Counting Thoughts

Some people say that Holiday’s like Christmas are all about giving.  “‘Tis better to give than to receive,” and all that hooey.  I have very mixed feelings about the gift giving holidays.  I want to get presents.  Let’s be honest, don’t we all?  I think anyone who says, “I don’t care about receiving presents.  I just like giving things to people and watching their faces light up when they open the package,” is lying through their artificially whitened teeth.  (I don’t know why the teeth are artificially whitened, that’s just the first thing that came to mind and we’re going to go with it.)

I like to GET presents, but I HATE to give them.  I do.  It’s not because I’m stingy or selfish.  I’m not.  I do like to give people presents that they genuinely enjoy and appreciate.  There is a commercial that keeps playing on the radio right now: I think it’s for Roku (Obviously not a very good commercial because I had to try six different spellings, “Orocu, Orokoo, Arocu, arocoo, etc.” before I actually found ROKU with no O or A in front of it.)  The commercial says something about knowing the different between genuine appreciation and fake appreciation when you give a gift.  I?  I get the fake appreciation most of the time.

I don’t usually try to give people gifts that will blow them away.  I don’t make any sort of effort to surprise people, because I suck at it.  I ask people “What do you want?” and then if I can afford it, I give it to them.  If I can’t afford it, I ask, “What else?”  I hate it when they tell me, “I don’t know.”

I’m just not very good at gift giving.  I suck at gift giving and I come by it naturally.  Observe:

One year, when I was about fifteen, my mother decided, seemingly on the spur of the moment, that she was going to give us something for Christmas.  She ran out on Christmas Eve, in search of some kind of gifts for her children.  The next morning, after we had our traditional Pillsbury cinnamon roll breakfast, we each opened a small package with our name on it.  Each package contained one embroidered dish towel and one pot holder…  with Santa Claus on them.  Again…  I WAS FIFTEEN.

Last year my mother sent me a green t-shirt with a giant Grinch face screen printed on it.  She couldn’t have known by looking at the shirt that the dastardly smiling mouth on the shirt only serves to highlight my much maligned and despised gut.   I also don’t appreciate being referred to as “The Grinch”, which is what she calls me when she’s not calling me Scrooge.  I never have and never will wear the shirt out of the house.

Last week I received a text from my mother:

“I’ve ordered you some Christmas goodies from Harry & David.  Don’t know when they’ll arrive but be on the lookout.”

By chance I came home that night to a box on my front steps.  I opened it up and found a metal tin inside with three different flavors of Moose Munch.  If you don’t already know, this is Muse Munch:

And these are my teeth:

Give or take a few months and a different color rubber band.

I texted her, “This is some awfully mean stuff to send a guy with braces.  😉  Good thing they’re coming off soon.  :-)”

“I completely forgot about the braces!” she told me.

I answered, “It’s OK.  They’ll be off in a few weeks.  That stuff will certainly keep.  Thanks for sending it.  Should be tasty.”

She asked, “Did you get both boxes?”  I told her I only got one.  “The other one will be a little more braces-friendly, I think.”

The next day a second box appeared on my steps.  “This box has air holes…” I texted to her.  “Did you send me a puppy?”  This box had six pears, a small bag of mixed nuts and a block of cheese.  (See the picture of my mouth above.)  I’m not particularly fond of fresh pears, though I don’t know if it’s realistic to expect that she ought to have known that.

It’s clear my mother doesn’t know how to give good gifts, though certainly she means well.  I wrote yesterday about all the pressure, expectations,  and demands on holidays and this is just part of it.

I’ve been thinking, these last several days, about gifts and how I feel about them.  There was a time when I bought into the addage, “It’s the thought that counts” only, I don’t think I believe it anymore.

I’m fully prepared for the one person who actually comments on my blog with any regularity (and the one person who just has to talk to me in person about it because she’ll explode if she puts her thoughts down on the blog instead of – or maybe in addition to – talking to me about it in person) to give me all kinds of grief over this, and that’s okay, but just hear me out.

