Surviving Christmas: Lessons from Clark W. Griswold Jr.

Hosting Christmas is often a cinnamon-baked decathlon of stress and anxiety.

There’s a million things to do.

After work you grind through traffic to Target. You park miles away. You hustle across a frozen parking lot. You stop to catch your breath at the closest shopping cart corral. You promise to stop eating so many cookies.

You funnel through the electric doors with the rest of the huffers and puffers.

You elbow your way through the aisles   fighting, searching for a set of holiday hot plates which of course–they don’t have.

When you get home you microwave some chicken and spend the night cramming Christmas cards into envelopes that were apparently meant for smaller Christmas cards.

Your weekends are spent bustling about the house hanging new picture frames, vacuuming between couch cushions, cleaning out closets and replacing those burned out hallway light bulbs you meant to change in November.

You think about alcohol but you have eaten breakfast yet.

You’re short-tempered.

You bark at your dog, your kids, your spouse.

You complain about the weather, the traffic, the cost of cheese and that your cousin from Tulsa hasn’t responded to your Christmas dinner Evite.

And as you stand at your kitchen sink in your bathrobe, eating another Christmas tree-shaped sugar cookie you can’t remember the last time you didn’t have a headache.

But alas my merry-less friend, there is hope this holiday season.

In this dizzying stretch of Pollyannas, secret Santas and ugly sweaters Hollywood (of all recent places) has provided us a savoir. A savoir who hails from the sprawling suburbs of Chicago. A savoir who, in 1989, was rumored to be a finalist for the Food Additive Designer of the Year.

Clark W. Griswold Jr., the lovable patriarch in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is determined to provide his family a “fun old-fashioned family Christmas.”

But as holidays often go — whatever can go wrong, does go wrong for Clark — pushing him to the brink of insanity and striking a chord with anyone who has ever hosted the holidays.

However at the end of the movie, after a SWAT team destroys his house, the big-hearted Clark stands shining like the 25,000 white Christmas lights that adorn his house. Clark is a 10,000 watt beacon of hope who may have inadvertently taught us how to enjoy the stressful holiday season.

Temper your expectations

Like Clark, we all want the perfect Christmas. So we inflate our dreams. We convince ourselves that if we can buy the right gifts, get the right tree, bake the perfect fruit cake Christmas will be perfect this year. But even in Hollywood the perfect Christmas doesn’t exist. So when we set our expectations dangerously high, we only increase our stress and anxiety and prohibit our ability to enjoy Christmas.

Limit yourself

Clark’s desire to have the “best looking house on the block” represents someone trying to do too much. During the holidays we over-schedule, over-extend ourselves which consequently drains our spirit. We have to remember that it’s okay to say “no” and do less —  so we have more energy to do the things that really matter.

Don’t overspend

Clark puts a down payment on a swimming pool and plans to use his Christmas bonus to pay off the rest of the pool. However, instead of a financial bonus his boss, Frank Shirley, enrolls Clark in the Jelly of the Month Club and jeopardizes Clark’s ability to payoff the pool. Lesson — stick to a reasonable budget this Christmas and invest in relationships and glad tidings instead of material possessions.

 Remember that this is a special time

At one point Clark is home alone and stuck in the attic. To pass the time he finds a projector and plays reels of home movies from Christmases of his youth. As adults it’s so easy to forget how much happiness the holidays once brought us and how quickly our children grow up. It’s so easy to get caught in the holiday mayhem that we forget how important the magic of Christmas is to our children.

Adapt

In the opening scene Clark leads his family through the woods that is packed with knee-high snow to pick out the perfect Christmas tree. However, once they find the tree Clark realizes he forgot a saw. In the next scene the family is driving in their station wagon with their new Christmas tree strapped to the roof — roots and all. There’s a good chance you’re going to forget something, overlook something this holiday season. Roll with it. Don’t let not having a saw stop you from enjoying the holidays.

Accept your family

Cousin Eddie: “You surprised to see us Clark?”

Clark: “Oh Eddie…if I woke up tomorrow morning with my head sewn to the carpet I wouldn’t be more surprised than I am right now.”

It’s natural to look across the dinner table and wonder how you could ever share genes with these people. But the holidays are bigger and more important than you and your grips and quarrels. You can’t choose your family but you can choose your attitudes and reactions. You can choose to accept, embrace and if the situation calls for it forgive.

No matter where you’re celebrating Christmas I wish you a joyous and stress-free Christmas.

And hopefully you can steal some time to stretch out on the couch, finish off the last of that cookie platter and enjoy National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

Be well,

Jay

 PS–Checkout my cousin Dan’s homage to Clark and Cousin Eddie!

