The Life in My Years

An anthology of life

Cora posed the question sometime during Thanksgiving weekend. It was the never before posed query that put normalcy into doubt.

“Are we getting a tree this year?”

She might just as well have asked if we planned on breathing.

I’d actually been asking myself the same question since the holiday season began, sometime back in October. That’s when it starts you know – October.

In commerce anyway.

If commerce demands that Christmas season starts in October then Christmas starts in October, damn it. Commerce drives everything, even the seasons. Nature may determine whether or not Christmas will be white but the chase for money dictates when the celebration begins and ends.

In August, before kids are even back in school, the water guns, bright tropical colored plastic dinnerware, pool toys and beach towels that didn’t sell in June and July are all headed back to a distribution center near Reno or some little town in the Central Valley. The lazy days of summer displays have been replaced by rubber masks, plastic Jack-o-lanterns and overpriced, undersized bags of mini Snickers bars. Make sure you grab your candy corn before the September rush or you might be shit out of luck on October 1st. Before the first Jack o lantern has been lit, the nasty lattes that taste of eggnog turned bad are being served up at Starbucks.

***

“Are we getting a tree?”

***

When have I ever questioned getting a tree?

Well, there was that time when I was sharing a house with my friend Scott. Two guys in our mid-twenties and far too cool to sanction Christmas, we scorned any notion of putting up a tree. We were bound to be curmudgeons to the core, until Abra and Danielle, the two sisters who were sharing the house with us, put up a tree and saved us from our own macho cantankerousness.

When I think about it now, I realize what a pair of damn fools we were.

***

I guess that deep down Cora and I knew as long ago as June that Christmas would be different this year. For six years our daughter Jessica and her two children, Jackson and Luciana, had been living with us. We celebrated the holidays with lights; with candies and frosted cookies and eggnog and peppermint stick ice cream; with carols; with a tree; with stockings hung by the chimney with care, or even haphazardly. Who cares? Just put up the damned stockings. Oh, and did we leave a snickerdoodle out for Santa? Can’t leave anything to chance.

Last summer, Jessica had finally saved up enough money to buy a home of her own. I was heartbroken when they got into that overloaded SUV and drove away.

The kids are gone.

Jessica and the kids would do Christmas morning at her house.

So why do Christmas?

It didn’t matter that they’re just 30 minutes away in Suisun City. The crazy, day to day excitement of kids in the house is gone.

***

Sometime during the long Thanksgiving weekend, after the food coma and indigestion have worn off, is when I normally put up the Christmas village and the outdoor lights, while Cora dots the house with some of the home decorations. All of that requires that I get on a ladder and pull boxes down from the overhead in the garage. The day after Thanksgiving is also the first day that Christmas carols are allowed within the domestic circle. The rule is hard and fast. There will be no “lords a leaping,” no “ladies dancing,” or any of those other white elephant, bullshit, Twelve Days of Christmas, gifts before the fourth Thursday of November.

This past Thanksgiving I passed on a visit to the overhead and the home remained carol-less.

***

“Are we getting a tree?”

Thanksgiving weekend is too early for us to get a tree so we decided to table the issue until mid-December.

***

Our own Christmas tree-gate would have no bearing on whether or not we would give gifts to the family. Barring a civil war within the clan, gift giving would never go away.

***

When it comes to buying gifts for the kids, Cora’s always been the practical one. You know, the no fun one. She’s been an accountant by trade so sober functionality is part of the package. She’s always bought clothes for our children and grandchildren. It’s always been on me to get real presents. You know, toys, games and sports equipment.

With Christmas closing in I needed to find a toy for five year old Zachary, the youngest of the grandchildren. Cora had already done her duty and bought the young man some clothes, but I couldn’t allow that to stand. I’m not going to be the grandparent who’s long remembered as the stodgy, pragmatic old bastard who couldn’t manage to get a five year old a toy.

Too late for Amazon, I headed out for a nearby Target. Target’s the only local alternative without going over the hills to Sun Valley Mall in Concord. Even then it’s doubtful that Sun Valley has a toy store. The shopping options have dried up like the old Christmas trees you see dumped by the roadside sometime after New Years.

At one time we had choices; Macy’s, Sears, JCPenney, Toys R Us, Jeffrey’s Toys, Barnes and Noble, and Emporium Capwell. They’re gone now, either shrunken to a few distant, scattered outlets or wiped from existence. We have Jeff Bezos’ scorched Earth business plan to thank for that.

