a carthaginian christmas

En route to our holiday festivities, my husband wondered why I hadn’t engaged in my usual buoyant domination of the radio waves with Christmas songs. I demurred, and admitted when pressed that it hadn’t seemed worth it this year: last year, I was awash in holiday cheer when a series of wretched events, beginning with Newtown and ending with my more or less loss of a sister, turned Christmas into the kind of desperate miming of happiness that I always associated with older, inept people who don’t know how to chase the badness out of their lives.

Turns out you can’t. Not always.

And if I began my harnessing of those all-Christmas-all-the-time radio stations as a direct counterpoint to the fear and sadness that gripped my hometown immediately after 9/11, it has to be said that at no point in the intervening 12 years has my delirious–though earnest–embrace of the holidays appeared to bring joy to anyone but myself. People hate Christmas songs. They don’t even like eating together at the same table for any great length of time. If they are faced with the option of a snowy venture, either among trees or in the quest for a snowman, and the couch, they will choose the couch every time. So I said I hadn’t seen the point. I said the things I always used to resent everyone else for saying–that people are just going to be stressed out about food and gifts, and there will be lukewarm receptions and passive aggressive comments and barely-held tempers and just, why bother. Why bother getting excited about it when it’ll only let you down. And my husband said to me, in an attempt at comfort, that we ought to overlook the bad and enjoy the good; that some of the bad things weren’t to be helped because “we’re all different people and we get more different than each other every year.”

And I thought, well, yes. That’s the problem.

And it was. Cocooned in a kind of emotional cryogenic state I put myself into on long-term guest (i.e., no blood kin) visits, I watched him blow up at flagrant displays of racism, sexism, and good old classist arrogance. I watched the people he had grown up sowing a history with hurt him through their own ignorance and occasional selfishness and watched his efforts to convince them of the wrongness of what they thought and how they carried those thoughts into the world and inflicted them on others fail. He failed because, like patron-state relations in a civilization strategy game, his influence had decayed. He had counted on being the trusted brother with the voice of reason; a role he had mostly forsaken over the years as distance and other concerns got in the way. I knew what he felt because, albeit in a much less chivalric fashion, I’d done the same thing ten years before. There are no encores. There may be hidden perks, like suddenly finding yourself the most cheerful or steady in a group in which you used to be the black sheep, but still. Don’t ever count on those city-states not setting fire to your walls again. The agreement has ended.

Because yes, you do keep becoming more different than each other every year. And it would be great if that just meant meaningless differences like taste in home decor or preference in beer vs. wine. But sometimes it means whether or not you think people of a different color or class or chromosome set than you are worthwhile human beings. And when the answer is no, it can be difficult not to feel betrayed by the people you grew up thinking–being told, really–would be the last people to betray you, ever. These people who are now dismissing large swathes of the population as in some way beneath them. These people who are labeling you as idealistic or uptight for calling them on their bullshit.

This is the first holiday season I have felt like an adult. Stalwart, resigned, restrained. Desiring a retreat into a corner with a book and away from comments I knew would jab but which jab no less for the heads-up. This, then, must be why we keep propagating these idyllic images of childhood holidays: it’s less about the gingerbread men and snow angels than about still being on the same page as everyone else regarding the logic behind gingerbread women always being consigned to dresses, or of the existence (or not) of angels. It’s about remembering the times before you were so different from each other, back when you were too blind to question the prejudices you’d been handed with your breast milk. Back before you noticed them in others.

Because, like the roles you can’t reprise, those kinds of disappointments can’t be unseen or unheard. And it makes you that much more different than each other, every time, in a way that isn’t cause for celebration. At all.

your casual racism is ruining my holiday

No, I’m not talking about Black Pete. (Hardly casual, that.) Or the South Carolina sheriff refusing to lower his flag in honor of Nelson Mandela. (Don’t think racism beats at the heart of that? You don’t know South Carolina.) Or even that SNL sketch.

I’m talking about a series of bullshit, thoughtless, oh-duh-well-of-course-everyone-thinks-this-way things that have been said around me over the last month or so, by white people to white people whom I used to think were pretty okay.

And they’re not okay.

I don’t just sit there quietly. I call them out on it. But because I don’t actually call them names and storm out in a fury, I feel like my responses have been subpar. Consider this little gem overheard a few weeks ago at a relative’s house:

“You want to hear what I did last weekend? You’ll flip out, it’s tooootally something you’d tell me never to do.”

“Haha, what, like sleep with a black guy?”

Excuse me?

