Wednesday, December 24, 2014

What the Dickens?


The modern idea of how to observe the Christmas season has its roots in the mind of one man:

Sketch of Charles Dickens
made in 1842
on an American tour
(That's his sister, Fanny, on the lower left)
Charles Dickens.

But I bet the story’s not quite as cut-and-dried as you think.

So I’m going to give you a little capsule literary history and in the telling try to uncover a useful Yuletide Takeaway or two that you can re-gift in the best spirit of the season.

For starters, at the core, we’re talking USA-style Christmas with the most plentiful points of reference to Great Britain, OK? So first –

A Ghost of Christmas Past: Long past.

Recall those  Thanksgiving Puritan pilgrims we celebrated last month? For a bunch or reasons they and their kin were not much for observing Christmas.

In fact they were quite “Bah! Humbug!” about the celebrate-Christmas concept. And that was the beginning of the end of the pre-Puritan kind of Yuletide days of elaborate feasting and pageantry and royal splendor that we might imagine.

Old big-scale pomp-filled religious traditions gradually faded into history and Christmas became a quiet celebration in individual homes.

Fast forward and by the Age of Dickens the Industrial Revolution contributed further erosion of plum pudding, mince pie, evergreens, mistletoe and such.

“Work!” was the motto of the time. Christmas was essentially another work day. The poor were too oppressed to celebrate. And those who were well off did not want to “waste” the time and money. (Sense the beginnings of a story here?)

However –

The socially conscious Charles Dickens believed that Christmas could be otherwise enlightening. He felt that the spirit of the season did something positive for him personally and so he set about using his power with the written word to do the same for the rest of the world.

His first attempt, in 1835, in Bell’s Life magazine in London, was called “A Christmas Dinner.” This short sketch described the conviviality of a family forgiving and forgetting the past as it gathers around the Christmas table.

Dickens’ next story on the subject will sound even more familiar:

Cliff-Note synopsis: Unpleasant, cranky guy is annoyed by other people’s cheerfulness on Christmas Eve … is taken by supernatural beings to view scenes of family happiness and good … this convinces him to reform when he awakens the next day.

It’s called (get ready to be surprised)–

The Goblins Who Stole a Sexton. It’s an incidental part of the more notable whole of The Pickwick Papers.

Seven more years pass. Dickens has many successes but, by 1843, he had somewhat fallen out of public favor as a writer. Not as good with money as he was with words, his financial situation had become troublesome for him. His social consciousness had him in an ongoing turmoil about the plight of the poor. He spent much time and effort making speeches appealing for aid to the working class. Then --

In October 1843, while he walked the streets, an idea came to him. He modeled it on “The Goblins …” and embellished it with details from his own life.

1843 First Edition
Title page
Illustrations by John Leech
By the second week of November, he completed his story – A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas – and took it to his publisher.

Because he wanted it to be top quality, he worked on the design of the book, the paper and binding himself. He selected the illustrator. He arranged having the illustrations hand-tinted – all the while striving to keep the price as low as possible so it could be affordable for the audience he intended to influence.  

A few days before Christmas the new little book appeared.

Financially it was not a success. Although it sold well, he made very little from its initial sale because he succeeded too well in delivering quality at a bargain price. (True first editions are currently valued in the $10,000+ range.) Cheaply made pirate editions sold on both sides of the Atlantic also kept him from earning his due. Even when he sued one unethical publisher and won his case, Dickens suffered because the publisher’s bankruptcy left him with no settlement and yet he had court costs to pay.

It took Charles Dickens some time to realize just how completely he had succeeded although he had not made much money.

He wrote other Christmas books, one each year. In 1844 he wrote The Chimes and observed, “I believe I have written a tremendous book, and knocked the Carol out of the field.”

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Next to the Nativity itself, A Christmas Carol remains the best-known and best-loved (it’s never been out of print) Christmas story of all in all manner of retelling – movies, stage plays, opera, musicals, cartoons, skits and spoofs, and modernized and futurized versions.