I have to say that I miss mall shopping, even though it is a stressful slog held inside an artificially lit battleground. You could burn half a tank of gas in the traffic jam just getting off the freeway and in the ensuing search for a parking spot. There’s always the risk of getting shot in a two car duel over the last few square feet of concrete in the parking structure. Having survived the drive you arrive at the store to be jostled by harried shoppers while winding aimlessly through aisles of stuff and things, before finally settling on something, anything, that may or may not be the right size, color, or style. On to the checkout line that snakes back to some unseen far reaches of the store. Yet as trying as in person shopping can be, it is a personal thing. I’ve always found a perverse pleasure in hustling through a driving rain to get into the dry warmth of a crowded store in order to buy a couple of Hot Wheels cars and a board game.

Now you can get all your shopping done at your desk during lunch break. There’s no skin in that game, nothing tactile. In the end, online shopping is as impersonal and carries as much satisfaction as online porn (at least that’s what I’m told).

***

Shopping for Jessica was easy this year. She has a nice new house but it needs some DIY and TLC, so it was Ace Hardware gift cards for her.

My son Matt and his family would be another matter. This old man isn’t going to gamble on buying them clothes so since they’re foodies I went for a gourmet gift box that I would assemble myself.

The marketplace in San Francisco’s Ferry Building is a collection of shops that offers all manner of gourmet shit; wines, big ticket hooch, honey, olive oils, fancy overpriced crackers, posh coffees; ritzy handmade chocolates. At the Ferry Building you can charge more money on your Amex for a pound of cheese than a profligate congressman can run up on the defense budget.

I have to admit that walking through the brightly decorated halls, crowded with people all bundled up against the chilly bay wind, did put me in the holiday mood. I even considered a gingerbread latte until better judgement prevailed. The best holiday drink will always be eggnog with a healthy slug of whiskey. Hell, you can even hold the eggnog if you like.

***

In one of the early scenes in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol a charity worker tells Scrooge that many of London’s poor would rather die than go to a workhouse, Scrooge responds, “If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

The “surplus population.” Surplus is defined as “something that remains above what is used or needed.” Think about it; the population that remains above what is needed.

It’s not hard to spot “the surplus population,” in San Francisco.

Humping a big shopping bag, on my way back to the car, I met the tired, pleading eyes of the “surplus population”; an old man dressed in worn clothes.

“Sir, could you please spare a quarter. I haven’t had anything to eat today.”

A quarter. All he wanted was a fucking quarter. He certainly wasn’t aiming very high. I imagine that experience has taught him that low balling offers a better chance of scoring a handout of some sort.

Well, I didn’t have a quarter. I rarely carry change and even if I did, I wouldn’t have given the man a quarter.

I pulled out my wallet. There was a five, and without hesitation I handed him the bill. “Here’s a lot of quarters,” I said. He thanked me and held out the clasped hands of a prayer gesture.

I’m not loath to give money to someone living on the street. Doesn’t matter what time of year it is. Hunger, loneliness, the cold, the hard sidewalk; they don’t take spring break or summer vacation.

When Cora hands some needy old boy a couple bucks she adds the admonishment, “Don’t spend it on alcohol.”

I’m of a different mindset. I don’t lay out terms. I’ve never had to walk in the tattered shoes of the homeless and if a pint of Ten High is what gets a poor soul through the night, then that’s the way it is.

It was a ten minute walk to the car. On my way I passed other members of the “surplus population.” They were faceless mounds, huddled beneath grimy blankets, unfortunates with no recourse beyond a doorway for shelter.

At eleven in the morning the wind off the foggy bay cuts through a heavy coat. I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like at two in the morning.

We used to call them bums, hobos, vagrants or bag ladies. Those terms have been replaced by more “acceptable” sobriquets that don’t do a thing to alleviate the misery.

I don’t recall so much “surplus population,” when I was a kid. On those occasions when we passed a homeless man sleeping in a doorway my dad would mutter, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

The way I see it, if God had even a smidgen of grace, homelessness and empty belly, hollow eyed hunger wouldn’t be things.

I suppose that society’s unfortunates fare better during the holiday season. It’s when the bell ringers come out with their red kettles, and comfortable suburbanites pull out their checkbooks. At the grocery store, for an extra twenty bucks, you can buy a sack of groceries that will go to a needy family. That’s all well and good but I wonder if those bags ever make it to people living on the streets.

To the tourist bureaus and the chambers of commerce the “surplus population” represents a year round pariah. For politicians running for office, the “surplus population” provides convenient campaign fodder during the election cycle. They pose for photo ops in the Tenderloin in October, while promising to eliminate homelessness. After inauguration day they won’t be seen on seedy Eddy Street until the next election cycle.

