Monday, December 14, 2009

Christmas 'Coaster

The work is nearly over and the fun part of the ride is about to begin.

It was a stressful weekend of shopping, cleaning, and reorganizing, the nerveracking clink-clink-clink of the chain pulling my little rollercoaster car seemingly straight in the sky. With the Christmas parties of Friday and Saturday night, I could begin to see where the track appeared to end, curving out of sight into a plummet downward. As I cruised home from my grandparents on Sunday night, I felt that brief moment of weightless joy as the climb has ended, just before the pull of gravity snatches you back to Earth. Coming back from a nice visit with my family, I felt a sentimental rush and sensed perhaps for the first time that the holiday season was actually here all around me, no longer an idea in my mind or a series of notes on the calendar. Even though I was in my car alone, speeding down the freeway, I felt that rare, joyous sense of being in the moment.

I think it started on Saturday when we were cleaning out the office, clearing room for Bill Brasky and Sarah to sleep when they arrive this week. I opened the bottom cupboard of my bookcase for the first time in at least two years and began going through old photos and letters. Nothing like sifting through the past to remind you of how far you've come and all the places you've been. I read letters from my friend Adam he sent me while he was in on his mission in Japan and I was away at school. Reading these letters he wrote when he was probably only nineteen, he already had a clear sense of direction and purpose, saying how he wanted to practice law and join the Navy. Ten years later, that's exactly what he's doing today. I found letters from an old girlfriend. It's always amazing to me to see these little time capsules, these expressions of love that was so true at the time, but seems so odd when seen in the context of the present circumstances. I, of course, am happily married. She is married and has a daughter. It's a simple concept, I guess, that people love for a time and then things happen, you move on and find your ultimate happiness with someone else. But it's always amazing to me how it happens. I felt like Ebenezer Scrooge viewing my memories large as life through a pane of snow-frosted glass. One second you are there again and then the window turns dark and you are standing in the cold with a ghost. That sounds much more grim than I mean it to. There was no sadness involved at all. Obviously, things turned out for the best and I wouldn't trade it for the world. My point is just to say how interesting it is how our lives truly are journeys, how what we know to be true today can change so drastically by tomorrow, and what an odd sensation it is to flip open the book of this journey and find yourself a hundred pages back, just like that. It's also fascinating to me how old letters can occur to you as new information. I found one letter from the old girlfriend where I guess we had had a fight and she was apologizing, but standing firm on the her request that had apparently started the whole thing. And what was this request by which I was apparently so offended and opposed? To set aside time for us to go on a date just the two of us...once a month! What nerve!, right? Oy. Don't you just look back at yourself sometimes and just shake your head about what an idiot you were? The solace, of course, comes when you realize you can't know anything without learning it first and that the mistakes of the past have only paved the way for a better future. So Nicole(2), my bride, the next time you trip over one of my many faults, just be thankful you didn't meet me earlier!

I read letters from my mom when she was living in Italy as part of her training. In one letter she referenced where I could stay when I came to visit and some of the things we might do when I was there. I was surprised by this because I don't recall ever entertaining any idea of going to visit, which I am sure I didn't. Who knows, the young punk me probably thought he didn't want to stay with a bunch of priests. I'll give myself a slight break though in that I had never traveled to Europe at that point and barely had money to grab a burger and a beer so the whole idea probably just seemed unreal to me. In every letter from my mom, whether she was telling me about her experiences in Rome or her realization that she was finally in the right place in her life, one phrase common to every letter was to say "write me." I felt my heart sink a little bit, realizing if she kept telling me to write her, it was likely that I had not. As fate would have it, she called me later that day and I was able to apologize for being a self-centered twenty-year-old. Luckily, she had not been holding a grudge.

Perhaps the most meaningful experience of the whole process was reading letters and cards from my late grandmother, on my dad's side. Of course our passed loved ones remain alive in our hearts, but to see her handwriting and hear her words in my head...she was alive again. It was as if I had just pulled these letters not from a dusty box on a shelf, but from the mailbox out front. I laughed as I was reminded how she would go on telling me all about the lives of her old friends or coworkers, people I had and would never meet. I will say, I was more able now to discern the point she was trying to make, but it was more about reliving the little quirks that made my Nana unique. As more of the new information from old letters I referred to earlier, I learned or was reminded that my grandpa on my mom's side had gone to visit her in the hospital before she died. They had probably not seen each other since my parents divorced some seventeen years before so this gesture really choked me up for a moment. This was a feeling that would carry over to my visit on Sunday and have my heart feeling so full on the drive home Sunday night.

It's the sensation of looking at people you've loved and held on a pedastal for so many years and suddenly, amazingly, you see them in a new light and you realize you love them even more than you thought you did.