  • “Scrooge” has entered the vernacular as a synonym for “miser.”
  • The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future have haunted us all, regardless of religious affiliation.
  • The spirit of the season has bloomed again as a time to think of one’s fellow man.
Yuletide Takeaway: As in most of his writing about the season, Dickens is not particularly concerned with the religious nature of the holiday but with –

The cheerfulness and good feeling between people. A Christmas Carol is the ultimate embodiment of what Dickens himself called –

The ‘Carol’ Philosophy: Christmastime was “a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of other people below them as if they were really fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”

Dickens gets the last word. Here it is, from the penultimate paragraph of the book:

“Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.”

No humbug. Intending to do it all and more ... be better than my word ... and have laugher in my heart.

Geoff Steck
Chief Catalyst
Alexander Publishing & Marketing
8 Depot Square
Englewood, NJ 07631

P.S. “... and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.  May that be truly said of us, and all of us!”

Friday, October 3, 2014

Erev Yom Kippur 5775


Tonight, in one of those curious intersections that happens with traditions keyed to lunar calendars, all-important-to-Muslims rites and rituals involving the Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca, fall at the same as Yom Kippur, the most solemn Jewish Day of Atonement. 
It’s unusual that’s for sure. The coinciding Day of Arafat when pilgrims to Mecca will be at Mount Arafat atoning for their sins and misdeeds and the Yom Kippur activities with biblical links to the time of Moses will not happen again for many decades.

Yet the Hajj/Yom Kippur traditions and observances of these oft-times-at-odds “children of Abraham” are remarkably parallel.

The “children of Abraham” connection is the key, of course. As I understand it, the core reason Muslims desire to make their pilgrimage is to honor the Patriarch Abraham, the very same Patriarch Jews honor and revere.

(It’s not clear to me why a corresponding annual atonement/repentance observance isn’t extant in the Christian extension of the family. But I’d speculate that Easter time is closely connected with some elements and the largely secular New Year’s Eve with its resolutions and such is also in play.) 

More to the immediate date and point: The Jewish and Muslim communities worship the essentially same deity. They acknowledge and honor many of the same prophets. Many of the dietary restrictions are held in common. The underlying mindset in rituals of atonement and invocation to that deity for forgiveness and mercy are strikingly similar.

So what?

Most of you probably realize I’m not an especially religious person.  Some who know me more intimately are kind enough to deem my view “spiritual” at times. If pressed I might allow that I think many of my opinions in this region could align with positions I conclude the Founding Fathers of the United States articulated as “Nature’s God.”
So I hope to claim some status as a trying-to-remain-impartial outside observer.

And here’s my observation: There’s self-evident truth in today’s particular alignment of traditions. No matter the source or depth of your beliefs, the underlying concepts of –
  • Spiritual introspection
  • Retrospection
  • Seeking pardon
  • Granting remission or forgiveness
  • Atonement, and
  • Resolving and vowing to go forward anew. 
-- have legitimacy and power.

Tradition-observant Jews repeat a “confession” several times during the observance of Yom Kippur cataloguing fifty-six categories of “sin.” 

And here’s what’s particularly interesting to me about that and apt to our day and age: 

The confession is recited as a collective “we”
– not an individual “I.”

This tradition is one of sharing each other’s transgressions plus acknowledging general responsibility for the misdeeds of mankind.

TAKEAWAY: We might be well served if the secular “We the people …” could apply ourselves to ways to come together to do that now.

Mosaic floor with seven-branched menorah plus other Jewish ritual objects.
The latter are, from right to left:
a shofar [ram's horn used on the Rosh haShanah holiday];
 an incense shovel as used in the Temple;
an etrog [citron in English], a citrus fruit used on the Sukkot holiday;
what appears to be a lulav, a palm frond, also used on the Sukkot holiday.
The Greek inscription says "Praise for the People."
The mosaic is dated to the 6th century.
Sound the shofar. In ancient Palestine the ram’s horn trumpet was used to signal danger, convene the populace, call for defense, announce a holiday. May you – each and all, without regard to the particulars of our philosophical viewpoints – be inscribed and sealed for a good year.    

