Christmas Isn’t a Bad Boyfriend

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I was in line behind a woman tightly wrapped in a Christmas sweater; strained eyes, pale face, the dry lips of a slightly manic and dehydrated overachiever. Panting ever-so-slightly, she hugged a packaged I-Pad to her chest and with an edge of madness, leaned in as if we were trench mates and announced triumphantly, “I got it! The last one! Thank God, cause I swear he’d flat out kill me if I didn’t get him one for Christmas!”

And there it was.

Christmas as a Bad Boyfriend.

Think about it. It’s an apt metaphor:

  1. Endless demands made and you best meet them if you know what’s good for you.
  2. He likes you in a certain mode of dress (that sweater, those ornament earrings!) and it doesn’t matter how you feel about it.
  3. The house better look “the way it’s supposed to!” (get those decorations up!).
  4. Preferred music (“Deck the halls with….”) loops endlessly for his listening pleasure.
  5. There’s a clear presumption of copious gift giving and general fawning attention (make sure those cards go out!).
  6. The list of favored food and drink is long and laborious.
  7. Much emphasis on “PAR-TAY!!!”
  8. Regardless of attempts to keep things calorically moderated, rich food is the order of the day.
  9. The big gut is pretty hard to miss.
  10. You must stay cheerful regardless of mood or exhaustion.
  11. No reciprocal demands are accepted.
  12. And of course, you clean up the mess after he’s done.
  13. Merry effin’ Christmas, baby.

Yeah…right back at’cha.

Face it, we do have a complicated relationship with this holiday. A love/hate conundrum. There’s grousing when public decorations come out seconds after the turkey carcass is in the can but there’s a skip in our step when we head to the mall for that first holiday visit. We complain about all the commercialization and consumerism, but there is no more energy or passion exuded than when shoppers get together to share Christmas deals they’ve found! The gift and task list is pages long, the depth of obligation grows larger every year and for religious folk the balance between sacred and secular is an ongoing challenge. And yet…if we had to admit it, there’s something kind of spirited about the whole exercise, isn’t there?

Oddly contradictory. Here’s my theory:

Quantum physics tells us time is an illusion. OK. Explanations of that theorem make my head explode but let’s go with that for the moment. Time is an illusion and over the eons of human existence, it became clear that without time management, people meandered; lost track not only of the aging process but the approximate moment to eschew summer whites. So wise ones who understood both science and human nature came up with the calendar, that corralling of time based on astronomy. We named time (months, days), we partitioned it off (years); part of time became the past, part was the future. The stuff in the middle, the present, was where we lived. Very organized stuff.

king_olav_at_christmasKing Olav @ Christmas

Since part of the mission statement of calendaring was to give structure and meaning to this passage of elusive time, one of the ways this was achieved was by marked events: traditions, holidays, cyclical rituals, those anointed and completely arbitrary moments we celebrate at designated points of the calendar. There have been many and they’ve changed and evolved over the centuries; some giving way to others, new ones occasionally popping up (love it though I do, is National Peanut Butter & Jelly Day really necessary?!).  The importance of these rituals and traditions was ascribed to their function of connecting communities, honoring days, people and historical events we deemed special; ceremony and circumstance anticipated and enjoyed by the collective. They marked the passage of life, rendered it meaningful, and, frankly, gave us reason to dress up in hats. We humans seem to appreciate that.

Certainly Christmas has been the most enduring of these time markers. Year after year it comes with its long, fluid, history – often debated and certainly controversial – and it remains one of the most pivotal shared events in the world. Celebrated with mind-boggling variety, and despite the baggage it carries (including its manipulation as a weapon in the cultural, political, religious “wars” (see No, Virginia, There’s No War On Christmas), it is quite universally beloved. It is also, in more contemporary times, unfortunately resented as well.

Christmas as a Bad Boyfriend.

It seems that the growing commercialization of Christmas has succeeded in corrupting its aura in ways that make the aforementioned metaphor convincing. But, frankly, this phenomenon is wholly avoidable. If you were my friend sitting at the table sobbing about your BB, all “what should I dooooooooo? He’s so mean but I LOVE him!!” I’d say the same things I’m going to say right now. So quiet down, take off that goofy mistletoe scarf and listen up.