I had a really nice visit while I was down there, my last chance before Christmas. I felt like I was able to not only enjoy the company of my family, but also to express to them how much I loved them, if only by being fully present and staying as long as I could. After spending so much time on Saturday revisiting the past and its inevitable regrets, I appreciated the present all the more. In the moment--it's a great place to be. No idea how to get to it, nor how to stay, but you sure know it when you are there.

This is what the holidays are all about for me, a reaffirmation of all that is good in life, the people that are most important, and all the ways in which I am blessed. Okay, that and egg nog. And mulled wine. And cookies and other sweet indulgences. So to recap, that's a egg nog, mulled wine, cookies, various other sweet indulgences, and a reaffirmation of all that is good in life. Done and done.

Now the coaster begins to point downward and the ride really begins. Bill Brasky arrives tomorrow night. Hanging with the guys all week leading up to Kissen's wedding on Saturday. Disneyland(!) Sunday. Off to Denver on Tuesday. Ice skating, gift wrapping, dogsledding, stew-cooking, family, family, family. It's Christmas at last! This is me, arms in the air, ready to scream my head off the whole ride through.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Christmas In My Head (Now here's a wall so you can bang yours against it)

December is finally here! Amen. Do you know what this means? It means the advent calendar is now more than decoration! It's in use, baby! It means the lighting of the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center! Perhaps above all else, it means I don't have to hear it anymore from the "Christmas music, already?" crowd. Those sad sack, anti-Christmas Eeyores have finally run out of material to moan about. Nothing can stop me now!

One reason I start early every year is that there is so little time actually available to do all the holiday-related things I want to do each year. Every year I think of baking all day one day, seeing a million movies, making people gifts, writing out Christmas cards, writing out Christmas letters, visiting friends and family, curling up with Mr. Frodo and a good book, playing boardgames, taking a trip up to the mountains, going to Disneyland, decorating the tree, having a Christmas cocktail party, going caroling, volunteering at a soup kitchen, exercising to offset the holiday gluttony, chopping wood, going to Starbucks for seasonal delights, strolling the beautifully decorated canals of Belmont Shore...I seriously could go on. The problem is I lose 40 hours a week to fluorescent lighting and paper pushing. Other than the three paltry weekends that fill up around Halloween, I am forced to fulfill my Christmas checklist through fantasy, daydreaming if you will. This, my friends, is why I decorate the office and play Christmas music with two weeks until Thanksgiving, because I need audio/visual aids. I sometimes wonder if I sometimes had the free time to do all the things I'd like to in a holiday season if I wouldn't explode. In the wise words of the immortal Clark W. Griswold, Jr., I might be the jolliest asshole this side of the nuthouse, needing plastic surgery to remove my smile. Man would it be sweet. Of course there is one crucial element of that list that absolutely cannot be spared nor can it, unfortunately, be daydreamed

I love Christmas shopping as long as 1) I have ample time so that I can go at an enjoyable pace and 2) I have a list to work from that I feel confident about. In other words, almost never. And that is what creates the darker side of Christmas in my head. As Kory or Adam or actually almost any friend can attest, I am chronically indecisive. I think about things way more than they usually merit. I hem and haw about which jeans to wear each day. I agonize over what to have for lunch. When it comes to something as meaningful as giving Christmas gifts, I fall victim to paralysis by analysis year after year after year. I think that's nice...but would they really like it? I don't know.....Do they already have one? I don't know if when they open this it will mean to them what it means to me to give it to them. I could explain it I guess, but how good a gift could it be if I have to explain it? Should I just go with a gift card? No, I refuse. Should I ask so-and-so what they want since they probably know? That's just giving up. What about this, this seems like them. But is it personal enough or does it scream "work gift being re-gifted?" Is it wrong to give Christmas stuff as Christmas gifts? I guess it might be since they don't open it until the pinnacle of the season. What about tickets to something? Then they'll think I'm implying that they have to take me and will not believe me even if I swear otherwise. I got it! That would be perfect! Boo-ya! Shit, I can't really afford that. You know what, the budget is a guideline. This is the gift and the cost is secondary. Although I think so-and-so is bound to be getting them that. What if they like the one from me better and it causes friction in their relationship. Better play it safe and abort. Screw it, I can't make a good decision in this hypertensive state. I'll sleep on it and start fresh tomorrow.

Every. Single. Time.

It really saps my Christmas spirit, I tell ya. Friends, please know this, if I ever give you a gift that you don't like, it is not for a lack of care or thought. If it truly is the thought that counts, chances are, it's the greatest gift in the world even if your taste says otherwise.

P.S. Which Christmas album should I get, Tony Bennett, Diana Krall, or Neil Diamond? I can't make these choices on my own.