About two years ago, right about this time of year, I was knocking on doors and handing out yard signs. As I reflect on what has transpired over the last couple of years, I want to thank you, Vestavia Hills, for trusting me to be your representative. Serving you is a privilege and an honor.
Just in case you haven’t noticed, I am not a politician. I don’t trade favors. I don’t play games and I don’t work to increase my political capital–I just make decisions that I believe will advance our community and create the best possible quality of life for the folks in Vestavia Hills.
I may not tell you what you want to hear, but I will tell you the truth and what I really think about any issue. Because we can’t always agree, this will not make everyone happy on any particular issue. I will stand up for what I think is right and make what I believe are the best decisions for my city. I will always be civil and respectful of other people’s opinions and I will listen, but I will not hold back even when I think we might disagree, because I was elected to be the voice for a lot of people.
I don’t know how to serve any other way, because I don’t think like a politician. Perhaps thinking like a politician would promote me to higher offices, but that is not what concerns me. I was elected to do a job, and I will listen and speak on your behalf.
“My beloved brothers, understand this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteousness that God desires.” [James 1:19-20]
adapted by Kimberly Cook from Discover Dinnertime by Susan Dosier and Julia Rutland
• 3 tbsp. salted butter, divided
• 6 boneless chicken breasts
• garlic powder (¼ tsp. + ¼ tsp.)
• salt (¼ tsp.)
• fresh ground pepper (½ tsp. or to taste)
• ½ cup chopped or whole pecans
• 1 tbsp. Dijon mustard
• 3 tbsp. peach preserves
• cayenne pepper, dash (optional)
In a large skillet, melt 1 tbsp. butter. Add ¼ tsp. garlic powder and sauté pecans until they produce a toasty aroma or are slightly brown. Remove from pan and set aside.
Pound chicken breasts in Zip-Lock bag with meat mallet or hammer until they are about ¼-inch even thickness. Melt 2 tbsp. butter in large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Season chicken breasts with garlic powder (approximately ¼ tsp.), salt and pepper.
Melt 1 tbsp. butter in large skillet over medium-high heat (careful not to let butter burn) and add seasoned chicken breasts. Sear on both sides, a couple of minutes on each side, until done. Turn heat off and cover the skillet with a lid for a few minutes to allow the chicken to rest. Some of the juices will release from the chicken. (I poke them with a fork or spoon and if they feel firm to the touch, then they are done.) Do not overcook, as this will make them tough. Remove chicken from frying pan, but let juices remain.
Combine mustard and preserves in small bowl. In the same pan used to sauté the chicken, pour mustard/preserve mixture and heat until melted. Turn off heat and add cream. Stir until smooth. (Be careful not to overheat the cream as this will cause it to separate.)
To serve, place cooked chicken on a plate or serving dish. Sprinkle chicken with toasted pecans. Sprinkle with small amount of cayenne pepper, if desired. Pour warm cream mixture over the chicken breasts and pecans.
Serve this with a green vegetable (green beans or broccoli) and buttered angel hair pasta.
Part of the Christmas pilgrimage each year is the search for inspiration for the Christmas letter. This year, I look deep into my coffee cup and find…. Nothing. As a symbol of my dearth of creativity, the Christmas lights I left up in the tall junipers of my front yard won’t work this year—almost every string is burned out. I have bought few Christmas presents, except the ones for Dirty Santa and bingo prizes, because those are easy–requiring almost no thought. Christmas would be so much easier if it didn’t require so much mental energy.
(I pulled up the Christmas letter I wrote last year and honestly can’t remember if I ever mailed it to anyone. To cover my bases, I have published the letter to my blog and you can read it here.)
One might wonder why my lights aren’t working. I can’t explain except to say that, like Tom Bodett of Motel 6 fame, I have left the lights on for everyone all year long and now my bulbs are burned out.
It is my own fault. I have a tendency to run at Warp 11 during every project, whether it is city council or a Wood Badge ticket. I can hear Scotty’s warning ringing in my ear: “I’ve giv’n her all she’s got captain, an’ I canna give her no more.” It is good to take the time to write the annual Christmas letter because it forces me to slow down to Impulse power so I can reflect on the past year’s progress. Frankly, Impulse power is about all I have left.
My second year in office as a councilor for the City of Vestavia Hills has been one of settling in. In a conversation with Greg, I likened the workings of our city government to the body of Christ, as described in the Bible. In doing so, it is not my intent to shed an ecclesiastical light on city government. Nevertheless, the city council is similar to a church body in that there are many “members” all working to achieve one goal—to serve the people of Vestavia Hills. It is fulfilling to be part of such a team.
What have I learned in my second year of office? Here is my Top Ten list, in no particular order of importance:
The city clerk knows everything. If there is something the clerk does not know, then that fact is irrelevant.