You cannot be taken advantage of unless you allow it. That goes for Christmas as well. There is not one person on this earth who can blame anyone but themselves if Christmas has gone all BB on them. It’s a choice. Just as we’re taught to set our boundaries, hold our ground, and stand firm against unrealistic expectations in other relationships (needy friends, ex-spouses, PTA), we are capable of taking the same stance with this holiday. We can either design one that makes sense or succumb to the party line. You can either assess your ability to participate and move forward accordingly or you can capitulate to the commercial madness. Your call. It’s doable. If I can wrangle Christmas, anyone can. Here’s my Seven Commandments of Christmas, for what it’s worth:

  1. Only entertain if you enjoy it. I promise, no one will notice if you don’t. Entertain, that is.
  2. Attend business parties as needed but do your networking in the first hour so you can leave before smarmy mailroom guy or the new temp start hitting on you.
  3. Stick to crudité and avoid heavy drinking. Minimal weight gain and a consistent lack of vomiting go a long way toward a more enjoyable holiday.
  4. Decorate only when, and as much, as you like…and only with items that actually have appeal. Blow-up plastic Santas and those hideous front lawn snowmen are unnecessary and considered blight in some circles.
  5. Don’t be browbeaten into sending paper holiday cards. It’s a new world. A well-designed e-card sent with love and a sweet note is not only acceptable, it’ll keep a few thousand redwoods above ground and save you hundreds.
  6. Don’t travel unless you want to and can afford it. Both must apply. Obligation to fly the hell all over the place at the busiest and more stressful time of the year becomes counterproductive to holiday cheer. You can just as easily visit family on non-holidays and give yourselves permission to stay put. Or suggest – if you’re so inclined – they come to you. And remember that Skype makes face-to-face holiday visits doable without breaking the bank or your sanity.
  7. The deal breaker: GET VERY SELECTIVE ABOUT YOUR GIFT-GIVING. The mindless and burdensome expectation of “gifts all around!” is a Kool-Aid too many have partaken of year after year and there is no one single thing more responsible for the fear and loathing of Christmas. We max out our credit cards, drive ourselves crazy “finding the right thing” for people who need nothing, we overdo with children who are so bombarded they have no idea what to play with next. We gut-churn over not giving a gift as expensive as the one we got, feel guilty if we accept a gift when we did not give one, and the whole ridiculous exercise becomes as antithetical to Christmas as the Black Friday nut job who pepper-sprayed her way to a video game and or the frothing shoppers stepping over a dead man to get to the sales table. STOP THE MADNESS! This is NOT what it’s about. (And who but a Bad Boyfriend could’ve ever come up with Black Friday?)

I can already hear my sobbing friend caterwauling about how Bad Boyfriend will never stand for all that self-preserving, boundaried, sensible limitation. So a little primer about how that goes; make note for next year:

Long before the holidays roll in, make a decision about who in your family or circle of friends you’ll be buying gifts for. A short list. Then write a warm, loving email and send it to EVERYONE involved announcing your decision. Something along the lines of “In our effort to keep the Holidays as stress-free and financially manageable as possible, we’ve decided to limit our gift-giving to ___________ (i.e., Mom  & Dad, the kids in the family, etc.). We hope you understand and, of course, ask that you not send gifts to us. Cookies, however, are always welcome!”  As I said, this must be done long before the normal shopping season starts so no one gets huffy about jumping the gift-giving gun. Be prepared for some grumbling and criticism but hold firm. Over time and years of sticking to the program, the family will GET that you’re serious and eventually come to appreciate the reciprocal unburdening. But remember: even if someone violates the request and sends gifts, thank them but DO NOT change your policy. Ever. Break once and BB is right back, snapping his fingers, big gut resting on the table, wondering where the carols are and why isn’t the prime rib ready?

family-gathering

I love my friends, I love my family; I appreciate and respect my colleagues, associates and collaborators. And when the holidays roll around, I look forward to the rituals and traditions that make this time of year different from the rest; that marking of elusive time that comes with revelry, cheer and reciprocated appreciation. I get out the favorite decorations and make my Greek cookies. I acknowledge the holidays with artistic notes, maybe an open house, a holiday dinner with close friends, certainly those wonderful family gatherings where we simply enjoy being together, sharing a good meal and watching our select few open their gifts. It’s lovely; manageable, affordable, and there’s no weeping.

Just as a Good Holiday should be.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and a really fabulous 2012 to you all!

