the name’s Humbug…Bah Humbug

Another Christmas is upon me. Thus begins the annual battle with my love/hate relationship with Christmas. I love what it represents, but I hate what it has become. It’s exhausting to smile with the exuberant lovers of the holiday when, deep inside, I really don’t give a shit.

Please don’t think me cold or uncaring. Unlike most, I don’t feel compelled to share misery like a cold. I keep it to myself. I am as moved as anyone by the excitement of a child tearing open a present. I am as inspired as anyone by the generosity of the season. I am not above respect for the kindness shown from the day after Thanksgiving until midnight on December 25th, at which time I warmly welcome the world returning to its joyless, materialistic and selfish self.

I’m not a Grinch. I’m just realistic and call it like I see it. Christmas is a truce in the war on humanity.

I didn’t always feel this way. As a child I bought into the whole experience. I enjoyed the bustle of the stores. I liked the music. I liked the gentle ringing of the Salvation Army volunteer standing in the cold outside of the stores. And of course I loved getting presents. As I got a little older I developed a contradictory set of emotions that would later morph into disdain.

My father was raised very poor. Through hard work and pure piss and vinegar he proudly elevated us to lower middle-class. We didn’t have a lot, but we always had enough. My father, in a admirable attempt to compensate for his shitty childhood, worked his narrow ass into the ground to shower us with gifts, especially my mother. He worked excessive overtime and side jobs to pay for Christmas. He started early in the season and didn’t stop until the mall padlocked the doors on Christmas Eve. He couldn’t afford it, he paid for it all year, but he did it anyways. He was so intent on pleasing us, his expression of anticipation glued to his face as we opened gifts. I learned early that even if you didn’t like the gift you had better pretend that you did. This was especially true with my mother. He loved her so. He would repeatedly ask her if she was pleased with her gifts. She always was, fortunately, because his fragile ego depended on it. He loved us, he loved the holiday. He sacrificed so much.

As much as I appreciated that, it bothered me tremendously. I knew at an early age that my father put too much emphasis on stuff. He was overcompensating for the abject poverty of his youth. He wanted better for me. What he didn’t understand was that he was the gift, not the stuff. I just wanted to spend time with him, for him to come home from work while I was awake. So many nights he was called into work, many of them Christmas Eve’s, because someone ran out of oil or lost their heat. I respected the shit out of it, but I wished he was home instead. He worked himself to the bone and I began to feel guilty. A Wonderful Life is a lot better when you watch it with your Dad.

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When I became a parent, we did the best we could to give our children an amazing experience. My wife did all of the shopping and wrapping. God bless her, I couldn’t do it. I was in charge of assembly, working late into the night after struggling to get 4 excited kids to sleep. We would be woken at 3:30 or 4 to the sound of them rustling under the tree, barely able to contain themselves. We ignored them until 6, my wife being very clear that we would not get up before. At 5:59 they were jumping on the bed. Exhausted but resigned to our fate, we got up. Despite our best efforts to make the opening of presents organized and last for a while, they tore through them like a Oklahoma Tornado through a trailer park. Over before we knew it. As Rodney Dangerfield famously joked about sex, “the hours of bullshit weren’t worth the 30 seconds of pleasure”. My wife would then help the kids move their presents to their rooms and clean up. By 10 AM you would never know that a holiday had occurred…all of the evidence was gone. As Grinch-ish as I could be, I hated the quick clean. For the sake of the kids I wanted it to last. The excitement, the gratitude, the beautiful smiles made me happy. I enjoyed the day vicariously as a parent. Truly a fond memory.

As a husband, Christmas became one more day to dread. My wife ruined it for me. I will never know how someone capable of all of that preparation, organization, and detail with gifts couldn’t handle my mother and father coming over. After a few years of consistent shit storms, her being uptight, anxious and rude to my parents, I began to dislike the holiday. The drama and fallout became more than I could handle and Seasonal excitement became a feeling of impending doom.

