A Christmas Memory

(with apologies to Truman Capote, who I think would have understood)

Bob BurkhartEvery year around this time, one of our friends cheerfully asks us to recount our favorite Christmas memory. Every year around this time, we have to remind her that people who grew up in dysfunctional families don’t have favorite Christmas memories. They have vivid Christmas memories, but those aren’t the same thing.

I wish we could have taken our cheery friend to a recent church service commemorating the darkest day of the year (that is not, as you might suppose, the Solstice – that’s the longest day of the year). The minister riffed on the fact that while Christmas is frequently about families getting together, exchanging gifts, preparing food, telling stories, making new ones, it’s not that cheery for everyone. Some people are lonely; some are ill; some are dealing with loss. Not everyone is happy around the holidays.

Certainly part of me isn’t this year. A few months ago, I made plans to visit my friend Bob (see photo) in Las Vegas for his late-October birthday. He had moved from Silicon Valley a couple of years ago, hoping to become a STEM teacher; it didn’t work out primarily because of Clark County’s ridiculous educational bureaucracy. And although he liked the weather in southern Nevada, it was clear that he was lonely. He warned me after I sent him my flight information that he’d had been fighting a horrible bout of the flu.

Except that it wasn’t the flu; it was the onset of congestive heart failure. He died a couple of weeks later, just days shy of his 59th birthday.

Bob was a big man, both in size and heart. I hate that the latter failed him. I miss him. I fear that the worst part of getting older, especially for those of us with really good genes, is accumulating more and more memories of departed friends and loved ones. It doesn’t help that one of Bob’s favorite activities was throwing an annual Solstice party. This year, we’re getting together on that day with some mutual friends to toast his memory.

That’s what’s hovering over Christmas present. There’s also Christmas past. Some people, like us, simply don’t have fond memories of those either.

For my spouse, whose parents were florists, Christmas was one of their busiest and most hectic times of the year, equivalent to Valentine’s Day, Easter, and Mother’s Day. Her parents had no energy left over for the yuletide. As for me, I remember my father yelling at my mother for paying $25 for the top-of-the-line Lego set for me one year. Even more vividly, back when I was around twelve, I remember the Christmas morning of the flashcube.

We were at our beach house (we were not destitute). My sister had received an Instamatic camera as a gift. It used those light-blue flashcubes to illuminate the subject. My sister was goofing around, and put her foot on an ottoman next to me; I took a picture of her big toe. In addition to setting off the flashcube, it set off my father. He started screaming about how expensive flash cubes were and how wasteful I was. He opened the front door and yelled at me, saying I might just as well have thrown thirty-five cents into the street. As my wife has gently pointed out recently, my father’s path in life was not to be my parent. (When we spread his ashes in the Pacific, even though it was illegal to do so, I added a quarter and a dime so that he would have the money in eternity.)

Don’t get me wrong – I love the holidays now. Our tree is adorned with ornaments from all the places we’ve visited around the world. My wife and I stuff stockings with each other’s favorite candy. We watch Miracle on 34th Street and Scrooge (the 1951 version). I love cooking Christmas dinner. I’ve made molasses gingersnaps using Bob’s recipe – twice – in his honor.

This is the lesson I will try and take away this year, and every year: The old memories will never completely dissipate. They’re here to stay. What’s important is to keep making new ones, nicer ones, so that one day, perhaps very soon, we’ll be able to recount to our friend that we’ve finally created our favorite Christmas memory.

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The Four Things That Are Really Wrong With Love, Actually

Andrew Lincoln in Love, ActuallyHere in the midst of the first post-Me, Too holiday season, there has been an Internet meme about the inappropriateness of Andrew Lincoln’s holiday caroling scene with Keira Knightley in Love, Actually. This meme may actually have been started by Lincoln himself, who told TV Guide back in 2017 that he thought his character was a creepy stalker.

Disclosure: I love Love, Actually. It’s become one of our favorite holiday movies. When Colin Firth proposes to Lùcia Moniz in broken Portugese, I’m the puddle on the floor. Nor do I think Lincoln’s character was creepy – I thought it was sweet that he finally revealed to Knightley why he’d been so cool to her.

However, if we’re going to nitpick about what’s become a holiday classic, I do, however, have other issues with the movie.

  • Hugh Grant looks way too young to be prime minister.

I don’t mind Hugh Grant as prime minister; I just wished he’d looked a little older. Of course, if he’d been considerably older, then his relationship with his aide, played by Martine McCutcheon, really would have been me-too-creepy.