Geoff Steck
Chief Catalyst
Alexander Publishing & Marketing
8 Depot Square
Englewood, NJ 07631

Monday, April 7, 2014

Thank Goodness It's Monday #455


I say that too often, I think. It’s become a go-to phrase for me that slips too easily and mindlessly into the conversation. 

“Time off for good behavior” is usually deployed by me when someone indicates that they’re not going to do something … or that they’re going to do something “entertaining” rather than workaday routine … or that they’re actually giving themselves just that – time off that they feel/know they’ve deservedly earned.

With a common-usage link to the idea of incarceration for some kind of wrongdoing, I guess it’s got a bit of a snarky tone to it. 

One reading: It’s as if I’m implying the break-taker is maybe not quite as deserving as they think they are; as if by doing what’s expected of them they’ve gained some privilege.

  • College student off for a spring-break fling? “Ah, been a tough semester, huh?” sez Geoff. “Time off for good behavior.”
  • Networking buddy who asks me to sub at morning breakfast while she heads out for her industry’s annual Las Vegas gathering? “Happy to do it,” sez I. “Enjoy your time off for good behavior.”
  • Working spouse neighbors who give you the heads up that they’re taking their kids to the Florida theme park experience. Yup. Imagining the air travel and transportation and standing in lines with kids in tow, I drop the phrase again.
But you know what? That’s unfair. Judgmental. And just plain wrong (most of the time).

It’s suddenly obvious to me that, even if dispensed with a smile and expressed with interest in the time-off plans, this note of disapproving approval is rooted perhaps in some bit of envy, or jealousy or desire to be on the partaking side of the equation versus being stuck here in the daily humdrum.

TGIM ACTION IDEA: You deserve a break today. Not to give too much to that old McDonald’s sales pitch, everyone who makes an honest effort, no matter how small or immediately effective, has earned some respite.

Ideally, we all do. And a brief fast-food-sized interlude in the daily routine is just a beginning. Even the dominant guideline of the religious beliefs of many remarks that, on the seventh day, the creator of the world we dwell in rested.

That ought to be a good clue to guide our own behavior.

From a more secular and pragmatic view: No doubt our human batteries need to be routinely and regularly recharged. 

Hardworking English banker, politician, naturalist and archaeologist John Lubbock (1834-1913) certainly knew that. 

Although his scientific work was an avocation, Lubbock discovered the first fossil remains of musk-ox in England (1855), and undertook archaeological work identifying prehistoric cultures. As a naturalist and friend and advocate of Charles Darwin, he studied insect vision and color sense. He published a number of books on natural history and primitive man. He coined the terms Neolithic and Paleolithic.

In 1870, he became a member of Parliament. The legislation he initiated included the Bank Holidays Act (1871) and the Ancient Monuments Act (1882) and the Shop Hours Act (1886). He became 1st Baron Avebury when he was made a peer in 1900.

And, in addition to his work/ life example, he gave us many useful guidelines for living, such as this nicely depicted one from the 1920 collection in the Volume of Contentment we’ve been featuring:

In a similar spirit Lord Avebury also shared these thoughts:

            “A day of worry is more exhausting than a week of work.” 

“Happiness is a thing to be practiced, like the violin.”

“If we are ever in doubt what to do, it is a good rule to ask ourselves what we shall wish on the morrow that we had done.”

“We often hear of people breaking down from overwork, but in nine cases out of ten they are really suffering from worry or anxiety.”

“In truth, people can generally make time for what they choose to do; it is not really the time but the will that is wanting.”

“Our ambition should be to rule ourselves, the true kingdom for each one of us; and true progress is to know more, and be more, and to do more.”

“When we have done our best, we should wait the result in peace.” 

“Your character will be what you yourself choose to make it.”

And speaking of character: Here’s my personal Spring Break –

TGIM IDEA IN ACTION: I apologize to those I have pestered with my “Time off for good behavior” glibness. To have had your effort at all belittled is unfair. I really do wish you happy interludes to your routine.

Now I think I’ll give myself some time off for good behavior.

Back soon.   

