(Note: I first published this around Christmas of 2011. I’ve written over 200 entries to this blog and, aside from my “50 Rules” series, this is the only one that I am asked about on a regular basis. So here it is again. Thank you for reading.)
Ah yes, the Christmas letter. You know what I’m talking about. The letter that only the bravest of families dares to send. I think most of us harbor a secret desire to send such a letter. So I’m here for you. I am going to provide a template for those of you who need a little assistance. It’s a multiple choice format so it should cover almost every contingency.
a. Happy Hannukah
b. Merry Christmas
c. Word Up
Greetings from (a. your hometown; b. Loserville; c. family rehab). We have had such a (a. challenging; b. rewarding; c. shitty) year. Everyone in our family is super (a. excited b. morose c. inebriated) for the holidays. We hope you are too!
The past year holds so many (a. wonderful b. painful c. haunting) memories. We had the (a. good; b. mis-; c. ruinous) fortune of having (a. my mother-in-law; b. our transgendered nephew; c. a homeless carnival worker) move in with us. It is a (a. blessed; b. Jerry Springer-esque; c. scarringly dysfunctional ) situation and we are (a. trying to make the best of it; b. having the locks changed this afternoon; c. doing internet searches for clever ways to dispose of human remains).
Dad is (a. having a great year; b. missing and presumed dead; c. dating his therapist). He is just as (a. driven; b. co-dependent; c. manic-depressive and arbitrary) as ever. As he likes to say every year at this time: (a. “God Bless Us- Everyone!” b. “Being stupid is its own reward” c. “If you think some fat ass in a red suit is gonna get credit for all of my hard work, think again!!”).
Mom is (a. Junior League President; b. practicing for an upcoming role on the reality TV show “Cougarville”; c. testing the chemical boundaries of Ambien mixed with chardonnay). She recently had to (a. serve on a committee at church to choose a new Pastor; b. punch the bitch at the dry cleaners for sporting an attitude; c. make restitution to the PTA for some accounting irregularities). It was truly (a. heartwarming; b. epic; c. You-Tube worthy) but in the end it should (a. work out for the best; b. blow up in our faces; c. lead to a lengthy prison sentence).
Our son is working (a. for a tech start-up; b. for the largest meth lab in Wise County; c. on his burp rendition of “Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony”). He and his co-workers (a. just launched a highly successful IPO; b. charred several hundred acres and burned down twelve mobile homes in a five alarm fire; c. hacked into the computers at Wal-Mart corporate headquarters and stole thousands of social security numbers). We are (a. waiting for him to buy us our dream home in Colorado; b. getting ready to send his “talents” to South Beach; c. so done with him).
Our daughter is (a. an honor student and cheerleader; b. a wiccan cult leader; c. a gluten free vegan). She always (a. volunteers at the local food pantry; b. finds new places on her body to pierce; c. smells like fritos and dirty socks). We can’t wait for her to (a. enroll at Yale next year; b. STFU; c. buy some shampoo and a razor).
That’s all for this year! Be sure to (a. look us up if you’re in the neighborhood; b. keep on a-walkin’ if our Van’s a-rockin’; c. smoke ‘em if you’ve got ‘em).
The ____________ Family
When we gather for Thanksgiving dinner someone is always asked to volunteer to say the Thanksgiving prayer. That’s when all of the loudmouths in my family suddenly turn mute. And eyes are cast downward. Especially mine.
Truth is, I’m not very good at prayer.
My prayer skills have diminished over time. Oh, I’m still pretty good at piecing together an Old Testament smite. There’s a lawyer in Dallas who deserves deadly pestilence. When my conscience intervenes I dial it back a little and pray he gets struck with something milder like a boil or a brief locust plague.
But there’s no doubt I’ve done a poor job developing my ability to pray over the years.
Perhaps it’s because my life has moved beyond simple petitions that accompany early parenthood.
“Please keep my children healthy and safe.”
“Please destroy the Chuck E. Cheese in Fort Worth before Stephen’s birthday party.”
“Please give my wife a brief case of laryngitis until I can make it to work tomorrow morning.”
