Tag Archives: holiday

Bah Humbug… sorta

Sad christmas tree

For whatever reason, this year has been more difficult than ever for me to generate what might be considered by some as even minimal holiday spirit. Despite even my conscious efforts to find a spidgen of peace on Earth and goodwill to men, it has been an insurmountable chore. While the street lights and stop lights brink bright red and green, I sincerely want to rush home and hide under an accommodating blanket or possibly a piece of furniture until spring.

What is wrong with me?!? It’s the most wonderful time of the year. I heard them say so. Why don’t I get a glow and feel something akin to cheer? Have I actually turned into the archetype of workaholic miser with a cynical eye to every observed merriment? And what is a humbug anyway?

Well, that one, I actually know. The phrase so glibly thrown about now as a reflection on Dicken’s miserly antihero was apparently a common euphemism of the Victorian era. It meant something silly and not real, something told or used to fool the children and the credulous. It is a con, a hoax, or someone who participates in the same… wait, I think I recognize this…

You know, perhaps I have turned into Ebeneezer as more of my holidays have been filled with thoughts of what I no longer have in place of anticipation of what is to come. Is that why my heart has shrunk three sizes?

As much as I might resist, I have to admit that my thoughts have been a bit more grim this season. I’ve been drawn into ruminations and dread about finances. I want to kick the advertisers who convince the unsuspecting public to spend more than they can afford just to ensure that their loved ones continue to love them. When did we become so focused on spending instead of just giving? When did giving become entirely about your bank account instead of your heart?

In my efforts to get in a more festive mood, I actually thought that watching some of the offered entertainment options might inspire. I found myself becoming more and more disgruntled with the options. As much as I can appreciate the points behind the stories, it still seemed to me that the miracles, changes of heart, and general epiphanies towards goodness involved materialistic concerns. All the stories seemed to revolve around money and buying things or giving things back. It was still about THINGS and the stuff you use to buy THINGS. I get it. Honestly. Most of these tales are trying to show that being a miserly old @#$% leads to bitterness and unhappiness and the season of giving lightens burdens and brightens spirits… and really? It still sounded like you have to either spend money or get money to have all that joy stuff they exhibit accompanied by an orchestra.

I really don’t mean to be a sour puss. I just wanted someone, somewhere to show me that being happy and enjoying the season doesn’t require emptying my bank account or melting my credit cards.

Then I remembered one movie. It was always a favorite of mine: White Christmas. At least in that movie, the gift wasn’t about material goods. It was about getting people together who shared important times in their lives. It was about friends and family having a good time and showing respect for each other. It was about remembering good people and being there for them when they felt they had lost their purpose and usefulness. It was cheesy and sappy and it wasn’t about the most expensive gift. The emphasis was about spending time with the people who matter, not spending money on the stuff that doesn’t. So much of what the holidays bring to me in recent years is memory of people who are no longer here. It seems that as the years go by the gatherings of loved ones dwindle and the responsibilities, obligations, and things pile up.

I sincerely don’t believe that we need things in our lives to be happy or feel loved. I know that there are people out there in the world who don’t have even the bare necessities of living, and that doesn’t only occur once per year. My wish for this holiday season is that maybe, somehow all of us can recapture some of what we’ve have lost over the years. Maybe there can be peace and goodwill to all with enjoyment of what we have rather than a focus on what we want but don’t need. And take that generosity and goodwill with you through the whole year, not just a season. Giving should be something we do all year round, and it shouldn’t be limited to money. Give your time. Give your talent. Take a moment to enjoy those who share your life. Memories last longer than things…

Real Plastic Snow, and Other Holiday Traditions

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It was November when we stepped off a very long flight from Houston, Texas. When, I managed to get my bearings, my first thought was… Brrrrrr and then, Um, I thought they always said this was a desert.

To say that the weather was dreary was a tad understated. It was raining, and while Houston had included me wearing shorts and t-shirt sleeves, I was really wishing at this point that we hadn’t packed away winter clothing. Seriously… I swear they said it was a desert. However, my excitement about a new adventure almost overrode the jetlag and general psychological dissonance that Saudi Arabia was not sunny with palm trees and sand dunes like all the artwork I’d seen in the bibles and the Tales of the Arabian Nights floating around various family abodes in my youth. Aside from the shock that it just didn’t look the way I expected, I suppose it answered pretty well for an adventure. It looked in all other ways very different than where we’d started the journey.

It was beige. I don’t mean a little bit here and there. I mean it was varying degrees of a tan color that embraced buildings and surrounding land. It was also flat. Coming from mid-Atlantic United States and the Appalachian territory, I was more used to hills and green. This was another clue that we were no longer in Kansas… or in our case Tennessee.

