Saturday, December 31, 2005

Next Year, I Want a Merry Christmas

On Christmas morning, I found myself driving up the Florida Turnpike toward Ocala and my sister's house where I would be the chef for the day's Christmas dinner. The car was loaded with groceries filling the car with hints of vegetables, fruits and cheeses, promises of wine and deserts. On the car's radio, the St. Olaf's choirs sang Christmas music, much of it music I had myself sung in days gone by in Cathedral choirs. As I looked out across the fog-draped rolling hills of Lake County, I found myself weeping, my mind racing to many happy Christmas Pasts, returning again and again to the dull pain of Christmas Present. And I heard myself exclaim, "Next year, I want a Merry Christmas."

It's not that I don't have much to be grateful for. I have a wonderful, loving partner of 31 years, a beautiful man who grows more beautiful as he ages, a man who understands me better than anyone else and who loves me anyway. We have a house full of animal babies to love, a beagle of 17 years (10-12 is the life expectancy of a beagle), an incredibly affectionate dachshund and two very beautiful cats who periodically deign to be loved and for whose benefit our household is maintained. We have a rental house that is safe, warm and in our own neighborhood as we await our house's reconstruction to be completed. And I work with people I admire and respect, people who share my own curiosity about life and who value intelligent, sometimes impassioned discussion about things that matter. My entire immediate family lives within a hour an a half of me and I live in a beautiful, vibrant city evolving into something potentially dynamic, a city whose oak-lined brick streets and lakes are the home of many memories and many friends from my life-long love affair with Orlando.

All things considered, I am a fortunate man. And I consider myself blessed, not in any smug, self-serving manner that sees G-d as having blessed me (with the accompanying implication that I somehow am G-d's chosen) but simply the realization that my fortune is at least in part due to nothing I have done or could have done to procure it. This in a world where the vast majority of its people live in nowhere close to the comfort level I experience daily.

At some level, I suppose what I am about to say may sound a little like a spoiled child voicing a sense of entitlement. But, having one's basic levels of Maslow's hierarchy met is not enough for the self-actualized human being. And, indeed, not all of the basic levels of the hierarchy are, in fact, secured in my life at this turn of the year into 2006 CE.

The first thing I see each morning as I look out my front window is my own home, still standing in ruins 16 months after Hurricane Charley dropped three tons of our stately old oak tree through the house and into the neighbor's house. Stripped down to the studs of its roof and its walls, windows missing or leaning against walls awaiting replacement in new concrete lined (and hurricane code meeting) spaces, even the flooring itself missing, it is a sad sight. While we entertain visions of a beautiful new home with cathedral ceilings and windows, new tile floors, gleaming stainless steel kitchen appliances, and a new deck and fencing to replace that lost in the storm, that vision has been so slow to materialize that we have both wondered at times if it will ever really happen. Our contractor has proven almost inept at managing his contracts, his lucre often overpowering his judgment on how much work he can actually accomplish, his skills in meeting schedules almost pathologically poor. To change contractors now probably would mean at least 3 months longer wait.

Our insurance moneys for rent and storage space expire March 1. There is much uncertainty about our home, whether and when we may be able to reclaim it. Next year, I want a Merry Christmas, in New Coverleigh, our reclaimed and resurrected home.

My mother was not able to be with us Christmas Day. She is in a rehab center in Ocala where she is learning to walk again after a broken hip. While we took her Christmas dinner, it just wasn't the same. St. Marge has overcome so much in her life - loss of her mother, being farmed out to relatives, tubular pregnancy, cancer, pancreatitis, stroke. Every new event knocks her for a loop. At 79 pounds soaking wet, she is a lean, mean feisty machine. But I wonder which new knock may be more than even a saint can handle. In the meantime, I just want my Mother to come home. And I want her to be at the party when we reopen our new home. Next year, I want a Merry Christmas.

The situation at my job became steadily more chaotic as the end of the year approached. Increasingly pressed to demonstrate with empirical evidence that our students are learning in our classes, we've spent more and more time on the Leave No Child's Behind approach I call Pavlovian Learning - data regurgitated upon command, comprehension, context and understanding of its significance optional. Then came news that the Gordon Rule, the 6000 word minimum writing requirement was to be abolished for our humanities courses. Up to now, we've had a club to hold over students' heads to require them to learn to write at college level and to complete written assignments in our classes. With that gone, students will be able to assert with impunity that courses which require writing assignments demand too much. And, of course, the consumer is always right, right?

There is more. With the requirement to grade all the writing gone, the university can now pump our already overflowing classes (45 per section) to 75 a section. The days of me knowing my students are probably gone. The days of talking head lecturing have arrived. (I have more to say about this but it will have to wait for another post.) If this were not enough, the text book publisher has dropped a new edition on us mid-year without notice (I found out when my students said their texts weren't being taken back for refunds because a new edition would be replacing it) and the webct on-line operations I spent a summer term learning (and the next summer struggling to improvise the flakey program) are about to undergo radical change as well. In short, there are few aspects of my job that are stable and predictable at this point. Time will tell how well I deal with those changes. Next year, I pray for a Merry Christmas.

This year my dear cousin, Ansel, lost his battle with self-medication. His bright, zany, compassionate voice no longer rings on the other end of my voice mail, often through the haze of self-induced alcoholic stupor. I miss him. His 49 years on this plane were far too few. Next year, I want a Merry Christmas.

This year I have held my breath as our aging beagle has become increasingly gaunt and teetery. Charlie Beagle will not be with us much longer. I also came home last April to my beloved dachshund nearly paralyzed in the back from a ruptured disc. Some $3000+ surgery (and several sleepless nights) later, Julian is his unabashedly joyful self once more, albeit a 10 year old dachshund with a back that must be guarded from jumping onto and off furniture. I doubt Charlie will be with us another Christmas. However merry it may be, it will be all the less so with his absence. Nonetheless, next year, I still want a Merry Christmas.

I write this missive on the eve of a new year. As I watched the sun setting into pools of grey and tan this night amidst skeletal swamp maples awaiting the burst of new growth and scarlet blossoms just weeks away now, I was only too happy to let go of what has largely been a very trying and painful 2005. I am a creature of hope, an optimist by nature, always looking for new births and new starts. I have great hopes for this coming year - a return to our home after nearly two years exile, a mother recovering from debilitating health crises, a return to equilibrium in whatever form it might be able to take these days of scarce dollars and empty empirical approaches to "accountability" in higher education. I savor each moment with my teetery, nearly deaf and blind hound dog, knowing soon I shall have to let go of my beloved companion. Even so, I await 2006 with hope, a guarded optimism and a goal: Next year, I want a Merry Christmas.

Happy New Years, everyone!


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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