Geoff Steck
Chief Catalyst
Alexander Publishing & Marketing
8 Depot Square
Englewood, NJ 07631

P.S.  And speaking nearly directly to the incarceration premise of “Time off for good behavior,” Lubbock said: “The whole value of solitude depends upon oneself; it may be a sanctuary or a prison, a haven of repose or a place of punishment, a heaven or a hell, as we ourselves make it.”

Monday, March 31, 2014

Thank Goodness It's Monday #454

It’s been a lot of Mondays (454 divided by 52 = a bit short of a decade) since these weekly messages began their routine appearance as part of a multi-platform program created with my buddy Eric Taylor and The EmpowermentGroup.

Our first connection had been at a public event perhaps a year or two prior.

After that we spent some time assessing each other, trying to figure out just what the connection was between an older, words-on-paper, pass-along business soft-skills, jacket & tie guy (that was me at the time) and, dare I say, a brash, young, great-on-the-platform, hyper-energized, fit and trim people-motivator like Eric (often decked out in preferred-at-the-time Tony Robbins look).

To cut to the chase: In those ancient days of business “courting” we discovered much in common and that our complementary talents played nicely and well together. A mutual acquaintance noted once we were like Lennon and McCartney, which I always took as a compliment (although I’ve never been sure who’s who in that equation).

The grandest production of those days became, as I have suggested above, a multi-media program conceived as and modestly tagged, How to Have Your Best Year Ever

The BYE elements consisted of ballroom-filling half-day presentations, CDs and DVDs, ring binders filled with stuff from all the productions and more, e-delivery of content (before the idea of an “e-book” had seriously entered the equation), and weekly outreach, free of charge and low on promo, to anyone who would have us in their e-mail box.
Fast forward to 2014: The world has spun on its axis and made its circuit around the sun many, many times since TGIM #1. The road has been winding and sometimes challenging. Other paths have crossed ours and we’ve investigated them in our own way. And through it all –
The journey has been interesting, enlightening, rewarding. We’ve met good and stimulating people who challenged us. And, I like to believe, on all sides of those “meetings” we’ve all come away better for the experience.
So that gets us to today’s TGIM headline.

It’s a reference to a source, mentor, guru – you pick the description -- and a touch point that Eric and I, as Best Year Ever kind of guys, found we had in common in the early going.

Ralph Waldo Emerson
It’s been my custom in over two score-and-then-some years of writing for a business audience to pepper my editorial input with what I deem worthwhile and actionable quotations from noteworthy individuals. When I did this in an early exchange with Eric, his response (as I recall it) was the equivalent of –
“I love Ralph Waldo Emerson!”
OK, maybe not literally that. But close enough to win me over inasmuch as I, too, “love” the eminently sensible and quotable RWE.

I have little doubt this moment was influential in cementing our “You know, I think I can work with this guy” decision and has informed our relationship in the years since.
So … In its way this TGIM #454 post brings things full circle.

Visually it’s from the Volume of Contentment we’ve been sharing much of this month.
TGIM Takeaway: Thoughtfully, philosophical and realistically it’s precisely the kind of “How to have your Best Year Ever” guidance guys who “love Ralph Waldo Emerson” can heartily endorse:
TGIM IDEA IN ACTION: Write it on your heart this Monday.
And Tuesday … 

And Wednesday …

And …
Every Day of this, Your Best Year Ever.    

Geoff Steck
Chief Catalyst
Alexander Publishing & Marketing
8 Depot Square
Englewood, NJ 07631
P.S.  "I am going into an unknown future, but I'm still all here, and still while there's life, there's hope." John Lennon (October 9, 1940- December 8, 1980) said that, prophetically in December of 1980.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Thank Goodness It's Monday #453


David Starr Jordan (1851-1931), credited among such notables as Ruskin, Goethe and Emerson in our Volume of Contentment, was a new name to me. 

But as I’ve learned –

The oversight is mine. Impressive-to-me biographical material about him abounds online. 

The in-a-nutshell synopsis goes like this: David Starr Jordan was a leading ichthyologist, educator, peace activist, president of Indiana University, and was handpicked by Leland Stanford to become the founding president of Stanford University.

