At the beginning of October I begin to worry about what is to transpire in the upcoming months. I watch TV and my eyes begin to twitch. My heart beats quickly and my breath is much shorter than it is normally between January and September. At the beginning of October I realize that a great storm is coming. I’ve seen it’s kind before and the devastation it leaves in its path. Like the great winter blasts that have historically pounded the coastlines of New England and paralyzed miles of the upper-mid west, this storm will be far more intimidating and unpredictable. This storm does not contain strong gusts of wind, intense rain, blistering cold or life threatening electricity. There is no advisory, no shelter, or no team of experts to give to tips on survival. This storm exhibits the strength and threatening presence that no adult can seem to block or defeat. At the beginning of October I begin to hear and see the subtle warnings. I know that after it has plowed over my life and tested my will I will be questioning how to prepare myself better next time. I will then laugh to myself sadly and accept that there is no way to avoid the damage. This storm will come again and again. All I can do is sit, wait for its thunder and ride out the next three months with an ample supply of pain relievers and alcohol close at hand.
In some families this storm is called the “Holiday Season” but I have recently given this beast a new name, which I feel accurately, depicts its unique power and magical force. I call it “Retailius” after the infamous Roman warrior Xavius Retailius who, after several successful but bloody campaigns against the Germanic tribes, suddenly dropped dead on his doorstep when he then realized all his military pay would be spent on gifts and food for the upcoming Roman holiday. He survived the teeth of his enemy’s blade but the thought of the holiday season quickly killed him. Of course there is no Xavius, but I feel that any adult with children can identify with his plight. Between January and September, I feel like poor Xavius. Out in the world, fighting the good fight, deflecting my enemies and knowing that by the end of the year the battles will be over. Then just when I think the battle has been won and I’m free to go home and enjoy the spoils of my labor, I see the first clouds develop in the sky. I watch TV and my eyes begin to twitch. I see the words “Seasonal Sale” flash quickly across the screen and the thunder cracks. My wife sighs and confirms with a comforting “I can’t believe it is that time of year again” sparing my feelings by not using the words “Holiday”, Halloween”, Thanksgiving” or “Christmas” in her sentence delivery. I know it is as hard for her to say, as it is hard for me to hear. Like a forbidden phrase we are never to speak, we know that once it is uttered, we are doomed to accept the upcoming storm and the damage that it will bring. The storm comes slowly and its characteristics are always the same, but for some reason we are never prepared for its fury. At the beginning of October I sit and stare as the wind blows cold in my direction and makes my hands twitch.
The great storm, Retailius, consists of three holiday weather patterns, their traditions and their powerful connection to the almighty dollar. The first is Halloween, which, although the weakest squall of the three, can produce major dents in any bank account as deep as those on a car’s hood after a good Oklahoma hail storm. At the beginning of October advertisers remind us that everyone needs a costume, accessories and enough candy-disguised sugar to fill Yankee Stadium to accurately celebrate this holiday in fashion. This holiday is like an annoying wind that you can’t avoid. The engines of most children between the ages of 3 and 10 are fueled by sugar, which is the true lightning of this storm. Most churches will not openly promote Halloween as a holiday, but they will invite you to their “Fall Festival” where games and fun reside. Most importantly there are large supplies of candy on hand, which, for anyone who has kids, is the only thing they really care about in a sea of decorations, games and costumes. Like little junkies, every child knows it will get a fix of sugary delight, which slowly opens the gates of delirium for the next two months.
After the wind and hail of “All Hallows Eve” has passed, Retailius begins to transition into a warm front. There is a small period of calm where no one speaks of the upcoming blast. After the sugar coma and blistering headache it’s hard to want to think about anything but the evening news and the price of gasoline but the truth cannot be avoided. On my commute to work I hear an advertisement for a local super market. The spokesperson begins to mention two things that go together like snow and ice in an unwanted winter weather report, football and food. He starts to pontificate about the upcoming “big game”, “deli plates” and “chips n dip” and how you need to be prepared for the upcoming festivities. When the next sentence jumps out of my speakers, I experience a brief, but sharp pain on the left side of my brain. “And don’t forget friends, we’ll have a good supply of frozen turkeys and spiral hams to handle those big holiday dinners you have planned for this upcoming Thanksgiving celebration”. I almost swerve into oncoming traffic. The reality is alarming but true. In the next two weeks I will see the next phase of the great storm hit my household with such force it will push all of us to the brink of insanity. This sounds dramatic but it is actually business as usual for us during this time of year. It all starts when my wife begins to think about the food. Yes, the food. She buys and prepares enough food to feed a small Army camp, the horses and the enemy’s horses. Each year I wonder who will eat all this food and where we will store it before the dinner and after the festivities have concluded.