All water flows downhill at a rate of speed directly relative to the number of storm water infrastructure complaints the city receives in our Action Center and the number of Facebook posts in which Councilor Pierce and I get tagged.
Social media is often the definition of #fakenews.
Citizens want more services, but they don’t want higher taxes.
Understanding people’s concerns means you have to talk to them and listen.
Social media is an invaluable tool for measuring the pulse of the city, regardless of #3.
The city manager never sleeps, except when he takes a trip to Ireland.
Effective communication, transparency and personnel management is what makes government run smoothly.
You don’t have to be responsible in order to be held responsible for a breakdown in any part of government.
Being heard is almost as important to constituents as agreement.
Last October, Greg and I participated in a Boy Scout Wood Badge course. This is a Baden-Powell leadership development program that trains Scout leaders, through the application of inane songs, skits, games and crafts designed to drive people like my husband (the un-crafty partner in our marriage) absolutely insane. I will never forget the sight of my husband attempting to tie a woggle (absolutely no relation at all to Boggle or the Wiggles), sweat pouring from his brow and a look of stern concentration on his face. (Stern is not really the right word, but use of the word mulish in a Christmas letter seemed somehow inappropriate.) In the end, much like with his Third Grade eggshell mosaic project, another patrol member helped him. However, I am sure the hours he spent in the effort helped form his character and made him a better attorney-leader.
The culmination of the Wood Badge course is completion of five goals that comprise the Wood Badge “ticket.” The course catechizes Wood Badge participants by having novitiates march in a circle while singing a song that pledges, “I’m going to work my ticket if I can.” Too late, I realize I could have used a variation of this technique to brainwash my son, who I would like to see completing any number of tasks, like cleaning his room, putting his dishes in the sink, and washing his clothes.
Greg has worked diligently on his Wood Badge goals, creating new Scout faith and leadership programs that have greatly benefited the young men in our troop. I have also “worked my ticket”, helping to form a new Venture Crew and increasing the reach of Scouting in our community. I have one more goal to finish before Greg and I both receive our Wood Badge beads, which–based on the effort expended and Greg’s billable hourly rate–are worth more than the Hope Diamond. Greg suggested I insert here that he finished his ticket before I did.
Geoffrey continues working as a software engineer in D.C. so he can have his own health insurance, pay his cell and cable bills and build up balances in his 401K. I am proud to say that all three of our children are thrifty and careful with their money. Geoffrey is close to getting his adult “ticket” punched now because he sees the dentist regularly and has an established internist. He also wears long pants to work, works out consistently, sends thank you notes, and attends church without his mother having to remind him. If I could get him to iron his clothes, I could mark him off on his Adult Scout rank. Geoffrey enjoys hiking and camping in northern Virginia with his friends. He asked for a Dutch oven for Christmas so he could cook over charcoal on campouts. (That’s my boy!)
Mary Catherine’s frosty exploits during our Steamboat Springs trip last Christmas came to an abrupt end after she broke her elbow in an unfortunate snowmobile accident. She was a trooper, though, and survived orthopedic surgery followed by travel to Paris with an arm in a brace and two pieces of checked luggage. She enjoyed a productive sojourn in Paris for a semester at Sciences Po, a premier political science school attended by many of France’s top public officials. Mary Catherine approached her time abroad with gusto—traveling to several nearby countries during breaks and learning to speak French fluently. From croissants and crepes in Paris to haggis in Scotland, she sampled the local cuisine; she also made some new international friends. It was interesting to hear her observations about the differences in the two universities (Sciences Po and Vanderbilt) and in the two political cultures, particularly as she was fortunate enough to be in France during their presidential election cycle. Apparently, the Trump-Clinton debate had nothing on the energetic discourse between Macron and Le Pen. Due to my daughter’s instruction, I am proud to be one of the few Americans (journalists included) who can properly pronounce Macron’s name.
In late May, the rest of the family traveled to Paris to ensure Mary Catherine did, in fact, return home. We had a merry adventure in Paris, Normandy and Lucerne, with Mary Catherine translating and serving as our capable tour guide. This was fortunate, since Greg’s fallback technique for communicating with people in foreign countries is to gesture emphatically, point at the menu and speak English slowly and loudly. (For the record, French people smirk at you when you do this.) The boys returned back to the States while Mary Catherine and I toured Austria, visiting both Salzburg (where we sang Sound of Music tunes on a coach with 30 strangers) and Vienna.
Mary Catherine spent the summer studying for the LSAT and taking a statistics course at UAB. For her senior year at Vanderbilt, she decided to write an honors thesis, which, she later informed us, would require her travel to Tunisia so she could interview people about ISIS recruiting techniques. Her dad and I were not too keen on this idea. We said “no.” In spite of this impediment, she is working on her research, using primary sources in Washington, D.C., instead of interviewing Tunisian terrorists. She is also looking for a post-graduation job as a political consultant (at a think-tank or on Capitol Hill) as a prelude to law school.
