Dylan: past, present and future

I never understood the attraction of the Great American Songbook, even when rockers like Linda Ronstadt and Rod Stewart were recording the old standards. Why sing torch songs and dusty show tunes when there was so much great new music to choose from?

But I’m beginning to warm up to this intergenerational nostalgia, if that’s what it is, thanks to Lady Gaga and Bob Dylan. Gaga has famously teamed up with Tony Bennett, while Dylan has announced a Frank Sinatra homage album. As he has throughout his career, Bob continues to surprise.

Tony and Gaga are literally “Cheek to Cheek” in their recording sessions and the concerts and TV appearances promoting their album of that name. What a difference from Sinatra, who handled his partners remotely when he made “’Duets” in 1993. People like Aretha Franklin, Carly Simon and Bono delivered canned recordings that were merged with Sinatra’s cuts in the studio—a kind of musical PhotoShop.

Bob Dylan did not participate in “Duets,” but he did sing at Sinatra’s 80th birthday party concert in 1995. The other stars all did Sinatra standards (Hootie and the Blowfish, for example, performed “The Lady Is a Tramp”). Not Dylan. He sang his own moody “Restless Farewell,” from the 1964 folk album “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” A novel choice, perhaps, but Sinatra seemed game. At least, he applauds at the end of the YouTube video.

So until now, we’ve never heard Dylan cover a Sinatra song. But that’s about to change. Last week, Dylan announced that his next album would consist entirely of tunes that Frank made famous. “Not from The Onion,” one friend deadpanned when he shared this improbable news on Facebook.

It’s hard to find two more radically different voices than Sinatra’s and Dylan’s—silk vs. gravel. But the sample cut Dylan posted at his website, “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” was strangely effective. Dylan maintains he’s “uncovering,” rather than covering, these songs, stripping them of layers of production values and retrofitting them for his voice and his band. Well, OK then.

“Shadows in the Night” is due out Feb. 3, hard on the heels of “The Basement Tapes Complete,” a six-CD set of all the recordings Dylan and the Band made in Woodstock, NY, in 1966-67. This newly issued collection, which Rolling Stone hailed as a masterpiece, was never intended for release. The guys were just fooling around and recording demos—like “Quinn the Eskimo” and “Too Much of Nothing”—for other artists.

A separate compilation, “Lost on the River,” features artists including Elvis Costello performing songs they’ve written based on Dylan’s unused lyrics from the Basement Tapes sessions. Cuts I’ve heard are impressive. As my friend Jim says, Dylan’s discards are better than 99% of the music that’s out there.

So, is it the Basement Tapes or the Sinatra album that’s nostalgic? Do we pine for the Big Band era or the Band? I guess the answer is just to take whatever Dylan chooses to give us with gratitude.

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Jingle bells and rum balls

My friend Greg puts up his Christmas tree before Thanksgiving. Now, that’s early. But judging from the pictures I’ve seen on Facebook, it seems that a lot of people follow suit shortly thereafter.

For my husband and me, it’s still too soon. My traditional deadline for getting a Christmas tree is Dec. 10—my father’s birthday. But my husband and I often miss that date. We strive to have a tree up a week before Christmas, but we’ve been later, even decorating on Christmas Eve a couple of years. We always get a real fir. The fresh pine smells good and brings life into the house.

I’m not sure when we’ll get our tree this year. It’s the first Christmas without my mother, who died in September at age 87, and I’m just not feeling Christmasy.

Mom lived next door to us for 10 years, so the two of us had 10 Christmases in tandem. She would haul out her tree first—a tabletop model that she stored off-season in a black plastic garbage bag, ornaments and all—and then come over to help decorate ours, whenever we managed to acquire it. She tended to position the ornaments on the very tips of the branches, where gravity was sure to claim them. We had to surreptitiously rehang anything fragile or heavy.

On Christmas Eve we would have a fish dinner (though I never cooked the classic Italian “seven fishes”—too much work), then go to 10 p.m. Mass. Mom wasn’t a churchgoer, but she liked this particular Mass for the music—all those lovely carols.

After church we opened presents. And the next day, we would have friends over for Christmas dinner, setting the table with a poinsettia-pattern tablecloth and napkins that Mom had sewn in the 1960s. If you looked closely, you could see the ghosts of ancient food stains from Christmases past.

