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!

Why I Celebrated My Worst Day

When I decided to celebrate my worst day I had romantic dreams of baking a chocolate cake, coating it with vanilla icing and beautifully decorating it with some unabashed inspirational quote.

Here’s what happened.

It’s okay to laugh. Seriously. I know, it’s high fructose, high caloric train wreck.

Just in case you can’t read it, beneath the scattered sprinkles, squiggled in red gel is the iconic line from Bruce Springsteen’s Badlands — “Aint no sin to be glad you’re alive.”

Here’s why.

This past September 4th was a big day for me. An anniversary of sorts. So I baked and decorated a cake to commemorate the day.

On September 4th, 2013 I had my first MRI revealing my brain damage–large chunk of my cerebellum had degenerated.

The date has now become a personal milestone. In the days and weeks following September 4th, 2013 there was, as you could imagine, a quiet tension. The kind of quiet tension that lingers between the pages of hospital waiting room magazines.

With every test, with every confused doctor I grew more desperate, more convinced that I was going to die a young man.

Four years later my brain damage is still unaccounted for.

However, eighteen months after the MRI, a muscle biopsy revealed an autoimmune disorder, sarcoidodsis, that causes inflammation not degeneration.

Four years later doctors are still nosing through medical journals searching for precedent. They are still hypothesizing.

I say let them hypothesize. For the only fact that matters today is — I’m still alive. And according to the Boss, that ain’t no sin.

If the September 4th picture marks my worst day, a day which initiated the worst stretch of days I have ever experienced, I’ve learned that celebrating your worst day is an important step toward healing. Though I’m not physically healed, and may never be, mentally, emotionally and spiritually I’m stronger for having endured my worst day.

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstances, to choose ones on way. Victor Frankl author, psychologist, neurologist

Suffering is lonely work.

Often, when we suffer we alienate the very people who take us to our appointments, who hold our hand, who cry alongside of us.

It’s understandable that when we suffer we become selfish. We fall into ourselves. Yet by doing so we fail to recognize the anguish others are in because of our suffering.

Cutting cake (even a poorly decorated one) and celebrating your worst day is an important step toward healing.  A sugary reminder of how resilient the human spirit can be and how our lives, whether we want the responsibility or not, are the models that others will follow.

Be well,

Jay

A Mother’s Day Post: 6 Things Moms Worry About ( And Humanity Is So Grateful They Do)

Where would the world be without “mom worry”?

My mom worried that my youngest brother Kyle and I would not be close.

She worried that the 10 years that separated us would be too big of a gap to bridge brotherhood, to bridge conversation.

So mom decided that I, an innocent 10 year old, should witness Kyle’s birth, as a means of bonding us, so we would always have something to talk about.

“Hey brother, do you remember sliding down mom’s birth canal?”

“No.”

“Well I sure do! Can you pass the peanuts?”

Kyle (back) and I (along with my two sons- Dylan and Chase) taking in a baseball game, passing peanuts and reminiscing about the miracle of natural childbirth.

I walked into the delivery room…

… ripe with innocent enthusiasm, expecting to see a smiling stork glide through an open window and present us with a freshly baked child.

Instead, I staggered away from the “miracle”, grizzled like a Normandy invasion survivor– through the double doors and into the waiting room–wide-eyed, shell-shocked and afflicted with a head full of visual shrapnel never to be plucked from my memory.

Despite this,  I’ve grown to appreciate my mom’s worry and concern. In fact, worrying is one of the many things that moms do really well, and get little credit for.

On this Mother’s Day I wanted to offer appreciation for moms. I want to thank my mom, my wife and moms everywhere for providing the world with some much needed mom worry. For having the selflessness to worry about things that help keep humanity alive, comfortable and prospering.

Mom and I rocking some serious hair in 1982.

Shoes

I love my children. I really do. But I have never thought to myself, “Self, your children’s feet are growing by the minute, maybe you should turn off the TV and get your kids some new shoes.” Moms constantly worry about their kid’s shoes. Are they too tight? Too worn? Are they crushing their little toes? Do they make my child look homeless?

 Germs

On the mom utility belt–the Purell hangs next to a travel pack of tissues which hangs next to a bottle children’s Tylenol.

Children are gross and it’s understandable that moms sanitize everything. From shopping carts to monkey bars to toothbrushes, if it wasn’t for the hyper-sterility of moms, the Black Plague would have eaten the world into oblivion.

