Thursday, December 23, 2004

Families up close and personal

Today, Christmas Eve EVE, the shoppers were out in force. The church parking lots were empty, but the shopping centers were PACKED. Downing a few sparkling glasses of champagne looked more tempting by the minute. And Regis and Kelly announced the plug-it-in-prizes they'd give out (XM radio sets) to the entire audience for their 11th day of the "12 days BEFORE Christmas." (How does the notion of "away in a manger, no crib for a bed" fit in with an Ipod that can hold 1000 songs?) So the rush is on for MORE and that upcoming deadline late Friday night after the stores have closed, and Santa fires up the reindeer and goes around squeezing his fat ass down chimneys around the world.

Families are gathering together, hoping once again to string together a series of special moments about which they'll be sentimental for years to come. And there will be millions of those moments - mainly because receiving gifts is fun - especially if the quality of the gifts show that someone cares enough to pay real attention, up close and personal. But many others' hopes will fade or crumble as the complications of the modern techy/sportfest real world that is American Christmas. We think we want to get away from it all and end up loading it up with more of everything.

There is the dark side of all that familial up close and personal attention. Lots of families think they have to try too hard and cook too much and get everything on the list and gossip about some relatives and gripe about others and keep the TV on and the drinks flowing. The overwrought and overwrapped American Christmas is a recipe for family disaster, especially with the preponderance of really wildly dysfunctional families we have in this country. Heck, most of what we see on TV is dysfunctional families - if not dysfunctional murderers. (Why is there a 24 hours festival of James Bond movies on for Christmas? Who wants to sit through another "Law and Order" interrogation Christmas eve and Christmas day? Or watch the footballers slug it out?)

How DOES the typical American family define "quality time" these days? Spending $80 at a movie theater? Renting videos? Playing tug of war with whatever got unwrapped last? Eating? Talking about getting the food out? Going on about those sickly sweet desserts?

That guilty pleasure small talk about desserts drives me nuts - I'd take turkey over apple pie anyday, and broccoli sounds better than a bunt cake any day. But then there's that danger in getting families to talk about anything besides the food - and being nice about it. Take politics. Please. Take sports, pretty please. Supposedly functional families can start riots over almost any topic besides the bland and banal.

And politics. How can it be so public and private at the same time, so ripe for debate and so off limits? A whole heck of a lot of families and even friends are going to have a RED and BLUE Christmas this year, drawing lines in the sand with their sharp swords. Yikes!

So, many of us head home with thoughts of loot, competition, resume regurgitation, small talk and trepidation. We spend the few days right before Thanksgiving and Christmas making fluctuating lists in our minds of the topics that are safe and the topics that just aren't safe. Are the families in other cultures so disparate? So at odds? So snide? So competitive? Diversity is a supposed virtue in this culture, but in a family, diversity and distance make for insults and anxious times.

Variety is the spice of life, but up close and personal, all too often, our families are so spicy hot we get burned.

It's a good time to recall the supreme value of laying low, being notably agreeable, eating your vegetables, and having decent grown up conversations.

Peace in the kitchen, play fair in the yard, and good will 'til whenever.


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