out of the stream of time, floating above ordinary existence in a bubble, cut off from self-consciousness or physical sensation. It is just the opposite of being so caught up in the petty irritations of day-to-day existence that minor troubles loom like insurmountable boulders and the mind spins in circles. The boulders are less than pebbles; the mind is calm.

The author calls it flow, because when a person is in that state his skills are matched to the task and the movements of the mind and the body are in harmony. We are not fighting ourselves; the dancer and the dance are one. I’ve been thinking about what it means to pursue happiness in this forest of gloom, and I see that there was a path, only I had forgotten to take it.

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Today is the 25th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake, also known as the World Series earthquake. Not many of us remember where we were and what we were doing 25 years ago, but I remember I was sitting on the floor in the hallway of my apartment on Fair Oaks Street in the Noe Valley District of San Francisco while the building shook and glass fell and shattered and books tumbled. My feet were braced against the opposite wall, and I held hands with my five-month pregnant wife as the rumble went on and on.
Our part of the city survived the quake well and the electricity was out for hours instead of days. In the parts of San Francisco built on landfill the earth turned liquid and buildings slumped and many burned. The Marina District next to the bay burned for days and large parts of the tourist district downtown were without lights or power.
Rumors swirled in the first hours after the event that the entire Bay Bridge had collapsed, which would have been massive and catastrophic, but only a 50-foot section of the bridge fell, with one loss of life. But a large section of the Nimitz Freeway across the bay in Oakland collapsed, killing 42.
Our friend Gregor was supposed to be driving across the bridge to watch the World Series with us, but he never made it, and for many hours we thought he might have been on the bridge when it fell. He was running late and bridge traffic was already shut down.
I’ll have to ask my daughter if she remembers riding out the earthquake in her mother’s belly. What an introduction to the world.

The past couple of months our little church in Spring Mills has been experimenting with an outdoor service on Sunday mornings. And because we set up our chairs and portable keyboard in the grass next to Penns Creek, we advertise the service as Creekside Worship.

I am not a very religious person, but I like the communal aspects of church going. I like the people, and the call to do good things in the community and in the world. I enjoy a thoughtful sermon and the hymns I remember from childhood. When our daughters were growing up, it was good to give them the experience of our religious traditions and the great historical and literary document that is the King James Bible. But I also exposed them to the other great world religions and let them make up their own minds about what they did or didn’t believe.

Growing up in the South, church was our social life, our meat and potatoes and green bean casserole. We went to services three times a week, ate potluck Sunday afternoon “dinner-on-the-ground.” We suffered through week-long revival meetings and learned what hell was like by sitting through heat-soaked hour-long sermons while beads of sweat rolled down our cheeks. So much of my childhood was spent in church that I cannot separate the idea of religion from the sense of family.

These Creekside Worship services added a new element to the usual Sunday experience. I generally get distracted watching the ripples in the stream and the leaves turning their autumnal colors, but being in the natural world for an hour is a good distraction. Then, last Sunday the distractions increased exponentially as we brought our pets to be blessed.

A dozen dogs were there, along with Charlie, our intelligent and attractive mixed breed something or other. The dogs sniffed and barked, or the well-behaved ones sat quietly at the feet of their family. Charlie barked at each of the dogs, and then during the hymns he howled along to the tunes. He was a bit of an embarrassment, but he didn’t seem bothered.

Many folks brought photos of their pets, both living and deceased. The pastor moved among the crowd, offering blessings to the dogs by name and to their families. Those with photos brought them forward to be blessed, and there was even an urn of ashes from some still beloved former family pet that needed blessing. It was hard not to be moved by the memory of pets gone bye – Scout, the abandoned and neurotic mutt we took in and tried to love, or Pookie, long-time cat friend recently buried under a flowering bush on the hill behind the barn.

We will outlive our pets, but we don’t forget them. I have never forgotten my first dog, Beauty, an Irish setter with long, flame-red hair, who wandered up the road one day and came to live with us until old age took her away. When the pastor asked during the silent meditation to call out the name of a beloved former pet, I thought of Beauty, friend of my childhood. We wandered together through the fields of summer, and now she lies at my feet again, if only in memory, on a Sunday morning beside the creek.

We drove through a storm that was like a precursor of our future under climate change on our way to deliver our older daughter to her new apartment in Boston. Somewhere on a highway in Connecticut, the skies opened up and lightning split the clouds. Torrents of rain followed us into Massachusetts.

The next morning we discovered that a tornado had touched down a few miles from where we had spent the night. Strange weather, but we can expect more of it in years to come the climate experts tell us. The weathercaster called for intermittent showers and temperatures in the high 80s on Labor Day, when we, along with a hundred thousand students and their parents, would converge on Boston for the city-wide move-in day.

The streets of the city were clogged with double-parked moving vans as we circled the neighborhood near Boston College looking for a place to park our overloaded rental pickup truck. Lucking into a spot less than a block from the apartment building on busy Commonwealth Avenue, we waited while the real estate agent showed up with the keys to the apartment, which our daughter would be sharing with two other Simmons College graduate students on the second floor of an attractive prewar brownstone.

We unloaded the truck for the next ninety minutes, making a few dozen trips down the street and up the stairs, jostled by movers and joggers, past Boston cops standing around welcoming new students and warning them about the perils of underage drinking while generally standing in everyone’s way. I was on the verge of heatstroke, my t-shirt as soaked as if it had been pouring rain, when the second roommate arrived with her mother, and we did it again.

When it was finished, I lay on the floor of my daughter’s large, high-ceilinged bedroom with a fan blowing across my limp body while the women unpacked and chatted in the other rooms. I thought about college and what it was like to be young and doing everything for the first time, the excitement of it and the anxiety. I remembered how it felt in the long ago days when I was I was a young student in Norfolk, Va., going to classes and hanging out at Ward’s coffee shop across the street from Old Dominion University with my friend Tim or drinking the thin brew you could legally drink if you were 18 in Virginia in the dark era of the Vietnam War.

Those days I heard from my parents in Florida once a month or so in a letter or an expensive long distance call. The technology boom that would put computers and instant messages in everyone’s pocket was still decades away. But I heard its first ticking on a new machine perched on the counter in Ward’s coffee shop in the form of a video game called Pong – a black screen, a white ball bouncing between two thin white lines that moved with a knob on each side of the machine. Students -like Tim – lined up to play it. I scoffed and read the English poets.

And then the war was always with us, a storm on the far side of the world that pulled us toward it while we held on by our fingertips and a thin piece of cardboard in our wallet called the 2-S student deferment. The excitement and the anxiety of it is read on my daughters’ faces and in their texts, heard in their phone calls, and in the other rooms, where the women come and go. I lie among unpacked boxes while the fan blows me away.

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