Lice

Speaking of the Black Plague, lice and their little white eggs have been infesting children’s head and the nightmares of moms since the 14th century.

Clean and folded clothes

Moms always worry that everyone in the house has clean and wrinkle-free clothing to wear. And now that I have three children, I understand how much clothing these critters tear through each week. Doing loads of wash every Saturday is heroic, but folding all those clothes in neat, stacked piles is superhuman.

Birthdays

You’re here because of them. And moms make sure that every year you’re acknowledged with a card, cake and if your knees are young enough–an inflatable bounce house.

School Picture Day

Moms worry about school picture day. A lot.  They worry about everything involved in picture day. Did I buy the right picture package? Is there enough wallets for Aunt Edna and Uncle Earl? Is there enough money in the envelope? Will my child smile? Is my child capable of smiling without looking psychotic?

My mom is the reason my picture graced the school yearbook every year. If it wasn’t for her concern, there may not be any visual evidence of me attending St. Ephrem Elementary between the years of 1986 through 1994.

Different hair styles but mom and I (and Dylan) are still smiling in 2015.

The problem is…moms just care too much.

They sacrifice sleep, go gray and entertain ulcers thinking and worrying about the welfare of others. Motherhood is a selfless odyssey. One spent catering to the needs, demands and grabbiness of children and husbands.

Frankly, I don’t know how moms do it.

But humanity and I are truly grateful that you do.

Much love to my wife on Mother’s Day! Thanks for all your effort, support, love and worry! We are better because of you.

And In case you’re wondering…

…Kyle and I are still close.  And honestly, our closeness has nothing to do with me witnessing his birth. We just both like baseball.

Defining Fatherhood: A Letter to My Daughter on Her 9th Birthday

Dear Haley,

It’s incredible. It really is.

9 years ago, a nurse loaded you and your mom into the back seat of our silver Chevy Malibu, shut the door, stepped back, offered a smile and suddenly our lives began together.

Surprisingly, sometimes life is that cut and dry.

One day you’re curled inside your mother and the next day you’re here, swaddled and waiting for a ride home.

I remember the drive home from the hospital.

As the engine hummed, I tried to comprehend how 9 months raced by like they never happened, and now you were suddenly here, snuggled in the back seat with your blue eyes fixed out the back window, watching the world in reverse.

Nervous and sleep deprived, I ordered myself to pay attention, turning off the radio, checking mirrors and gripping the steering wheel at the recommended 10 and 2 positions.

In that moment it became clear–I was a father. I was your dad. And on that day, my soul responsibility was to drive my most precious cargo, you and your mother, 4 miles from hospital to home. From point A to point B without incident.

Things Change, Things Remain the Same

Haley, somehow you’re 9 years old.

And some things have changed. You’re taller, smarter, louder and more self-sufficient then I could ever imagine. You know how to divide, multiply, work an Ipad and yesterday you informed me about the central nervous system and all its complicated functions.

Yet like our first car ride together (which was an absolute success!) there remains a certitude. I’m still your dad. I’m still responsible, no matter your age or crisis and no matter how nervous and sleep deprivation I am, for getting you from point A to point B.

Raising a Daughter

As a kid, I was raised on pro wrestling and domestic weaponry.

I spent most of my young life on athletic teams bolstered by boys, roughhousing with my brothers, proving my toughness, my invulnerability.

So understand, fathering a daughter is a little odd for me. This may sound strange, but sometimes you’re a familiar mystery. Sometimes I don’t know what to do with you.

You’ve change so much, so fast, that some days I stare at you, watch you smile, cartwheel about the house and watch your blue eyes sparkle in the sunlight and wonder how all this incredible stuff happened.

And I sometimes wonder how I will handle all the incredible stuff that’s yet to come.

Defining Fatherhood

Watching you grow up is both exciting and terrifying.

As we stand at the threshold of those tumultuous adolescent years, I’ve been thinking greatly about what kind of dad do you need right now?

The answer, I believe, is a simple one.

A dad defined is like any good driver.  Present. Focused. Anticipates dangers. Ignores distractions. Guides their child through the unpredictability of life.

A dad is there to help a child get from point A to point B.

And whether point B is your 10th birthday or some prom dress calamity or marriage or motherhood, if I did my job, if I was the dad you deserved, you’ll be prepared. You’ll meet your challenges with a patience, honesty and humility.

It’s become clear, fatherhood is not about meddling or interjecting or inflicting my will on you or filling your head with fiction. In fact, fatherhood really isn’t about the father at all. It has and always will be about the livelihood of the child. 