This particular relative wasn’t a blood relative, so in the split-second pause I took to try and collect my thoughts into something more coherent than “Did you really just say that you racist asshole?!” my husband, blood-related, let fly with pretty much everything I would’ve said. But it kept going. And I chimed in. But neither of the relatives who har-har’ed this bullshit into existence seemed to be buying our conviction that it was, in fact, total bullshit. Why in the hell wouldn’t you sleep with a black guy? Why in the hell would you advise someone younger not to do it either? How have I been in the same room as you so often over the years and not known how incredibly offensive, misguided and revolting you are in your thoughts about race?

It kept going. In an hour or so the talk turned to retail strategy–more specifically, complaints that Black Friday sales might be low because “I don’t know how much business I’ll get because all these Asians just want to buy from each other in their own crappy stores in their own language–they don’t even speak English!”

We left.

But I’m furious with my inability to address these problems in a way that causes my interlocutors to change their mindsets. So I googled “your casual racism is ruining my holiday,” hoping someone had already written something to fit the bill. And I found this. And sure, I rushed to disseminate it across my social networks in the faint hope that some of the offending parties might see it and read it and do something about their attitudes. But even in the likely even that none of them do, I now have a source for calm, explanatory statements to draw from when all I feel is fury in the face of statements and jokes like those I’ve heard over the past few weeks. Prior to this, I’ve been pretty successful at removing obnoxiously narrow-minded people from my life, but that’s not enough anymore. (Okay, it never was–now I’m just trying to do something about it at last.) If you say this shit around me I’m going to call you on it. Maybe I won’t call you the scum that you are, but I’m going to try to tell you why you’re wrong.

…And if I have to flip over the Christmas dinner table to tell you, I’m damn well going to do it.

marathon (wo)man

If you don’t have answers to your problems after a four-hour run, you ain’t getting them.” — Christopher McDougall, Born To Run

That’s the biggest reason I ran my marathon.

Of course, there was also this, with which I resonated keenly. And I wanted, to be sure, the unicorns-and-rainbows endorphin euphoria following the race. But more than that, I wanted answers. And to some extent, I got them.

Because, there were trolls. Maybe I invited it, wearing my school’s colors that day, but as I clapped and cheered the handful of elites whipping past me at my mile 11 and their mile 14, already past their turnaround, one of them waited until he was directly abreast of me–no chance for me to respond before he was gone–and bellowed, spittle flying out of his mouth and peppering my cheek, a derisive comment about my school. And then he was gone. And for a split-second I thought, “did that just happen?” And the answer was yes, and also that it didn’t matter.

Ever since it became fashionable for people to cut their wrists in middle school, I’ve been at war with negativity. I’ve dropped friends and authors and comics and shows, because I cannot and will not take it. I have a limited amount of time on this earth and I steadfastly refuse to spend it bemoaning the misery of all things. I am abundantly aware that this opens me to criticisms revolving around a lack of empathy, or an imperfect application of it, but I. Do. Not. Care. I’m not going down your dark hole. You cannot make me.

And while running my almost five-hour run, I saw lots of darkness. A husband on his hands and knees puking, bellowing at his girlfriend/wife to just shut up and let him catch his breath. The college football troll (who, amusingly enough, actually trolled me under a bridge). People swearing up one side and down the other, cutting each other off; race patrollers on bikes snarking about some “fatass” back down the trail who “was really feeling it, I mean god, her face was this red! You’d better keep an eye out for her.” 

And, too, there were the memories of negativity. I thought, for a bleak moment, of the faux-concern with which my unwittingly nasty acquaintance (I do her the benefit of thinking there is a syndrome at work in there somewhere that prevents her from seeing how cruel her daily words and actions are) would regard my time–which, on the trail that was much rockier than had been advertised, was guaranteed to be well past the mark I’d said I’d be aiming for. And this didn’t matter. I thought of my sister, whose mate had spent the better part of the previous evening trying to bait me with loudly-proclaimed pro-gun anecdotes. And this didn’t matter either. One by one, all the cynical and snappish people and sentiments that had settled in my memory like a bad spice on the back of your tongue melted away.

All that mattered was that I keep flinging one foot in front of the other until I reached the next spectator point, at which my husband, my dad and my dogs would be waving and photographing and howling. I don’t know if there’s an etiquette to race-side spectatorship and I don’t care if they broke it, because they were there, at every cross-street, cheering and smiling and telling me how good I was doing and that was it, that was it, that was keeping me going–they were all that mattered. Not the thought of bragging about the race later, or of hanging up the medal at home or even of the endorphin euphoria The Oatmeal promised was around the bend. My shoes were too thin for the rocky trail; each step felt like getting my foot mauled by a dog and I let myself sob on the lonelier stretches of wooded trail. But I just wanted to see the lot of them around the next curve. Smiling and waving and completely bereft of all the nastiness I spend my life trying to sluff off, like water off a goddamned duck.

It took 26.2 miles, but I managed to do it, for once.