My mother never liked to cook, not even when she was younger and had to make family meals. In old age she subsisted on Lean Cuisines and Meals on Wheels. At one time, Mom did like to bake. But she pretty much gave it up after my father died.

On her first or second Christmas as our next-door neighbor, I suggested she contribute a dessert to the party. After some deliberation we settled on rum balls, because they require no cooking—just assembly and chilling. There was a problem finding her old recipe—so many of her things went missing when she moved to Pennsylvania—but ultimately we dug one up.

I don’t remember exactly what happened, but something went wrong and the rum balls failed to cohere. Mom called me over to see. Instead of cute little puffs dusted with confectioner’s sugar, we had a bowl of mashed vanilla wafers, walnuts and cocoa, steeped in fragrant rum.

Mom and I decided the fault was in the recipe. We ate a bit of the mixture with spoons, and it tasted pretty good. Maybe we should have served it as an ice cream topping. Instead, we threw it out.

I should make rum balls this year in Mom’s honor—or perhaps rum ball crumble.

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A gluten-free Thanksgiving

All Thanksgiving dinners are much alike. There’s turkey, stuffing, potatoes (sweet or white) and something green—Brussels sprouts, perhaps, or maybe a green bean casserole swimming in cream-of-mushroom soup. And oh yes, cranberry sauce. Do you prefer homemade or canned?

We had Thanksgiving in Massachusetts this year with my aunt, my cousin Karen and her husband, Pete. Beforehand, I asked Karen what to bring. She replied like a diplomat. “Just bring whatever you folks like to eat and we will all share everyone’s favorites.”

But I knew what she really meant was, “You guys have so many food allergies between you, I’m at a loss for what to serve.”

I didn’t even want to mention my latest food issue: I seem to have become sensitive to gluten.

Quite a few of my friends have gone gluten-free, a couple due to celiac disease, a serious medical condition, and the others from gluten sensitivity. Indeed, gluten-free, or GF, is so much in the news these days that it almost seems like a fad.

Or so I thought until suddenly, in early fall, I began to develop stomach pains. Someone suggested giving up gluten and seeing if that helped. Bingo, the pains went away. Eating bread, pancakes or—disastrously—farro brought them back. I assumed farro was just another grain. Turns out it’s a variety of wheat. Oops.

Going GF made for an interesting Thanksgiving. The turkey was fine, of course, but I couldn’t have stuffing, since it contained bread, or gravy, which was thickened with flour. Nor could I eat the mashed potatoes, since I’m also allergic to milk products. My husband, meanwhile, has allergies to olive oil and nuts, so the delicious molded cranberry ring with slivered almonds was off limits for him. But my cousin made her salad dressing with canola oil so that George could eat it too.

I contributed a gingered sweet-potato casserole, along with a pear tart made using oat flour instead of wheat and soy milk instead of dairy. Everyone liked it; my cousin even asked for the recipe.

My aunt has lived 85 years without giving a thought to gluten. Why is gluten sensitivity such a headache for so many of us now? You have to wonder if the problem lies in the wheat itself or in the industrialization of farming.

Wheat is no longer harvested in the traditional way. Instead, farmers drench the crop with Roundup, a potent herbicide. The dead, poisoned wheat is easier to harvest and thresh. But you wind up with traces of Roundup in your flour. Ew.

In our family, we already know that herbicides are nothing you want to ingest because of my husband’s exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. That dioxin-laced herbicide was sprayed from airplanes to tame the dense jungle canopy. Woe to any grunt who happened to be in the way.

So, is it gluten itself or Roundup that’s at the root of these GF issue? We may never know, but in the meantime, I’m thankful that Barilla makes a GF pasta. Bread I can live without, but don’t make me give up spaghetti.

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The pleasure of doing nothing

From a glance at the bestseller list, it’s clear the French have something to tell us about the art of living well. Frenchwomen don’t get fat—nor do they get facelifts, and yet they manage to remain elegant toujours. And French children don’t talk back, thanks to the way French parents have raised them.

I wonder if there’s an enterprising French author out there writing a book on retirement. From the American writer Adam Gopnik’s memoir “Paris to the Moon,” it seems that the French do it differently than we do.