I don’t think my daughter believes in Santa Claus anymore

Christmas morning is a great moment in parenting history.

The excitement. The smiles. Your children jumping and dancing and rejoicing because Santa Claus is real and he was really listening to their wishes and he was really watching as them clean their room, share their toys and muscle down broccoli all year long.

There’s wrapping paper strewn across the living room and the children are playing with their new toys. The fireplace is glowing and Frank Sinatra reminds you to have a merry little Christmas. Cinnamon buns rise in the over and hot chocolate rings your mug and you ease back into your favorite chair and smile as the moment unwraps itself before you.

Christmas morning, 2016

Then those children grow up.

They go to school and learn about things like distance and time. They learn about other countries and cultures. They study maps and spin globes. They realize there’s a lot of other kids in the world. They begin to privately  question the realness of a jolly old man and his high-flying reindeer.

And then one day some kid, usually one with an older sibling, confirms that the low voices coming from the living on Christmas Eve were in fact their parents spitting curse words while turning Allen wretches late into the night.

Haley is 9.

She reads Girls World magazine. She likes shopping at Justice, being lazy, has a pair of Unicorn slippers and finds her younger brothers to be mostly annoying, always disgusting.

Sometimes when she sings Ed Sheeran songs or explains the pH levels of solids I don’t recognize her. Sometimes when I hear her sing or talk and I’m sucker punched by time.

For the last few weeks her questions about Santa Claus have grown in both intensity and specifics. How does Santa fit all the toys in one bag? Since Santa only comes at night, how does he have time to visit all the kids in the world? And recently…Why does our new Elf on the Shelf have a tag hanging from her? Did you and mommy buy her at the store?

This is our Elf on the Shelf— Jesse. And yes, someone forgot to remove the tags.

Cindy and I know Haley’s belief is wavering. We may not want to accept the truth — but we know this is going to be her last Christmas of believing in Santa Claus.

She’s growing up. She’s starting to understanding matters of life. And that’s when the real parental work begins — teaching your children to believe when it seems there’s nothing to believe in.

What became of your belief in Santa Claus, is what became of your relationship with things like love and friendship. Once the initial magic of those things vanished — reality surfaced. And it was terrifying. You were experiencing the world in a rawer, more corporal way then ever before. You knew from this point on, your beliefs would be poked and prodded and on some days, ripped to shreds. And the act of believing, which was once so natural when you were a child, was now subjected to hard, daily practice.

When you learn the truth about Santa Claus, you learn a lot about life. When magic gives way to reality you feel disappointed, cheated and maybe little sad. But you’re young. You’ll recover. You just happened to learn a fundamental lesson of self-preservation— that in your moment of disbelief you still need to find a reason to believe.

Be well,

Jay

What my 7 year old son and a friend with a terminal illness said about happiness

I’d like to thank the Lexus “December to Remember” commercial for fueling my recent obsession with happiness.

You know the commercial: On a perfect snow sparked morning a well groomed man finds a new Lexus topped with a big red bow trophied in his sprawling driveway. The man smiles then hugs and kisses the hood of his new toy as his tall, attractive wife and their beautiful blue-eyed children stand nearby and smile and dote and radiate with plastic happiness as a voice tells you how easy and affordable it is for you to own a sleek, well-equipped Lexus.

The message is simple and clear — If you buy or lease a Lexus this holiday season you can buy or lease happiness.

Now that’s a good looking family…but it’s an even better looking Santa Claus!

The commercial then gives way to the football game my 7 year old son and I are watching. We’re curled together on the couch, sharing a blanket. It’s a rare scene, especially for December. My son, the Energizer Bunny, is almost always moving, always playing. And with the promise of Christmas so close, his energy seems even more boundless. But at this moment, he is still, as if someone removed his batteries, and I know this might just be my only time to ask him.

“Hey Chase can I ask you something?”

The quarterback drops back to pass. Chase delays his response long enough where I think he’s ignoring me. The quarterback completes a 12 yard pass to a receiver who’s shoved out of bounds by a streaking defender. First down.

The teams huddle and the referee sets the football at the line of scrimmage and without unlocking his eyes from the television looking Chase says, “Okay.”

A little surprised he was even listening, I nod and smile and ask, “What makes you happy?”

The quarterback drops back to pass again and Chase turns and looks thoughtfully at me, as thoughtfully as a 7 year old can look, smiles and says “ I guess…spending time with you and mom.”

“Really?”

“Yeah like when we all went to the movies last week. That was fun.”

He smiles.

I smile.

Touchdown.

I didn’t want to text my friend. She’s dying.