We like to think of A Christmas Carol as a tale of redemption, and while it is that, Dickens’ wrote his novella in 1843 as a social commentary, a criticism of the treatment of England’s poor. One hundred and seventy nine years later A Christmas Carol is still relevant social commentary.

***

“Are we getting a tree?”

The question kept popping up and we dawdled on a decision. They call that kicking the can down the road. Maybe Cora and I should be in Congress. Kicking the can is the stock in trade of Congress. They kick cans with such regularity and self satisfied vigor that they need steel toed boots – metaphorically speaking.

***

I suggested taking a trip up north to Eureka to spend Christmas Day gazing up at the redwoods and out at the Pacific. A four day vacation was one way, albeit an expensive way, to get around the tree question.

I was scrolling through VRBO for a place to stay when my son called me to ask if he and his family could spend Christmas Eve, and do the Christmas morning gift giving at our house. Later we could all gather at his house for Christmas dinner.

Just like that, the tree debate was settled. You can’t do Christmas morning gifts without a tree. Cora and I were delighted. The question was changed to, “When should we get the tree?”

The following day I climbed up to the overhead, pulled the down the outdoor lights, followed my yearly tradition of consigning the colorful strands to the deepest bowels of hell as I worked out the tangles, and managed to get the house all lit up before the rains came. The transformation wasn’t complete. The village would remain in the overhead and not a single “Fa-la-la-la-la,” would fill the house until Cora and I decorated the tree that we bought at Home Depot on the 17th.

***

Forty years since it was just the two of us decorating a tree. Back then it was only our second Christmas together. It’s different when you’re thirty and Christmas together is as bright and pure as new snow. We’re on the back end now and the certainty of our lifelong traditions has been disturbed.

“It’s like we’ve come full circle, except we’re old,” I said to Cora as we sorted through the ornaments on what seemed an odd and lonely December evening.

***

Maybe we need a reset. New traditions.

Maybe we’re too old to embark on new traditions.

More than likely, we’ll just take it as it comes.

***

On the 20th, a 6.4 earthquake jolted the Eureka area. Guess it’s a good thing I didn’t make a reservation.

***

It wasn’t a bad Christmas.

Just odd.

We went out to dinner with friends on the 23rd and I ate an overly rich lamb shank.

My daughter hosted Christmas Eve and served slow roasted beef.

My son served prime rib for Christmas dinner.

It had been nearly two months since I’d had red meat. Sometime around 2 o’clock on the morning of the 26th my gut woke me up, demanding to know just what the fuck I was doing, while letting me know that there would be hell to pay. There was.

***

This year:

I didn’t watch one holiday movie.

Didn’t have a single sip of eggnog.

Didn’t crunch down on a candy cane.

Didn’t have one of those synthetic flavored holiday lattes.

It wasn’t a bad Christmas.

Christmas was just different.

20 thoughts on “Days of Christmas

  1. Kyung Lee says:

    Hi Paul, I’m sorry for the quake but am glad you and Cora missed it and are safe. I’m wishing you happy days of winter.
    Fondly,
    Kyung

    1. Paul says:

      Hi Kyung,
      Thank you so much. My son kindled Christmas for us so it all turned out for the best – except for the folks in Humboldt. Hope they are faring well. Wishing you and your daughter all the best.
      P

  2. I can understand the debate wether to get a tree or not, Paul (and Cora). But you are right: no morning gifts without a tree. And yes, times do change and one has to get used to certain differences. But that tree… just get one next year. 🙂

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Peter,
      I think that our Christmas tradition is to just roll with whatever the season brings. Thank you for reading and commenting. Wishing you a Happy New Year.
      Paul

  3. mistermuse says:

    I find it hard not to be cynical when I see the Elon Musks and Donald Trumps of the world spending mega dollars on their own egotistical pursuits while ignoring millions of their fellow human beings going hungry and/or homeless. What a difference such narcissists could make if they had just a fraction of your empathy. Alas, ’twas ever thus, and so we muddle on into another new year trying to keep hope alive while coping with more of the “same old, same old.”

    Sorry that this comment is such a downer, but as long as there is hope, all is not lost.

    1. Paul says:

      Mister M.
      Not a downer but simply the truth. You are certainly not alone in your analysis.
      “Alas, ’twas ever thus, and so we muddle on into another new year trying to keep hope alive while coping with more of the “same old, same old.”

      A friend of mine published a post about the song Someday at Christmas, and included the comment, “almost 60 years later, we are still fighting for peace, compassion, and equality …”
      https://www.edenbaylee.com/2022/12/19/someday-at-christmas-cover-by-lizzo-musicmonday/

      It seems to be the mission of Musk and Trump to make everyone’s journey through life a misery.