There’s more, of course. Much more. You can check it out in all its diversity, too. But before you click away, let’s look at our page:

Why this selection now?

One reason: Because it strikes a particularly personal chord in me.

The words run parallel to an approach to life that was passed along by my mother who died a decade or so ago. And while it’s likely no one would have asked her to start up their namesake university she, in striving to “play her part” as the Volume of Contentment frames Jordan’s creed, was pretty effective at living her days from her perspective as well.

So I’d like to take this opportunity to also share this Betty Steck (1921-2004) Daily Discipline with you.

She left a typewritten copy of the following words with her important family documents. While they are not original to her, she called them “The creed by which I try to live” and noted, “You will find these words over my kitchen sink where I read them at the beginning of each day.”

See the similarities in these approaches to the day and, more broadly, to life? 

Go ahead, call me a Momma’s Boy. I trust I’m not, of course, in the derisive sense of that phrase. But I do try to adhere to the mindset she meant to pass along.

The image above is the postcard-sized reproduction I had made of Betty’s kitchen-sink post up and distributed at her memorial service. This one hangs over my computer screen, thus the fuzzy photo and the hint of yellow wallpaper border. 

Another is on my dresser where the content of my pockets goes every evening and where it’s gathered at the start of each day. So there’s barely a day when I don’t bump hard into a tangible reminder of what I hope I have adapted as a lifelong behavior.

TGIM CHALLENGE: Got a “creed” by which you try to live? 

I’m sure you do. So how about this –

TGIM ACTION IDEA: Share it. For starters, post it up on social media with a little bit of explanation if necessary. Let us know – via “friend” request if Eric and I are not already connected with you on Facebook or LinkedIn or whatever -- so we can see and share in it if it’s not likely we’d catch a glimpse of it in passing.

Now is the time.
Go play your part.

Seize your unique day.

I’ve already started with mine. 

Geoff Steck
Chief Catalyst
Alexander Publishing & Marketing
8 Depot Square
Englewood, NJ 07631

P.S.  I’ve got a small bundle of “Today is mine” postcards left and I’d be honored to share them (supply permitting) with anyone who reaches out and tells me a physical address to which to snail mail it. Just put “Today is mine” in your subject line or on an envelope containing something with your postal address and send the info to me at either of the AP&M addresses above. That will start things rolling.  

Monday, March 17, 2014

Thank Goodness It's Monday #452


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) isn’t the most “Irish” name to invoke as the official day of St. Paddy pride and celebration rolls around.

Still, as every at-least-once-a-year connector to the old sod – from President O’Bama to me – knows:

Today’s the day when everyone’s allowed the honor of being Irish.

So as TGIM continues to share the wisdom and inspiration from A Volume of Contentment from 1920, it seemed fitting to pick a page with a message particularly appropriate to the St. Paddy’s Day as well as the Thank Goodness It’s Monday spirit.

What better then than a thought about “blessings” and “being blessed” in life?

A blessing can be defined as the infusion of something with a kind of holiness or spiritual redemption. It can also refer to the bestowing of such a, well, blessing. Stated more prosaically, the idea of giving or receiving a blessing is about sharing and conveying one's hope or approval.

Wikipedia tells us: The modern English language “bless” probably comes from the Middle Ages term blessen.  Earlier still, language experts say, it all traces back to variations in the Anglo-Saxon pagan period meaning “to make sacred or holy by a sacrificial custom.” And those origins are rooted in Germanic paganism; a word meaning “to mark with blood.” 

A St. Pat’s connection: The modern meaning of the term may have been influenced in translations of the Bible into Old English during the process of Christianization to translate the Latin term benedīcere meaning to “speak well of,” resulting in meanings such as to “praise” or “extol” or “to speak of or to wish well.

Wearin’ o the green. What makes a blessing “Irish” then is not necessarily much more than the nationality of the blesser/blessed or, perhaps, being delivered/received on St. Patrick’s Day, the date itself giving the blessing Irish Power.