Will is working hard on his Eagle project, building a pavilion in a local park. When Will presented his project to his advisors, they all told him, “This is a very challenging project.” (His dad and I concur.) Not to be deterred by our expressions of doubt, he forged ahead with his planning and convinced the Eagle Board that he was equal to the task. After three long work days, all that remains is to finish the roof. Greg is already planning to purchase the updated version of the Eagle Scout bumper sticker: “We are proud of our Eagle Scouts.” I am buying my own sticker that reads, “I know how to cut rafters and shingle a roof.” Will is very grateful to all the folks who have helped him in the process, particularly his construction advisor, Rich Pace. (We are sure Rich is happy Will is our final child, as Rich also helped Geoffrey on his Eagle construction project nine years ago.)
Will also received the honor of being selected for the Order of the Arrow, which required a weekend of “ordeal” service.
Blessings to your family in the new year!
Kimberly (for the family: Greg, Geoffrey, Mary Catherine and Will)
firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Sadly, I could not find any evidence, mental or physical, that I ever mailed my 2016 Christmas letter. It is my best recollection that I never sent this to anyone. So, just to cover my bases, I am posting it now, one year later. You can think of it as a Christmas time capsule.
We are skipping Christmas this year. As time marches on and family circumstances change, we have the opportunity to “skip” the traditions we don’t like, retain those we do like and construct new traditions to take the place of the ones that no longer fit.
When you skip Christmas, it forces you to take a long, hard look at what practices are meaningful and which ones have gotten tacked onto your tradition like grandma’s Claxton fruitcake that somehow makes it onto the Christmas dessert table every year. (Seriously, who still eats that stuff?) You must analyze what part of your celebration has value and what parts can get shoved to the curb for the Salvation Army pickup.
Some of my earliest recollections of Christmas are of the Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass album playing on the turntable. I remember the Christmas I received a metal dollhouse with plastic furniture. One Christmas, my mother made me a sparkly gold majorette outfit, complete with white go-go boots and a tall hat, adorned with gold braid, made out of an empty white plastic Clorox jug. We watched the Christmas specials (Charlie Brown, Rudolph and others) on TV, and they were only broadcast one time each season. While I don’t have much desire to listen to Herb Alpert any longer, I really wish I still had those go-go boots.
Fast forward to early Christmases with our young family–the anticipation of waiting for Santa, staying up till all hours of the night assembling bikes and other complicated projects, all of which involved feats of engineering too complicated for two people who scored poorly on the spatial reasoning sections of standardized tests. Two families and their traditions merged: Christmas Day bingo, making sugar cookies,Christmas Eve family parties, candlelight services. Our children will some day form their families and their own traditions; they will take remnants of the memories and traditions of their family and their spouse’s family and combine them–just like a fabulous patchwork quilt.
This year is unique. Geoffrey has lived in the D.C. metro area for a whole year, paying for his own car, cell phone and health insurance bill. His trips home for holidays require vacation time and a plane flight to Birmingham. Mary Catherine just finished the first semester of her junior year at Vanderbilt, and will spend her next semester in Paris, studying at Sciences Po (Paris Institute of Political Studies), situated on the Left Bank. Will is half-way through his sophomore year of high school and gets his driver’s license next week. Next year, it will be time to take college road trips with Will. Explaining all of this makes me reflective of how much life is changing. We are at a nexus.
This has been a big year of change for me also. Early last year, I decided (rather, Greg convinced me) to run for a seat on the Vestavia Hills City Council. My role as a community advocate over the past years had begun to take more and more of my time. Our community was desirous of a change–they told me they wanted greater transparency and a voice in their local government. After making my decision to declare my candidacy in early spring, I spent many months making connections, raising money, knocking on doors and developing my campaign platform. Through all of it, I felt God’s leading and the support of my neighbors. On the night of the election, I was stunned to find that my cohorts and I had swept the election—winning all the seats on the council. Except for one returning councilor, every seat was held by a candidate who had never before held public office. Through it all, Greg was a trusted advisor and my biggest cheerleader. I was also fortunate to have a great campaign manager and committee.
Greg continues his involvement in many avenues of service—Boy Scouts, church, the Republican party and his work. He will tell you his greatest accomplishment last year was leading a crew into the backcountry of Philmont Scout Ranch, New Mexico. While it was one of the hardest experiences of his life (right up there with Air Force basic training), he will also tell you it was one of the most rewarding. I was proud of Will and Greg for completing the trek, hiking more than 100 miles, climbing more than 5 miles in elevation and carrying everything they needed for 12 days in a backpack. It was a lesson in teamwork, leadership and independence—something neither Greg nor Will can ever forget.
