If You're Home Alone, You'd Better Not Pout. Call Up Some Friends
and Create Your Own Holiday Tradition.
By MARTIN BOOE
Most folks greet the holidays as a time
of celebration, or at least they pretend to. In my family, we didn't even
bother pretending. My dad was in the candy business, and during the
holidays work went into overdrive. Everyone was pressed into service (I
spent a lot of time after school packing orders in the walk-in freezer).
I still kind of miss the hustle and bustle of it all, but the truth is that
by the time Christmas Eve arrived, we were cranky and exhausted from the
long days of work. For this reason, Christmas has never been the best time
to visit home, and so for a number of years, I've waited out the holidays
Oh, lonesome me, a single guy alone in
the big city for, as the song goes, "the most wonderful time of the year."
It's enough to bring tears to your eyes. But I've probably had more fun
winging it with other orphans than slogging through the traditional family
festivities. And if you find yourself in a similar position, exiled to the
strange winter warmth of Southern California while your loved ones revel
in some frostier clime--well, there are coping mechanisms. And believe me,
you will not only survive, you will prevail.
I have learned to be dodgy about
accepting invitations from happy couples, especially the recently wed, and
the newly in love. They have a way of getting tearful over their own
good-heartedness--after all, they've brought a lonely single person into
their home. They also have a habit of rubbing your nose in their own
connubial superiority--"smug marrieds," as author Helen Fielding calls them.
I made that mistake for the last time
in 1989, when I spent Christmas Eve with a couple I will call Sarah and
Bill. They had been married about six months. Sarah was either a throwback
to her grandmother's generation or a prototype of the kind of brownshirt
homemaker soon to be unleashed by Martha Stewart. Their apartment was a
museum of country kitsch (scented candles and handmade wreaths). But, like
a John Carpenter movie, there had to be a monster lurking around there
somewhere. There was: Sarah. In her family, people held hands and sang
songs while her mom played the piano, a tradition she was dead-set on
re-creating. Since Sarah was the one playing the piano, that meant Bill
and I had to hold hands. I really, really didn't want to hold Bill's hand,
but Sarah made me. At intervals, with misty eyes, she would look over at
us and they would smile at each other. I wanted to kill them both, an
impulse I was trying my best not to show. On the other hand, borderline
unhappy couples can be quite good company; they're more likely to drink
heavily and genuinely rejoice in your presence because you're both a
tension breaker and a welcome distraction from their marital bugaboos.
Like Sarah, a lot of people expect the
day of celebration to conform to their own script. If you deviate from
your assigned role, they turn into frantic drama teachers whispering
lines from the wings to the amnesiac star of the high school play. ("God
bless us, every one, dammit!") According to marketing mythology, the
proper Holiday Spirit is a sustained state of euphoria that would require
more of the party drug Ecstasy than could be consumed by several hundred
frat boys at an all-night rave.
Over time, I have learned that attitude
is everything when it comes to facing the holidays solo. It is essential
to embrace a pessimistic frame of mind. That way you won't be disappointed.
I just learned to throw away the script, although I have to admit my first
couple of single-guy holidays were pretty miserable. I once had Christmas
dinner alone at Popeye's Chicken. Another repast consisted of canned
spaghetti and baked beans. I and a guy named Walter Dumani, now an old
friend, were living Kato Kaelin style in the house of a well-to-do doctor
in Pasadena. The setting was regal, even if we had no money for food.
But I've lived here for 15 years, and I
have organized a revolving confederacy of Holiday Orphans who, at the very
least, won't mope just because they're not up in the Holiday Spirit
stratosphere. "What are you doing for Christmas?" we ask each other.
Implied is recognition that the word "Christmas" has been retrofitted to
reflect a group that includes an East German atheist, two Persian Bahais,
three nonobservant Jews, a couple of devoutly lapsed Catholics, a shamanist
and at least one narcissist. So in terms of tradition, there is a complete
lack of conformity. This can be delightfully liberating.
I hesitate to paint too rosy picture of
these gatherings as multicultural lovefests because as the years wear on,
there is an increasing amount of family-style bickering. But there's a good
deal of good food. The Persians bring their sour cherry rice, the East
German's mother, who often visits from Berlin, will sometimes roast a
goose, and the American and the Europeans argue about how to grill. (The
Europeans aren't happy unless everything is charred to a cinder.) I have
intermittently inflicted upon the group a few of my own family's Southern
specialties, such as oyster casserole and winter green beans in bacon
fat, which received a mixed reception. All in all, it's a culinary Tower
Weather permitting, we start in the
backyard, usually about 2 p.m. Holiday music, having long since worn out
its welcome in supermarkets and malls, is strictly forbidden. Our friend
Mike Dressel, the East German, plays deejay, shuffling through CDs like
a crazed croupier, lurching from Django Rheinhart to Blind Lemon Jefferson
to Hawaiian slack- key guitar music. Since Dressel did time in prison for
trying to jump over the Berlin Wall, he eventually spins 1960s East Bloc
dissident folk music, at which time somebody threatens Dressel with a
hammer and forces him to settle into Bob Marley. As for cocktails, forget
the eggnog--anybody for a mai tai?
A few years ago, my friend Larry
Kurnarsky was noodling away on the piano keys when we spontaneously
concocted a shtick that came to be dubbed "The Non-Specific Ethnic Hour."
This routine, performed in the vein of a foreign-language radio show,
involves speaking and singing in complete gibberish, with intermittent
breaks into English to announce the address--7896 Sepulveda Boulevard--of
a fictitious business.
I suppose that, subconsciously, this
may have grown out of the polyglot nature of our get-togethers. Whatever
the case, I noticed that a couple of years ago, the gibberish had become
codified. I wasn't quite sure whether to be alarmed or amused when one
friend, tears streaming down his face, began interpreting the sounds with
a fair amount of conviction. But then Larry gave a signal and everyone
broke into the "Non-Specific Ethnic Dance," which resembled an ungainly
twist on Cossack dancing.
It's funny how the holiday spirit sneaks
up on you when you least expect it. Somehow, we had accidentally started a
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