Americans, says Gopnik, feel that “to stop working is to stop living. It is the vestibule of death.” But in France “there is no equivalent anxiety.” Indeed, the opposite holds true—there’s a “romance of retirement,” he says, and the earlier the better.

Gopnik cites a series of articles in Le Figaro on young retirees who boast of having the time to “reflect”—in other words, to do nothing. The pieces are written, he says, “in exactly the same admiring spirit that an American daily might use for a series about old people who are as busy as all get-out.”

I am one of the lucky ones with a foot in both worlds. I like to work, and I’m still at it in my 60s. But because of the nature of my job, I have downtime, too. I work for a quarterly publication, so I am busy four times a year during our production cycle and off duty in between.

What do you do when there’s nothing that has to be done? Time becomes elastic. A morning or afternoon might pleasantly pass with nothing much to show for it. It’s easy to put things off, because after all, there’s always tomorrow. I don’t have to cram all my chores into Saturdays, as I did when I worked full time.

An errand like grocery shopping may make an afternoon. There’s time beforehand to check the cupboards and contemplate my list, time later to have a cup of tea after putting everything away. When I was working, going to the supermarket was something I did in spare moments. It’s roomier now.

There’s time to take a walk, time to read, time to meet a friend for coffee. We have a couple of spots in town where you can while away an hour over an espresso without feeling pressured to leave. They may not be Parisian sidewalk cafes, but the croissants are just as good.

I have scheduled events in my life too, meetings and appointments and the like—enough of them to anchor me in the here and now. I don’t lose track of what day it is.

But I’m happy to stay a little laid-back and resist the temptation to be overly energetic. Let’s call it my homage to the French. Soon enough, my production cycle will kick into gear again and I will be thrust back into the working world. Let me revel in the pleasure of doing nothing while I can.

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Is it better to give—or to receive?

OK, show of hands: who is sending out Christmas cards this year? Every Christmas I rethink my list, weighing the pros and cons of the traditional paper cards (environmentally questionable, no doubt) vs. the e-mail variety (a touch impersonal, perhaps?).

In the end I will probably opt for the USPS, as I always do. I certainly have enough cards, thanks to the freebies I keep getting from charitable, humane and environmental-action organizations.

I receive these and other types of premiums almost daily, from agencies I support and those I’ve never heard of. I’ve never been to Colonial Williamsburg, for example, much less given them a donation. Yet, they have been sending me note cards for years—rather nice ones, too. You might get one from me this Christmas.

Greeting cards and the ubiquitous address labels (invariably, with the street name wrong by a letter) aren’t the only goodies I get. All my many umbrellas come from charitable organizations; likewise most of my many tote bags. I receive bookmarks, pens, baseball caps, T-shirts, toy animals (from groups like Defenders of Wildlife), backpacks (Sierra Club), rain slickers, small fleece blankets the perfect size for a cat to sleep on, and key chains up the wazoo.

I get Buddhist prayer flags from the Free Tibet people and religious medallions from the Catholic organizations. Some groups send actual cash—a dime or a nickel glued to the appeal letter. Others include a postage stamp, presumably for use when you mail back your check. Meanwhile, I need never buy another calendar or notepad as long as I live, since so many come to me unsolicited.

Some organizations have a tick box on the return card where you can decline the promised premium. But many others send the premium first, and only later issue their appeal. All of these goodies beg the question of whether the money spent on gifting potential donors couldn’t be better put to use in the charity’s actual work. But there are marketing gurus who specialize in these things, presumably armed with statistics showing that a set of Christmas gift bags with matching tissue paper will draw more donations than a naked letter with no freebie at all.

Moreover, the organization may have already paid for my $7 coffee mug as part of its promotional budget. Maybe I’m doing them a favor by taking the mug off their hands and relieving them of the cost of keeping it in inventory. Who knows?

A couple of years ago when money was tight, I took a look at our charitable donations and made some hard choices. We still give to certain organizations that I’ve supported for years, and that score well (on sites like Charity Navigator) in terms of transparency, accountability, administrative costs and CEO salary. Otherwise, we concentrate our giving locally, on organizations we know and trust. No premiums necessary.