I have so much stuff.  Way too much stuff really.  I don’t need more stuff.  And I’m beginning to feel like gifts for the sake of gifts? are just stuff.  It’s stuff I can’t throw away, or give away or return, because if the giver catches wind that I got rid of his gift so that it won’t be just stuff, the giver will get his feelings hurt.  The thing is, if the giver gave me a good gift, then it wouldn’t be just stuff it would be something of value, something I might treasure and therefore, would not get rid of it.  I’m coming to a point where I feel like, if  I don’t need, or didn’t already really want, the item the giver is giving me, it’s actually a burdon.  And because I feel this way, I feel very ambivilant about giving gifts because I don’t want my gifts to be seen that way, and so I’m just adding to the pressure on myself to give good  gifts so that they won’t be just stuff and I’m no good at it.

If you’re like me, though, you buy yourself all the affordable things that you need or really want and it’s the things that you can’t afford that you really want someone to give you, only they can’t really afford it either and so there’s nothing for them to give you because you’ve already bought all the things that people can afford that you want.  It’s a vicious cycle.

I’m not sure, now, where this post was going to go, though I’m certain it was a very different direction.  What I do know, now, though, is…

Give money!

I think that’s what I’m going to do from now on.

If everyone who was going to give me a gift, just gave me money instead, maybe I could pool all that money together and spend it on something I really wanted, like an iPad or a new television instead of a box of pears and a —  Well, I don’t know what else, because I really only expect to get one other gift and I have no idea what it will be…  probably Glee DVDs.

Apparently, Michelle was going to buy me a new printer since the one I had doens’t work with my new-ish computer…  But I bought myself one on Saturday so now she has to come up with something else.  Way to go, me!  But in “me’s” defense, Michelle stood right there and watched it happen and didn’t say anything until we got back to her house with it.  She could have stopped me.

OH!  I know where I was going with all that!

I’ve been struggling for the last several days with the idea of gratitude and appreciation vs. expectations and dissappointment.

When I opened the box of Moose Munch, I was dissapointed that my mother sent me what amounts to caramel corn and chocolate chips.  (You Moose Munch enthusiast can just back-off.  I’ve never had it and I can’t eat it for at least another two weeks and probably six.)  It’s food.  She sent me food for Christmas.  I can afford to buy my own food so this didn’t fill a need.  A quick glance at the Harry & David website tells me she probably spent close to $30.00 on this caramel corn and chocolate chips.  Plus she sent the pears and cheese.  Another $40.00? At least it is food and will go away.  It’s not just stuff.

On the other hand, there were lots of years when she didn’t give me anything.

So I can’t help but wonder…  Am I making too much out of this?  Is it really “the thought that counts”?  Am I just ungrateful?  Is it my own fault for having too high expectations when I find out someone sent me anything at all?

Then again, it occurs to me that since I can’t remember any of the gifts I did get when I was a kid, and more often than not, I can’t remember a few months later what I gave anyone or what anyone gave to me…  Maybe it is the thought that counts…

The truth is, I’m feeling simultaneously grateful and dissapointed, I just would like to open a package and just be delighted by what I find.  But the fact that I feel grateful and dissapointed at the same time is soemthing in itself.  I’m certainly not accustomed to the ability to acknowledge two contradictory feelings at the same time.

By the way, the pears are awesome, much to my surprise.

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The Reason For the Season?

Like pretty much everyone else lately, I’ve been thinking about Christmas and holiday spirit and gifts and so on.

Growing up in a Christian family, I was always tought that Christmas is about celebrating Jesus; “Jesus is the reason for the season” and all that.  I don’t exactly dispute that, it’s just that, growing up in a Christian family, I always felt like Jesus should be celebrated all the time and “Jesus is the reason for every season”.  I don’t need a special day to remember Jesus.  I remember Jesus every day.

Christmas was usually a bad holiday for my family.  My parents split up when I was two yeas old and when I was a really little kid, everybody thought I was lucky – and I kind of did too – because I got to have two Christmases.  I remember huge holiday events at my dad’s house in Cincinnati, Ohio where I lived until just before my 9th birthday (in Cincinnati, not my dad’s house.)  My brother and sister and I would go to my father’s house for the week leading up to Christmas.  My father’s wife’s oldest son worked for a local establishment called Swallen’s.  Swallen’s was a “department store” of sorts though it was more along the lines of a Walmart Superstore.  Their tag line was “Anything you want, everything you need, you’ll find it at Swallen’s” and it was pretty much true.  The location where this pseudo relative worked had everything I could think of (except automobiles) right down to a boat dealership and a lumber yard across the street from the main store that had housewares, electronics, clothes, groceries, you name it.  The store offered employees and their “families” a 20% discount so we did all our Christmas shopping there.