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Now, the children are grown. The notion of a fat man in a red suit has been put away for their someday children. We no longer have a house to put up a tree and we are far apart. We will get together for dinner and a modest exchange of gifts. The hard lesson of rampant consumerism is firmly ingrained in my chidren. They witnessed a Bankruptcy and a Foreclosure as a result of their parents living beyond their means and buying gifts they couldn’t afford. I suppose it taught them an appreciation. For me, the lesson affirmed what I always sensed. That memories of time spent together with family are so infinitely more memorable than stuff.

My dad and I sat down over a beer and a burger when I was in my late thirties. He asked me if I resented him for being at work so much. I patted him on the arm and told him that I respected him for it. I then told him that what I had wished most for was moments like the one we were having. His greatest gift was a work ethic and a spirit of generosity. An appreciation of good thoughts and intentions. What I hated was the toll it took on his body.

I have yet to reconcile myself with the joy of the Holiday. Religious fervor over the birth of the Messiah aside, I see much more fake than just the trees. To paraphrase The Sixth Sense, “I see fake people.” People that wish you a Happy Holiday and then flip you off in the parking lot. People who act religious but only go to Church once a year. Everyone tries to be so nice, why can’t that last all year?

The Consumerism kills me as well. I wish that people cared as much about the time to be spent together with family as they do about saving 100 bucks on a Flat Screen TV. There is nothing quite like the sound of people stampeding and rioting in the electronics section of Wal-Mart as Joy to the World/Peace on Earth blares over the sound system in a futile and pathetic attempt to drown them out.

The false Charity bothers me to my core. While some people indeed do magnificent gestures such as paying off Layaways and Toys for Tots, many choose to be charitable only at Christmas. Once it is over they go back to their comfy lives. Food pantries and homeless shelters have a need year round, that is of course if it doesn’t interfere with your weekend in Aspen. No matter, the homeless and hungry will wait.

Maybe my attitude will change someday but I don’t suspect that it will. I don’t have a problem with people being happy. I will smile at their joy and feign my own. I will continue to be generous of spirit despite being light on funds. I will have love in my heart and a true desire to help anyone if within my means. I want peace on earth year round and forever going forward and I have goodwill towards my fellow man. It’s all I have and it will have to do. Just don’t ask me to buy into the rampant consumerism and fake joy.

I’m just not buying it.

My Thanksgiving

When I first got the text from my ex-wife that she wanted to host Thanksgiving at her new apartment I had mixed feelings. I was glad that I would have the opportunity to have all of the kids in one room for a change and was glad that my ex and I get along well enough for such a get-together to be palatable. What troubled me was her history of freaking out on Holidays.

From the beginning of our relationship holidays were a problem for her. I could never put my finger on why they were so difficult. For the first years of our marriage we almost exclusively went to our families houses. Our only stress factors were travel, getting the kids ready and dealing with her mother. Admittedly, that was a big one. Her relationship with her mother was contentious for as long as I had known her. Her mother was always jabbing at her, it sometimes seemed that she was sitting at the table with a voodoo doll, sticking pin after pin and laughing as her daughter imploded. But even when the mother wasn’t there, my wife was still highly stressed and visibly agitated.

Once we owned our first house we took on the task of hosting the holidays. Given the age of our children and the logistics (naps, feedings, etc.,) of taking them out, and the size of our house it made sense to have people come over. Knowing that she would be stressed I took upon myself as much of the work as I could. I did all of the cooking, as much cleaning as possible and tried to control as many of her stressors as I could. I was naïve to think that I could control that which I did not understand. Her stressors were a bigger enigma than I could ever imagine. This would become evident when my mother dropped a tray of cupcakes in the driveway one Christmas morning. My wife freaked on her, yelling that we would now be overrun by ants. When I told her that we don’t get ants in December, she turned her wrath on me for questioning her. The day was ruined before it started.