By Thanksgiving morning, most of the household is frightened of my wife and frankly cannot stand the sight of each other. Like a huge tornado, this gift of family, togetherness and thanks has sucked the life, will and joy out of most things in our household that have a heartbeat. The day is filled with confusion, noise, beer, remorse, doubt, wine and fantasies of escape, but as every good storm comes, it leaves a moment of calm. As I pick smashed green peas out of the carpet and pile the fiftieth dinner plate on top of the mountain next to the sink, I can’t help but thank God quietly under my breath for getting me through yet another storm. I thank him but forget to add an additional prayer. In my joy and borderline drunkenness, I forget about the third and final wave that will pound the side of my ship over the coming weeks. As the dinner concludes and the last of the family, friends and wandering strangers leave our house, my wife reminds me that she will be leaving very early in the morning to beat the rush for “Black Friday” the annual tradition which can resemble a scene from “The Road Warrior”, a cult classic where a post apocalyptic world tries to exist without the joys of the holiday season. As I have vowed never to take part in such a ritual, I leave my sleep-deprived wife to plan her day of insanity and appreciation for her fellow man. The winds begin to howl as I can feel the cold draft of Christmas creeping. For a boy who used to cherish the face of Santa Claus and await the spark of the season, I began to consider a conversion to Judaism just to avoid the shopping.
When I first heard the phrase “Black Friday” it had nothing to do with the annual “mall brawl” that takes place around the country. I remember the Steely Dan song and the lyrics clearly.
I never realized how this song could fit into my life so accurately:
When Black Friday comes
I'm gonna dig myself a hole
Gonna lay down in it
'Til I satisfy my soul
When my wife starts talking about this day, her plans and how crazy it will be, I want nothing more that to hide under a rock and not be involved. My love of people and holiday shopping is on my list along side root canal work, hemorrhoids, and migraine head aches. I picture myself out in the world amongst them on a normal day and my heart takes a quick nosedive. Putting myself in a highly volatile situation is not what I consider merry, joyful, happy, or serene. My wife will do what she can to get the best bargain so I leave this quest to her. Each year she returns from battle with fascinating bargains and tales of parking lot smash-ups and in store rudeness. The joy and Christmas spirit abounds as thousands of people, some of questionable mental capacity and criminal stature, descend on the streets of retail avenue looking for the best gift at the best price. I am always plastered to the television news the following day to hear about a trampled crowd, the shooting at the customer service desk, or the beating applied to an elderly man after he bought the last Clone Wars blaster rifle. All those feelings of warmth and magic return to my heart after hearing these new holiday classics. I often wonder how these people would act if this was about survival and not only about getting the newest toy for their kid. After Black Friday and every demented day of shopping that occurs up until the marvelous holiday, my wife dumps the gifts she has purchased into every available space inside of our house. I am instructed not to enter any closets or other specified spaces in the house because of the high volume of storage needed. Her instructions are serious and delivered with policed officer charm so you are convinced without a doubt of the aftermath if you decide to break this rule. Because of this, I never pick up a broom, use a vacuum cleaner or walk through my house freely until December 26th. I am honestly afraid that her lack of sleep, high intake of coffee and cigarettes or infection by the mutant shoppers of the world will cause her to go mad and exterminate me just for trying to clean the kitchen. So I keep my eyes front, ears open and stay aware until the real storm comes.
During the final days leading up to the day of reckoning, things reach a pinnacle of dementia in my humble home. It is one day before "our" Christmas and my wife is behind on her wrapping. My granddaughter will need to be picked up at 7:00am, driven back to our house before the other children and guests wake up. It is now 7:00pm on the night before Christmas and every creature is stirring, plus the mouse I’m confident is living in my garage. She plans, as always, to make a fresh pot of coffee and stay up all night to finish wrapping all the gifts. I begin to help out since I’m certain that there are only a few gifts to wrap and I do not want to see my wife in an insane asylum. Insanity is not far from reality since she is still paying for the sleep deprivation she had suffered a month earlier. As the hours go by more quickly, we all realize that there are many more gifts than was originally projected. In fact, by my twentieth gift I was now convinced that we had more merchandise in our living room than Amazon and Overstock.com had in their combined warehouses. In addition to the enormous pressure of time constraints and shear volume of product, my wife demands quality in everyone’s wrapping. Quickly, this rule falls to the wayside. As time goes by and the coffee begins to wear off, the standards begin to take a downturn. As we began to run out of tape, an alternative needs to be found. Somewhere during the process, a roll of two-inch clear packing tape joined the production line and we were slapping them together like UPS. By 6:30am, the entire warehouse was wrapped, fourteen rolls of tape were used and eighty thousand feet of wrapping paper was cut. By now my contact lenses felt as they were permanently affixed to my eyeballs. We all needed sleep, peace and quiet. I walked into the bedroom and looked at our bed like I had been sleeping in a cave for the past twenty years. Rest would not come so soon.
