This will be brief. We have had our girls in for the holiday, though Winter Storm Elliott very nearly kept our younger daughter in Denver for the weekend. We have managed the cold and kept the house warm with fires in the fireplace and well-placed space heaters. We’ve enjoyed clam dip and cinnamon rolls, homemade soups and Indian-style butter salmon. We’ve even had a couple of meals out.
We’ve exchanged gifts, watched movies, talked and laughed and reminisced. We might even have imbibed a cocktail or two.
I said in a previous post that all I really wanted for the holiday was to be with Nancy and our daughters. That was my wish, and despite a once-in-a-generation weather event, and several cancelled flights, I eventually got exactly that. I am content.
I could say more, but honestly that’s all I feel any need to say.
Except that I hope your holiday brought you joy and laughter, good food and a cup/glass/flute of your favorite beverage, time with loved ones and perhaps a moment or two of solitude, if that was what you needed.
And I hope New Year’s Eve/Day, which, in my experience, tends to be a holiday that disappoints, is enjoyable, safe, and whatever else you hope it will be. I will not be posting on Wednesday, but will, of course, recommence the blog next Monday, January 2, 2023.
I write about my father a lot in this blog. Last year at this time, I wrote a long tribute to him commemorating what would have been his one hundred and second birthday. I write about my mother as well (her birthday is in February). We lost both of them way too early, and I miss them both more than I can put into words.
I grew up the youngest of four children in a privileged family, and all of us enjoyed giving as much as we did receiving. Our Christmas mornings tended to be affairs of largess; we all had enormous gift piles. Record albums, clothes, books, the occasional piece of jewelry — as I say, there was always plenty under our tree. The Christmas morning I’m remembering came when I was in my early-to-mid twenties, and was home visiting either from Providence, where I lived after completing college, or California, where I attended graduate school.
All of us were in our usual frenzy of tearing wrapping paper and oohing and aahing over one another’s gifts. Dad sat watching us all, not unwrapping anything himself, but smiling contentedly. One of us said something to him — probably prompting him to open one of his as-yet-unopened gifts, and he waved off the comment.
“This is my present,” he said. “Watching all of you.”
I know: It sounds like a line from a Hallmark holiday movie. Thing is, he meant it. There was nothing he enjoyed more than watching and listening as his kids and his beloved wife talked and laughed.
I remember another time, the last summer we had with him: My mother had died the previous fall, and not long after Dad was diagnosed with leukemia. But during the summer, we rented a house in New England that was huge enough to accommodate all of us — my dad; my brother Bill and his partner, Sandy; my sister, Liz, her husband, and their two young children; my brother Jim, his wife, Karen, and their son (their daughter would come along a year later); and Nancy, Alex, and me (Erin was born three years later).
We had a great week, but there was one night in particular when we put the kids to bed, and dad retired early, leaving my siblings and me and our partners to hang out on our own. We didn’t realize how much sound traveled in the house, but we learned the next morning that Dad had heard us the whole time. He wasn’t at all angry, and he didn’t mind being kept up.
“Listening to you all laughing was better than sleep.”
By that time, of course, I was a father, and was starting to understand what he meant. I didn’t appreciate it fully, though, until after Erin was born.
I have been fortunate to hear live performances by some of the most phenomenal musicians in the world — jazz and classical, blues and bluegrass, rock and country. I have heard remarkable birdsong throughout North America, in New Zealand and Australia, in Costa Rica, in several parts of Europe. I have heard coyotes call in the desert, and Screech Owls trilling on a rainy night in Oregon, and Whip Poor Wills singing on summer nights in Tennessee. There is no sound I have ever heard that compares to the music of my daughters laughing together.
Nancy, the girls, and I have our own Christmases now, of course. There is always plenty under the tree, although this year Nancy and I don’t have much for each other. That’s all right. I won’t miss the presents. Because I’ll be able to sit, as my father did all those years ago, and watch Alex and Erin enjoying their holiday, laughing with each other and with us. That will be my present.