Maybe I’m embarrassed. I used to pray for things I didn’t deserve or, worse yet, didn’t even understand. That never prevented me from asking anyway. A job working for a law firm in the Caribbean. Winning the lottery.
The history of my abundantly blessed life is strewn with the remnants of my unanswered prayers.
Perhaps I’ve grown dismayed by the apparent futility of prayer. The older I get the more I realize our lives are shaped by random, unexplainable, and unforeseen events that we can’t control. Praying for God to somehow alter these events seems like folly. The parents who lost their child to cancer prayed just as fervently for a cure as the man who just received word of a clean CT scan. Does my prayer to end world hunger make a whit of difference? I’ve prayed for our troops in the morning and read horrible stories of their isolation and PTSD that afternoon. Then there are the parents in Newtown. I’m afraid I’m just not much help.
What is this purpose of prayer anyway? Is it just a way to assuage our guilt? Or a way to hoodwink God? When you pray for your friend who lost his job are you really just hoping God will let you keep yours?
Does prayer even work?
My prayers just seem so selfish… so ephemeral.
This is the one time of year it occurs to me that prayer may not be about what is missing in my life. Perhaps its about what is present…..in spades. And giving thanks for these blessings.
For clean water. For the ability to walk, talk, hug, tie my shoes, read a book, smell honeysuckle and pine. For summer vacation, Advil, rock and roll music, locks on doors, mute buttons, college football.
For people who inspire me. Single parents. Service men and women. Moms or Dads who are raising children with special needs. Those who pursue a passion without regard for wealth or power.
People who are patient with me. My wife. My kids. My parents. My legal assistant.
People who challenge me. My clients. Other lawyers. Bad drivers.
People who accept other points of view. People who embrace strangers and outcasts.
Of course, this rough inventory can lead to difficult questions. Do I appreciate my abundance? Do I use it to bring joy to others? Am I cynical and negative or positive and hopeful? Do I inspire others? How do I handle hardship and adversity? Do I follow prayer with intention?
But today I’ll just take a moment and give thanks.
So, does prayer work? This one does. Every time.
“I’ll be in a little late. I have an appointment with my allergist,” I said. “They’re going to do a prick test.”
My legal assistant didn’t miss a beat.
“I could probably save you some time with that,” she said.
The nurse who administered the test had an entire panel of food extracts. She shot my arm and we waited.
“I’ve been doing this for 20 years. We never used to see food allergies. Now I do at least one food test a day.”
“That does seem high. I wonder why.”
She leaned in and whispered. “I think the food makers and the drug companies are in cahoots.”
I wanted to ask what possible motive there would be for such collusion but she had already escaped the asylum.
“The drug companies are evil. You realize they’ve had a cure for cancer for years but they’re keeping it under wraps because the medical establishment would lose so much money. Look it up. It’s all over the internet,” she continued.
I slouched deeper and deeper into my chair until the timer mercifully sounded. She did a thorough examination of the welts forming on my arm.
“Looks like you’re allergic to nuts,” she said without a hint of self-awareness.
“I already knew that,” I smiled.
They’re everywhere, these conspiracy theorists. With the fiftieth anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, it’s a paranoid’s Mardi Gras.
“Oswald was a pawn of the CIA.”
“LBJ killed Kennedy.”
“The mob orchestrated the hit.”
I don’t buy in to conspiracy theories. 9/11 was an inside job? The NASA moon landing was a fake? Drug companies colluding with food manufacturers? I don’t think so.
I will confess to just a touch of paranoia, the seeds of which were sown at an early age. When I was five or six I was upset about some awful oppression.
“Everyone is against me!” I shouted in protest.
“Don’t be absurd,” said my Mom. “Not everyone even knows you.”
I developed a healthy distrust for anyone who kept me from doing what I wanted to do. My seventh grade teacher, Mrs. Pulley, who sent me to after school detention an inordinate number of times, was conspiring with the Theisen family to keep me from jumping on their trampoline. I’m certain that Dan Andrews and Blake Bailey acted in concert to hide Mr. Andrews’ collection of Playboy magazines from me in eighth grade.