It’s my pleasure to be charitable—it reminds me that I’m doing well enough to be able to share, and to support causes that are important to me. But if my charity is rewarded with a gift, does it qualify as charity at all?

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All things must pass

Maybe I’ve spent too much time reading Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal,” a book about end-of-life issues, but it seems that intimations of death are everywhere I turn lately. Or maybe they always are and I usually opt not to see them, because after all, who wants to think about death? It’s depressing—the ultimate buzzkill.

Sure, we all know that we will die—all things must pass, as George Harrison tells us. But not for a long, long time. Or so we hope.

Gawande’s book, subtitled “Medicine and What Matters in the End,” brings the issue front and center. The author points to the extremes that can occur when a culture fears death and medicalizes old age. Doctors, terminally ill patients and their families often choose futile, costly and indeed, injurious treatments in a last-ditch effort to stave off the inevitable. Oddly, those who pick hospice instead frequently do better and live longer than peers who opt for more aggressive interventions. That’s a very Zen outcome, as Gawande notes: you avoid suffering by not trying to avoid suffering.

I found the book difficult, and had to read it in fits and starts. This is tough material to stomach, since the author—a Boston surgeon—goes into detail about the insults a human body can endure when assaulted by cancer or some other incurable disease.

He also discusses the care of the frail elderly and cites some interesting experiments in alternative living situations that enable even dementia patients to retain a degree of autonomy. Too often, the elderly are regimented in institutions that infantilize them and fail to acknowledge their unique individuality. The goal is to live a life filled with meaning, all the way through to the end, Gawande says.

Which brings us to Stephen Jenkinson, a Canadian palliative-care expert who has worked with hundreds of terminally ill patients. Jenkinson goes further than Gawande. Not only do we all seek a life filled with purpose and meaning, he says, but the only way to have it is by embracing our own deaths. Jenkinson suggests you are not living fully and completely unless you say can say yes to it all—living and dying alike. He presents death as a kind of opportunity for transformation and redemption. It’s both a right and a responsibility to “die well,” Jenkinson maintains.

I recently watched the documentary “Griefwalker” about Jenkinson and his work. The film showed him counseling a number of patients, including a terminally ill woman who was in cheerful denial about her prospects and the parents of a dying child. The medicalization of death was a big theme, as it is for Gawande. But Jenkinson sees death not as something to be hated, but as something necessary—essential—to life and, indeed, even beautiful, in a fierce and terrifying way.

Jenkinson’s book “Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul,” is due out in March 2015 (it’s available now as an e-book). It promises to take the conversation Gawande has begun with “Being Mortal” in a new direction.

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American Anglophile

One day years ago, some colleagues at the art magazine I worked for in New York were speculating about which historical era each of us belonged in. Wouldn’t T. be right at home in colonial New England—and P. in revolutionary Russia?

When it was my turn, my friends scratched their heads. They couldn’t think where to place me. “You seem very contemporary,” Richard finally said. No one could picture me anywhere but in America, here and now.

If that’s the case, I have to wonder why I am so drawn to 19th- and early 20th-century England—or at least, the novels, movies and TV shows based in the period. Why am I such a sucker for anything Dickens or Austen? Why so hooked on “Downton Abbey,” a show during which my husband asks infuriating questions like, “What happened to Matthew?” or “Which one is Lady Mary?” He’s not interested enough to keep it all straight.

I came to Jane Austen relatively late in life. I was approaching 30 and had so far avoided “Pride and Prejudice,” having assumed it was a snobby kind of book, full of antiquated manners and concerns. An English friend assured me I was finally old enough to appreciate Jane—and lucky that no high school English teacher had ruined her for me.

I devoured “P&P” and haven’t stopped since. I usually reread one of the six extant Jane Austen novels every year (this year, it was “Persuasion”). They are literary comfort food for me—reliable cultural companions. I also enjoy Dickens, the Brontes, E.M. Forster and Trollope. Even the American novelists I like—Henry James, Edith Wharton—are English in their sensibilities.

In the lack of upcoming Jane Austen-based films like Gwyneth Paltrow’s “Emma,” PBS is a reliable source of BBC period dramas. The latest was a two-part Masterpiece Theater staging of “Death Comes to Pemberley,” a whodunit that takes place some years after the close of “Pride and Prejudice.”

