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In Christmas message, pope laments children in war, poverty

Pope Francis urged Christians to celebrate the birth of Jesus by thinking about the plight of today’s children, bemoaning how some must escape bombs or flee in migrant boats and how others are prevented from being born at all.

Francis celebrated a somber Christmas Eve Mass in a packed St. Peter’s Basilica, processing to the altar behind cardinals draped in golden vestments as the Sistine Chapel choir sang “Gloria” and the church bells rang out across Rome.

Francis has spent much of the year denouncing the Islamic extremist violence that has driven Christians from Mideast communities that date to the time of Christ. He has also demanded Europe in particular do more to welcome refugees, saying Jesus himself was a migrant who deserved more than being born in a manger. And he has called out the wasteful ways of the wealthy when children and the poor die of hunger every day.

In his homily, Francis urged his flock to reflect on how children today aren’t always allowed to lie peacefully in a cot, loved by their parents as Jesus was, but rather “suffer the squalid mangers that devour dignity.”

Among the indignities, he said, are “hiding underground to escape bombardment, on the pavements of a large city, at the bottom of a boat overladen with immigrants.”

“Let us allow ourselves to be challenged by the children who are not allowed to be born, by those who cry because no one satiates their hunger, by those who do have not toys in their hands, but rather weapons,” he added.

The Mass late Saturday was the first major event of the Christmas season, followed by Francis’ noon Urbi et Orbi (To the city and the world) blessing on Christmas Day.

In another appeal, Francis called for the faithful to not get caught up in the commercialization of Christmas — “when we are concerned for gifts but cold toward those who are marginalized.”

Materialism has “taken us hostage this Christmas,” he said. “We have to free ourselves of it!”

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Orlando water park Wet ‘n Wild will close Dec. 31

A pioneering water park in Orlando is closing after nearly 40 years of splashes.

Wet ‘n Wild opened in 1977. It’s now owned by Universal Studios Water Parks, which is closing the attraction Dec. 31 to make way for a new water park called Volcano Bay that will open next summer.

Wet ‘n Wild was developed by George Millay, who also founded SeaWorld in San Diego.

Walt Disney World had already opened a water park in Orlando, but Wet ‘n Wild became the industry standard. Today, the United States has over 744 outdoor water parks with three or more slides, according to Hotel and Leisure Advisors. Orlando has four of the world’s most-visited water parks, including Wet ‘n Wild.

Millay’s combination of waves and waterslides prompted his competitors to become more creative, former Disney executive Duncan Dickson told the Orlando Sentinel.

“When we opened River Country we thought it was fantastic because we had three slides and a big swimming pool,” Dickson said. “Then along comes George Millay with Wet ‘n Wild and we kind of go, ‘Oh, wait a minute.’ He really took the River Country concept and really stepped it up and went a lot further.”

Over the years, Wet ‘n Wild opened slides with sound effects and lighting, and rides that accommodated more than one passenger to meet customers’ demands “to enjoy the park as a family,” said former general manager Michael Black.

“We started installing (those) attractions so the whole family could get in an inner tube and enjoy the experience together,” he said.

Universal, which bought the water park in 1998, added more attractions that took riders through tunnels with lighting effects and music and began offering features such as cabanas, family dining plans and a child-friendly area with a 60-foot sand castle, slides, soakers and jets.

Wet ‘n Wild attracted 1.3 million visitors in 2015, according to industry estimates.

Universal Orlando Resort President Bill Davis said about 250 Wet ‘n Wild employees will transfer to other parts of Universal.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

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For your Christmas enjoyment: Adam Putnam’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”

With apologies to Band Aid…

[Paul Young]
In Legoland … there’s no need to cry
Adam Putnam’s watching over our food supply
[Boy George]
And in our State of Sunshine, we give thanks for this Wonder Boy
Raise your glass of Martini flavored with a big Key lime!
[Phil Collins on drums]
[George Michael]
But say a prayer … pray for the school children
At school lunch time
[Simon Le Bon]
Kids are forced to eat that mystery meat
There’s a world of fruits and veggies
[Sting and Simon Le Bon]
Putnam’s bringing it to you
Fruits and vegetables will be coming out of their ears…
And when he’s Governor the menus will improve.
[Bono}
Well tonight thank God you’re not eating school lunch food!
And there won’t be crap on the lunch tray now that Putnam’s here
Polk County produce will be coming their way
Citrus juice replaces Coke
Hope he’s not just blowin’ smoke
He’s promising a salad bar for all!
Here’s to him
Raise your wine glass, everyone!
Here’s to him
Lakeland’s very favorite son
On the web at “freshfromflorida”  dot com!
Feed school kids….
Citrus fruit from Florida!
Feed our kids….
Cattle from the Putnam Ranch!
Feed school kids…
Tomatoes on their pizza pie!
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Want to ‘reduce emotional indigestion’ this holiday season? Report says be positive, self-aware, flexible

From a contentious election to a litany of tragedies, it’s safe to say 2016 has been a stressful year.