These days my conspiracy theories are more “con” than “racy.” They’re usually designed to fit my immediate circumstance. Everyone knows that our City Council manipulates the downtown red light sequences to up their traffic ticket revenues. Ever since I refused to add a dollar for a cure for cancer at check-out, Tom Thumb has made all of the plastic bags in the produce section impossible to open. Don’t even get me started on how they stopped selling pickled ginger because “no one was buying it.” Yeah right.
I also know that professional yard crews have secretly tampered with the string spools on weed eaters so as to render them inoperable after the first use. This act of piracy alone has cost me untold amounts in lawn care expenses. And Home Depot just continues to turn a blind eye.
The “powers that be” denied TCU admission to the Big 12 for years. We finally joined, only to be saddled with a lousy offensive coordinator who prevents us from winning any games. That conspiracy runs deep.
Come to think of it, this 24 hour surveillance by the Illuminati is a little disconcerting. And by Illuminati, of course, I’m referring to the AARP.
The NSA and Google are spying on us. Yesterday I started a search with “How to…” and it auto filled the rest of the query box with “…twerk.” Coincidence? Not likely.
Should I be worried? I’m not sure. The only known terror organization I’ve ever joined was a trial membership in Hair Club for Men. Those bastards still won’t leave me alone.
What if my online actions are misinterpreted and my search terms paint a sinister picture?
Shortly after the Boston Marathon bombing, a woman who had been doing internet searches for pressure cookers was picked up by the FBI for questioning. It turns out her husband was on a different computer searching for one way plane tickets to Yemen.
So I asked my wife: “What are you doing on the computer?”
“Looking at bed sheets” she replied.
Then I asked my daughter.
“Watching a movie on Netflix” she said.
If there’s a jihad by the Muslin Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, we’re in trouble.
Upon further reflection, my paranoia is starting to flourish. My nurse called to tell me that the Allergist was prescribing an antihistamine. When I went to pick it up I was required to produce two forms of ID and insurance card and sign a waiver. Then the pharmacist told me that if I signed up to become a member of AARP I would receive a free gift- a jar of mixed nuts. Conspiracy or coincidence? Look it up. It’s all over the internet.
When I was about 10 years old my Dad made an exciting announcement.
“I’m going to run for Congress.”
Then he threw down the newspaper in disgust and said: “I’d be a helluva lot better than the f###in’ clowns running things now.”
Since this happened whenever some politician engaged in buffoonery, it became a frequent diatribe. My mom and siblings ignored him.
Not me. I fell for it every time. My mind raced with fanciful delusions of being the son of political noblesse. The Kennedys of Oklahoma. Friends would grovel for my patronage. And there would be limo rides. I was all about the limo rides.
“Can I ride with you in the limo?” Erin McCaffrey, the cutest girl in third grade, would ask.
“Let me check with Secret Service first,” I would offhandedly reply.
So I can only guess that I was channeling my Dad when I announced my own candidacy for public office the other day.
My wife barely looked up from potterybarn.com.
“That’s nice. Did you ever look at these sconces?” she asked.
“I don’t have time for sconces. I have to put my campaign together. Didn’t you hear me? I’m running for Congress.”
“I heard you. Who all is running?”
“A bunch of dumb asses.”
“Besides you though.”
About that time, my youngest daughter walked in the room.
“What’s up?” she asked.
“I’m running for Congress.”
“I’m fed up.”
“Uh oh. Angry white man alert.”
“Independent. I don’t like either major party- it’s awful the way they demonize one another.”
“Kind of like you do with Baylor football fans?” she asked.
I thought for a moment and realized my opportunity for a civics lesson.
“Sweetheart I was wrong to isolate Baylor fans for ridicule,” I said. “Texas Tech fans are just as bad.”
“Good luck with that. But I’m not posing for any goofy family photos. And please don’t tell any of my friends.”
At work the next day I announced my candidacy to my legal assistant. Since she’s on the payroll I expected a hearty endorsement.
“I need help putting together my platform. What are some things that I stand for?” I asked.
“Let’s see.” She thought a moment. “You’re cheap.”
“I think the term you’re looking for is ‘fiscal conservative.’”
“Except when you’re not. Like when you want to be the first to own something or it involves college football.”
“Economic stimulus” I replied.
“Do I have to get involved?” she wondered.