This post probably isn’t about what you think it is.
Nancy and I are nearing the end of what has been an exhausting and at times terribly difficult year. I won’t catalogue our burdens because they are, frankly, no worse than those faced by many of you. We have things in our lives that mitigate the challenges, things for which we are incredibly grateful. But we’ve had a rough year — the third in a row, actually. Again, this doesn’t set us apart from others. There may be differences in the specifics, but there are far more similarities of kind. We have all faced struggles.
That’s not really what this post is about.
After Thanksgiving, as we were mapping out a very busy December, we made a decision not to have a Christmas tree this year. Mostly, I made the decision. I am the one who goes down into the valley to buy a tree. I’m the one who sets it up, who waters it daily, who takes it down at the end of the season. And I just didn’t feel like dealing with it this year.
When I informed our daughters of this they were disappointed, to say the least. They don’t live with us anymore, but when they come home for the holidays, they like to have the house looking festive, the way it did when they were kids and Christmas was everything. I justified the decision to skip having a tree this year by assuring them this was not something permanent. We would surely have a tree again next year. But this year it felt like too much, everything was too fraught. We went back and forth, but eventually they accepted my decision, albeit reluctantly.
And then, this past week, on a rainy afternoon, I went down and bought a tree after all. Nothing had changed, of course. Nothing happened to make the past year suddenly, magically turn easy. The work of setting up and maintaining the tree remains. I changed my mind.
To be clear, this is not a post about the Christmas spirit suddenly moving me to want a tree, though in a way I suppose it did. It is not about the importance of doing something nice for my kids, although that is, of course, incredibly important, and it was gratifying to know how pleased they were by my/our change of heart.
In the end, my choice regarding the tree was about me, about what I needed, what I realized I had to do even though I didn’t really want to.
I have written a bit recently about my uncertainty regarding my next writing project. I have been unable to choose from among several possible projects, and I am starting to understand that my inability to make that choice is not about creative impulses, or marketing uncertainties, or even an inability to decide what possibility excites me the most.
I’m simply stuck. For reasons I haven’t sussed out quite yet, I can’t get myself to make that professional choice and move forward with it. And, I realized this week, the whole Christmas tree thing was sourced in a similar lack of motivation and momentum. I was stuck personally as well as professionally. Too many things going on, too much occupying my thoughts, too many emotional impulses pushing me one way and another. And my first reaction to all of this was to stop. The push-me/pull-you of life was more than I cared to address in any way, and so I simply dug in my heels. The tree, ridiculous as this now seems as I type it out, was the bridge-too-far, the thing I decided was too much.
What made me realize this I was doing this?
Honestly, I’m not sure. Maybe it was the reaction from my kids. Maybe it was the recognition that, despite knowing it meant a bit of effort and work, I actually wanted a tree, almost as much as my daughters did. I love having a tree. There’s a reason I’m the one who usually does the work required each year. I enjoy the smell, the lights, the ritual, the departure from routine, the sight of the tree with its lights on, glowing in the middle of the family room. Suddenly, denying myself that pleasure, denying Nancy and the girls that pleasure, didn’t make much sense to me.
And in the same way, I know I want to begin work on my next writing project, even though I feel stuck, even though none of the projects is really calling to me right now. I believe I need to do with my work what I did this past week with the tree. I need to get off my butt and start working on something, even if I’m not sure it’s THE project I should be writing now.
All of us find ourselves in circumstances like these now and again. Sometimes they manifest in the professional realm; sometimes they show up in our personal lives. For some of us, the inertia I’m describing works its way into everything. I have glibly written of my decision to “snap out of it” with respect to the tree. I don’t mean to make it sound easy. This week has been hard for me. I suffer from anxiety and panic disorders, and recently both have been troubling me more than usual. Breaking out of these patterns takes work. For some it takes enormous courage as well.
I see you. I understand and I sympathize. Perhaps that’s why I chose to share this story with you today. The holidays can be a struggle in all kinds of ways. These past few years have taken a toll. Maybe this post was about all of that after all.