      Thank you for reading and commenting. Much appreciated.
      Paul

  4. jilldennison says:

    A beautiful, heartfelt and thoughtful post. Like you, I have a bit of trouble finding the ‘joy’ of Christmas when I know that so many don’t even have so much as a banana to eat. We put up a tree, did the presents, shared Christmas dinner with our friends, immigrants from Iraq, but I felt something was … missing. Something was just … off. It seems wrong to have so much when others have so little. I loved this post, loved the honesty, the thoughts you shared. Perhaps we can keep giving enough to try to make the world a little bit better place, despite the meanness in some, despite the greed in others. I wish you a Happy New Year and that next year will somehow be better for everyone.

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Jill,
      First, I apologize for the late response.

      One hundred and seventy nine years ago, Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, not as a simple yarn about Christmas or a tale of redemption, but as a commentary about the treatment of the poor and the homeless and the gap between the haves and the have nots. Not being a religious person, I find Dickens’ story to be a more relevant lesson on the real meaning of Christmas.

      Nearly two hundred years later, the homeless and the hungry still struggle and the gap has become a canyon.

      We have a whole raft of Scrooges but they have different names; Trump, Musk, Bezos. I wonder if they’ll find redemption

      Thank you so much for reading and for you kind and thoughtful words.
      Paul

  5. nesfelicio says:

    Very well written post (as always).
    Somehow you got the message of Christmas through, in a very human way.

    1. Paul says:

      Thank you so much.
      That was my own Christmas message of course. People regard Christmas in so many different ways. Maybe part of my message is that the way we do regard it changes over the years.
      Thank you again,
      Paul

  6. Toonsarah says:

    Yes, Christmas evolves over the years. We’ve never had kids and until recently rarely had Christmas at home – we alternated visits to my fairly local family with an overnight stay, with trips to my husband’s parents 300 miles away for a week-long visit. Now our parents are all gone and my husband has no close family, so Christmas Day is spent with my sister and her grown-up sons, neither of whom (yet) have kids. It’s a very adult affair of moderate gifting and immoderate eating and drinking, But very enjoyable in its way. No doubt it will evolve again when great nephews and nieces (perhaps) come along 🙂

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Sarah,
      I guess that I’ve been ignoring (denying?) the fact that traditions evolve. Silly really. After all, I’ve taken some of my parents traditions and tweaked them to suit our own lives. Tweaked some so that my parents’ traditions aren’t even recognizable.

      My children have adopted some of our traditions, melded them with those of their spouses’ families, added some element of their own and have created traditions that over time will evolve.

      Can’t argue with immoderate eating and drinking.

      Happy New year to you and your husband.
      Paul

    1. Paul says:

      Thank you.

  7. robinwinter says:

    We’re in the same state of not quite being sure what our traditions are or should be. The kid’s on the East Coast and has very little time for leave. I take my credit card ‘bonus’ points and buy gift cards, IHOP, Burger King, Subway, Chipotle; and these are what I hand out to the homeless. But I agree, there are a lot more unhoused than there used to be, and the ways to stay paid up and sheltered are harder and harder. Thank you for handing over the five. It makes a difference. So too, as a friend of mine who works with the homeless said, a warmth is made by meeting a person’s eyes and seeing them as more like you than not, however much more difficult their circumstances. A happy healthy new year to you and yours, and thank you for your thoughtful posts.

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Robin,
      The gift card idea is brilliant. Fast food isn’t the best food, but it’s warm, fills the belly and can soothe the soul, even if only for a few hours. I know that I have plenty of bonus points available and I can’t think of a better way to put them to use.

      I told my wife about your suggestion and she’s going to be using the bonus points from her credit card.

      You’ve inspired two people. Thank you for that.

      Thank you for reading and for the kind words.

      Paul

  8. stacey says:

    Christmas is kinda in the mind, like anything else, for me. Definitely had to be “prodded” to put up our little tree this year, and some inspiration from various blogs. Funny thing–last year I didn’t see any holiday movies or have eggnog. This year I did both. We lived opposite x-mas lives, lol. Glad it turned out good. Happy new year!

    1. Paul says:

      Hi Stacey,
      I have to admit that I wavered on the eggnog.
      Thank you for reading and commenting
      Paul

  9. My goodness! Where did the month go? Hope you are having a good New Year… Cheers, Muriel

    1. Paul says:

      Hi Muriel, I guess the month went to join all the others.
      The year is better now that we’re drying out.
      A happy new year to you.
      Paul

Would love to hear from you

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