And this, according to a recent report from Queendom.com and Psychtests.com, could lead to “potentially unpleasant discussions around the dinner table this holiday season, aided and abetted, perhaps, by one too many cups of eggnog.”

Researchers at the company released a report Monday looking at traits that could come in handy this season and “reduce emotional indigestion.”

“The holidays are generally a joyful time, but it can also turn into a free-for-all where people hash out their difference and let their emotions loose and the free-flowing booze can strike down their typical inhibitions, if they have any in the first place,” said Ilona Jerabek, president of Montreal-based PsychTests AIM Inc. “It can put a real damper on holiday dinners.”

The report was based on an analysis of data collected from 4,092 people who took the company’s Emotional Intelligence Test. Researchers, according to the report, compared people who are happy with their relationships with those who aren’t to come up with some key traits to survive the holiday season.

A few suggestions? Be positive, self-aware, and flexible.

“Rather than worrying about other people’s conduct, focus on monitoring your own. Their behavior should not dictate your actions or how joyful your holidays will be — it’s your reaction that does,” said Jerabek in a statement. “This is why emotional intelligence has been linked to professional success as well as happy relationships: The onus is placed on the individual to learn how to deal with emotional situations and people by developing the traits and skills that will allow them to navigate through challenging circumstances and complex social interactions.”

One other way to avoid a squabble at your family’s festivities? Lay off the eggnog.

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Meet INFLUENCE Magazine’s 2016 Politician of the Year Runners-Up

They can’t all be winners, but it’s fair to say several top Florida politicians had one heck of a 2016.

In the winter edition of INFLUENCE Magazine, we recognize some of the runners-up for 2016 politician of the year. Sure, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry may have grabbed the top spot, but these Floridians also had an extraordinary year.

They guided their communities through good times and bad; donned windbreakers and faced down storms; and were catapulted to the national stage. Some ousted the establishment, while others sailed through to easy victories. And one even mounted a successful comeback.

A couple of highlights:

— Gov. Rick Scott deserves a hand for the way he handled the multitude of challenges in 2016, from an attack on an Orlando nightclub to two hurricanes — Hurricane Hermine and Hurricane Matthew — barreling toward the state. Florida saw record tourism numbers, despite concerns about Zika and blue-green algae. And the Naples Republican shot on to the national scene for his steadfast support of Republican Donald Trump.

— With all eyes on Orlando this year, Mayor Buddy Dyer stepped up to the plate and represented The City Beautiful — and the state of Florida — with grace. He spearheaded the effort to create the OneOrlando Fund to assist victims of the Pulse nightclub attack, and was a steady voice throughout the tragedy.

— Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine has emerged as a leading voice in discussions about climate change. In recent months, he was name-checked in a Los Angeles Times opinion piece on the issue, featured on National Public Radio talking about the impact rising tides have on his community, and was interviewed by Leonardo DiCaprio for his climate change documentary.

— They’re the next class of congressmen (and congresswomen). The Sunshine State is sending 10 new members to the U.S. House of Representatives this year, marking one of the congressional delegation’s largest turnovers. We’re expecting great things from this group of guys and gals, which includes former state Rep. Matt Gaetz, former Gov. Charlie Crist and political newcomer Stephanie Murphy.

Want to know more about the 2016 Politician of the Year Runners-Up? Check out the 2016 winter edition of INFLUENCE Magazine, available online now.

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Erin Gaetz launches her own digital content firm

Erin Gaetz is paving her own way, but don’t expect her to veer too far from the family business.

Gaetz, the 31-year-old daughter of former Senate President Don Gaetz and sister of Congressman-elect Matt Gaetz, recently launched her own digital content firm, Southpaw Content. The firm specializes in producing faster, more engaging and less expensive social media and digital content.