My friend Deb Dauer was diagnosed with ALS in September of 2013. Before her diagnosis, she was an elementary school teacher in the district where I teach and an early supporter of Write on Fight on. Now she’s chronicling her inspiring fight with ALS on her blog Not Gonna Be a Debbie Downer. 

Though my interactions with Deb have been mostly through email and Facebook, I feel a kinship with her. We are parents and teachers and writers who, for better or worse, wear our hearts on our sleeve.

I felt like an asshole bothering Deb with my pretentious existential crisis. I mean, she’s warring with one of the most hellacious diseases we’ve never cured. Clearly, she’s busy.

But the question lingered then gnawed. What would someone with a terminal illness say about happiness? 

It took me almost an hour editing and revising and second-guessing and ego-checking before I finally braved up and sent the following text…

“What makes you happy? Lately I’ve been obsessing over natural vs. plastic happiness and would value your sentiments. But please, no obligations. Be well.”

True to her awesome self, Deb responded with…

“What I’ve found that it is connections with other people that really make me happy. And in turn time and experiences with them.”

In the heart of the Lexus “December to Remember “ sales event Chase and Deb confirmed what I already knew, what most of us know — that relationships are the fruits of happiness. A 7 year old boy, a dying woman cemented such truth — we are fragile and finite but in relationships we find strength, we experience forever.

Why is such simplicity so hard to understand? Why do we foolishly think that one more material possession will sprout the happiness we so desperately desire?

And so if growing up is a just matter of perspective, it’s curious to think that we’ll spend so much pain, energy and money trying to realize what we knew all along.

Be well,

Jay

PS–Checkout this 6 minute feature on the Write-a-thon! I want to thank all my colleagues and students who made this awesome event possible.

So what are your bowel movements like? 13 serious questions I was asked on my first veganish Thanksgiving.

Almost four months ago I adopted a veganish diet hoping that it would relieve my chronic pain and lessen my steroid dependency. So far, it has. 

The workings of my new diet also stirred hearty conversation around the Thanksgiving dinner table when people realized my plate was void of turkey.

So here are 13 questions I was asked about my veganish diet while celebrating my first veganish Thanksgiving.

1. What do you mean by veganish?

Though I no longer eat meat and do my best to stay away from dairy, I occasionally eat foods that contain traces of butter and milk. So I’m a vegetarian and a casual vegan — I’m veganish.

2. Can you explain how your body feels different now that you’re on the diet?

My autoimmune disorder causes inflammation in my joints and muscles. And meat and dairy are proven to cause inflammation. So I believe a meat and dairy were further compounding my inflammation issues.

Pre-diet most mornings were rough. I felt as if the night before I had run a half-marathon wearing a lead track suit and snow boots. My muscles and joints would be tired and sore before I hit the snooze button. However, since the diet, when I wake up I’m not in pain. It’s funny– having endured so many rough mornings I actually forgot what it’s like to wake up and not be in pain.

3.What food do you miss the most?

It varies. For a couple of weeks I really wanted a real all-beef hot dog. So to satisfy my craving I tried a meatless hot dog that looked, smelled and tasted a little like Play-doh. But please know that not all vegan food tastes like a children’s toy. Some stuff is really good. But apparently duplicating the natural deliciousness of a hot dog is really tough.

4. Do you have a favorite vegan meal?

I’m still a novice in the art of vegan cuisine. In the last four months I’ve kept things really simple. I’ve eaten a lot of oatmeal, fruits, vegetables and peanut butter. However, I recently had chicken sliders made by Gardein which were quite tasty and paired nicely with a Sam Adams Octoberfest.

5.What advice would you give if I wanted to try a veganish diet?

Like any form of self-improvement you have to commit to your future-self. To suppress temptation, I’ve found that visualization really helps. I visualize my future-self exercising and playing soccer with my children again. You can find new levels of intrinsic strength when you combine physical practice with visualization. And this visualization is more satisfying then any hot dog could ever be.

6.Since you became veganish have you had a cheat meal where you ate meat?

No.

7.Have you eaten fish?

No.

8.Do you now do other veganish things like hug trees?

Only for this picture.

9.Are you going to try to make your wife and children adopt the diet?

This one is tough. Of course I want them to eat healthier, but adopting a new diet must come willing and naturally. I fear that forcing my new eating habits upon them may stage a rebellion. I hope that by modeling healthy eating habits they will adopt better habits themselves.

10. Do you take any vitamins or supplements?

Yes. Twice a day I take Vertisil for a balance and dizziness issues. At first I was skeptical, however it makes a huge difference. When I miss a dose I feel off-balance and dizzy. You can order Vertisil on Amazon. It’s $40 for 60 pills.