Photography credits:

Christmas mannequin by Buzz Andersen @ Unsplash
Santa Gnome reprinted from www.timswineblog.com
King Olav illustration reprinted from www.gutenberg.org
Bad Boyfriend Doll: www.amazon.co.uk 
Candle and all family photos courtesy of Lorraine Devon Wilke

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

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Grateful For Life, The Meal We All Share

The year was 1980-something, don’t remember. The hair was spiked (platinum blonde, dark shaved sides with pink and/or blue braids), the clothes were black everything except for splashes of belts and bracelets and the tonnage of costume jewelry from the Mildred Bohlman collection, courtesy of her daughter and my friend, Tina Romanus. (“Yes, you can wear rhinestone earrings to breakfast!” I once insisted to a more conservative friend in plaid and small posts.) I was a singer in a rock and roll band, skinny as a stick at the time (yogurt and Diet Pepsi the only sustenance in my fridge on a predictable basis) and rarely, if ever, was I well fed, usually broke and always on a diet or on forskolin pills. Food had become the “beloved enemy,” necessary nourishment yet persistent obstacle. I had a manager, a mentor, and a band leader tell me at various times in my career that I needed to lose weight if I wanted to be a star. Hungrier for success than fatty foods, I did what I had to do. Then came Thanksgiving.

I had not been home for Thanksgiving in years and for whatever reason, perhaps starvation, I decided this was the year. I was skinny enough to take a chance on a full meal and though the time since childhood and its forgiving palate left me unable to recall if my Mom actually was a good cook, surely she was decent-enough for the auspicious occasion of the Thanksgiving meal. I had warm memories of huge, golden turkeys fresh out of the oven and the requisite high-carb sides that accompanied it proudly and without question: mashed potatoes, yams, stuffing, homemade biscuits, bubbling gravy…the whole shebang. Worth every bloody ounce…pound…I was sure to gain. I booked the ticket, alerted the family, and began to count the days.

My band had a gig the week before my departure and as I stood after the show chattering excitedly about heading home “next week,” one of my bandmates looked at me incredulously and said, “You do know Thanksgiving’s tomorrow, right?” WHAT?? No, I did NOT! I rushed to the calendar hanging in the club office and FOR GOD’S SAKE, HE WAS RIGHT!! For some reason I’d always assumed Thanksgiving was the last Thursday of November and had booked accordingly. But no, it’s the fourth (4th!) Thursday of November and this particular November, whatever year it was, had five freakin’ Thursdays! I could barely contain my panic but I was going to have that damn Thanksgiving dinner come hell, high water, or a $500 last minute ticket change!

A hysterical late-night wrangle with credit cards and flight reservation desks got me that very expensive ticket to Chicago early the next morning, which wiped out my available credit but would surely be worth the drain. My flight got me in about an hour before dinner, my brother picked me up at O’Hare and whisked me to a warm and inviting home that was jam-packed with more people than I’d shared a table with since I…well, left home! Cheers at my arrival were heartening and as my Mom and various siblings got platters out to the table and I waited in anticipation for the entrance of the bubbling brown turkey, my Mom leaned over and in a conspiratorial tone whispered, “Your Dad and I finally figured out how to make Thanksgiving less stressful. We cooked the turkey last week, sliced it, froze it, then all we had to do today was give each plate a dollop of Campbell’s gravy and a quick zap in the microwave…what could be easier??” she chortled triumphantly.

My heart would have dropped to my grumbling stomach had it been unclenched enough to accommodate it.

I was stunned, speechless, barely heard a word as she continued her perky litany of stress-busting miracles inclusive of “do you realize how much time was saved by not peeling potatoes?” (not necessary when Betty Crocker Potato Buds are handy!) and “Campbell’s gravy is just as good and doesn’t get lumpy!” or “I actually hate the taste of real cranberries!” So between potato buds, canned gravy, canned yams, canned cranberry sauce (why do they call that sauce?), bagged dinner rolls and canned bean casserole, we had a Thanksgiving meal so processed it should have had its own bar code. Suffice it to say, this pseudo Swanson TV dinner put my food fantasy to rest before the blessing even commenced but there was not a soul there besides me who seemed the least bit bothered. Perhaps it was the starvation. Or maybe my palate had already turned after a few years in California.

family-of-9

But at some point I looked up from my meager provisions (the canned yams with the melted marshmallows weren’t half-bad) and took in the tableau surrounding me. My parents, laughing and engaged; most of my 10 sibs, various spouses and children, a few friends here and there; the music was playing, the volume was loud, and the cheer – well, the cheer was loud, too. It was a wild group and there was lots of laughter and I felt like…I belonged. Despite the cuisine fail, there was a rush of recognition that here I was, in my family home, surrounded by people I loved who loved me back. I didn’t have to explain myself, we spoke the same language (well, most of us!) and regardless of differences, debates and family of origin debacles (of which there were many), this was a group of wonderful people with whom I’d shared my life and would always have a tremendous bond. And besides, though the bread we were breaking together was processed white rolls from Safeway, we were a group that knew how to PAR-TAY…priceless! Because that, after all, was the point of the thing. Being with people who matter. I went back skinnier than I left (unexpected bonus!) and with a renewed attachment to my history. The buzz lasted a while, though my mother was forever off the go-to roster of Thanksgiving chefs!