We crossed the wet tarmac with spots of standing water… I swear they said desert… and made our way into the immigration and customs hall. I don’t recall a whole lot else. I possibly wrenched a neck muscle trying to take everything in, but for the most part, it was all a blur. Once we were through the technicalities of visas and luggage search for contraband, we made our way to receiving where our employee liaison met us and escorted us to our temporary lodgings. It was called the Babtain Building. I think it was originally built to encourage the Bedouin to come to the town/city and forgo their nomadic lifestyle. It went over about as you might imagine. The indigenous tribes of nomads were quite pleased with life as it was (thank you very much) and the very nice accommodations remained empty. This is how we came to be living in what would probably cost in the 4-digit pricetag in any city in the United States: Fully furnished with a full bath, huge tub, marble floors, full kitchen and two bedrooms with very high ceilings… and completely alien. The fixtures were European (and the bathroom included a bidet). I might also say that the elevator was an adventure in itself, since it frequently wanted to stop between floors. I thought it was a hoot. My parents were quite as impressed. Additionally, we were smack in the middle of Al Khobar. Talk about your culture shock. Our guide did take us around to local markets and out to eat at what was soon to become one of my favorite restaurants, The Gulf Royal Chinese Restaurant (home of the best hot and sour soup, EVER).

Returning home, I was excited. This was an adventure to me. The company had provided a box of basic supplies to start us off until we could do some shopping (though, to this day, I always wondered if the Campbell’s Cream of Asparagus soup was some sort of hazing ritual). I was exhausted and despite the jetlag, I found myself falling into bed… only to wake up to the sounds of what I knew to be crying. My mum. Unused to the marble and amazing carrying power of sound through the apartment, she thought she had escaped to cry in the solitude of the amazing bathroom. But I heard. I didn’t understand why she was crying, but I listened from my bed. To be honest, I didn’t even have a clue how to address this issue. Years later, I finally found out what prompted the tears. My mother thought she would never be able to navigate this alien world and find food and manage to keep us from famine and pestilence. I blame it on the jetlag and the immense amounts of Dramamine that was required to keep her from puking on the plane.

The next day, the cure for all my mum’s ills presented in a trip to the commissary (post exchange). The Dhahran Ladies Group managed to dispel all the woes and terrors my mother managed to concoct in her mind by the astoundingly western market. We were saved. There were shelves stocked with food items that had labels… in English. I know it sounds silly, but this was a serious fear of hers. After a couple of decades, she could go downtown and shop in the souk without blinking, but that first week, surrounded by tan landscape, unfamiliar smells (not all of them pleasant), and foreign fixtures, my dear mother who had never left the United States was suffering from some acute traumatic issues.

As it was, we managed to get through the end of November and Thanksgiving without any of the imagined concerns of dysentery or starvation. However… the month of December loomed with additional concerns. During orientation, we had been drilled on the customs of this new country we were calling home. We were informed of their religious laws and the fact that as a theocracy, there was no separation of church and state. Additionally, we had been told that anything that hinted at non-Islamic faith could get us into trouble ranging from deportation to execution.

Prior to the move, our family had a full calendar at Christmas. Aside from cantatas and choral shows, there were family gatherings. Christmas was a constant flow of lights and family and friends from mid-December through New Year’s. Now, we were in a country that we had been told might throw us in jail for a “Merry Christmas.” Queue the waterworks again. I heard mum in the night. This time, I had figured it out. We had packed away all the ornaments collected and crafted for years. There would be no smell of evergreen filling the home. In fact, I could read her thoughts, “We aren’t even going to have a tree!” Queue more involuntary ocular leakage.

Again, I’ve got to give it up to the Dhahran Ladies Group. First, they dispelled the horror stories pretty vehemently. While, our host country was not big on evangelism, they were not opposed to celebration of our Christmas holiday. In fact, in the main camp, people decorated much as people in the states did. There were tours of houses in the camp and their decorations. At night, for the houses lit up, many of the Saudis would bring their families and drive around looking at the lights. So… no jail time for having a little holiday cheer. Good to know.

