That's Something You Don't See Every Day, Chauncey

Watch me pull a rabbit outta my hat!

A Story for Christmas, 2014

Posted by kozemp on December 25, 2014

Okay, so, yes: I did not write a Christmas letter last year. At least three of you have expressed some consternation at this fact, and in the event that more than three of you were in any way put out by that, consider this tale my official apology. Inasmuch as I am official in any way, which I have come to learn over the years is in fact not very much.

There were two primary reasons I did not write a letter last year.

The story of the first reason:

Last summer – summer 2013, I mean – I got word that a friend of mine had taken his own life.

There are jokes coming, I promise, just bear with me a second.

So I get this news, and as you can guess if you don’t know already, I was thrown for loop pretty hard by this. I did what I did, you know, processed the whole thing in my own stupid, ineffectual, mostly useless way, and more or less carried on with my life.

Around about October of last year, though, I found myself having a tough time with a whole bunch of other things that were very pointedly not related in any way to my friend’s recent suicide, and for the first time in many years I went to see a psychologist.

If you’ve never been, seeing a psychologist isn’t too different from seeing any other doctor for the first time. There’s a lot of paperwork. A LOT. The big difference is that the paperwork at the psychologist, instead of asking things like “have you had any major surgeries in the last 5 years” or “how many medications do you currently take,” says “have you thought about harming yourself recently?” (Though, now that I think about it, it also asks about medication.) So I dutifully filled out the paperwork. I’m awesome at doctor’s office paperwork; I do a lot of it and once you get some practice you can get a decent groove going.

After I finished it I sat down with the doctor and we went over it together. We talked about the times I’d previously seen shrinks, my general life situation, stuff like that.

At one point he looked at the paper, frowned, and then looked at me.

He said, “on the question about ‘recent major events,’ you wrote that a friend of yours committed suicide?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Over the summer. But that’s fine, it’s not why I’m here.”

My psychologist raised his eyebrows.

I literally made a dismissive wave with my hand.

“It’s not a big deal,” I said.

Spoiler: it was a big deal.

The thing of it, though, is that my late friend was one of those folks who make a point every year, for some reason, of telling me how much they enjoy my silly little Christmas letter. And when the time came last year… I wish I had a better answer than “I just didn’t have it in me,” but that’s what I’m going with. I thought a couple times over the 24th and 25th about sitting down and banging out a little something, but I never got past the thought of doing it. I’d try to think of something to write about and no worthy idea would ever come up; there was not, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, any there there.

However, I did say there were TWO reasons, and it is distinctly possible that some part of why I was unable to string five words together in an acceptable order was because I was bone tired, just absolutely wiped out last Christmas.

The story of the second reason:

In the midst of everything else that was going on at the time, my mother managed to catch the world’s worst case of food poisoning last year on about December 22nd. She is and was fine, of course, but at the time it was very serious. She was in the hospital for a couple days and we didn’t know if she’d be home in time for Christmas until they discharged her around noon on Christmas Eve.

I am vaguely ashamed to admit that at the time I was… not AS worried about maintaining the appropriate Christmas traditions as I was worried about my mother, you know, dying in the hospital, but I’m not going to lie to you and say I didn’t spend at least a few minutes contemplating the inequality.

In an effort to maintain as much of our traditional Christmas as I could, though, certain sacrifices had to be made, and the biggest of those was that I wasn’t able to get out of the house. Someone had to stay home, man the phones, keep the place decent, etc etc, while my father was at the hospital.

So I stayed home, which meant that I could not get to the charity wrapping station at Willow Grove.

I would have to wrap all my presents for folks myself. And wrap my parents’ presents for each other.

I was, to say the least, not good at wrapping presents.

I was, in point of fact, astoundingly bad at wrapping presents, and frankly that kinda pissed me off.

You may have heard – not from me, mind, but around – that I am not a stupid person. I know essential survival phrases in something like 6 languages.* I can perform multivariate calculus in my head. I read the Aeneid in Latin and there are, at this very moment, satellites orbiting this planet that literally have my name on them.