  • The scene where Grant goes looking for McCutcheon “at the dodgy end of Wandsworth.”

Admittedly, it’s sweet to see the prime minister interacting with his constituents on Christmas Eve, but really, doncha think the head of the country would have access to an address database?

  • The whole horny Colin subplot

The film clocked in at far longer than any audience could stand, so director Richard Curtis did lots of snipping. I wish he’d cut this whole sequence, in which Kris Marshall finds his way to Wisconsin and hooks up with a stunning quartet of horny girls. In his dreams. It would have been much sweeter if he’d just found a demure farm girl and fallen in love … even if it would have meant losing Denise Richards at the end. (Curtis did cut a subplot about Thomas Brodie-Sangster being a gymnast in addition to a drummer; check out the DVD’s deleted scenes to see how silly it might have been.)

  • Laura Linney’s inability to turn off her phone

Really? The man of your dreams brings you home, and you still can’t let the attendants at your brother’s institution take care of him? What are you paying them for?

Disclosure: None of these will keep me from watching again this year.

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Silicon Valley: Describing the Indescribable

A couple of weeks ago, I was in New York City for a conference, and a local author, hearing where I lived, asked me to describe Silicon Valley.

At first, I wasn’t sure how to respond. In writing about technology for thirty years, I’d steeped myself in the history of the valley (there are those who trace its origins all the way back to the California Gold Rush). But she wasn’t interested in history. She was interested in now. I suppose to outsiders, it does seem like an intriguing place. But like most places, it has two sides. I described both to her.

The most famous side of Silicon Valley is the one of lore, though it is no less real for being famous, because dreams do come true here. The people that live here are dynamically and manically focused on solving problems through technology, of making the future better, so much so that it bristles and sizzles with the seemingly osmotic exchange of ideas and innovation. In that valley, financial lightning can strike in a flash, bestowing untold winnings akin to a lottery.

The flip side of Silicon Valley, I told her, is just as real, but less shiny. It is a valley of overwhelmed infrastructure, of too many cars and not enough roads, of too many buildings and too little water, of too many people and not enough public transportation.

It is a valley where all those untold winnings trigger their own nightmares. People with inflated home values stay put sell to avoid whopping capital gains taxes. Government mandated tax loopholes like Proposition 13 keep people in their houses long after they’re working, or enable them to retain low tax rates by bequeathing those homes to their children. The tech lottery winners drive up the cost of the remaining housing stock. Lines at stores stretch on Saturday afternoons because no one being paid minimum wage can afford to live here.

That was my capsule explanation for this author. I likened it to the original California Gold Rush, where only a few miners struck it rich, and the rest went home empty-handed. But for many – now and then – the air buzzed, and people lived in a time and place that they could tell their grandchildren about.

I neglected to elaborate, but there’s more, and it’s worrisome. Part of this perspective, I admit, comes from our decision to flee the valley for quieter climes, and can be attributed, truthfully, to justification and rationalization for that decision. But still …

The cracks are beginning to show. The winners in Silicon Valley exhibit an excessive level of entitlement and competitiveness, whether it’s beating someone in something as big as a deal or as trivial as a parking space. The losers in Silicon Valley exhibit an increasing level of anxiety, whether it’s trying to pick up a child from day care before penalties ensue or figuring out which bill to pay.

The problem is that on the surface, entitlement and anxiety pretty much look the same. There’s a difference between being desperate and being an asshole, but it’s impossible to discern whether someone acting like an idiot deserves scorn or sympathy. And that makes life extremely difficult, even when you’ve grown up here and seen so many changes transpire already.

It’s easier to just leave, and that’s the saddest part of all.

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A Moving Experience

As the weeks count down toward our move north to Oregon, I am faced with an unanswerable question: why in the hell did we spend so much money on so much stuff that we’re now spending so much time trying to get rid of?

Even with a house far too big for two people, there was never enough wall space for the framed posters and artwork; there were never enough display cases for the toys and tchotchkes; and there were never enough guests for all the dishes and silverware. It was like we were intentionally trying to piss off the ghost of Thorstein Veblen.

Our conundrum became clear when our real estate agent insisted that we declutter the house in preparation for showings. What? We’ve spent 14 years turning it into the house we wanted, and now we have to take everything out? To add insult to injury, once we removed our clutter, the stager brought in a bunch of other clutter; we never quite understood why our clutter was inferior to her clutter.

