Monday, December 14, 2009

The Suppressed Holiday Newsletter


Every year I send out a holiday newsletter. In general I’m not a huge fan of holiday newsletters that try, in a page or two, to backfill a year’s worth of news for neglected friends and family members. Certain common styles of newsletter can be downright annoying, such as the boastful aren’t-we-special type. Back in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s my mom actually wrote a totally satirical holiday newsletter that has always been an inspiration to me. I wish I still had a copy. Some parts I remember well: “My husband’s favorite thing is picking up his welfare check—and then it’s off to the races! He sure loves to watch the horses,” and “Little Johnny hasn’t talked to us since he got his Sony Walkman. I’m actually afraid to bathe him, as he might get electrocuted. He keeps pretty much to himself.”

With the memory of my mom’s letter as my guide, I wrote my first holiday newsletter in 1999. It was completely satirical, drawing from my understanding of dramatic irony as I learned it in college. The newsletter concerned a cheerful narrator (myself) describing a lovely wedding at which he had a little alcohol-related trouble, including this episode: “I just couldn’t get comfortable in my chair and kind of dropped to the floor. I didn’t land very well, and I guess the restaurant food was really rich because I kind of choked up a little bit of it. I kind of landed in it, too, but there really wasn’t that much (in fact, I was tempted to think I hadn't really choked up anything at all, except Erin’s friends had photos). Anyway, if you read about that in any other newsletters, don't make too much of it–in fact, all Erin’s friends specifically said it wasn’t that big a deal when I asked. Anyway, a great wedding, and congratulations to the bride and groom!”

Since then I’ve tried various satirical modes, and only last year did I actually fail to get my submittal past our family’s editorial panel, which consists of Erin. She complained that my newsletter “gave [her] a headache.” She didn’t censor it, exactly, but said it could only go to my people. (The newsletter traditionally goes to a relatively small subset of our total holiday card distribution anyway.) Considering her point—that it was just too dark a letter to be mailed in the same envelope as a nice card—I relented, and suppressed the newsletter, replacing it with a farewell letter to our 1984 Volvo, which we put to rest that year. (The Volvo essay, by the way, was my first non-satirical holiday newsletter.)

Because this is a blog, not anything you get in the mail, and you have sought it out here of your own free will, I’m now posting the infamous (or at least non-famous) suppressed newsletter for your literary delectation. As my favorite Thai waiter liked to say, “Enjoy please enjoy.”

The Suppressed Newsletter

December, 2008

Dear Family & Friends,

It’s holiday newsletter time! Alas, I fear I’m too burnt on the season to really write much. A recent mall experience kind of did us in. It took half an hour just to park, and the mall itself was mobbed. There was a giant Christmas tree, but Erin and I steered the kids around it because Santa was there and we couldn’t bear to wait in some giant line. What kind of parents are we to deprive our kids of that experience? See—I’m really in the wrong mood to write a heartwarming newsletter. So, I’ve decided to try something new and turn the project over to the kids this year. The innocence and fresh perspective of a child is such a nice change anyway. (Because my kids don't type, I've had to help out, and in some cases I kind of paraphrased what they said, but I’ve tried to remain as true to their young spirits as possible.)

ALEXA: I love Christmas but it’s a bit confusing because Daddy doesn’t always tell me same things about it that my friends hear. Like, Daddy says Santa doesn't care if you’re good or bad. Apparently Santa actually has no way to keep track of us, and has bigger fish to fry anyway. So all that stuff about “He knows when you've been sleeping, he knows when you're awake”? Totally false. I could be absolutely awful all year and would still get presents. (I'm supposed to be good anyway, but for some ideological reason having nothing to do with extortion.)

LINDSAY: Christmas is great because we get these advent calendars. There’s a big picture with all these little flaps on it, one per day, and there's a chocolate figure behind each flap! Every morning we run downstairs and get down our calendars and find the date. Alexa helps me with that. The other part of this tradition is Daddy telling us how when he was a kid the family all shared this cloth advent calendar that Grandma Judy made. There was one pocket per day and they were all lined up (so there was no fun hunting around for the date), and instead of chocolates there were just mini candy canes. Each kid got a candy cane every fourth day using this modulo system devised by Grandpa Harry, where you divide the date by four and take the remainder. Every morning Daddy reminds me how much better we have it, getting a tasty chocolate every single day. I wish he’d teach me useful expressions like, “Yeah, sucks to be you!” but so far he hasn’t.

ALEXA: Another confusing holiday thing is the way Daddy tells the Rudolph story. We lost the board book but I remember it well—I made him read it a million times. Here’s how it goes: Rudolph is a reindeer with a disease, called alcoholism, that makes all the blood vessels burst in his nose so it’s all red, and the other reindeer won't let him join in their reindeer games. Lucky for Rudolph, there’s this doe named Clarice who is attracted to him precisely because he’s an outcast—she subconsciously wants to gall her oppressive father. Herbie the misfit elf befriends Rudolph out of sheer loneliness, which is never the right reason. So Rudolph is pretty miserable. Then there’s the Abominable Snowman, who only wishes he were abominable, when in reality he’s just as uptight and judgmental as everybody else. About the only decent guy in the whole scene is of course Santa, who is a truly wise and kind man but struggles with workforce problems (nobody wants to work in that frigid place). So Santa has to put up with these snooty reindeer and all these elves with Napoleon complexes (just look how they ostracize Herbie!). Finally Santa gets fed up, and—just to humiliate the other reindeer, to punish them for their bigotry—puts Rudolph at the head of the sleigh. This backfires because the other reindeer, to protect their own egos, convince themselves of the absurd notion that Rudolph is only in the lead because his nose is so bright it cuts through the fog (as though they’d never had fog before). Thus, they dodge their comeuppance by pretending to “use” Rudolph for his mere utility rather than acknowledging his intrinsic worth as a reindeer.