I wanted to like this Elizabeth and Darcy. But the actress playing Lizzie wasn’t pretty enough, and there was scant chemistry between her and Darcy. Moreover, maybe it’s a mistake to revisit this couple 10 years later. Do we really want to witness marital spats or learn the details of housekeeping at Pemberley? Do we need further proof that Mr. Wickham is a cad?

I was disappointed, and no closer to figuring out what it is about Austen et al. that appeals to me. Why am I such an Anglophile—at least literarily? I certainly don’t feel a kinship to the highly stratified society these books and movies depict, or a yearning for the manners and mores of times past. I am, after all, a very contemporary person.

Could it be as simple as language? I like how these people talk to one another, the calm and erudite way they express themselves. Even the servants speak grammatically. For that reason, if nothing else, I eagerly await the return of “Downton Abbey” in January.

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Is aging really all in your head?

Last week someone I know turned 50. As I added my good wishes to his Facebook page, I spotted another birthday greeting posted there—the inevitable “You’re only as old as you feel.” Ha! I thought. Easy to say at 50. Wait until you hit 60 and points north. Aging is, unfortunately, all too real, no matter “how you feel.”

God’s sense of irony being what it is, that very day I got an e-mail from another friend pointing me to an article about a Harvard psychologist whose experiments suggest the reassuring old bromide might, in fact, be literally true.

A New York Times article described Dr. Ellen Langer’s “counterclockwise” experiment. Langer had a group of men in their 70s spend a week together at a retreat house decked out as if it were 20 years earlier—no modern music, magazines or other media, no technology that wouldn’t have existed then, no mirrors. The men were asked to imagine themselves two decades prior—a time when they were young and vital—and to behave as if it were then.

At the end of five days, the subjects were measurably stronger, had fewer aches and pains, and scored better in tests of vision, hearing and mental functioning. Observers said they even looked younger. Langer plans to replicate the experiment next spring with women suffering from stage 4 breast cancer to see if attitudes, expectations and the power of mind can affect something as intransigent as a tumor.

Langer is a respected academic, but her work correlates with New Age beliefs that the universe will give you whatever you want—whether health, money, love or a new Jaguar—if you put your intentions out there in the right way. According to this school of thought, it’s all about vibration and attraction.

I find the idea intriguing, but suspect. Could I really obtain a diamond as big as the Ritz if I think about it the right way and really, really want it? Isn’t that the definition of wishful thinking?

On the other hand, it’s easy to see how the power of mind may work on a less-than-mystical level. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has landed the perfect job seemingly from out of nowhere, simply by putting the right feelers out there. Years ago, when I frequently drove to New York City, I used to envision and imagine easily finding a parking space. Often enough, I did. Wishes fulfilled, indeed.

Whether you can use the same mechanism to think (or vibrate?) your way out of serious health issues is an open question. Perhaps Dr. Langer’s next experiment with the breast cancer patients will offer clues.

Certainly, you could never stop aging itself by means of attitude adjustment. The years do tick by. But maybe you could feel better, happier—“younger”—even as your chronological age advanced.

I’d like to know what happened to the men in the counterclockwise study after they left the retreat house. Did they retain those improvements or not? Perhaps the gains were a momentary artifact of all the attention they were receiving and the artificial environment?

Still, maybe we should party like it’s the ‘90s and find out for ourselves.

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Putting all the pieces together

There’s just so much Candy Crush Saga you can play. I gave up at level 425, and none of the other iPad games I tried afterward grabbed me for long. My old standby, Solitaire, seemed a drab second best. Very 20th century.

Casting about for a new time waster, I downloaded a jigsaw app. Then another, and then a couple more. There are lots of them in the iPad app store. Soon I was hooked. I’ve been compulsively doing jigsaws ever since.

I don’t know what made me think of jigsaws, since I never do them in real life. Who has the patience to devote hours—or days—to snapping together tiny pieces of cardboard on a tabletop? For that matter, who has an empty tabletop? In this cat-loving household, the potential for havoc would be ever present.

And then, jigsaws just seemed uncool—something for kids and old people. Indeed, at my mother’s senior living complex, multiple tables decked out with half-finished puzzles are strategically placed around the great-room area, just waiting for someone with time on their hands to sit themselves down and finesse a piece or two.