But we still did not have a tree, much less ornaments to put on a tree if we had one. Queue the tear ducts. It was a rather depressing time. However, that is when we heard a rumor about a miracle worker and procurer of rare articles, Mr. Al Swami. That was the name. I’m not kidding. I never knew whether that was his real name or not. It was the name of the store. The best I can describe it is a cross between Hallmark and the convenience stores with tourist crap packing the shelves. It was a curiosity of Al Khobar that you might find Legos and Waterford crystal side by side in any given establishment. Well, the rumor was that you might be able to go to Al Swami’s and find, not a Christmas tree, but a Holiday tree. In my head, I had this scenario of sidling up to a swarthy man and saying “Psssst… know where I might get a… *looks around*… holiday tree?” As it happens… that is sorta what it worked out to be. My mother’s heart sank when the man looked at her with pity and shook his head. We were in danger of a flood… when, all of a sudden, the miracle occurred. Someone came from the back and it seems that a customer had returned shrubbery just that afternoon. Christmas… I mean Holiday… was saved! We were in possession of a lovely 4-foot fake tree. While there, we also managed to obtain some white fairy lights and a few ornaments. For whatever reason, it seems we also came away with something labeled “Real Plastic Snow.” Yes, we bought it for the comedic value (and I have it to this very day… yellowed through the years, which makes it even funnier than it was originally).

Our tree traditionally had been filled with colorful lights (those hot ones that blink and make patterns on the ceiling… and fire hazards), memento ornaments, handmade ornaments, and wrapped in gold garland, icicles (probably giving us lead poisoning), and popcorn and cranberry chains. It was a homey tree. It had tradition and memory on every limb. It had a star made of cardboard and aluminum foil, and a wreath made of computer punch cards sprayed gold hung on our door. It was a tree that spoke of lean pockets, but rich hearts.

Now, that was gone; packed away in a storage facility somewhere in the U.S. We had a short tree with no attachments to the past. Since there was no way to replicate our traditional tree, we elected to go a completely different route. We purchased ornaments in white and gold. It would be tasteful and generic, but it would work. We had managed to find cassette tapes of holiday music (very likely pirated). The little tree looked almost classy with the white and gold. One of our finds during the mad dash for holiday spirit was some needlework ornaments. Mum and I worked on the tiny little canvases and their intricate stitchery framed in brassy-looking plastic frames. It was a far cry from clothes pin toy soldiers and painted wooden animals, but it was hand-done and something to tie tradition to this new tree. It was our first Christmas in Dhahran. Through the years, the little gold and white tree gained new ornaments (always keeping to the gold and white theme). Soon, we ran out of room, and after moving into camp and having more space, we found a larger “holiday tree” that became the new gold and white tree in the main entertaining area of the house. The original fake evergreen moved into the den upstairs where it started collecting a new plethora of mementos from travel, friends, and family. Eventually, even those overcrowded the small, well-loved holiday symbol. It was packed away to possibly be a gift for another family that may arrive in kingdom without a “holiday tree” too close to the season. However, the old friend found a more important purpose in 1990.

That Autumn changed our lives in many ways, but most of you may remember it as Operation Desert Shield (see, I told you it was supposed to be a desert). I worked with the 85th Evac Hospital and 28th Combat Support, Candlelight Base, and the Desert DOGs with the military to provide support and MWR efforts during that and the Storm and Farewell that followed. During that holiday season, our little tree got a new life. We dressed it up in the finest, and it traveled into the field (sometimes even by Apache helicopter). It brought a symbol of spirit and warmth to the men and women of our armed services standing between “Iraq and a Hard Place” (as we sometimes said). We carried the tree to every base and encampment we could. We may not have been able to send those soldiers, Marines, and sailors back to family and home, but we could bring a touch of it to them. Not bad for a little tree that someone returned to a shop in downtown Al Khobar so many years ago.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and may all of you have a Prosperous New Year!

‘Twas the night before Christmas…

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And all through the workplace,

The parking lot was empty.

Every single space.

 

The cubicles were dark.

Quite a spooky effect.

All inhabitants chose to work from home,

But I said “What the heck?”

 

“I’ve got a ton to get done,

Discharge summaries and the rest.

And I don’t really mind the quiet.

It’s how I work best.”

 

Turning to my computer,

And setting to work,

“At least I’ll have all the coffee

That’s definitely a perk.”

 

Unexplained bumps and occasional computer glitch

Are enough to make even the most staid person twitch.

Only a few more hours, then I can call it a day.

Likely no one would even notice if I didn’t stay.

 

Before too much longer it is time to go home

I make my way in my jeep through the descending gloam

And in truth I am glad to have my work and my pay

And to feel some sense of accomplishment at the end of my day.

 

To my friends home and warm

I send this holiday charm

You are all a joy to work with whether day or night

Merry Christmas to all, and may it be safe and bright!

*This was originally written and sent in 2012 as holiday fun for all my colleagues and fellow cubical dwellers. As cheesy as it may seem, sometimes the corny sentiments are still heartfelt. My apologies to Clement Clarke Moore for the artistic license to the classic.

