Saturday, December 17, 2011

Dear Friends, Family, and Others...

Before there was Facebook’s NewsFeed, there were annual Christmas letters.

Once a year, it becomes socially acceptable for families to bombard hundreds of people across America with veritable tomes of their carefully spun triumphs and tragedies, successes and scandals.

I love them.

After years of poring over every one that comes to our mailbox, I’ve become somewhat of a connoisseur.  I’m working on the mathematical formula that determines the ratio of number of kids to length of letter.  It’s not what you’d think—early studies conclude that the more kids in the family, the more likely the writer-parent gives up on drafting an update and instead sends out photo cards sometime in mid-January.

I love these photos, too.  Since I was born, we’ve lived in five different states, and we still keep in touch with people from all of them.  For a period of about three years, my sister and I waited impatiently for the photo card to arrive from a certain family of attractive sons.  These were pre-Facebook days, so we had to wait a full year before we could see the progression of handsomeness in each of them.  We were never disappointed.

Which is a major reason why I feel a certain sense of veto power when it comes time to choose the family picture that will accompany our humble, succinct, and hilarious letter.  I don’t want to disappoint a fan with a photo that suggests I’ve developed a double chin or put on eighty pounds, all because of a poorly-chosen angle.  It’s vain—I don’t deny it—but that’s one of the main characteristics of a Christmas letter.

One of the most useful functions of a Christmas letter is that it serves as the common folks’ press conference.  It’s a chance to set the record straight, to let others know they know that others know their business, to State an Official Account and Proclaim an Official Opinion. Some parents allude to their child’s “rough patch” or “troubled times” without delving into any personal detail.  Others take a no-nonsense approach: Johnny got arrested for selling drugs. He’s doing time. We still love him.

One year, though, one family took their paper press conference to new extremes of discomfort. They told of the phone call they received from a crying son and his hysterical girlfriend, who confessed to having succumbed to the temptations of the flesh and engaging in premarital intercourse the night before.  And sure enough, a few weeks later the girlfriend discovered she was pregnant.  The letter explained that the wedding would be in a few months, and the baby would be arriving a few months after that.

I remember gingerly lifting the letter with the tips of my thumb and forefinger and setting it down as far from myself as I could reach.  In the past I’d been delightedly shocked at the length of some families’ letters, or cynically mesmerized by the tedious month-by-month timeline others’ felt sure would enrapture the multitudes. But to this day, that letter stands out as the first and only time I’ve ever felt horror and embarrassment as the predominant emotions after reading a Christmas Card Breaking News Update.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

'Tis the Season

“You always hear that people are nicer at this time of year,” my friend said to me last night. “But I swear, I’ve dealt with more crazies since Thanksgiving than I have since I started in July.” She’s an Executive Team Lead at Target, a store named after what my friend must become when a customer is feeling particularly rageful.

In the past couple of weeks I’ve noticed not only that people in public aren’t nicer now than any other time of year, but also that I’m more annoyed with this behavior than I usually I am. I’m sure this stems from the naughty-or-nice-list paranoia engrained in us at a young age. In July, though, I usually forget that the jerk who cut me off in traffic will inevitably get coal in his stocking.

I’m not exempt from this Scrooge-like behavior, either.  On my lunch break earlier this week I went to the Plaza to buy a Christmas present for my sister.  My car speakers were pumping Julie Andrews’ Christmas album, but that didn’t counteract the road rage I felt when two cars blocked the entire street while waiting for other shoppers to get in their cars, rid their hands of bags, dig their keys out of their massive purses, start the car, tune the radio, adjust the temperature controls, and slowly creep backwards out of their spaces.  While Julie’s dulcet tones proclaimed the birth of the long-awaited Savior, I sighed heavily, threw my hands up in the air, and looked around wildly to see if there was a way around these cars. I’m trying to make Christmas merry, and you. are. ruining. it.

That night, I was at the grocery store. I was tired and frustrated and at the end of my Christmas spirit for the day when a young mom with three boisterous kids cut me off with an overflowing cart in a narrow aisle.  She realized it immediately and exclaimed, “Oh, I’m so sorry!” Such self-awareness motivated me to mumble, “It’s okay,” while giving her the pursed-lip-smile reserved for encounters such as this.

Later, I was trying to locate the shortest check-out line I heard someone yelp, “Oh, no! No no no!” It was the same lady, having just rung up all her groceries and realizing she didn’t have her wallet.  But she wasn’t saying “no” to the cashier—she was saying it to the older woman behind her.  “I just live down the street!” the young mom was exclaiming. “Really, it’s okay!”  The older lady shook her head and held her hand out in front of her, stopping the mom’s protestations.  “It’s okay,” she said. “Please, let me.”  I quickly figured out that this older lady was offering to pay for this family’s full cart of groceries, just so the mom wouldn’t have to go all the way home and all the way back with three little kids in tow.

I was so taken aback just witnessing this stranger’s generosity that tears sprang to my eyes. It takes a great deal of attention and intention to look outside of our own gift lists, party calendars, and baking schedules. This woman’s kindness will remain in my memory for years to come, and maybe because of her I can find some graciousness and generosity to replace the road rage.

Artwork by Colorado artist Dan Fraley