October 30, 2010

Plunkin' down dollars for pumpkins and more

I had a choice between an elaborate brown hoop-skirted costume and a simpler one. I picked the simpler one not only because it's purple, but because it's cheaper.

Many of us are still economizing, although the National Retail Federation says Halloween spending this year is expected to bounce back to 2008 levels after a big drop last year. This year's total is estimated at $5.8 billion. Yeah. With a B.

I sometimes wonder whether neo-pagans are as annoyed by the commercialization of Halloween as Christians are about Christmas.

The old holiday, Samhain (pronounced SOW-ahn, which means, roughly, "summer's end"), marked the final harvest of the year, after which the earth became "dead," entering a winter dormancy. European Pagans had a variety of ways to celebrate this holiday. Would it surprise you to know none of them involved orange and black taffy? More than you probably care to know is here. The festival began at sundown Oct. 31 and continued through Nov. 1.

As with Easter and Christmas, the early church took an adoptive approach with this holiday. In 835, at about the time there came to be more Saints than there were days in the year to have feasts for them, Pope Gregory III initiated "All Saint's Day," and put it on Nov. 1. So the day before became All Hallow's Eve, presumably because "Salloween" didn't have quite the same ring to it.

Pumpkins, which are indigenous to the Americas, didn't come into the picture until after Irish immigrants got here. In Ireland, jack o'lanterns were made with turnips. But in America, the Irish began using pumpkins instead, not only because they are bigger, but because their abundance made them cheaper. See, I'm not the only one cutting costs around this holiday.

In the mid-19th century, Halloween was basically just an excuse for trickery and vandalism, sometimes involving outhouses. In later Victorian days, celebrations mellowed into tame harvest festivals. It wasn't until around 1920 that people began sending their kids door-to-door like so many beggars.

Now, parents tend to keep their kids off the street, seeking more sanitized venues like shopping malls. Even churches have begun holding Halloween parties, which strikes me as odd. It must strike the pagans as even odder.

October 23, 2010

Big free music hides behind little asterisk

When I bought a new flash drive, it came with an eMusic "50 FREE* songs" coupon. I visited eMusic.com to see what's behind the asterisk.

First, you have to enter a credit card or PayPal account so eMusic can automatically roll you into one of its subscription plans when your 14-day trial runs out. To get the 50 songs truly free, you must download them within 14 days and then cancel.

My trial included one audiobook, so I started there. But downloading books (or albums) requires installing eMusic's proprietary software. This rankled, though it's similar to installing iTunes to shop in the iTunes store. Except iTunes doesn't let you shop for half an hour and click a big button labeled "Download" before telling you the software needs installing.

The "Browse" feature at eMusic is pretty good. You can filter by genre, subgenre, editor's picks, user ratings and release date.

eMusic's interface is clean and easy to read.

But to listen to audio samples, you need to install an Adobe Flash Player upgrade, if you haven’t already. Which I hadn’t. I dislike Flash. One of my favorite Firefox add-ons is Flashblock. I had to add emusic.com to the Flashblock whitelist.

Then I spent the evening listening to music samples and downloading free tunes. As I got closer to having zero credits left, I started getting interesting messages. If I downloaded one song from a seven-credit album, eMusic offered me 6 free credits to complete the album -- and start my paid subscription.

The eMusic catalog is impressive. And in November, they’ll add another 250,000 tracks from Universal Music Group. I considered signing up for a subscription, but then I would be obligated to pay $12 a month for 24 tracks. (If you pay yearly, you get a discount.) I don’t want to be obligated to shop for $12 worth of music every month, since I currently average only about $7 a month for music. Those who know me well will not be surprised to know that I keep records this minutely.

So after I got my one e-book and 50 songs, I went to cancel the account. Would it surprise you to learn there’s a “just one more thing before you go” offer? An otherwise unpublicized “eMusic Mini” account -- $6 a month for 12 tracks. Even though this is below my monthly average, I gave it a miss. The cancellation process was painless. I took the exit survey so I could specify (and they anticipated this answer, because it was one of the multiple-choice options) that I prefer a la carte pricing.

Just to ensure there were no more asterisks, I logged back in and verified my account was canceled. It is, but my login remains in their system, and my account has a big button to click if I ever change my mind. Which, if eMusic switches from the subscription model, I might do.