This Christmas, we are traveling to Steamboat Springs for some skiing over Christmas. With Geoffrey living so far away, it seemed the best opportunity to spend some family time together in the mountains and snow before we send Mary Catherine off on a plane to France. In a sense, we are “skipping Christmas” because we are trying something new. In another sense, we are holding onto the experiences of worship and family time that are most meaningful.
Whether your family is in transition, has experienced a change or loss or is in the “sweet spot” of building your nuclear family, we wish you joy. In the midst of any change, God is constant and his son, Jesus Christ, is our Savior. Take comfort, regardless of your circumstances, and be grateful.
“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” [I Thess. 5:14-16]
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” [John 1:5]
On the long drive to and from Nashville to deliver my daughter and all of her belongings to her dorm room at Vanderbilt University, I listened ad nauseum to news reports about what happened in Charlottesville this past weekend. Commentators said the police were not vigilant in stopping the violence and police responded that protestors refused to comply with instructions to ensure their safety; they talked about the clubs people were carrying and how protestors deployed balloons filled with urine to spray reporters and opposing protestors; they discussed how the original intent of the rally was only to protest the removal of a Confederate statue. Sadly, for seven hours, the talking heads and their paid experts went round and round the boxing ring, jabbing at paper-tigers and looking for someone to blame, but they never really got to the heart of the problem: The riot in Charlottesville was not prompted by the removal of a statue, but was the culmination of a political philosophy that has been fermenting for some time now in America–a phenomenon known as identitarian politics.
An identitarian’s ultimate political purpose is to promote his or her own culture, race or social ideology and is “founded in the shared experiences of injustice of members of certain social groups.” [https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/identity-politics/] The identitarian cares more about bolstering his or her own image than in affecting positive social or political change. The movement, which first emerged in the latter half of the twentieth century, has experienced a recent, strong revival in Europe and is often associated with fascism. In America, this resurgent ideology has been translated to the epithet “white supremacy,” from which it is a short hop, by the liberal media, to conservatism. Surprisingly, both right and left apologists acknowledge this tactic is a blight to rational and productive debate and that both sides are guilty of its use.
From the right:
“Which is why identity politics — after decades of polluting our minds — now feels so wrong. We finally wised up. Identity politics preaches a splintering of one large collaborative group into competing vindictive ones — resulting in new angry tribes whose central thesis is to NOT cooperate. Because cooperation is a sign that you are violating their religion of separateness. In the American “melting pot,” identity politics wants to smash that pot — to bring us back to the Dark Ages, when collaboration was sparse.” [Identity politics: the biological fraud; by Greg Gutfeld]
And, from the left:
“Identity politics of this sort leads us, when confronted with a social conflict, to ask a familiar question: ‘What’s the politically progressive position on this?’ This approach to social issues betrays a troubling narcissistic displacement: rather than analyze the social issue on its own merits, the political identitarian uses the issue as a way to assert his own persona. At worst, the social stakes of the issue are just a means to the end of his self image—what matters is what his position on the issue says about him.” [Political Identity as Identity Politics; Richard Thompson Ford]
When taken to the extreme for any group, identitarian politics results in monolithic positions that are unproductive and degenerate into verbal rock-throwing. Speakers on both ends of the political spectrum do a lot of speaking but not a lot of listening–because listening might require a change of position that would threaten the group’s identity.
What if politics became less about people (one’s idols, statues or favorite team) and more about ideas? What if we had monuments to ideas–the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, the Federalist Papers–instead of people: Would we be tearing those down too?
Until political discourse becomes more about ideas and less about your ancestors, where you grew up or what news station you watch, we will remain stuck in the political quagmire that we see displayed in Congress. Some say the ultra-left are responsible for the emergence of the ultra-right (and visa versa). Is this stark division reversible or have we returned forever to the time of skins and clubs, where the strongest and meanest survive? We need to return to the foundational principle that we are a people who use productive, civil speech to build a better republic. If not, we create our own destiny, which is the kind of violence we saw in Charlottesville last weekend.
I am at a wedding reception, enjoying the company. I see a friend dancing with her son, the groom. A guest, one of my long-time friends, tells me about her son making the dean’s list at Auburn. An acquaintance approaches and tells me about a great charity that will help her son obtain an experimental medical treatment–I gladly make a donation. I walk over to join a small group laughing over their goofy mistakes navigating the new online school registration system. A friend and I begin a conversation about a concern she had about sharing some sensitive information in the registration process.
Then, suddenly, a woman I have never seen before approaches the group. She slaps my face, calls me a fool and a liar and then waits for my reaction. I blink, stunned.
I spend a minute or two crafting my scathing and clever response, but then one by one backspace over each letter. I delete her comment and take a deep breath. There are some advantages of social media over real life interactions.