In 9 years you’ll be 18 and things will have undoubtedly change.

You’ll be driving yourself. You’ll be standing at the cusp of adulthood and may not need me the way you do now.  But despite my dwindling demand, my job description remains.

You need the dad who drove you and your mother home from the hospital 9 years ago. A dad to remain vigilance and focus.

You’ve entrusted me to listen, eliminate distractions, anticipate danger, embrace the incredible and enjoy the ride.

And my girl, I don’t want to let you down.

Happy birthday!

Love,

Dad

Couples Who Watch TV Together Stay Together

Over the last few years I’ve made a concerted effort to watch less TV and spend more time reading and writing.  Why?

Because that’s what all the productivity experts on the internet told me to do. Less leisure. More work. They told me if I want to become a successful writer, I’d have to eliminate distractions, turn off the boob tube and get serious because writing is serious business, only the truly dedicated welcome success and no legit writer spends their Saturday afternoons watching four hours of Impractical Jokers when there are things to write.

So I severely cut my TV hours. No Breaking Bad. No Walking Dead. No Game of Thrones. (And thankfully the Philadelphia sports scene has been pretty grim lately so it wasn’t terribly hard to miss a few games).

And I’m pretty sure that when I told people I didn’t really watch TV, while they politely nodded they were secretly saying, “You think you’re better then me?” (Ironically, a line made famous by the last show I was ever addicted to–Seinfeld.)

For years Cindy hinted that we should find a show together. Our show. Curl up on the couch, husband and wife and experience one of our great American privileges…TV.

But nothing ever came of it. We never found a show to satisfy a mutual desire to veg.

Recently, Cindy asked me to watch NBC’s This is Us. She kept telling me how good it was. How much I would enjoy it since it’s about thirtysomethings. People with jobs and kids and family drama. People like us.

“People like us?”

“Yeah, people like us.”

“That sounds terrible.”

And on I went, not watching TV.

But finally, on a lazy day between Christmas and New Years ( I say “day” because between those two holidays no one really knows what day it is) I submitted. I put down the books and laptop and sunk into the couch to watch an episode with my wife.

And 20 minutes later, I was hugging a pillow and wrestling tears.

This is Us is fantastic television. It’s a masterclass in storytelling.  The show examines the disjointed lives of the Pearson family and it’s episodes seamlessly weave together the past and the present with humor and gravity.

The characters are conflicted and tortured people. People like us.

this-is-us-on-nbc

Over the next few days Cindy and I binged the last 10 episodes together. ( Yes, my first TV bingeing experience… And no I don’t think I’m better then you!)

After us married folk meet the demands of our day, marriage is often attended to meagerly, if attended to at all. And the more children, the more responsibilities we stuff into a marriage, the less attention the marriage receives.

And the glint of those early honeymoon years– the quiet candlelight dinners, the weekend trips, the romantic rendezvous become amazingly distant and almost forgotten memories, like scenes from your once favorite but now canceled TV show.

Twelve years and three children later, most days Cindy and I struggle to find our time. After we both come home from work, “our” time is often a quick recapping of the day’s events while we clean up dinner dishes, coach our children through math homework, referee wrestling matches and do other adult things like pay bills, fold laundry, pick up toys and clean up spills ( I feel like I’m always cleaning up spills).

As life unfurls, I can feel the dynamic of our marriage changing. Changing in that we see and speak to each other less. It’s not intentional. Trust me, I love spending time with my wife, but our life, our responsibilities demand that we give our attention elsewhere.

Since it’s genesis, from tube to plasma, TV has had great bonding power.  TV watching is always best when its a shared experience. But binge watching This is Us with my wife, a show about the importance of family and community, reminded me that marriages, even stable ones need new, shared experiences.

So maybe the living room couch doesn’t sparkle with romanticism. In fact, our couch sparkles with forgotten Lucky Charms and lost Shopkins. But maybe the couch is the weekly (and not so secret) rendezvous we need.

Be well,

Jay

 

5 Things I Learned about My Family (and Myself) While on “Vacation”

I should have known the fates were against us when, instead of cruising west on Pennsylvania Turnpike as the fine summer sun christened the morning sky, I sat idling with a whiny two-year old Dylan on my lap in a pediatrician’s office waiting on the dreaded strep test results.

