ode to joy

I’d just finished looking over the potluck buffet for the second time, making sure I didn’t miss anything good that might have showed up late. That’s when the trouble started.

“Where did he even come from?” I thought. It was like he materialized out of nowhere. How could I get myself out of this?

The room – an impersonal condo-association rec room – was too large for the Christmas party that was being thrown. There were people seated at a long folding table on one side of the room, but the rest of the room was empty. It was just the two of us all by ourselves, standing awkwardly in the middle of the room.  I thought about slipping past him with a glancing “Hi!” and pretending there was someone on the other side of the room that I urgently needed to see, but there was no one on the other side of the room, let alone anyone I urgently needed to see.

A conversation was inevitable. Crap.

Previous encounters revealed that we had absolutely nothing to say to each other. He was flamingly liberal, as crunchy as they come, with scraggly shoulder-length hair and an air about him that made people wonder if he was possibly homeless. I could’ve asked him how his non-profit was going, but his answer would have depressed me with its foregone conclusion:  “We’re still not making a profit.”

“Err, hi,” he says. For a brief second, I think he might just leave it at that and let us move along, but he doesn’t.  He settles himself in for conversation.

“Err, hi,” I say. It’s Christmas. I think. Be merry! Be bright! I buck myself up, fix on a smile, and give it a good old college try. Except, I was never very good at college.

There’s a weird, uncomfortable silence.

“So, how are things?” he throws limply into the bleak abyss standing between us.

“Good,” I say. Time slows to a halt. “And, for you?”

“As good as things can be, I guess,” he says. Time now starts marching backwards, to the beat of our luminous conversation.

I’m trolling around in my mind for something – ANYTHING – to say, so that we don’t have to stand here staring wordlessly at each other for the next five minutes. Finally, it comes to me, the safe and ubiquitous topic that has brought us together for this festive celebration: Christmas!

“I’m going home to Pittsburgh next week,” I say. I babble on about how fun it is before Christmas, with all the preparation and activity, and how depressing it is afterwards, with the desolation of January staring you in the face.  My goal was merely to fill the void with cheerily-spoken words, so we could both get this over with as soon as possible. In my vast repertoire of painful conversations, people in the middle of painful conversations generally don’t care about content. As long as someone else is doing the talking and the words are flowing at a reasonable pace, they’re generally not going to ding you on the content. They’re generally not even listening.

This time, however – and to his credit – I’d underestimated my audience. My audience had been listening. The mild-mannered, tree-hugger looked pensive for a few seconds, then said, “Interesting.” He smiled before continuing. “You know, YOU are an example of something that I really hate about a lot of people.”

He said this so nicely and quietly that it took a couple of seconds for his actual words to register.  I mean, I’m sure I’m an example of something a LOT of people really hate, but usually – USUALLY – people keep their thoughts to themselves so I don’t have to actively know what people think about me, and as long as I don’t know, it’s ok. Ignorance is bliss, and I prefer to keep it that way, lest you get any ideas about enlightening me in the “comments” section.

“Funny,” I say retrospectively. “Because YOU are an example of something that I really hate about a lot of people, too!”

Had I actually said this, the story could have ended with an uplifting Brady Bunch-like moral: be honest and you’ll always find your common ground. We would have found our common ground, even if it wasn’t particularly pleasant, and the conversation would have taken off from there.  It wasn’t that I hated “him.”  I didn’t. He was a nice, well-meaning fellow, if a little hard to talk to.  I just didn’t like any of his ideologies.  Also, it might have ended in a fist fight, and that would have been an exciting way to end the story too.

But, did I actually say that? Of course I didn’t. That’s what the word “retrospectively” means. I can only think of fun and interesting things to say when I’m sitting at my computer, months and months after the fact, queen of the late and unstated comeback.

When his words DID finally register, and as he got more and more warmed up and began to expound in detail exactly what it was about my kind of person that he hated, I floated up towards the ceiling and watched the little drama from above.  I was really just standing there listening to him tell me about what was wrong with my kind of people! The smile may have stayed on my face, but it drained from my eyes by degrees.

Apparently, someone had appointed him Dictator of Christmas, and it was up to him to decide not just when and how you were allowed to put up your tree, but how you were allowed to feel when it was all over, too.

“Christmas starts on the 25th, and not a day before,” he declared. “WE dug up a tree from our organic tree farm with the roots still intact so we could plant it later.  It’s ridiculous, these people who kill real trees and put them up in October.”

“I would never kill a real tree and put it up in October,” I say. Although one time, I did put up a fake tree in November, November 1st to be exact. I don’t mention this.

“Even a WEEK before Christmas is bad!” he decried from his vegetarian soapbox, no longer smiling. “I cannot relate to materialism or commercialism at all and have no sense of the post-holiday depression that you describe.”

I try to imagine the kind of cheerless, organic Christmases he must’ve had, starting on December the 25th and not a day earlier. What about the letters to Santa?  What about having your picture taken at the local shopping mall with one of Santa’s leering “Helpers”?  What about dressing up as one of the camels in the school Christmas pageant? What about Christmas Eve, and the reindeer, and the plate full of cookies and milk?  What about trying to figure out how Santa could possibly make it to every single house, not just in your neighborhood or state, but in the ENTIRE WORLD, all in one night? And how did he know to come to YOUR house, but not Mrs. Blash’s house next door, who only had one adult son named Bernie who didn’t need any toys?

I pictured a drafty old farmhouse, someplace cold and remote – Missouri? – with overcooked vegetables and beef-flavored tofu served by unkempt women with frazzled grey hair. Socks for presents – hand-knitted socks that bagged around the ankles after the first wear, and maybe an orange or two, if he were lucky.  A tree wheeled in at the last minute, decorated with clunky paper chains made out of coarse, recycled construction paper.  Hell. It sounded like pure, joyless, tasteless hell. I contrasted this with the bright, copiously-decorated home of my childhood, loud, busy, and festive, with Santa and Jesus, the two Christmas superheroes, battling it out for equal consideration, while someone’s Uncle Bub ran through the streets at midnight, jangling his sleigh bells with fervor.

No wonder my little friend couldn’t relate to post-holiday letdown.  He never had any holiday joy, and without the joy, you’re spared the letdown.

I will take the letdown.

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