I also take two vitamin packs a day to ensure I’m getting enough vitamins and nutrients. The Peak Performance Total Health Vitamin Pack is a Melaluca product. The packs consists of 12 different supplements that support the major systems of the body. 60 vitamin packets costs $131.89.

11. Aren’t you always hungry?

No. When I’m hungry I eat. However, since avoiding meat and dairy I simply do not think about or crave food as much as I did before.

12. Do you think quitting meat and diary cold turkey was the best way to change?

Committing to anything is hard, daily work. At first I was afraid to commit. So I lied to myself. I said I would gradually change — cutting out meat and dairy one meal at a time. But I secretly knew if I wanted to change I had to fully commit since gradual commitment often takes more self-discipline then full commitment does. If I wanted to succeed I had to go all in. And I plus, I was motivated. I was tired of feeling like shit.

13. If you don’t mind me asking, what are your bowel movements like?

They’re once a day and they’re spectacular.

Be well,

Jay

You Can’t be Happy and Ungrateful at the Same Time: 50 Things from My Gratitude Journal

Happiness and gratitude are a package deal. You can’t be happy and ungrateful at the same time. Show gratitude and you’ll find happiness.

Dr. Robert Emmons, a psychology professor at the University of California, has spent his career researching the impact gratitude can have. Emmons stresses, “Gratitude is not merely a positive emotion; it also improves your health if cultivated. People must give up a “victim mentality” and overcome a sense of entitlement and deservedness.”

How often, in these hyper-speed times of ours, do we fail to slow down to appreciate moments and things that afford us happiness? How often do we feel discontented with our material possessions? How often to fail to give thanks for the gift of life?

In an attempt to grow my gratitude, to find new levels of happiness, I recently adopted the morning practice of writing down 3 things I’m grateful for. It’s nothing fancy. It’s just a pause every morning before the chaos of the ensuing day to acknowledge 3 things I’m grateful for. Some things are deeply personal and others are observatory. But all, in some way, have added to my happiness.

Here are 50 things from my gratitude journal:

1.The first sip of morning coffee.

2. A job.

3. Seeing my children smile on the first day of school.

4.That Paulo Coelho shared my review of his novel The Alchemist on his Twitter feed.

5.When old friends you haven’t talked to in awhile call.

6.That a healthy diet is relieving my chronic joint pain.

7. Inside jokes.

8.Talking sports with my dad.

9.Having a fair and honest work evaluation that provided meaningful feedback.

10.Sunday dinners with my parents and brothers.

11. My wife’s willingness to listen to my repetitive (and probably boring) work stories.

12.When former students return from college and visit.

13.Watching my parents teach my children how to play poker.

14. When strangers hold doors, smile and say things like, “Good morning” and “Have a good day.”

15. Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road”.

16. Having people read and share my writing.

17. My parents making me get a job when I was 14.

18. Viktor Frankl’s memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning for teaching me that real hope only arises when we find meaningfulness in our suffering.

20. Amazon Prime.

“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”
― Epicurus

21. Thank you notes.

22. The snooze button.

23. Listening to the staccato rhythms of my youngest son reading.

24. One of my students getting accepted into their dream college.

25. My son being voted Class President of the second grade.

26. Hot showers.

27. That my parents are still alive and have been married for almost 40 years.

28. Three day weekends.

29. The patter of my children’s rushing feet in the morning.

30. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien for teaching me about the power and humanity of storytelling.

31. Seeing my daughter score a goal in her soccer game.

32. That my wife supports me.

33. Having the financial ability to pay bills.

34. The ability to write and tell stories.

35. Mousetraps.

36. Seinfeld reruns.

37. The Philadelphia Eagles for currently exceeding expectations.

38. Listening to my children invent and tell their own jokes.

39. The freedom of choose how I respond to any given circumstance.

40. 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey for making me consider ways to improve upon my relationship with myself and others.

41. The Tim Ferriss Show podcast for reminding me that asking questions is a pivotal practice for growth.

42. Urgent Care facilities that are open late on Saturday.

43. Sam Adams Octoberfest.

44. Having a wood burning stove.

45. Falling asleep on the couch.

“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

46. Classroom laughter.

47. Classroom silence.

48. Well-insulated travel mugs.

49. Christmas wishlists.

50. My health.

Thanksgiving week is a great time to express gratitude. However, I’ve learned that sustainable gratitude is work. Like anything else gratitude requires daily attention, daily maintenance. This holiday season I hope you find time to focus on daily gratitude. It’s proven to boost your mood, deepen your relationships and if not for anything else — make you smile just a little bit more.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Be well,

Jay