“Of course you have to get involved. I need you to get me registered, open an account, plan a kick-off rally, raise money, file campaign reports, write my platform, spin my message, do opposition research on my opponents and paper over my past. I’ll do the rest.”
“Let’s start with that last one first. Do you think the Fort Worth Police Department has figured out that you are the person who is going around and giving the finger to all of the road construction crews?” she asked.
“In the scheme of things, that’s really pretty minor” I said. “However, there are probably a couple of stray photos and videos that could be, um, problematic.”
“Maybe I should find out where you stand on the issues before I commit” she said.
“That’s fair. Hit me.”
“Too complicated. Next.”
“Okay. Let’s talk about the hot button issues. Gay marriage?”
“No problem with it.”
“Generally against it except certain circumstances. Just yesterday I saw a dipshit in an Affliction T-shirt take up 2 parking spaces with his Hummer. So it’s tough to argue it wouldn’t be appropriate in that instance.”
She rolled her eyes.
“You’re not even serious. The only thing I can help you with is your slogan. How about ‘Putting the Rant in Ignorant’?”
And she was right. I don’t really care about politics. Once in awhile I’ll seize on something that aggravates me. But it usually passes pretty quickly for two reasons. First, I can usually see all sides. I’m not a black and white guy. This is a vast country with a divergence of opinions on every conceivable issue. This doesn’t frustrate me or make me angry. In fact, it’s really kind of refreshing. Second, I don’t care to spend my time arguing or pursuing some unyielding, uncompromising agenda. And allegiance to a political party would require just that.
So I’m out with just a minor regret. I’ll miss the limo rides.
Like Walter White in Breaking Bad, I used to traffic in illegal drugs. Or so it appeared. And I’m not gonna lie. Things got pretty dicey.
One afternoon last year I went to get my car washed at Red Carpet (not A-1 but similar). I was in the waiting area, when I noticed a din of activity surrounding my vehicle. Several of the workers were gesturing among themselves and beckoning others to come over. Afraid that they had discovered my bootleg “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” box set, I hurried over.
“What’s going on?” I asked the growing group.
“Is this your car?”
One of the workers held up a plastic baggie containing a white powdery substance and a spoon.
“Then this must be yours too.”
I stammered a bit. “I’ve never seen that before in my life.”
Even though the majority of the group didn’t speak English, an exaggerated, nervous denial is a universal language. So they all laughed a mocking, accusatory laugh.
“Well this doesn’t look good. I can’t just let you take it,” announced the former lead car detailer turned Hank Schrader.
“What are you talking about? I’m sure it’s not mine” I said.
Then sounding more like Tuco, he whispered conspiratorially:
“I can call my manager over or I can make this disappear for you.”
“Just take it,” I said.
He tucked the baggie in his pocket and handed me my keys.
Later that evening I told my wife about the car wash incident.
“I think they were trying to frame me,” I said.
She thought for a split second. “Oh that was Sophie’s baggie,” she said.
“What in the hell are you talking about?” I asked.
“She was making cookies at Avery’s and they ran out of powdered sugar. So I put some in a baggie for her.”
Still trying to figure out when I could schedule an intervention for my oldest daughter, I set the trap. “Why was it still in my car then?”
“I was halfway to Avery’s house when Sophie called and told me they found some sugar and they didn’t need any. I guess I put it under your seat and forgot about it. That was weeks ago. You should really get your car cleaned more often.”
“Why was there a spoon in there?”
“I must have been in a hurry and just stuck it in there. I’m glad you found it. Did you bring it in?” she asked.
“No I didn’t bring it in. Tuco has it.”
“A ruthless drug dealer who is about to discover that I duped him into believing confectioner’s sugar was Grade A nose candy.”
She didn’t give a second thought to my predicament. But I had visions of Skinny Pete in a back alley riding a brief and disappointing sugar high. Word on the street would spread that I sold flex (look it up) and I’d be in serious trouble. I haven’t been back to Red Carpet car wash since.
Then I got to thinking. It really was an effortless transaction. Powdered sugar in a baggie. Whacked out junkies can’t be that difficult to fool. By the time they discover your product is fake, you’re on to the next addict. Easy money.