Unexpectedly, once the house looked a little more austere (as long as no one looked in the closets and drawers), we were intrigued. We kind of liked these Spartan surroundings, and vowed to emulate them in the new house. That required a newfound discipline in terms of redistributing what we owned. It’s a process, but we’re progressing … and processing.

The thing I hate the most: our garage looks like Spielberg filmed the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark there. Boxes and boxes and boxes. I’ve been haunting the local moving supply stores, not to mention cadging boxes from our local grocery store (parts of the garage have so many wine boxes, it looks like I hijacked a liquor distributor’s truck). I’m frankly tired of squeezing my way through narrow passages of boxes in constant worry about knocking, bumping, dropping, falling, or some other participle that brings back aural memories of Fibber McGee’s closet.

If that weren’t bad enough, it seems as if our stuff procreates in the night. Open a new drawer or closet that you swore you packed, and there’s more stuff in there. I worry about either ending up with too much stuff left to pack, or too many unused boxes (yeah, like that ever happens). Having the stuff-versus-box ratio come out even at the end is one of life’s unsung pleasures.

This too shall pass. Eventually we will get everything packed and then unpacked in its place in our new home in a new city. It will be a house full – but not too full – of art, music, and flowers, with a huge Douglas fir in the front and a babbling fountain in the back. The cats will adjust to their new home, and hopefully forgive us for putting them in cages for twelve hours. We will resist the temptation to fill up every inch of space.

And somewhere, Thorstein Veblen will be smiling.

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The Most Unexpectedly Wonderful Thing About Getting Older

I have become delightfully aware of something that I never expected about getting older. Simply put, it’s not the heirlooms that are things, but the heirlooms that are people. This concept was driven home to me by three conversations that happened fairly close together recently.

Item No. 1: We were at a party when my fraternity brother Josh launched into the story of how, in my dual roles as Kappa Sigma rush co-chair and Stanford Daily movie reviewer, I had wangled admission for members and pledges alike into the opening night of Star Wars at the Century 21 theatre in San Jose. It was May 25, 1977.

One never tires, of course, of hearing anecdotes in which he’s the star, but it dawned on me that it took place more than forty years ago. That story is older than my father was when I was born.

Item No. 2: I was having lunch with my friend Rich at the Olive Garden. We were bantering, as we tend to, and the waitress – who was probably young enough to be our daughter (or granddaughter, if we’d really been serious about it) – said, “It sounds like you guys have known each other a really long time.”

I looked at Rich and Rich looked at me. We were both doing math in our head and realized that we had first met in Boy Scouts fifty years before.

Item No. 3: Brian and I grew up next to each other; except for the garages, our houses had identical floor plans. Our fathers were both small businessmen. Our mothers both worked. Off and on, we went to the same schools and lived in the same towns, seeing each other occasionally, like Dickens characters. Now, sixty years later, we see each other more regularly.

We were having dinner with our spouses at a German restaurant. “I’m not sure I understand this menu at all,” frowned Brian. “But Brian,” I whispered across the table, remembering what he’d told me once about his mother’s heritage, “You’re half German.” His wife looked at me and said, “You’re one of the few people that knows that.”

Getting older, I’ve quickly realized, is not all bad. It’s an opportunity to look back on a tapestry woven over time, with friends who thread in and out along the way. And it’s not just a tapestry of the good times – there are memories of relationships gone awry, of job decisions gone wrong, of health scares and nightmares – the whole gamut of life over multiple decades. We don’t talk about those bad times, but we hold the memory and sympathy in our hearts – carefully and tenderly.

And sometimes, because we’ve known each other long enough, and enough time has gone by, we can take out the bad times and giggle at them. One of my fondest memories of my friend Andrew revolved our raucous laughter on an island vacation as I recounted the story of the time my wife had to drive me to the emergency room. She was driving so fast, I thought I was going to die even before they could have a chance to treat me. It wasn’t funny when it was happening, but it was sure hilarious in Hawaii.

I consider myself so lucky to be surrounded by so many longtime, long-term friends, the ones who remember the best and worst about me and still trudge forward. More than anything else, I treasure my heirloom friendships.



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Sucking Out The Poison

Something different happened this past weekend. I knocked over a glass of milk, but I didn’t shriek and I didn’t call myself a moron. I got a sponge and I cleaned it up. It took about a minute. It was a nice feeling.