And with Germanic origins for the idea of blessing, Goethe’s got enough bonus cred to make the “Irish Blessing” cut today.
Honorary Irishman or not, Goethe led –

A blessed life. He was the originator of many ideas which later became widespread. Certainly, by his standard, he thought himself blessed -- liking many, many things and doing them so well his activities, accomplishments and legacy across many disciplines are acknowledged and endure worldwide.

  • He was a politician, nobleman, and military tactician.
  • As a scientific thinker he shared a theory of colors and early work on evolution and linguistics.
  • He was fascinated by mineralogy, and the mineral goethite (iron oxide) is named after him.
  • He produced volumes of poetry, essays, criticism and drama.
  • Writing fiction he produced what is considered by many the world’s first “bestseller (The Sorrows of Young Werther) as well as poetry and drama.
  • His non-fiction writings, most of which are philosophical and aphoristic in nature, spurred the development of many seeking greater truth and insight.
Clearly Goethe’s sense of inquiry, wonder and enthusiasm for many of the things he both “had to do” and “liked to do” filled his days and life with pleasure and sped him on to his many accomplishments.

So, with our Goethe excerpt in mind, here’s an evergreen TGIM --
ST. PATRICK'S DAY CHALLENGE: When I look at my daily or weekly “To Do” list, do I like what I have to do? When I step back and look at the big picture of my life, am I doing what I like to do?

On a day of celebration like St. Pat’s it may be easy to spot a bunch of fun things that qualify as “like to do.” But every part of every day can’t be green beer (or green bagels; what’s up with that?) shamrocks, and jolly greetings. 

TGIM ACTION IDEA: Follow Goethe’s personal example and quotable wisdom to make yourself worthy and ready for the blessings you give and get today. Stretch yourself to find the things you really like to do. Then do them. Build your skills until accomplishing even the most difficult parts of what you do are pleasantly challenging and “likeable.” 

Then perhaps you’ll reap the substance of the classic (and authentic) Irish Blessing:

Go n-eírí an bóthar leat.
May the road rise with you.

Hope you’re liking what we’re doing and sharing here.
I’m liking doing it.

Geoff Steck
Chief Catalyst
Alexander Publishing & Marketing
8 Depot Square
Englewood, NJ 07631

P.S.  Click, cut, copy, share this version of Goethe’s ideal of a blessed life if it appeals to you. And let us know what you think of it, either way.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Thank Goodness It's Monday #451


In 1920 the Dodge Publishing Co., headquartered at 53-55 Fifth Avenue, New York published a compilation of wisdom gathered from noted authors.

Founded in San Francisco 1895 as Dodge Book and Stationary Co. it moved to New York in 1898 and thrived for a brief time as a calendar and gift book publisher. 
This tidy little volume -- entitled A Volume of Contentment -- acknowledges that its origins were in the company’s Calendar of Contentment. 

How that calendar was presented, we don’t know.

Here however each selection stands alone on its page, laid out, decorated and rendered in art-nouveau-trending-to-art deco style and unique calligraphic type.
The contented content? Words of thoughtfulness, wisdom, insight, and understanding sourced from thinkers we still hold in high esteem today.
One thing that particularly strikes me in our 21st Century digitally connected world of the now-disappeared Dodge Publishing’s future, is just how much this ink-on-paper assemblage resembles in spirit, intent and presentation the kind of stuff folks of a certain mindset – many TGIM readers, for example – share by e-means in outreach like this and via social media.

So …

Let’s give it a try. From this Monday to the end of the end of March TGIM will pull a page from A Volume of Contentment into our world.

TGIM ACTION IDEA: The opening shot seems particularly on point for a winter-weary-creeping-toward-the-promise-of-Spring Monday.

I hope it’s uplifting after a lose-an-hour, turn-the-clocks-forward weekend. And it’s source is prolific writer, draughtsman, watercolorist, social thinker, philanthropist and art critic who would, no doubt, have something to say about this representation of his words and ideas, John Ruskin (1819-1900).
TGIM IDEA IN ACTION: Click, cut, copy, share if it appeals to you. And let us know what you think of it, either way.
Looking forward.

Geoff Steck
Chief Catalyst
Alexander Publishing & Marketing
8 Depot Square
Englewood, NJ 07631