On Christmas Eve, we would have a big gifting extravaganza.  I remember one year specifically.  My father was renting this enormous house on hundreds of acres of land.  The living room was on the back corner of the house, with a screened in porch off the back.  On the inside wall of the room was an enormous fireplace and on the outside wall was a gigantic bay window-type floor to ceiling protrusion where the Christmas Tree was set up.  Santa had been very generous that year and there were so many presents under and around and behind and for several feet in front of that tree, I, at about six years old, was beside myself with anticipation.

The Swallen’s employed pseudo sibling was fond of trick gift wrapping and I remember that year he gave two gifts that completely stumped the crowd.  He gave my sister a small stuffed bear, but to wrap it, he bought a large flat box of Puff’s tissues and carefully opened the end, removed most of the tissues, and stuffed the bear in underneath the top layer before sealing the end with glue so it looked unopened.  My sister later admitted that she was almost in tears at the idea that this person had given her a box of tissues for Christmas until he told her to open it and she discovered the real gift inside.

He had also given my father an axe for Christmas, but the way it was wrapped it seemed certain he had gifted my father with a guitar.  It was only after the outer layer of paper was removed and my father discovered a layer of cardboard and another layer of paper that we realized he was up to his tricks again.

Ironically, I do not remember a single gift that I received that year at my father’s house.  I suspect it was a lot of clothes, mostly second-hand and garage sale purchases, I’m sure, and all to be kept at my father’s house (my mother wouldn’t let us bring clothes to my dad’s house because they always came back dirty, she said.)

There were seven of us in this party and by the time we finished unwrapping all the gifts, we were swimming in a waist-high sea of wrapping paper.  I have vivid memories, which I’m certain in my older and wiser years are not real, of us shuffling that sea of paper, with our feet, into the now roaring fireplace.  Surely that would have resulted in burning the house down, but that’s how I remember it nonetheless.

With all the paper burned and all our gifts put away it was off to bed and up early for the long, cold drive back to my mother’s house on the other side of town.

My father, at that time, drove a beat up old Ford Maverick he didn’t even own, comprised of spare parts from two different Maverick’s left on the property he rented.  It was an ugly amalgamation of baby blue and lime green side panels with rusted out floor boards and it ran on scavenged parts held together with chewing gum and desperation.  There were holes in the floor we had to actively keep our feet out of as we watched the roadway fly by beneath us.

That Christmas morning was bitterly cold, the temperatures having dropped to below zero, and an ice storm had passed through overnight.  After 14 years in California, I can’t even conceive of sub-zero temperatures and ice storms anymore.  I remember sitting in the back seat of that beat up old Maverick with my sister, huddled together and teeth chattering like…  Well, like this:

My oder brother sat in the front passenger seat next to my dad, and at some point I remember my father becoming concerned about my sister’s and my feet becoming frost-bitten and so he told my brother to wrap his scarf around our feet and rub them to keep them warm…  Well warm enough.  I didn’t really feel like we were that bad off, but my brother, who I sort of hated and who resented if not hated me, was being forced to do something nice for me so I wasn’t about to speak up.

Eventually, we were back at my mother’s house and we walked in to another bright Christmas Tree, overflowing with gifts.  It was the early 80’s and my mother worked for a tech company that still gave out Christmas bonuses.  While we were at our dad’s house she had been out shopping up a storm making it a very exciting Christmas for us kids.  I remember anxiously looking through all the gifts, wondering which ones had my name on them and my mother telling us we couldn’t open any presents until after we ate the big breakfast she had prepared for us.

I don’t particularly remember any of the presents she got for us either, interestingly.