And believe me, I could use a little free cash flow right now. I feel ya Walter White. Two kids in college. One in high school. A mortgage, four car payments, insurance, taxes. I mean, who isn’t looking for a some extra jingle?
We just went to Parents Weekend at TCU. My daughter’s sorority had a charity auction to benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The first item up for bid was a quilt. As in patchwork blanket. The bidding started at $500. About 7 minutes later the quilt sold for-no shit-$21,000.00. If the poor bastard who spent $21,000 for a quilt wasn’t into drugs before, I would be willing to wager he is now.
The next morning I reviewed my well worn list of “get rich quick” second careers. I have considered and crossed through several over the years. Celebrity chef, mobile embalming studio, psychic hotline, men’s yoga clothing designer, Betamax store owner. Finally something to get excited about. Fake drug dealer.
So I consulted my wife. The same one who hears about every ninth word I utter.
“I’m thinking about a new career.”
“This is good. Remember the mix-up at the car wash? And the fake stuff? And think crazy money. As in spending $21,000 for a quilt crazy.”
She looked confused.
“You’re going to have to put 2 and 2 together here” I said. ”If I’m going into this business I can’t just broadcast my intentions. The walls have ears, if you know what I mean.”
That afternoon, my wife returned home and gave me a wink.
“I thought about what you said this morning” she whispered. “I completely understand why you don’t want a lot of people to know about this second career.”
I smiled and gave her a knowing look.
She continued: “So I signed you up for a private class.”
“A private class? What are you talking about?”
“At Joann’s Fabrics. A sewing class. The lady said you’d be able to make a quilt in about six months. Sell two a year. 42 grand.” She held her hand aloft. “High five.”
Oh well. I probably wasn’t cut out for the life of a fake drug dealer anyway. But I did read that Vince Gilligan made millions on Breaking Bad. I’m going to pitch him on a new series. It’s about a guy who has three kids, a wife and lots of expenses. Since he can’t really stomach being a drug dealer, he just sinks deeper into debt. Working title: Breaking Dad.
I’m a fairly modest guy. I don’t jog shirtless in the neighborhood. You won’t catch me popping off about my encyclopedic recall of the lyrics to every Bee Gees song. I don’t drive a pickup with truck nutz. I don’t have a tribal tattoo. I don’t brag about my colon.
But today a little recognition is certainly in order. My colon is a champ. It has successfully processed well over 50,000 meals and other assorted non edible items including tuna casserole, my wife’s eggplant surprise, several crayons, a Skoal pouch, a tire from a Hot Wheels car, a near lethal combination of Taco Bell and Pabst Blue Ribbon, numerous pot luck dinners, and a cricket.
My special appreciation for this organ started at my doctor’s appointment in August.
“So you just turned 50″ said my Doc. I knew where this was going.
Nervous laughter. “Who? Me?” I asked while looking around my shoulder at an empty examining room for someone else he might be talking to.
“Turned 50 in March right? Says you were born in 1963.”
“1963? No. No. That’s a year off. I was born in 1962.”
I smiled knowing that even though every medical record proved otherwise, I bought myself another year.
“So you’re 51?” he asked.
I was never very good at calendar math.
“Then you’re a year late. We need to get a colonoscopy,” he said. He made it sound as though we were going to do it together, like two good friends riding a tandem bicycle. “Go ahead and get that scheduled when you leave today.”
My colon consultant set me up with a Super Bowel prep kit (not to be confused with the Lombardi trophy) and scheduled me for Friday September 13.
I resigned myself to the inevitable. The day before the procedure I was to have only clear liquids, and no solid food.
Around noon my wife called.
“What do you want to do for dinner tonight?”
“I’m on this liquid diet, remember?”
“Oh that’s right. Maybe you can have some of that leftover tomato soup.”
I could vaguely recall that we had tomato soup…last April.
“I don’t think so. That’s probably very spoiled.”
“Well if it’s going to go right through you anyway. I hate to see it go to waste,” she said as though I was about to become her human garbage disposal.
“I don’t think so. Only clear liquids are allowed.”
She got excited. “That’s easy enough! I’ll pick up a couple of bottles of Chardonnay on my way home.”
