Thursday, December 16, 2010


When I grew up in Johannesburg, we celebrated Christmas in northern hemisphere style – turkey and ham, plum pudding with coins and charms buried within, and brandy butter (my favourite).  I could do without the plum pudding and eat only the brandy butter, but my parents weren’t too keen on that.  Having a lot of MacGregor blood in the family, my cousin, Murray, attired in the MacGregor dress tartan including sporran, dirk and skian dubh, piped the plum pudding into the dining room, where the curtains were drawn so we could see the flames on the pudding. 
MacGregor tartan
In the corner was a small Christmas tree, appropriately adorned with ornaments and crackers and, to my amusement, sprayed with artificial snow to remind everyone that Christmas was a winter tradition.  As is usual, we all ate too much, and probably drank too much (my parents allowed the kids to have a splash of wine or bubbly, which we augmented by refilling the adults’ glasses and tasting the contents to ensure high quality).  And when the dinner was done – usually around 4pm, the kids all adjourned to lie groaning next to the swimming pool.  Later when our stomachs allowed, we would take a watermelon from the fridge, and gobble it up, and have pip-spitting contests.
These days, for me, Christmas is not the celebration it once was.  Partly because I am older and do not have kids, but more so because it marks the beginning of an annual quest – the quest for the next year’s stretch.
1988 was a bad year for my family.  In the space of five months my older brother died from cancer and my younger brother – a smoker – died from a heart attack after over-exerting himself.  Although even then I was one to play hard as well as to work hard, the two deaths made it crystal clear to me how fragile life was and why postponing things I wanted to do was risky business.
I also made a pact with myself that each New Year I would find something that would truly stretch me during the upcoming year – stretch me emotionally, physically, or intellectually.  I felt that by doing this, I would take myself out of my comfort zone and make myself feel more alive – in essence a tribute to my brothers.  I have refined what I originally thought about as the years have progressed, but the original premise remains intact. 
A big stretch
For example, being a professor all my adult life, I never earned a big salary.  For that reason and because my parents were financially conservative, I too have always been careful with money.  Despite having lived in the United States for most of my life, I detest having debt; I have always saved; and I have always paid a lot of attention to my finances – necessary because I don’t have a pension and have to manage my own retirement money.  But I also felt that this conservatism was overdone, so a few years ago the stretch for the year was to do things I wanted to do, but had refrained because of my attitude towards money.  Obviously spending more did not imply squandering money, but one of my pleasures for years has been flying myself and friends around southern Africa to go game and bird watching.  Where I live, in Knysna, I could not find a reliable small plane to rent, so I made the decision to try to buy into a partnership.  I was fortunate to find a wonderful plane, one of whose owners was wanting to drop out.  So now I am an eighth partner in a Mooney 201.  Can I afford it?  Yes.  Do I feel comfortable spending the money?  No!  But the important thing is that I love flying and now do it whenever I want.  
Michael and I next to my Mooney in Gaborone
On Saturday I am flying myself 1800 kms to spend 10 days in the bush with my cousin and some Dutch friends.  What a way to spend Christmas!
Other stretches have included organizing a group of friends to scale Kilimanjaro; and another to hike part the way around Annapurna in Nepal.  I have stretched by changing my attitude towards an inter-personal relationship, by setting sporting goals, by defining difficult work goals, and sometimes by working on private personal issues.  Sometimes, the stretch becomes permanent – which is great, such as my goal of having my last cheque bounce as I die; sometimes it expires at the end of the year, which is fine too.  Sometimes stretches are in conflict – but then most of us live in a state of some conflict.  However, in each case, I have felt both anxious and exhilarated by my choice.
So we are now at the time of year when I dig deep to define the stretch for next year.  Even the process of defining the stretch is a stretch, requiring introspection and soul searching.  It is both exciting and daunting.
I can’t wait to find out what I am going to do!  And when I do, I will remember my brothers and how their lives were cut short.
To my fellow bloggers and to all those who read what we write, I wish you a happy holiday season, if you have one, and a healthy, happy, and prosperous 2011.  And may you too find something to stretch you from your comfort zone.
Stan - Thursday


  1. Stan, the term you use, stretch, is so much more appropriate than the New Year's resolution. I can resolve to do any number of things I should do but none may actually make me a better person or make me better to and for others. I can resolve, as I have many times in the past, to stop hanging on to things, especially paper, that I certainly don't need but that is merely sensible.

    Succeeding at stretching oneself would be more fulfilling because it suggests really moving out of the comfort zone. This requires some serious thinking.

    Thank you.

    May you have a wonderful Christmas with your friends and happy holidays to Michael. We have five people in the family under the age of eight, four of whom are completely convinced of the existence of the man from the North Pole making it great fun for the adults.


  2. Dear Stan... for about thirty four years...I too have had a different take on the New Years resolution bit. Because I am a praying person, what I am telling you doesn't seem wierd to me though it may be a little off putting to you! I hope not! What I've done is simply asked God for a Word fot the coming year. A theme. A point of meditation, a course for my mind and heart and spirit to travel throughout the coming year. Several of my family and friends have adopted this tradition with me. We begin "listening" for our words in early December. It is my FAVORITE Christmas present every year, because it lasts all year. It sounds alot like your stretch idea... and yet is different as well. Blessings on you in your 2011 stretch. I have already "heard" my word for the coming year. I enjoyed "JOY" as my theme for 2010. Cheers! T.R. Michigan, United States