The holidays are upon us, and chances are you — like me, like everyone I know — have
been caught up in the spirit of gift-giving. We want to find those perfect presents for the people we love most. We want to surprise and delight. For Nancy and me, shopping for our daughters, who are grown and very much aware of the things they want and need, has become fairly easy, if unexciting. They give us lists, we do our best to find the things on those lists, and everyone is happy.
A few years ago, we surprised them with special presents we’d spent a good deal of time planning and acquiring, and we still try to do that when we can, but our lives are busy, and these days the holidays really are much more about being together than about stuff. Which is as it should be.
But I wanted to share with you two brief stories about the two most thoughtful, memorable, wonderful gifts I have ever received. Because I think of them often this time of year.
When I was very young — about seven years old — my brother Jim, who is six years older than I am, developed an interest in birding. How that came about is his story to tell, but the important point is that his love of birds soon infected our older brother, Bill, and me. We began to go on bird walks together whenever possible. Jim and I were both living at home still, and during spring migration we would get up early in the morning, even on school days, to check out the warblers, orioles, tanagers, vireos, thrushes, and grosbeaks moving through our neighborhood. Bill, fifteen years my senior, nine years Jim’s senior, joined us whenever he came home to visit, or whenever we went to visit him.
Again, I was seven, Jim was thirteen, Bill was twenty-two. We ought to have had little in common. But birds and birdwatching shaped and cemented our love. Other shared interests and passions contributed as well, but our love of birds, of nature in the broader sense, was formative.
As birders, Jim and I started getting serious about keeping track of what we saw and when, and about a year later, on Christmas day 1971, Jim surprised me with what was, to my mind, an amazing gift. [Geek warning: What a young birder thinks is an amazing gift may not match what you think is an amazing gift . . . .] It was a binder with custom made bird checklists for my year lists, my life lists, my lists for our little town. He had typed up the life lists, created a “template” for the year lists (back when that meant using a typewriter and a ruler and a marker) and actually filled out my life list up to that point based on his own memories of our earliest excursions, which were clearer than mine.
The amount of work involved, the effort, the attention to detail, the amazing thoughtfulness of the present, from someone who was fourteen at the time, for his annoying little brother — it all still boggles my mind.
I still have that binder. I don’t use it for much anymore, but I will NEVER throw it away.
The other thing that bound Jim, Bill, and me together was music. They introduced me to so much of the music I still listen to today. Jim was my gateway to jazz. Bill, though, was my gateway to rock, and to blues, and to bluegrass. He was my guru. As I said, he was fifteen years older, and as I entered my teen years, and was diving into music in a serious way, as both a listener and a budding musician, he was the person to whom I looked for guidance. He was an incredible musician in his own right, he was in a very cool band, and he was a student of music, particularly classic rock.
Sometime in my late teens, I can’t remember the exact year, he gave me two gifts for Christmas. The first, I could tell right away, was a record. An LP, because back then that was pretty much all we had. The second gift I couldn’t figure out. It felt and looked like a thin sheaf of papers.
“Open the album first,” he told me.
I did. Exile on Main Street, by the Rolling Stones. A legendary double-album by the rock band of the era. “I think you’re ready for this,” he said.
I could stop this story right there. My older brother, my rock ‘n roll mentor, he of the effortless cool, telling me I was ready for what I knew was his favorite album of all time? That was gift enough. But then he told me to open the other package.
Exile on Main Street didn’t come with a lyric sheet. The Stones couldn’t be bothered with such trifles. And so Bill had transcribed the lyrics to every song on the album. This was before the internet, before personal computers. He listened to the two records over and over again — he later told me he had to replace his copy of the album, because he wore the grooves down so much — trying to decipher the mumblings and rantings of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, men not known for their clarity of speech. And he typed them up for me. I still have the album, of course. I am ashamed to say, I don’t know where those lyric sheets have gone.
Two sparkling, wonderful gifts, from my two brothers. Both shine in my memory to this day. They were born of love and thoughtfulness and a type of generosity that can’t be measured in dollars and cents.