Or, as she puts it: No dopey ads of candidates standing around a factory and pointing.

“After the experience on the Jeb campaign, I thought a lot about video,” she said. “It’s great if you’re in a big presidential campaign or (statewide) race, and you have a ton of money and can hire (a team) for a shoot. But I started to think about the scalability of video. Can you make something just as professional without 20 sound guys and the consultant (costs)?”

That’s exactly what she’s trying to do.

As the director of digital content for Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential bid, she wrote, produced and created digital content for the campaign. That included those quirky “#JebNoFilter” videos and a 2-minute documentary-style video highlighting the former governor’s connection to a Charlotte County community devastated by Hurricane Charley.

When her brother ran in Florida’s 1st Congressional District earlier this year, she grabbed her camera and MacBook and started producing videos for his campaign. While there were more traditional political ads, she also produced several untraditional digital segments, like the “Open Gaetz” feature.

“I think you need hooks and you need more fun,” she said.

One of the benefits Southpaw Content can offer clients is the quick turnaround time, she said. Since she’s handling every step of the process, the firm can help clients quickly turn over a new ad, react to a hot issue, or send a message to supporters.

As for those clients, she’s already lining them up. She’s already doing work for Republican Reps. Neal Dunn and Dan Webster.

“I’m working with everyone from current governors to just elected members of the House to universities that really want to build out digital projects and do it in a way that’s cost effective and fun,” she said.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering where the name came from: She’s a lefty.

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Lin-Manuel Miranda named AP Entertainer of the year

Winning a Pulitzer Prize and a clutch of Tony Awards in a single one year would be enough for anyone. Not Lin-Manuel Miranda. Not in 2016.

The “Hamilton” writer-composer picked up those honors and also earned a Golden Globe nomination, won the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History, wrote music for a top movie, and inspired a best-selling book, a best-selling album of “Hamilton” covers and a popular PBS documentary.

A new honor came Wednesday when Miranda bested Beyonce, Adele and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, among others, to be named The Associated Press Entertainer of the Year, voted by members of the news cooperative and AP entertainment reporters.

“There’s been more than a little good luck in the year itself and the way it’s unfolded,” Miranda said after being told of the honor. “I continue to try to work on the things I’ve always wanted to work on and try to say yes to the opportunities that I’d kick myself forever if I didn’t jump at them.”

Miranda joins the list of previous AP Entertainer of the Year winners who in recent years have included Adele, Taylor Swift, Jennifer Lawrence, Lady Gaga, Tina Fey and Betty White. The animated Disney juggernaut “Frozen” captured the prize in 2014, and “Star Wars” won last year. (By the way, Miranda wrote one of the songs in “The Force Awakens.”)

When he hosted “Saturday Night Live” in October, he somewhat tongue-in-cheek acknowledged the rarity of having a theater composer as host, saying: “Most of you watching at home have no idea who I am.”

They surely must by now.

Miranda was virtually everywhere in popular culture this year — stage, film, TV, music and politics, while engaging on social media as he went. Like a lyric he wrote for Alexander Hamilton, it seemed at times that the non-stop Miranda was working as if he was “running out of time.”

Julio D. Diaz, of the Pensacola News Journal, said Miranda “made the whole world sing, dance and think. Coupled with using his prestige to become involved in important sociopolitical issues, there was no greater or more important presence in entertainment in 2016.”

Among the things Miranda did this year are asking Congress to help dig Puerto Rico out of its debt crisis, getting an honorary doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania, performing at a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton on Broadway, lobbying to stop gun violence in America and teaming up with Jennifer Lopez on the benefit single “Love Make the World Go Round.”

He and his musical “Hamilton” won 11 Tony Awards in June, but perhaps his deepest contribution that night was tearfully honoring those killed hours before at an Orlando nightclub with a beautiful sonnet: “Love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love, cannot be killed or swept aside,” he said. “Now fill the world with music, love and pride.”

He started the year onstage in the Broadway hit “Hamilton” (which in 2015 had won a Grammy and earned Miranda a MacArthur genius grant) and ended it with a Golden Globe nomination for writing the song “How Far I’ll Go” from “Moana,” which was on top of the box office for three weeks this month, earning $165 million.

“I’ve been jumping from thing to thing and what’s been thrilling is to see the projects that happen very quickly kind of exploding side-by-side with the projects I’ve been working on for years,” Miranda said.