Cindy was at home with Haley and Chase. Cindy and Haley were diagnosed with strep the day before. Chase was a week removed from strep, a week of a amoxicillin and he was bursting with pre-trip excitement and asking Cindy every three seconds, “When are we leaving?”

With a sympathetic smile the young doctor confirms Dylan’s strep. She advises us to take it easy and rest for the next couple of days. I tell her were leaving for a family trip to Hershey Park in a few hours.

Young doctor: “Make sure you pack medicine.”

Me: “Anything else?”

YD: “Good luck?”

During my second trip, in as many days, to everyone’s favorite corner pharmacy Wal-greens I stock up on more Motrin, Air-borne, Purrell, cough drops , NyQuil and pickup Dylan’s prescription.

So three hours after our scheduled departure time– the Amoxicillin Express,  the Streptococcal Caravan packed with suitcases and coolers and runny noses and swollen glands finally infects the westbound gravel of PA Turnpike initiating our first family vacation of the summer.

The town, the park, the Hersey Lodge (where we stayed) are all fantastic facilities. There is a ton of stuff for kids and adults to see and do. I would highly recommend a family trip to Hershey for everyone.  Yet I would not recommend strep throat to anyone.

In reflection, our little family trip was fun. There were a lot of nice moments–like watching the kids make their own candy bars at Hershey’s Chocolate World or seeing them dance with an excitable Kit-Kat bar or when I found a restaurant that served Guinness.

FullSizeRender(10)But I won’t lie– in those 72 hours there was some serious stress. We were at the mercy of a bacterial infection. At times it was like being trapped in one of Dante’s levels of hell–you know the one where you pay hundreds of dollars to aimlessly maze your way through a chocolatey labyrinth of whiny, sick kids and dancing candy bars.

And yet I’ve come to learn that trips like these are great teachers. So here are 5 things I learned about my family (and myself) on our family Hershey trip…

1. My kids clearly don’t care about the starving kids in Africa.

Growing up whenever I refused to eat the last of my green beans some adult would level their eyes at me and explain how there are starving kids in Africa who would murder their mother for my green beans. This “starving African kids ” story guilt me into eating many-a-bean in my youth. Sure my kids are cute and polite to strangers but they are heartless little food monsters. They are constantly hungry yet rarely finish a meal.  So as they nibbled on a $5 Hershey Park hot dog that they begged for, I told them about the starving African kids hoping to guilt feed them. They were unfazed by my narrative, by the starving African kids. And almost in unison announced they were full and done eating as $4.50 of a hotdog lie limp in their cold little hands.

2. My family is a bunch of snorers.

5 people. 1 room.  2 beds. 3 people in one bed with strep throat all breathing in and out their mouths. I might as well have shared room with two gas powered generators and a disgruntled goat. (At less the goat would have finished his hot dog).

3. I like a schedule.

Maybe I’m getting old but I’m not great on vacation. I’ve grown to like a routine. When I’m not in a routine I feel off, a bit cranky ( Maybe I’m the disgruntled goat?) I like my bed and my coffee maker. I like making my own breakfast. I like checking email and watching the 4 o’clock news. I really like my reading and writing time. I don’t necessarily like being at the mercy of a menu, a shuttle bus or a dancing candy bar.

4. The Armstrong’s need to work on patience.

The 8, 6, and 2 year old have miles to go. Apparently so do the 37 and 36 year olds.

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“I’m hot and tired and sick and I don’t know what I want but I’m going to scream bloody hell for it.”

5. My wife is the Clark W. Griswold of the family.

Like the patriarch of the Griswold family, Cindy just wants her family to have the greatest family vacation in the history of family vacations. Bless her little heart. After a second sleepless night and a throat festering with strep she pulled her hair back and announced, “We all better get dressed, we all better brush our teeth and we all better have fun today because we are not leaving Hershey until we have fun!! Does everybody understand?” For the first time in two days there was silence.And I could tell by tension in her eyes and the gargle in her voice she meant it

You know — in spite of the strep, the crankiness and lack of sleep. In spite of the anticipation not aligning with reality. We made the best of a tough situation. I guess that’s what being a family is all about.

Be well,

Jay

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In case you missed it… Checkout last week’s Fast Five… 5 Great Pat Summit Quotes (and a hearty screw you to Alzheimer’s Disease.)

Also checkout my return to the Set Lusting Bruce podcast with Jesse James. Jesse and I discuss how certain Springsteen songs have a seemingly magical ability to capture the pulse and psyche of a geographical region.