My prep kit had 2 six ounce doses of liquid magnesium sulfate to aid in the “cleansing process.” It tasted like rotten Robitussin. (Note to scientists: If you want to advance humanity, stop looking for the Higgs boson or trying to clone dinosaurs and work on making this even mildly palatable)
I choked down the first bottle and waited. My TCU Horned Frogs were playing Texas Tech on ESPN so I took up residence in a chair equidistance from the TV and the bathroom.
“Has anyone seen the friggin’ remote?”
“You’re probably sitting on it” came the unhelpful reply from the other room. So I recalled the days of my youth and handled the problem manually…and waited.
For the first thirty minutes, nothing. Then began a series of tremors that sent all of the pets in the neighborhood fleeing for higher ground. A few minutes later I was auditioning for the role of a booster rocket on the next space shuttle.
The TCU game was going so poorly, my trips to the bathroom actually became a welcome diversion.
The next morning I woke my wife at 5:45 a.m.
“Time to get up. I have to be at the clinic at 6:15.”
My wife, sleepily: “Is there anyone in the neighborhood you could carpool with?”
But just a short while later she was dropping me at the front entrance.
“You might ask the doctor to look around for the remote while he’s down there,” she winked.
Shortly after arrival I was greeted by a sweet natured black woman who would be my nurse.
“Good morning. My name is Ms. Traylon. Looks like Dr. Morton is gonna take a peek at your colon this morning.”
A peek? I shouldn’t even have to remove my pants for that. But she instructed me to disrobe and lay back anyway. In no time at all I was under the dreamy influence of propofyl. The next thing I knew my nurse was tearing off the electrodes and taking out my IV.
“How’d I do?”
“You did great! Here are your pictures. That’s a pretty nice lookin’ colon you got there.”
I felt like such a piece of meat.
A juicy hamburger to be exact. I think my colon deserves it.
I don’t just see the future, I live there. It’s where I spend a good part of my day. My imagination is a personal time machine and my thoughts provide an endless supply of fuel.
Yesterday I envisioned my long, slow descent into the malady du jour (this time it was Parkinson’s). In the past week alone I sent an arch nemesis to jail; helped a famous country singer write a hit song; and landed a filthy rich, litigation happy client.
These aren’t just nighttime dreams after a spicy meal. These are fully conscious, crazily crafted, broad daylight scenarios. This is my fabricated future unfolding in present time, every day. Some future days are good; some bad.
They used to be mostly bad. If my child had a cold I’d race ahead to a bedside vigil in the ICU. If I missed a deadline at work, I’d fast forward through my bar card revocation hearing, make a brief skip through financial ruin and take my perp walk, handcuffs and all.
It was my warped defense mechanism, as though every considered possibility prepared me for the worst and anything that fell short of utter disaster was something to be celebrated. As Mark Twain once said: “I have been through many terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”
It’s not the healthiest way to view the world. I don’t recommend it.
These days my present future is decidedly more hopeful but still unrelenting. It’s an endless series of “what ifs,” without any basis. The only common theme is that they aren’t real, and likely never will be.
When I’m not gratuitously misappropriating the future, I like to peer into my Retrospectroscope. Its another incredible machine. It can conjure up images from my past quicker than a Google search. It even has various filters to examine these memories. The filters can add an extra degree of regret to a failed business opportunity or mirth to a wedding reception. They color my past self as better (or worse) looking, more athletic, more callous, more compassionate, funnier, clumsier, poorer, richer, smarter or denser all depending on my current disposition.
So here I vacillate between two imaginary worlds-reconstructing the past and deconstructing the future.
And my present? If I can work through the opposite poles it’s pretty damned ideal. Truth be told, it always has been. And so is yours, I’d venture to bet. No, I’m not helping Robert Earl Keen write the definitive Texas ballad like I thought I would. Nor am I celebrating my book on the New York Times best seller list. But when I stop to really consider the here and now, I don’t yearn for the assurance of a happy future or daydream about things that will never come to pass. I don’t need to pursue the fleeting phantom known as the future.
And you know the greatest thing about it? The uncertainty. Looking forward to things that will happen which I could never foresee. Knowing that people I have yet to meet will enrich my life in ways I never anticipated. Understanding the paradox that the less I try to control, the more I will have the opportunity to embrace.