Something to think about as we approach the holidays.
When I was a kid, growing up culturally Jewish in the suburbs of New York City, we used to celebrate Christmas. Many of the Jewish families in our town did, and so too did some of our Jewish relatives in nearby communities. I’ll admit that it struck me as odd sometimes — we identified as Jewish. We didn’t try to hide our heritage in any way. But we celebrated the Christian holidays — Easter as well as Christmas. We also celebrated Passover. We didn’t do much with Hanukkah, though every couple of years one of us might pull out our old, tinny Menorah and light candles.
We had a wonderful old collection of glass ornaments for our trees — ornaments I still have to this day. (Well, I have most of them. Each year one of us would drop one or two — a slow, steady attrition, like ornaments being voted off the Island of Misfit Culturally Inappropriate Holiday Paraphernalia.) My mother always insisted on Scotch Pines for our trees, because she loved their scent. More than any other tree, she believed, Scotch Pines smelled like Christmas. Or like Christmas was supposed to smell in Jewish households.
I was the youngest of four children by many, many years. My oldest sibling, Bill, was nearly 15 years older than me; the other two, my sister Liz, and my brother, Jim, have me by 12 and 6 years respectively. And so by the time I was old enough to be aware of such things, my parents had passed off the task of buying our tree to my siblings and me. Sometimes all four of us went to pick one out, sometimes it was just us “boys.” After a while, certainly by the time I was in middle school, Jim and I were the only ones who cared enough to go.
And there were certain immutable traditions we had to follow. One, as I have already said, was that we get a Scotch Pine. The problem with this rule was that Scotch Pines are actually quite ugly as Christmas trees go. They are short, squat, dumpy even — the Dwarves of Christmas-Treedom. They are also are notorious for having bent trunks, making them hard to set up in a tree stand. Almost every year, Jim and I would reach the tree lot — there was one in particular we went to most years — and spend a bit of time staring wistfully at the Blue Spruces and Douglas Firs, noting their sleek, triangular perfection, their symmetry, their straight trunks. And then, remembering our mother’s preference, we would trudge over to the “Scotch Pine Forest” and pick out our lumpy tree.
The other two immutable traditions — which actually bring me to my purpose in writing this post — were that we get our tree on the day of Christmas Eve, and that we spend no more than the $20 Dad would peel off his billfold that very morning before he headed off to work.
Having the tree in the house meant disrupting the strict order of our furniture and furnishings. My parents loved their home and had designed it with care, so that it looked just so. The tree was like a relative who comes every year and parks himself on your couch in the middle of the living room. They knew he was coming, they knew he would be gone just after New Year’s. Best, then, to limit the damage and its duration. We bought the tree on December 24th, we decorated that night, usually after a dinner of Chinese food at a local restaurant, and we broke that sucker down on New Year’s Day, a week later.
And the $20 . . . That was just Dad’s price limit. He loved to tell the story of the time he spent $2.00 on a tree, back when he and my mother were first married. He bought a tree for $5.00 and then had the vendor cut off a branch or something that made it look lopsided. (No doubt this was a Scotch Pine, too.) And as the vendor cut the piece off, a guy happened by, spotted the scrap, and said to my father, “That’s just what I need. I’ll give you three bucks for it.”
He was in finance, and so understood inflation. He never expected us to replicate his feat. But $20 was his limit. The tree was only going to be in the house for a week, after all. Why should we spend more? This had the effect of further locking us into Scotch Pines, since the trees for which Jim and I pined (sorry, couldn’t resist . . .) were way more expensive. At the same time, I have to admit that the timing of our purchase helped with the $20 strategy. By mid-afternoon on the 24th of December, the guys selling trees were looking at taking a loss on their remaining stock. Every tree we bought at the last moment meant one fewer tree in the wood-chipper. We usually got pretty good deals.