Though theater fans have long cherished his fluency in both Stephen Sondheim and Tupac, “Hamilton” helped Miranda break into the mainstream in 2016. The groundbreaking, biographical hip-hop show tells the true story of an orphan immigrant from the Caribbean who rises to the highest ranks of American society, told by a young African-American and Latino cast.

The cast went to the White House in March to perform songs from the show for the first family and answer questions from school children. A version of the show opened in Chicago in October and a production is slated to land in California next year and in London soon.

When the gold-winning U.S. women’s gymnastics team returned from the Rio Olympics, where do you think they wanted to go? “Hamilton,” naturally, which they did in August.

The show’s effects were felt across the nation this year, cheered by politicians, stars and rappers alike and even helping shape the debate over the nation’s currency (Hamilton stays on the $10 bill, in part due to Miranda’s show.)

But the musical also sparked controversy when the cast delivered a pointed message about diversity to Vice President-elect Mike Pence while he attended a performance in November. President-elect Donald Trump demanded an apology, which did not come.

That kerfuffle was part of a “Hamilton”-heavy fall that included an album of celebrity covers and songs called “The Hamilton Mixtape,” as well as a documentary on the show that aired on PBS and attracted more than 3.6 million television viewers.

Erin O’Neill of The Marietta Times said Miranda dominated entertainment news this year but, more importantly, “opened a dialogue about government, the founding of our country and the future of politics in America.”

There’s more Miranda to come in 2017, including filming Disney’s “Mary Poppins Returns” with Emily Blunt (due out Christmas 2018) and an ambitious TV and film adaptation of the fantasy trilogy “The Kingkiller Chronicle.”

“I’m back in a planting mode after a harvest,” Miranda said, laughing.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

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Vandals attack pentagram erected to protest Nativity scene

A 300-pound metal sculpture of a satanic pentagram, erected as an atheist protest to a public park’s Nativity scene, was severely damaged on Tuesday when it was pulled to the ground by vandals.

Atheist Preston Smith‘s 10-foot tall sculpture lay broken in Sanborn Square at noon. Tire tracks led from the twisted metal to the street.

It appeared vandals had attached a chain from a vehicle to the sculpture and yanked it down, dragging it several feet. As local television reporters prepared live broadcasts, two passers-by stopped and pushed the sculpture back onto its base before walking away.

The sculpture sits about 20 feet from a traditional Nativity scene of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus, and is backed by a banner from an atheist group reading “Keep Saturn in Saturnalias,” a reference to the belief that the early Christian church substituted Christmas for a Roman pagan holiday.

It is the latest Florida protest against manger scenes on public property, mirroring earlier battles inside the state capitol in Tallahassee.

Boca Raton police officer Sandra Boonenberg said the overnight strike was the third attack on Smith’s sculpture and its explanatory banner since he erected the display earlier this month. Someone painted the once-red sculpture black on Monday. Earlier, someone damaged the banner. Detectives are investigating.

Smith, a middle school English teacher, said that as an atheist, he does not believe in God nor Satan, but is using a symbol often associated with devil worship to highlight his belief that religious displays have no place on public property, because they make non-believers “feel like second-class citizens.”

“We are here to call out Christian hypocrisy and theistic bias in taxpayer-funded public arenas while advocating for the separation of church and state,” he told The Associated Press. “Our ultimate goal is to return the government to its viewpoint neutral stance so that when an atheist takes a stroll through the park we aren’t assaulted by Bronze Age mythology.”

He said the vandalism “feels like Saudi Arabia, not America.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that government agencies can allow religious displays on public property, but if they do, they cannot discriminate. Both the Nativity scene and the Pentagram were installed with city permits.

A group of local religious leaders – 14 ministers, two rabbis and the president of the city’s mosque – placed a banner next to Smith’s sculpture criticizing its placement.

“The use of satanic symbols is offensive and harmful to our community’s well-being,” the banner reads. “We find it a shameful and hypocritical way to advocate for freedom from religion.”

The city issued a statement saying that while it respects Smith’s free-speech rights, it doesn’t support his message.

“In years past, the seasonal, religious displays in Sanborn Square have contained messages projecting the themes of peace, forgiveness and harmony,” it said. “This display appears to be more about shock value, attention and challenging our commitment to constitutionally protected free speech rather than promoting goodwill, respect and tolerance during the holiday season.”