It never got better. Every Holiday was stressful for all of us. The stress of walking on eggshells was too much for everyone. I just learned to deal with it.

So you can see why the prospect of her hosting gave me pause.

I offered to bring some of the meal. She asked me to make the Turkey. I gladly agreed. She was confident that she could handle the rest of the feast.

Thanksgiving morning I awoke at 5 AM. I crammed the birds ass with stuffing and put it in the oven with a schedule of leaving the house by 10:30 AM. I pulled it off and pulled into her development at 12:30. The turkey was still hot. I went in.

Despite her request that we all be there by 12:30 I was the only one on time. I offered to help her in the kitchen but she insisted that she had it under control. Her goal was to serve the appetizers at 1 and the meal at 1:30. It would not work that way, everyone was late. Amazingly, she held it together. Once my oldest daughter and her boyfriend, my oldest son and her mother (yes, her mother was invited as well) arrived, the meal was ready, getting cold on the table while we had the appetizers but she kept her cool, only to a lesser degree. To lessen her anxiety, I snuck into the kitchen and began putting items in the oven to keep them warm. She protested but I insisted that it was my way of helping. She reluctantly acquiesced. 

The meal went off without a hitch. My bird was a big hit, her culinary creations (she has never claimed to be a cook) were delicious and the chemistry at the table was magical. I was in heaven having my amazing family together. There is nothing in this world that I miss more than seeing my kids every day. I savored every moment of it. We did our family tradition of going around the table and saying what we are thankful for and I was happy to watch my children do theirs. They never liked it when they were younger, they thought it was silly. But now, they get it. They had some great offerings as to what they were thankful for. When it came my turn I simply stated that I was grateful to be there, on the right side of the dirt, surrounded by everything that matters to me in life. Normally loquacious, resulting in groans and eye rolls, mine was short and sweet.

The cleanup went well. We took a bunch of pictures. We drank coffee and ate dessert. We watched football. We played with the dogs. The conversation flowed. It really was a magical day. When it was time to leave, I couldn’t give everyone a big enough hug. I even hugged my ex-wife. I was proud of her. It may sound silly, but after all of the nightmare stories from holidays of the past it was exciting to have a day without incident.

It was bittersweet in a way. My ex looks great, she seems to be making a real effort to get better emotionally and seems almost happy. Part of me wonders why she couldn’t do those things while we were together. I will always wonder if she is better off without me. But at the end of the day I want what I have always wanted, I just want her to be happy.

My Dad, the thief Part 2 of 2

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It was a horrible time for me. I lost my best friend, I felt terrible for my father and I worried for our family’s safety. The man was truly unstable. Dark days indeed.

One thing my uncle couldn’t control was that Mike and I went to school together. We managed to hang out at school and occasionally would play basketball at the church near Mike’s house. The get-togethers were rare. It was very frightening for both of us and the opportunities didn’t come up often. I found out many years later that his dad found out about one of our sneaky rendezvous’s and, as promised, beat Mike pretty badly.

Fortunately, and I sound like a really bad person here, 4 years after the infamous 4th of July incident, the bastard came home drunk, attempted to beat his wife, fell on the kitchen floor and died of an aneurysm. I shed zero tears.

Now 14, I was hopeful that it was finally over. I naively thought that both families would come together, the wedge now gone and pick up where we left off. That was not to be. Mike and I resumed our friendship in that we openly spent time together but the rest of the family, with the exception of my aunt, still believed it happened and treated me like the son of the guy who stole from them.

Several years passed and I began to believe that it would likely never get better. Mike and I remained close but just didn’t talk about it. My father resumed his relationship with his sister, who in turn told her children to be respectful. It was still painful for him, I could see him struggling to be comfortable around them. In the house that he grew up in, he felt like a villain. But he was glad to have his sister back.