Fast forward several decades, and I find myself, on this post-Thanksgiving weekend, wondering if I need to be buying our tree today. Our girls LOVE having a tree at the holiday, and the truth is Nancy and I love it, too. So we have to get one. In this part of Tennessee, though, as in so many parts of the country, trees went on sale LAST weekend, two thirds of the way through November. A week or two from now, they’ll be gone. Buying a tree on December 24? Impossible.
And buying a tree for $20?
Sorry. I’m done laughing now.
We don’t buy Scotch Pines. Usually it’s Frasier Firs. But they can cost upwards of $80. Or more. By my father’s calculus, in order to make that expense worthwhile, we’d have to keep the tree up until Valentine’s Day. Trees have gotten so expensive, and I feel so much pressure to buy one before the lots empty out, that this year Nancy and I have considered the unthinkable. That’s right. We have discussed getting an artificial tree.
There are real reasons for doing this, or at least thinking about it. Artificial trees, if reused for several years, are marginally better for the environment (although, since they’re made of plastic and shipped here from overseas, it’s a very close call). In terms of relative cost, they pay for themselves in a few years — again, this assumes we would reuse the tree year after year. They can be put up and taken down whenever we want. They don’t have to be watered. They are far less likely to catch fire. They don’t shed to the extent that real trees do.
But they don’t have that Christmas tree smell. Scotch Pine, Balsam, Firs, Spruces. They ALL smell great. The artificial ones, not so much. Which means we’ll probably break down and buy a real tree, likely sometime in the next few days.
Then again, those pine-scented air fresheners for cars are fairly cheap. And they look a little like Christmas ornaments . . .
I have posted a photo like this one in past years on or just after the first night of Hanukkah (which was last night). Nancy and I come from different backgrounds. I was a suburban kid from a comfortable family; she was a farm girl raised in a family that lived paycheck to paycheck. I went to an Ivy League school; she went to a state school (we met in graduate school at Stanford). And I was raised as a secular Jew; she was raised by devoutly Catholic parents.
Despite the fact that my family did in fact celebrate Christmas, this image — the menorah and the Christmas tree — has long struck me as a symbol of all that we brought to our marriage and blended in our life together.
This year, though, with all that has gone on in the world, with all the hostility we have seen directed at those who are other, who are not White and Christian and straight, I hesitated to acknowledge publicly my Judaism, mild though it is. I live in a very, very red area, and I felt unsafe drawing attention to my heritage.
In the end, I decided that I wouldn’t give in to my paranoia, or my mistrust of others. I also recognized the obvious: if someone wants to know my religious background, they won’t have to dig too deep. As I say, I’ve posted similar images before.
And so, I will say again, as I have in past years, from our multi-denominational home to yours, our sincere wishes for a safe, joyous holiday season, filled with love and laughter.
As I mentioned in a recent post about Thanksgiving (which covered the December holidays as well) I come from a Jewish family and still consider myself Jewish, though we are not at all a religious family. Nancy was brought up Catholic, but left the Church long ago. We are decidedly agnostic, but also consider ourselves multi-denominational.
And so yesterday, with a recent snowfall melting away and more bad weather bearing down on us, my younger daughter and I went to the valley to buy our Christmas tree, and then I put up the holiday lights on the house.
When I was growing up, my family always celebrated Christmas, even as we also observed Passover (and Easter) in the spring. These were compromises made by a lot of non-religious Jewish families in the mid-twentieth century. Living in a world still recovering from World War II and plagued by continued anti-Semitism, many of these families, ours included, chose to assimilate rather than broadcast their Jewishness. It was often a safer choice, and certainly a more comfortable one.
As a kid, I didn’t care about the reasons, I just knew that I loved Christmas. Yes, the presents were part of the allure — greed was absolutely a factor. But I also loved the lights, the tree, the decorations. I was a sucker for all that stuff, and, truth be told, I still am.
Our house is now decked out in holiday lights, and I couldn’t be more excited. It’s actually a little ridiculous how happy these lights make me.
I wish all of you a wonderful weekend and a joyous start to the holiday season, no matter what holidays you happen to celebrate. Stay safe, and be kind to one another.