A couple of years later, my mother and siblings and I moved from Cincinnati to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, where we never had another good Christmas, ever.  My parents unofficial custody agreement when we moved was different, depending on who did the telling.  They began to fight over who we should spend the holidays with.  My father felt that he should get us for Christmas, since we lived 900 miles away and he hardly ever got to see us (he had a point.)  My mother felt like it wasn’t fair to her that he should get us for every holiday (she had a point.)  At some point they decided that we should decide… We, their 9, 12 and 14-year-old children, should decide who we were going to spend our Christmases with, placing us in the unenviable position of having to disappoint and hurt one of our parents.

We always stayed with our mother, quite possibly for no reason other than the fact that if we chose our father we would be subjected to her pouting and guilt tripping for the weeks leading up to his arrival to whisk us away and if we chose our mother, we’d never see his pouting and feeling sorry for himself.  This is just one of many examples of us being responsible for our mother’s feelings and behavior.

I don’t know when Christmas bonuses went out of style, but my mother never received one after we moved to Oklahoma (and I’ve never received one at all.)  Christmas became harder as she had three teenage children to support and no extra money to spend on gifts.  Before long, we had chosen to stay home with our mother who couldn’t afford to do anything for us and so, in spite of having chosen to stay with her so that she wouldn’t pout and guilt trip us for leaving, she pouted anyway, because she couldn’t afford to do anything special.

Come to think of it, it wasn’t until this time that my mother really started pushing the “celebrating Jesus’s birthday” angle.  I think I always resented it because it felt more like a justification, or at least an excuse for why it was okay that we didn’t have gifts at Christmas.  It felt disingenuous because it was new and contrived, just something to soothe the ache; whether it was her ache or our own, I do not know.

I grew to hate Christmas.  All the holly jolly and the cheer, the incessant Christmas music everywhere you go, the pressure to be happy and “feel the holiday spirit”, all the togetherness and FUCKING HAPPY PEOPLE!!!  And most of those fucking happy people?  Aren’t!!  They just act like they are because it’s what people expect of them.  I hated the season, the build up, the antics and attitudes, and I just couldn’t wait for it to all be over!  My mother took to calling me Scrooge, because she thought it was funny to make a literary reference and a dig at her most sensitive child, all at the same time.

So naturally, I worked for three years in retail, because where else should a Scrooge work during the holidays, than AT THE MALL!!!

I had enough.  Not just of the holidays but of the family togetherness and the expectations and demands and general atmosphere of my life.  I moved away… As far away as I could get, without crossing a body of water.  I spent my first Christmas with another family, because that’s what you’re supposed to do… apparently.  Because being alone on Christmas is somehow shameful and pathetic.  I spent the afternoon with a family I didn’t really know, in an environment I didn’t really enjoy and watching as they all exchanged gifts and I had nothing to give and received nothing in return.  They were perfectly lovely to me and I’m still friendly with that family today, but I came to realize that Christmas is a time for family togetherness.

The first two years after my first niece was born, I went back to Tulsa for Christmas.  I stayed with my mother and visited with friends and spent time with my family… and experienced all the same old strife and resentment and pressure and bitterness and general sucky, sucky time.  The second year, my mother was completely unreasonable, and when I stood up for myself, she acted as if she was going to hit me.  I vowed then and there never to spend another Christmas with my current family again.

I realized, Christmas is a time for Family togetherness, as long as the family is your own family and you can stand to be around them.  I spend Christmas alone now and I’m content to do it.  Sure I’d like to spend it with people, but I’d like to spend it with the right people and at this point, I haven’t found the right people.  I’d like to spend my Christmases with my Ross, Rachel, Phoebe, Monica and Joey.  (I left out Chandler, because several people have told me that I remind them of Chandler – or at least my sense of humor does.  Could I be any more different?)

Deb asked me at our least session how I felt going into the holidays.  Our next session won’t be until after Christmas and she just wanted to know how I was doing with the looming occasion.  I told her I’m fine.  And I meant it.  I am.  Yes, spending the holiday alone is a bummer, but I’m used to it, more importantly I’m fully aware of the fact that I choose it.  If I was going to spend my holidays with other people, I would want it to be like the friends on Friends.  A bunch of people who are like me either in that they don’t have family locally, or they do not want to spend this time with their family if they do.  Until I find those people – Deb referred to them as my “chosen family” – I will spend it on my own and be perfectly content to do so.