I have been appointed guard over the gifts and Christmas area per order of my wife. She and her son would now drive to pick up our granddaughter. While they are gone I must make certain that no one descends onto the living room floor before they arrive. I accept this challenge knowing that if I can survive this storm, I can survive anything. Within 10 minutes of their departure I am fighting sleep as I sit on the couch in the living room. As I dial through the 2000 cable channels looking for something engaging enough to keep me awake, my vision began to experience effects close to LSD trips I had been on later in life. As I was riding the cloud of sleepless hallucinations, I heard a faint cry. Something made me spring to my feet and look to the top of the stairs. There stood my younger, pint-sized granddaughter, weeping and scared. Before she could make her way downward, I ran to meet her and attempt to settle her anguish before she woke everyone else in the house prematurely. Unfortunately she did stir the entire population successfully, but soon there after my wife returned and the celebration began. For the next several hours a house of eleven human beings proceeded to create a monumental mess consisting of wrapping paper, boxes, hundreds of assembly instructions and warranty paperwork. The monster twister, the almighty storm had arrived, sucked the family into it’s jaws and spit us out like rag dolls and trash in a matter of twelve hours. No escape just magical, festive, devastation. At the end of the day I pinched myself to make sure I was still alive. I felt like a large delivery truck piloted by a drunken, belligerent Santa Claus had hit me. After bouncing me into the gutter, Santa backs up, gets out of the vehicle, walks over to my limp body and proceeds to urinate on my head. His gravel layered chuckle is followed by an arrogant “Ho, Ho, Ho, Sucker” and final kick to the side of my head.
As frightening, frustrating, exhausting and downright insane this season seems to be for myself and many others around the world, we seem to forget the trauma as quickly as the blunt force was applied. Albert Einstein once said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. If old Albert’s definition is true, we are all certifiable in our own way. We know the storm is coming. We know what damage it will bring. We know that many will be hurt or even die during the process. We realize the enormous cost but we choose do repeat the steps each year. I’m reminded of a story I read about residents of highly vulnerable, coastline areas around the United States. The California coast is famous for lying in parallel to a mammoth fault in the earth’s crust. Their earthquakes have taken more lives and created more havoc than many natural disasters to date. Their wildfires are an expected happening each year and burn hundreds of people from their homes every season. Knowingly, thousands of people build homes in these areas. Then, like someone has removed all logic, good sense and mention of these catastrophic risks, they plan their lives and enjoy the temporary beauty. Then, just as expected, like clock work, within hours, even minutes all they have is lost. They weep and mourn the greatest loss they have ever experienced. The Florida Keys has experienced extreme devastation caused by decades of violent hurricanes and tropical storms alike. Thousands flock to this area, erect multi-million dollar dwellings high on stilts so they can enjoy stunning views of the ocean and experience the ultimate in nature’s gifts. Again, because the earth has no compassion for human want, a powerful front, which appear as regularly as the postal service, push huge tidal fists into these dreams leaving nothing in their wake. The residents find themselves homeless and stricken with overwhelming loss. Brought down to zero they can’t believe what has happened to their lives. Unfortunately, we are silly, moronic creatures. In both cases, after being slapped, punched, pushed into the ground, spat on and buried, human beings choose to go through some of the most painful experiences again and again all for the temporary, but incredibly satisfying feeling of happiness where you can witness beauty, joy and total ecstasy all in the same moment in time. This is what makes us all walking contradictions that function purely on feelings more than on logic. If logic were our driving force, no one would live in California, Florida, North Carolina or anywhere else that experiences extreme weather. No one would ever ride a bicycle. No one would eat that bean burrito they sell off the back of a truck parked outside the office building at lunch break. No one would ever do the same thing over and over expecting different results. The seasonal storm would come once; cause complete chaos, and then everyone would move away never to see that beautiful sunset ever again.
It’s now three days since our Christmas storm has past and all has been cleaned, patched and recovered. I’ve slept through the night, sat on the couch, drank several beers and watched my favorite TV show at least once. Honestly, aside from what I have written, the tired feelings, aggravations, frustrations, regrets and psychotic imagery that I experienced over the past three months has magically disappeared. I know that the spring will come, followed by the summer, then the fall. During these months we will never think about what preparations need to be made, what food needs to be cooked, and what presents we will need to buy when the winds of Retailius return to expel havoc onto our lives. We will enjoy the sun, think about ice cream and swimming, and even dream about visiting California, Florida or some other high-risk area. We have weathered the storm, taken our lumps, spent the cash, lost the sleep and hurt our feelings many times before and we will do it again. We will do it again because of the temporary joy we see in our children’s eyes as they feel the magic of their Christmas. As we entered the room of adulthood, parenthood, and beyond, we unconsciously left logic and sanity at the door. We have accepted, but continue to complain about our new roles as providers of not only of food, shelter and money, but also of joy, happiness and love. This job demands that we repeatedly build on weak ground, place our hands on the burner even though we know it will hurt, and stand out in the cold rain and snow if it will make someone we love happy. The Christmas storm does not come to bring comfort, a joyful noise or a partridge in a pear tree to me anymore but it allows me to see the joy in other’s eyes which is a reward at an entirely different level. When I think to myself, “Why do I do this every year?” the answer is clear. For the one beautiful memory it gives back to me.
God Bless us, everyone.