Wrapping memories…

Wrapping Memories

It was a tradition, always, that my father wrapped the presents. I’d even seen it go so far as for him to wrap his own, cleverly camouflaged in nondescript boxes provided by department stores the year before. I often questioned how the tradition came about, and considered whether his yearly holiday task had started in his tender years. I found myself imagining him as a small boy, rummaging around in the bin of colorful paper and juggling scissors and cellophane tape.

There was no question as to why the tradition continued. No one compared. His skill in fitting the paper. Always efficiently using only what was necessary to conceal the package within. The corners never gaped, and no matter the shape, he managed to create neat edges on all those brightly covered items arranged decorously around the tree.

At some point my independent spirit rebelled and I demanded my share in the holy wrapping ritual. I was graciously allowed to try my small hand at the task. I cannot precisely recall whether my efforts resulted in triumph, but I must not have done too badly as it soon became our shared chore. Not so much dreaded as relished. The time spent together estimating paper and ribbon, drinking hot chocolate or coffee, and listening to Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, Perry Como, or Tennessee Ernie Ford.

The lights that made patterns on the ceiling changed through the years from multicolored flashes the small, white twinkling points. The tradition remained.

And as the time passed, new parts of my life invaded my sacred rite. Frequently working holidays in the emergency rooms, I would cross my fingers and race to the house, not even daring to pray that the pager would remain silent for fear of rousing the crisis gods and keep me from my wrapping with dad. It didn’t always work, but he tried to save me at least one, to keep our pact as the family wrappers.

It almost seems a metaphor now, as I think back. My father wrapped those gifts just as he wrapped our family, smoothing edges, tying loose ends, managing the dodgy elements that would mar someone’s experience. Yep, my dad did that. I never realized it for so long.

Then, he was gone. I remember that first year. I think I put everything in gift bags. It was a cheat. I just couldn’t bring myself to attempt the task alone. And I couldn’t ask anyone to help. Everyone else was suffering the same, well… almost the same grief. We all dealt with it our own way.

Little by little, I found myself stepping back into the position. Never fully. I could never fill those shoes.

So, as I sat in the middle of the living room floor, wrapping presents, the memories flooding  back. It wasn’t the same, sitting here alone and thinking as I fold each corner. Then, I caught myself. That frown. The way my hand folded the corner and I was carful to fold the cut edge to make a smooth edge on the end of a difficult package.

I stopped, stunned for a moment. I looked down at my hands at the nails that were more rounded than my mother’s. I saw my hands, built on a larger scale than most women, but the lines more delicate than would be considered masculine. I saw through the lens of memory my father’s hands guiding mine to fold the edges and place the tape. My eyes clouded. Had I hardened myself so much to fear of pain that I had also blocked the other part of my sacred charge, joy? That was what my dad always tried to protect, even when we moved and we didn’t have a tree or our old vinyl albums or any of the other anchor to the holiday traditions of home half way around the world.

I stared a while longer before returning to my task. I wrapped every gift. I regretted the reduction in number. Sadly, the reduction of individuals in our holiday gathering has changed the way we approach gifting. In years past, the sheer number of people created a mountain of gift offerings under the bedecked tree.

Through the years, those of us left have attempted to replicate the appearance through expenditure (that most of us could ill afford). This was a mistake.

The number of packages or zeros is inconsequential to the love and good will of spending time will of family and friends. Yeah, that’s all kinds of cheesy. I know it. It makes my back right molar ache a little typing it. Regardless, it is the realization that dawned upon me as I tried valiantly to coral the few boxes that were before me to bedeck with festive paper.

I finished my self imposed “chore”. I looked at the packages, arranged beneath the tree to best advantage despite the diminutive number. I realized that I had chosen paper as dad would have. No tags necessary because of the number, but also because of the way the paper and package spoke of the recipient.

I was correct in my anger towards the television commercials that stressed the importance of spending more money. Spending time is what matters.

So, this blog has turned into one of those sappy, emotion-ridden, epistles chastising you, like Ebeneezer to repent your monetary ways and seek the true meaning of Christmas (Ham? No, not ham you fat @#$%). However, that was not the intent of this particular (wordy) first entry into the world of blog. It was to say that this Grinch’s frozen heart was thawed slightly today. In memory of one who quietly loved the season, loved his family, and held it together without ceremony or letting anyone else know it.

May I carry that spirit beyond holidays to safeguard those who are dear to me, and may any reading this have a blessed holiday (with no reservation to any particular faith) and may your new year blessed in every way.