Which leads to my, perhaps, more meaningful thoughts about this holiday:

Life is short. Or it’s long, depending on how you look at it. And despite economic woes, global unrest, famine, war, pepper spray, clueless politicians, joblessness, the Phelps family, bigotry, hate and Kim Kardashian (OK, that was just mean!), there is still so much to be grateful for. And we all know it. We just have to pay attention. And what most of us are most grateful for are the people in our lives; the circle of wagons that curls around us like a great, protective huddle. And these people for whom we are so grateful, who carry the key to our joy, these people need to know how we feel. Today or tomorrow at the latest, but don’t wait much past that; don’t wait until you forgot what you wanted to say, don’t presume “they know anyway,” and certainly don’t put it off until the only moment left is the memorial speech at their funeral. Yeah, that’s too late.

I had occasion in the last year to hear of two different families, one in which two sisters haven’t spoken to each other in years at the insistence of one and the complete mystery of the other. Despite entreaties from the clueless one, the sister perpetuating the estrangement rejects any attempts at rapprochement and has announced this is forever irresolvable. And it probably will be. Two sisters split over something unknown and likely very minor. Tragic in the scheme of things. In the other situation, schisms over financial matters poorly handled by one have split a family, likely beyond repair and, once again, what was once a warm, loving group has been fractured due to unspoken resentments and unreconciled shame and confusion. In both cases I wanted to scream to whomever was the hold out, “THIS IS A WASTE OF LIFE! This is your sister/brother/father/daughter/etc. and time will sweep by without notice and all this petty bullshit, this righteous anger, won’t matter a bit when a death bed is involved and life is no longer an option to waste. Fix it! Figure it out! It’s important.”

A friend once told me (poignantly, just prior to discovering she had terminal cancer) how useful it was to live every day as if you knew it was your last. Macabre, perhaps, but it also made sense. Say it all, she said, say it now. Be sure there’s nothing left unresolved. Send the letter, make the apology, breach the gap, smooth the rift; solve the schism. Say all the admiring things you’d want to say at that memorial service but say them while the person is still standing in front of you. Make their lunch. Make their bed. Make their day. Buy, read and make comment on their book. CD. Fashion line. Business plan. Go to their play. Cheer at their baseball game. “Like” their page. Respond to their emails. Listen on the phone while doing nothing else. Do something unexpected to show your gratitude. Don’t make presumptions about “I have lots of time.” You don’t. Time can slip away and sometimes disappear without a warning.

I thought this was good advice. I’ve tried to live by it as best I can. Though I still do clean the house when I’m on the phone!

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays because other than the iconic meal we either do or don’t have depending on our own traditions and palates, its only purpose is to acknowledge and celebrate gratitude. Whatever its history, whatever its traditions and origins, its purest, most salient element is the simple celebration of gratefulness. What a sweet mission statement! And so in my family we not only do make the traditional meal (and I’ve been told no one does it better! :), but we take a moment at some point during that meal to go around the table as each of us verbally expresses what we’re most grateful for. I always look forward to the surprises that sometimes come in those revelations.

As for me, what I’m most grateful for? My husband and son, top of any list; my beautiful stepdaughter, her Grace and the rest of her family, inclusive of wonderful in-laws who’ve become part of our family as well (how amazing is that?!). My eclectic and soulful siblings, mother and extended family of wildly talented nieces and nephews; my incredible and colorful roster of friends, good health (so important), the beauty of the world and my ability to capture it. My writing and the buzz I get from doing and sharing it with those who read it and join me in the conversation.

Those are the broad strokes, you can fill in the fine points.

Mostly I’m grateful for LIFE, the meal we all share. Good, bad and in between. There’s something deeply exhilarating about an adventure where every single day you get to wake up and have a new shot at it. How exciting is that? So thank you, all of you who are part of my adventure. I’m glad you’re here. Stick around. Me?  I gotta go start the pies, the potatoes need peeling and the turkey is on the grill for a long, time-sucking 4 hours. I promise, we’re eatin’ good tonight!

HAPPY THANKSGIVING, EVERYONE!

All photos courtesy of Lorraine Devon Wilke

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.