I would not speak to anyone in that house, other than Mike for years. I didn’t hate them but I was extremely offended that they, anyone for that matter, would really think my father was a thief. So many years after the incident, my father had proved over and over what a decent, honest hard-working man he was. I was offended for him and I resented them. Despite my anger, not seeing them on a regular basis allowed me to keep a lid on it. Out of sight, out of mind.

When I was 22, Mike and I were both still living with our families in town. I had been working a lot of overtime and had finally bought my dream car. A 1988 Mustang GT Convertible. Mike and I loved Mustang’s so I was eager to show it to him. It was a hot August day and I navigated my shiny new car, top down, around the potholes to Mike’s house. I pulled up and one of my older cousins was outside. I asked for Mike, he told me he wasn’t home. “Nice car,” he said flatly. I thanked him and rolled forward to turn around in the driveway. As I did, 2 more of my cousins came out of the house and watched me. As I passed them, slowly to avoid dust, I heard one of them say “there goes the rich kid.” I slammed my brakes and threw it into reverse. Fuck the dust.

I rolled up, put it in Park and got out. “Excuse me, did someone say Rich kid?” They just looked at me. I wasn’t the same scrawny kid they used to toss around. I was now 6 ft and 250 pounds and I was pissed. I asked again. Nothing but contemptuous stares met my fury. That’s when it all became crystal clear to me. It wasn’t just over a coin, they resented my father’s success. I let them have it. I unleashed and showed them a side of me they didn’t know existed. I tore into them for not understanding that my father worked his ass off to not live on this street anymore. He got a job, got into a union, put in overtime, worked side jobs and missed almost every holiday working on broken oil burners for people with no heat. All to buy a house and give his family what he didn’t have growing up. I went on to give them hell about that stupid comment about my car. The car I worked 60 hours a week to buy. Who the fuck did they think they were to call me the “rich kid?” To say that I read them the riot act is an understatement. I flipped them off and got back in my car.

I wouldn’t speak to them again until my father’s funeral 25 years later. I wrote my father’s eulogy. It may be the best thing I’ve ever written. I spoke passionately about how much I admired my dad, what an honest man he was, how he had been hurt by those close to him but always retained his dignity. I stressed his work ethic and his big heart. I wrote of his great success through hard work despite his humble upbringing. I wasn’t able to deliver it myself, I knew that I would be a blubbering mess. I had a hard time listening to the minister read it even though I wrote it. As he read it, I made eye contact with the few cousins that bothered to show up. They were squirming in their seats. I don’t think even I knew until that moment that parts of that eulogy were scathing, brutal truth bombs aimed at them for how they treated him.

 

At the cemetery, as I knelt on the frozen ground at my father’s grave, one of my cousins patted me on the shoulder and said “I’m glad I came today. “

“I’m glad as well.” As I thought to myself Glad that I will likely never see you again.   

My Mom disagrees with me on a lot of what I am talking about. She claims that the cousins were friendly after my Uncle’s death. I’m glad they were to her but I never saw it. Mike himself, on one of the rare occasions that we talked of his father, said that his siblings all believed that my father stole from them.

I’m privileged to still be close to Mike. He annoys the hell out of me sometimes, we have very little in common, but he is a solid guy with a very big heart. The only problem I have with him is that he is a walking reminder of an indignity perpetrated against my father. Normally a forgiving person, on this one the bitterness is still on my tongue. My father lived a great life, despite the headwinds he had to trudge through in his earlier years. He didn’t get the time on earth that he deserved for the work that he invested. To think that so many of those years were spent feeling hurt and wrongly accused angers me to no end. As in so many other aspects of his life…he deserved so much better.