But the virtual version is different. There are scads of intriguing puzzle images to choose from, from the standard jigsaw landscapes to edgy graffiti art. You can pick your difficulty level, from too easy to impossible, and then swipe and drag the pieces to your heart’s content. I mute the musical accompaniment—it’s meant to be relaxing but gets annoying fast. But I do enjoy the satisfying sound effect when you snap a piece correctly into place.

At my preferred intermediate-difficulty level, a puzzle might take 10 to 20 minutes to solve. Q.E.D. No tabletop required.

My initial download coincided with the news that one of my oldest friends was gravely ill. All that weekend as I awaited updates, I obsessively did jigsaws. I found them soothing and mindless, with the payoff of seeing all the pieces cohere at the end into something that made sense—the opposite of real life, where nothing did.

My friend died, and I did iPad jigsaws throughout the week of her funeral. Later in the summer, my mother suffered a stroke and lingered for several days before she too died. Again I found consolation in my jigsaws, this time recruiting a companion in my grandnephew Michael, 8. The puzzles were something he and I could do together during family gatherings.

Years ago I attended a smoking-cessation program at our local Penn State cooperative extension. One of the tips for success in quitting was to do something with your hands—something that involved repetitive motion. I took up knitting. Everyone got a scarf for Christmas that year as I knitted and purled my way out of my addiction.

The jigsaws are a little bit like that. You start with what looks like a lot of scattered nothing and wind up with—well, something. You simply have to persevere, trusting that all will work itself out right in the end.

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Christmas giving: It’s complicated

Although it’s not yet Halloween, the stores are shouting Christmas. Our little grandnephew in Florida has already picked out what he wants—a dinosaur train set with lots of whizzing cars. We will have to check in with the other grandnephews and our infant grandniece for their preferences.

It’s fun to buy for the kids, which is a good thing, because they are about the only ones we still buy for. Over the years, little by little, most of the adults have bowed out of the gift game. Thank goodness for my friend Lisa. Otherwise, I’d have no one to exchange presents with.

I used to have a fairly large Christmas list and would begin shopping in the summer, at crafts fairs and flea markets or on vacation. It was fun to poke around at interesting venues, hunting for the perfect little something a friend or family member might like.

But once I reached my 50s, people began opting out. The siblings’ kids were older and preferred a check. And among friends, who knew what anyone needed or wanted anymore? We all had too much stuff. You really had to rack your brain to think of something creative to give. Fancy foods and bottles of wine became fallbacks. Likewise gift cards—always, of course, remaining mindful of the arms race aspect of gift giving: The value of your present had to be roughly equivalent to the value of theirs.

In short, it’s complicated.

Meanwhile, a couple of friends confessed that any gift was unwelcome because of the implied obligation to reciprocate. For them, the giving and receiving of presents was a burden, not a joy. They preferred to step off the merry-go-round altogether.

After a decade of this kind of attrition, I’m left with very few to buy for. There’s my husband, of course, along with a cousin, a neighbor, an aunt—and Lisa. She and I have been exchanging Christmas and birthday gifts since the late 1980s, always with great hilarity and masses of tissue paper.

I love shopping for Lisa, because she and I like the same things. We appreciate arty, unusual or humorous accoutrements. We both like jewelry, scarves and clothing; fancy teas, bath products and kitchen accessories. My favorite sweater came from Lisa, along with a treasured Venetian glass necklace-and-earring set she brought me from her travels and an art print of a cat that she purchased in Barcelona.

This year, I’ve already scored a few things I know will delight her. Finding them was a pleasure. I can’t wait to shop for more.

I’ve read that as you get older, the part of your brain that’s stimulated by acquisitions becomes less active. You’re just not as turned on by new stuff as you once were. Maybe that’s the underlying reason for the waning interest in Christmas presents.

But love is the other side of it. A present is offered “with love from me to you.” As the Beatles surely knew, it’s blessed to both give and receive.

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    Jacqueline Damian

    Jacqueline Damian is a writer and editor living in Milford, PA. The author of "Sasha’s Tail: Lessons from a Life with Cats" (W.W. Norton), she has worked in newspapers, magazines and book publishing. She currently edits Xcell Journal, a technical ... Read Full
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