LINDSAY: For the first time, we went Christmas shopping as a family this year. Actually we weren’t Christmas shopping per se, but just shopping for new boots for Alexa during the holiday rush. Alexa hurt her foot at school because her footwear wasn’t good enough, so we made a special trip and now she’s got these expensive leather boots and I got NOTHING. It really chaps me when she gets new stuff. I usually don’t mind getting hand-me-downs from my sister because she gets her clothes used, too. All our clothes come from Grandma Coral, who gets them at thrift stores. She gets me these sweet princess dresses but my ‘rents don’t let me wear them much, saying it’s too cold in our house. (I have to admit, it is pretty cold, and we’re not to touch the thermostat without permission.) Anyway, Alexa tried to console me about the boots, saying she waited weeks for them while her mom hunted everywhere, but then Daddy cut in and said he had to wait until he was about thirty before he got any quality leather footwear. A broken record, that guy. Anyway, the ‘rents say we'll probably not make Christmas shopping a family tradition, which is just as well. The place was a mob scene and I was pretty wrecked by the end.

ALEXA: We might rent the original “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” movie this year. But Daddy warns me that the movie is going to be a lot different than the book, especially from way he has always read it. I can read the book for myself now and it’s amazing how different Daddy’s version is. Here’s more or less how he tells it: “The Grinch hated Christmas, the whole Christmas season, but don’t ask me why. No one knows quite knows the reason. It could be his shoes were a little too tight. It could be his head wasn't screwed on just right. It could be he couldn’t stand the sight of all those Whos down in Whoville trying to pretend they’re all glowing with real spirit and feeling but who are actually caught up in a whirlwind of shopping frenzy, ignited by the expert mass marketers who are playing them like suckers, marching them out to the malls like soldiers, figuring out just how much they can gouge them, just how much they can capitalize on the fears the Whos have of seeming cheap, of seeming unmoved by the spirit. The Whos have actually learned to enjoy the celebration of consumer excess that has spawned entire industries like the ‘gift’ industry that makes worthless gewgaws and trinkets that are called ‘gifts’ simply because you’d never buy them for yourself, and of course when the Whos get these they pretend to be elated when really they're thinking, ‘What the hell am I going to do with this thing?’ Or maybe his heart was two sizes too small. But somehow I doubt that’s it.” Well, it’s Lindsay's turn now, or I'd tell you all about how unrealistic the rest of the story is, with the Whos holding hands and singing after their whole village was ransacked. Daddy says the story should have ended with days of riots, which galvanize the Whos into really looking at themselves, and realizing how petty they all are, and they turn to the Grinch as some sort of oracle, or guru, since he alone broke through the thin veneer of good will and exposed their Who society for the gussied-up sham that it really is. I kind of agree, that would be much a more satisfying ending.

LINDSAY: Another family tradition we have, though it’s in the fall, is going to Apple Hill in the gold country. There are all these apple orchards and they have markets selling gobs of apples, and little shops selling apple pies and other treats. Best of all was the caramel apple. It was right at eye level in the display case at one of the shops. We'd had one last year so I was pretty sure the ‘rents would buy another if I asked nicely. They’re real big on asking nicely and remind me about it every single time I ever ask for anything. You’d think they’d get over it. Anyway, the other problem is that I couldn't remember “caramel apple”--the name of it. It had been a year since I’d last had any. I tried to reason it out. It’s on a stick, like those yummy lemonade popsicles Mommy makes. But these aren’t frozen lemonade, they’re apples covered with caramel. Finally I said, really nicely, “Can I please have one of those caramel-ade apple-pops please?” Then they laughed at me. You see the hypocrisy here? I have to say please, so nobody gets offended, and then they laugh in my face. It’s not just the please thing either. We’re not even supposed to say “I know.” Like, Alexa will say, “Lindsay, some trees can live up to a thousand years,” and I’ll say, “I KNOW.” The ‘rents think that makes me sound like I’m bragging, or like I’m implying that Alexa doesn’t know anything I don’t. So instead of “I know” I’m supposed to say “Indeed.” Who says “indeed”? Nobody, that’s who. On the other hand, the ‘rents aren’t totally inflexible on this, as long as I don’t say “I know.” Like, I can say “True, true” if I want, or even “Man, you ain’t never lie!” (even though that’s not good grammar).

Well, the kids have had their say. I guess you can tell we’re all doing really well! Have a great Holiday Season and a better 2009!



  1. I'll tell you who says "indeed" -- Dana Albert, that's who. We would all do well to take a page from the Dana Albert book of "Correspondence Sign Offs" and sign more of our emails, "indeed".



  2. If Dana really likes something you say, he'll respond by saying, "Good." If you've said something really cleaver that Dana really likes, he might respond with, "Very good." We might consider responding more often in this way as well.

  3. Perhaps my understated parenting style is influencing my overall interpersonal style. I'm very careful not to be one of those parents who says, "Oh, Bobby, you ate the whole hot dog! GOOD JOB! You're SO smart!"