A New Year’s Toast

A Toast

to the parents struggling to care for their family. May they provide sustenance and love for the children

to the first responder running towards danger when others run from it. May you always stay safe

to the soldier thousands of miles from those that love them. May your mission be righteous and your body unscathed

to the health care workers who give more to others more than they give to themselves. May their selflessness be recognized and appreciated

to the bullied child. May your struggles be recognized before it’s too late

to the bully. May you see the error of your ways

to the ill. May you experience recovery

to the grieving. May you experience closure and peace

to the hungry. May your plate always be full

to our leaders. May they do what is right, not what is profitable or electable

to the disenfranchised, the angry and the frustrated. May you find an outlet and peace in your heart

to the practitioners of hate and division. May you become part of the solution, not part of the problem

to those that chose the path of honesty and integrity. May you never second-guess that choice

to those who are glued to screens. May you look away and see the beauty all around you

to those fighting a hard battle. May the people you meet treat you with kindness and respect.

Here’s to a better you. A better us. A better world. It’s up to us to make it a good year.

Here’s to you.

 

Canceled

just me and the TBS A Christmas Story marathon today. It’s snowing like a bugger out there and my scheduled 2-hour drive will likely be 3 if I want to see the family. It’s just not worth it.

I will miss seeing my kids today but they have a lousy drive also.

Who am I kidding anyway? I have as much desire to see anyone today as Frosty welcomes a Spring thaw.

Me, the dog and the wood stove.

Merry Christmas to all of you

 

 

Canceled due to weather

I’m really not feeling the Christmas spirit right now. While I have made great strides in my appreciation for the inherent values of compassion, generosity of spirit, and of course humility, it is still  not a day of joy for me. Having nothing to give my kids, driving a  long way for a couple of uncomfortable hours of time with the soon-to-be-ex-wife and the kids, who are equally uncomfortable, in a house that I don’t own just reeks of awkward. The only bright spot about tomorrow is that I am planning on bringing my youngest daughter and her best friend back up with me for the week. That I am looking forward to.

Everyone says they want a white Christmas. Well, this year in New England that won’t be a problem. We have a shit-ton of it right now. And several layers of ice on top of it. Power outages from overweighted trees are everywhere. The roads are a mess. And we are to get another storm tomorrow morning. My wife called me this morning and we discussed the possibility of canceling due to weather. It’s not that I can’t handle the drive, the oldest two have a good drive as well and we worry for their safety. Also, the house we are going to has a tough driveway and no street parking. One pass of the plow and my Civic is blocked in until Spring.

I can’t believe I’m saying this but I almost think I wouldn’t mind staying in tomorrow, the house to myself and just get shitfaced. I’m at peace with things but I am definitely not in the mood to put on a happy face and pretend that I’m happy. I’m dealing. For now, that will have to be enough.

Merry Christmas to me as long as the ice machine is working.

the reason for the season

“Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about” Charlie Brown famously lamented.

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Fortunately, Linus bailed him out.

The Holiday season. I’m in the midst of my 52nd one and I still don’t know how I feel about it. It is so many things to so many people.

It is the celebration of the birth of a savior who I have always grappled with my belief in. It is also the source of division between people of different faiths and non-believers.

It is a time to show our love for each other in the form of giving gifts. But due to rampant commercialism and consumerism, the presumed spirit of love, generosity, and peace are replaced by excess, greed, and stress.

It is a time for parents to live up to expectations and give their children the “in” toy or gadget, to see the smile on the face of their children. It is also a time when struggling families are unable to provide any good gifts, because life is hard, and they have to endure the disappointed looks on their children’s faces.

It is a time to gather with friends and family, eat and drink and enjoy each other. It is also a time of year that is depressing for many who are alone, grieving, suffering or struggling who only want the season to pass.

Fortunately, underneath it all, it is still the one time of year when people can be counted on to be their most generous, loving, aware of others in their community and just plain nicer. You don’t need to believe in a loving God to appreciate the importance of kindness, the value of charity, and the rewards of giving.

My hope is that this year, happiness is not measured by the size of the box or the price on the tag, but by the love behind it. We need to be giving each other kindness, acceptance, tolerance, a cup of soup, a coffee, a sandwich, an ear or an encouraging word. Things that cannot be bought in a store and have no expiration date. That is to say, they should last all year.