Passer-by Judy Hill, a retired information technology worker, decried the vandalism but didn’t think Smith should have erected his sculpture next to the Nativity scene.

“I know there is freedom of speech, but there is a time and place for everything,” said Hill, a Methodist. “He just wanted to get publicity and he got it.”

In 2013 and 2014, atheists erected protest displays in the Florida capitol after a Christian group placed a manger there. Those displays included a Festivus pole made of beer cans, a depiction of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a mock god popular among non-believers, and one showing an angel falling into flames with the message “Happy Holidays from the Satanic Temple.” The latter was damaged by a vandal.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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AARP fights ‘loneliness epidemic’ with awareness campaign

Loneliness is an “epidemic” affecting 8 million older Americans and the newest addition to America’s epidemic of Awareness Campaigns.

In recent months, we’ve been flooded with Awareness of senior citizens bringing up grandchildren whose parents are dead or in jail. The rest of the old people are isolated and depressed in unprecedented numbers, says AARP, and it’s time to get Aware.

Because nothing says Awareness better than an online tool, AARP has gifted us with a pandering to a millennial-sounding website called Connect2Affect.org. It’s a 1Stop4U venue where old folks can “learn what leads to elder isolation and how to build social networks …” as well as “post … stories about loneliness.”

That could appeal to cyber-savvy geezers who aren’t overly busy hooking up with high school crushes, along with family members who don’t have time to spend with Uncle Ed and Aunt Mabel, but do have a chance to increase their Awareness.

AARP has developed a print and online “self-assessment checklist that can screen for someone’s risk of becoming socially isolated or depressed.”  Many self-aware seniors self-assessed without AARP’s help, and turned in droves to their doctors for companionship and a pill or three to ease their emotional pain. It hasn’t made a dent in the isolation epidemic, but it has blown a hole in the nation’s pocketbook.

For most of history, people lived in communities where they had meaningful and necessary contributions to make, right up to the time of their brief and final illness. We used to be Aware that we don’t have to outsource our babies to daycare and our compos-mentis grandparents to warehouses that look better than they smell.

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Santa Claus takes credibility hit, poll finds

Santa Claus’s credibility has taken a bit of a hit this year, but Americans of all political stripes still believe in Christmas by overwhelming numbers, according to a new poll released Monday by Public Policy Polling.

And if there is a divisive issue this time of year, it apparently involves the phrase “Happy Holidays!”

While Democrats mostly said they could take or leave the phrase, a significant portion of Republicans say they’re offended by it.

The poll, taken last Tuesday and Wednesday of 1,224 registered voters across the country, should have Santa alarmed. Four years ago, after the 2012 general election, a whopping 52 percent of respondents said they believed in him, while 45 percent were pretty skeptical, saying they didn’t believe in him. This year Santa’s believability rating fell to 31 percent, and his numbers are down among Democrats, Republicans and independent voters fairly equally.

PPP claims a 2.8 percent margin of error for the general questions.

“It doesn’t matter whether you voted for Clinton or rump,” PPP President Dean Debnam stated in a news release. “Everyone is feeling a little bit less hope and joy after this year.”

Santa was unavailable to comment Monday.

Ninety-one percent of respondents said they had a favorable opinion of Christmas, while 5 percent did not. That tops other holidays this time of year: 75 percent said they were favorable toward Hannukah, with 5 percent not; and 47 percent were favorable toward Kwanzaa, and 18 percent not.

That Christmas fondness widely extended to the movie “It’s A Wonderful Life: 73 percent approve, 5 percent do not.

But Happy Holidays? Merry Christmas? Opinion is split, mainly along party lines.

Only 5 percent of Clinton voters said they’re offended by the phrase Merry Christmas, compared to 19 percent of Trump voters who say they’re offended by Happy Holidays.

Trump voters said by a 69-4 percent margin that they prefer the phrase Merry Christmas to Happy Holidays. Meanwhile, 63 percent of Clinton voters say they don’t care, with those who have a preference split between Merry Christmas (23 percent) and Happy Holidays (14 percent.)

Along those same lines, only 34 percent of Americans said they think there’s a War on Christmas, down from 41 percent three years ago. It’s a partisan issue: 60 percent of Trump voters stated that they still think there’s a “war on Christmas.” In fact, 24 percent of Trump voters said that the war on Christmas concerns them more than a potential war with China would.

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