I don’t know how I got this way. Wait, that’s not true. I do know how I got this way; I just don’t remember getting this way. I can only imagine that many decades ago, when I did something that small children do, like knocking over milk, my father screamed at me. It created what someone explained to me as a highly developed startle response.

I don’t remember being yelled at. But I do know that somewhere along the way, I developed a deep, instinctual sense of shame and fear for doing something clumsy. For doing something that kids can’t help. And now, decades later, after years of therapy and recovery, I’m trying to fix it, to finally suck out the poison that my father injected into me day after day.

I did take one positive step many years ago. I decided not to have kids. My gift to the succeeding generation was not to rain upon them the terror of the previous generation, and the easiest way to deliver that gift was not to have a succeeding generation. I’ve never regretted that.

I have regretted that I’ve carried the poison of the previous generation in my blood, as sure as I carried its DNA and hereditary traits. It wasn’t even that I heard their voices in my head, although I do remember that my father would frequently rail about us kids “taking stupid pills.” No, this had to have happened earlier, before I was good at forming memory.

All I know is how it manifested itself, turning me into a neurotic, people-pleasing goody two-shoes (and when I wasn’t that, I was the exact opposite: a manipulative, cruel asshole). My years of therapy taught me to love and nurture that little boy – because his parents were so bad at it – but like Soviet agents launching a cyberattack, they got into his basic operating system, and did such a fantastic job of it that all the subsequent apps in the world couldn’t erase what they programmed in at the very beginning. It’s a frustrating state of affairs: to want to reboot and not knowing which buttons to press on the keyboard.

In the realm of recovery, people say it’s never too late to have a happy childhood. I don’t agree with that. I’ll never be able to go back and change an unhappy childhood. But more than sixty years in, I’m just trying to be patient. As with any twelve-step issue, admitting the problem is the first step. Hearing that the startle response had a name was wonderfully empowering. Short-circuiting it is challenging, but I’m trying. I’m trying to be patient with myself. I’m trying to be patient with that little boy. I’m trying to act, rather than to react.



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The End of Complacency

About this time next year, Republicans will be cursing the name of Newt Gingrich. Gingrich is widely credited for eliminating the concept of bipartisanship in Congress. In lambasting the idea of compromise, he managed to rile up the right-wing Republican base to such an extent that they rabidly went to the polls and voted. They may have been single-issue voters, but they voted.

Meanwhile, according to this PBS report, voter turnout has been falling. The articles cites a study from the United States Election Project noting that “only 36 percent of registered voters cast ballots during the 2014 election cycle, the lowest turnout in a general election since 1942.” Conventional wisdom suggests that voters just don’t care. Everyone in Washington is corrupt so what’s the point of voting?

I have a different theory. It’s not that they don’t care as much as the fact that what Washington did didn’t have much effect on people’s lives. We kind of wafted through a middle course without doing too much to screw up employment or the economy (2008 notwithstanding), so unlike the right-wing Republicans, no one else really had the motivation to go to the polls.

Enter Donald Trump.

With his slash-and-burn tactics, aided by Republican control of the House and Senate, he’s got people paying attention. I suspect that a lot of people didn’t like Hillary Clinton. Seeing polls that said she would easily win, people could not vote for her and still enjoy her presidency. Oops.

Now, seeing the United States slip further into a plutocracy, headed by plutocrat-in-chief Trump, I suspect that complacency in the American voter is on life support. Increased turnout in the off-year election last month in Virginia indicate change may be afoot (New Jersey did not have a commensurate increase, however). Voters now understand what can go awry when they don’t exercise their right to vote.

The result, I predict: the House and Senate both flip next year, turning Trump into a lame-duck president, if not a sitting duck for impeachment charges. But it doesn’t stop there, and that’s why I’m predicting the call for Gingrich’s head. The pendulum is going to swing back, and hard. It’s going to reverse course with enough force to topple some of the horrific changes we’ve seen in America the last eighteen months.

We’re going to see more laws favoring abortion rights, but not gun rights. We’re going to see immigration regulations relax. We’re going to see taxes go up on the rich, and maybe even the Pentagon budget go down. And the Republicans, back to their minority status, will be powerless to do anything about it. The right-wing that brought this on will be absolutely apoplectic.

But none of this would have come to pass if Gingrich hadn’t goaded the Republicans to play unfair in the first place. So for all those rabid right-wingers who believe so fervently in the Bible, look up Galatians 6:7: as ye sow, so shall ye reap.


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