October 15, 2010

A Crown Of Splendor

As we were led to our table at the restaurant, we passed a long table where a family was celebrating a birthday. By the markings on the cake, it was the gentleman's 86th birthday. He was thin, maybe a bit frail, but in good spirits and, as far as I could tell, able to get around without help.

"Uch," my friend said, "I'd hate to live that long."

"If you had your health, why not?" my husband asked.

She shook her head. And her husband agreed with her.

I couldn't find words. My grandfather died before I was born. How I wish he had lived to be 86. My cousin died when she was only 36. How might another fifty years added to her life have changed the lives of her daughters?

I don't decide who lives how long. God does, and I don't question His wisdom. But sometimes I wonder...

And I pity my friends. Where they see wrinkles, I see wisdom.

When Grandma was 86, she wrote this essay. I had the privilege of reading it at her memorial service last year. Today would be Grandma's 90th birthday. She died last year, just before Independence Day.

Gray hair is a crown of splendor; it is attained by a righteous life. -- Proverbs 16:31

Old Age
By Phyllis Kirkpatrick

I believe old age is a gift from God. Now that I am 86, I can be the person I have always wanted to be. I don't mean my physical body! I despair the bags under my eyes and the wrinkles on my face -- to say nothing of the sagging underarms! But I no longer agonize over those things.

I would never trade my wonderful life now for my former black hair and thinner figure. I have my wonderful, loving family, and many good and faithful friends.

As I have aged, I have become more kind to myself and less critical of my faults. I no longer blame myself for taking that cookie or buying that silly knickknack. I feel entitled to overeat once in a while, and to be extravagant occasionally.

I've seen too many dear friends leave this world too soon, before they understood the great freedom that comes with old age. Whose business is it but my own if I read a book I am wrapped up in until 4 a.m. and then sleep until noon? Or if I listen to favorite golden oldies from the 50's instead of the latest so-called music?

I go to the pool in my old-fashioned one-piece bathing suit, stretched over my bulges, and ignore the pitying glances of the bikini set.

I know l am forgetful sometimes, but some things are better forgotten anyway, and I can remember the important things when I need to.

Sure, over the past 50 years my heart has been broken. How can a heart not break when it loses a beloved husband of 34 years at the too-early age of 57? Or even when a loved dog gets killed by a car. Or a beloved granddaughter who dies so suddenly much before her time. Of course hearts will break, but that is what gives us compassion. A sterile heart, never broken, cannot know the joy that having loved and lost can bring.

So I feel blessed to have lived long enough to have my hair turn white and to have laugh wrinkles on my face, and I can say yes to getting old and staying positive and optimistic.

You care less what other people think, and you have earned the right to be wrong sometimes. I know I am not going to live a lot longer, but while I am still alive, I will not waste time lamenting what might have been, or worrying about what will be. My motto now is: Life is short, so eat dessert first!

October 10, 2010

The cost of being unreachable

Some people complain about other people’s apparent addiction to connectivity. Blackberrys, iPhones, and other such gadgets are seen as signs of misplaced priorities or rudeness. Why, they ask, would anyone call or text people who are elsewhere instead of talking to the people who are with them?

© Apple Inc.
Of course, the gadgeteers don’t see it this way. They see their world as a relational network, and sharing what’s happening with those not present is a way of fostering relationships.

Although I understand this view, I believe we all need to unplug once in a while. In his book Good to Great in God’s Eyes, Chip Ingram advises us to “develop great habits.” One of those is, as part of Sabbath-keeping, to “turn it off:”

“Close the calendar, turn off the phones and pagers, shut the computers down, and look back on your week in gratitude.”

Today, after worship and Sunday school, I drove 20 minutes to another church for a class. I found the classroom empty. Shortly, the teacher’s husband arrived to tell me she was sick and class was canceled. She had tried to call me but got no answer.

That’s because my phone was turned off.

He apologized for my driving that distance for nothing, and I apologized for being unreachable. Then I headed home.

As I drove, I thought about the cost of being unreachable. About 45 minutes of driving time and, since I get great mileage, less than a gallon of gas. Not too high a price, I think, for developing this particular habit.

But next week, I’ll probably check for messages.