Taping paper to boxes? Sorry, Johnny, no can do.

So in addition to being wrung out from the ordeal with my mother and her inability to keep nutrients in her body, I spent hours – hours, people, hours – the two days before Christmas sitting at my dining room table with piles of presents and scraps of garish red and green paper shouting “WHY CAN’T I DO THIS?!” at volumes loud enough to get you kicked out of the Bellagio. (A decibel level I can now pinpoint with precision.) By the time the notion of writing the Christmas letter came around, in addition to my psychological issues with the whole endeavor, my brain was pretty much fried by tape and scissors and recurring daymares of Darth Vader wielding a cardboard wrapping paper tube instead of a lightsaber.

Which leads us to this year, and the fact that in addition to hearing around the water cooler that I am pretty smart, you have probably also heard that I may have a problem with what we will charitably call “hubris.”

On Monday I was at Willow Grove – Monday, not Sunday, that shit don’t fly no more – getting a gift for my mother. After my purchase was complete the very nice sales lady said, “would you like us to wrap that for you?” and my brain lit up and I said “YES! YES I WOULD!” far too intently.

The store would have people who are TRAINED in gift wrapping. Who were, most likely, experts at it.

I would watch them. I would study them. I would commit their every motion to memory. And then, when I got home, I would use my stolen knowledge to wrap my gifts myself this year. Not because I had to. No. Because I WANTED to. Because I COULD. I would steal their knowledge and use it to my own ends and become the gift-wrapping god that was my birthright – nay, my destiny.

And so I watched. I watched that woman practically without blinking. It’s a good thing she was concentrating very hard on wrapping my mother’s gift because I am fairly certain the way in which I was staring at her would not have been deemed polite, my excuses of “I was just watching your hands!” to the contrary. (Actually, as I read it now, “I was just watching your hands” is not really any less creepy.)

I watched. I studied.

When she handed me the box I said “thank you,” and meant it more than I’d meant a “thank you” in a long time.

I had studied her more intently than I’d studied anything since I had an Iranian chemistry professor who barely spoke English and I had to teach myself acid-base equilibria. I studied her carefully, and successfully. I had her secrets. I had her power. I was like Sauron with the One Ring in his grasp. I now had the ability to destroy all the gift-wrapping in my path.

I got home and took out one of my presents for my mother. I repeated what I had learned from the store wrapping person. I matched her movements exactly. I was her mirror image – she might as well have been there herself at my dining room table.

I smoothed out the last piece of tape, looked at my handiwork, and said, “oh what the FUCK?!”

My wrapping job looked like the thing from the transporter malfunction scene in the first Star Trek movie.

Now this is the part where what a normal person would do is look at the pile of presents on the table, then look at the epically atrocious job they’d done on the first, then look at their watch and say, “well, I’ve still got time, I can get this lot to Willow Grove and have the nice ladies wrap them for charity.”

This is the part where what I did was look at the pile of presents, then look at my epically atrocious wrapping job, then grit my teeth – literally grit my teeth – and say, “I can do this,” and pick up the scissors.

By this afternoon, the entire pile of my presents and those of my parents was wrapped and ready to go under the tree. I use the word “wrapped” in its loosest possible sense here, but still. The presents are ready to go under the tree, and yes, they are a mess of gaps and wrinkles and miles of tape that look like something the United Nations would issue sanctions for if a government dropped them on a civilian population.

Two years ago I wrote about how the important part of Christmas isn’t the present, but the time – the time you spend figuring out and getting that gift, whether it’s the “perfect gift” or just some little thing, that the gift is a physical distillation of time you spend thinking about someone else.

Staring at a pile of wrapping jobs that would make HP Lovecraft run screaming in terror I realized that I actually kind of liked having that extra bit of time thinking about other people. It is, after all, the thought that counts.

They don’t ever say what “the thought” actually IS, but I’m hoping “I AM WRAPPING THESE GODDAMN PRESENTS MYSELF NO MATTER WHAT” qualifies.

Merry Christmas, all.

JLK

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* “I am an American,” “where is the train station,” and “I need water.”

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