O Me of Little Faith

One of my favorite parts of the Christmas season — and, really, any holiday season — is the Ping-Pong-playing that commences when my maternal grandparents come to visit. I’m blessed to still have my original four grandparents around, all in relatively good health. The sprightliest of them is John E. Brown, my mom’s dad, whom everyone calls “Brownie.” He is, as is often said of vivacious 86-year-old table tennis prodigies, a hoot.

I am a pretty good Ping-Pong player. My brother and I had a table when we were in high school, and we played a lot. Both of us were right-handed, but we used to practice playing left-handed. The purpose of this was so that we might begin a game against a lesser opponent playing with our weak hand. Then, while the score was still close, we might reveal, Inigo Montoya-style, that we were NOT, in fact, left-handed! It was a brilliant ploy. But we never got to use it in the real world. Anyway, the point is that I got skillful, playing with either my left or right hands. I’m still fairly skillful. I have a good serve, a good return, a killer backhand. (If I do say so myself…and unfortunately, I do.)

But I can’t beat Brownie. Who is 86 years old. We play every time he comes to town. Maybe 10 or 12 games in a row, every time we get together. I usually win the first match. Maybe the second one. Then he warms up — it takes awhile for octogenarians to get the reflexes and hand-eye coordination firing at once — and reels off 7 or 8 wins in a row. This happens every time we play. Every. Time. I can only win, on average, one out of four games against him. He plays all the time at a retirement center near his home in the Dallas area, where his Ping-Pong nemeses are a couple of “young Korean guys.” They’re in their 60s.

Brownie had laryngeal cancer about a decade ago, which resulted in the removal of his voice box, and which gives him one of those scratchy burp-voices. He can talk, but it’s a difficult process. So the sound he makes most often is a simple laugh. And because he doesn’t have a voice box, his laugh is a wheeze. And because it’s kind of hard to hear, he accents his wheeze-laugh with a knee-slap.

So when Brownie is beating me at Ping-Pong, he punctuates every point with a fit of wheeze-laughing and knee-slapping. He wheezes and slaps when I serve into the net. And when I return it long. And when I miss one of his expertly placed forehands. And when he wins. Which is most of the time.

When I was a kid, I always thought Brownie was the toughest guy I knew. He ran a warehouse for a local supermarket chain, and worked in the yard all the time, and had wiry, muscular arms. He’d been a Marine MP during World War II. Back then, I thought all those things were cool. But I’m most impressed with him now. What do I want to be when I grow up? I want to be a wheeze-laughing, knee-pounding, sprightly 86-year-old table tennis prodigy. You can’t do much worse than that.

What’s your favorite Christmas tradition?

Better yet: Who’s your Brownie?

Just in time for Christmas Eve…I’m a few weeks late to the story, but it seems a 37-year-old artist and his friends practiced some civil disobedience by moving into a mall in Providence, Rhode Island, and actually living there for several weeks at a time. They started the experiment in 2004, finding an empty 750 square-foot storage space — which, weirdly, no one used or ever noticed — and filling it with normal apartment-y stuff, including Crate & Barrel furnishings and a couch. They ate after-hours at the Food Court. They were getting ready to install hard-wood floors when mall security came across an online video of the apartment.

In punishment, the artist, named Michael Townsend, has been banned from the mall. So don’t get him any Cinnabon gift cards this Christmas.

You can see photos and video of the experiment at Townsend’s website. Read more about it at The Providence Journal.

The good news for people like me is that there’s a great metaphor here about shopping and consumerism and how people live. Yep, this will find its way into a book or talk at some point. Of that you can be certain.

I have a new article up at, the online mag for college students. It’s called “My Favorite Christmas Story,” about how the parable of the prodigal son is the story I think of most during the season of Advent. Even better, the article gives shout-outs to the Charlie Brown Christmas special, the Rankin-Bass “Rudolph” classic, and “Amends,” the special Season3 Christmas episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

So, obviously, you should read it.

Spent some quality time the other day watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” I remembered why it has always been my favorite televised Christmas special.

1. The Hand-Waving: The climax of the episode has to do with Charlie Brown’s little stick of a Christmas tree. Already despairing because Snoopy has won a prize for doghouse decoration — proof to Charlie Brown that Christmas has been over-commercialized — ol’ Chuck tries to hang a single ornament on the scrawny tree. It bends to the ground under the sheer weight of it. Charlie Brown stomps away. But then the gang shows up. Linus sees the tree, proclaims, “all it needs is a little love,” and all the kids proceed to surround Snoopy’s doghouse. They frantically wave their hands around, and in doing so strip Snoopy’s home of its decorations. Then they approach Charlie’s tree, frantically wave their hands around again, and magically transfer Snoopy’s ornaments to the tree — which has suddenly transformed from a stick with pine needles into a lush, decorated, full-fledged Christmas tree! It’s a Christmas miracle! The animation is unintentionally hilarious, which led to a Saturday Night Live “TV Funhouse” animation by Robert Smigel a few years ago that satirized the whole scene. It, too, is gut-bustingly funny, even when it gets kinda dirty at the end.

2. The Singing: After the Miracle of the Modified Tree, the gang spontaneously breaks into a round of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” eventually joined by a thrilled Charlie Brown. When the Peanuts kids sing, they close their eyes, tilt their heads back so far that you can practically see up their noses, and belt it out in wide-mouthed unison. I personally think the world would be a better place if, whenever possible, we all assumed that posture while singing. Especially while singing Christmas songs. If you attend a Christmas Eve candlelight service, I challenge you to sing the chorus of “O Holy Night” in the Peanuts singing stance. It’ll give you chills.

3. The Gospel: Speaking of getting chills, I am convinced that there is no more powerful scene in television history than the part where Linus recites the Christmas story directly out of Luke 2 — in the King James Version, no less — during the program’s Christmas pageant. It’s undiluted Scripture quotation, performed by an animated, thumb-sucking, blanket-carrying, big-headed child, and I’m pretty sure I’ve never watched it without getting goosebumps. And it still airs on ABC every Christmas. Thank you, Charles Schultz.

So…what’s your favorite Christmas special?

In the meantime, Merry Christmas! This season, may you know the love of Christ, which transforms sinfully scrawny sticks into lush, beautiful trees. Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.