The Holiday Corridor

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

I have to make a small confession before I start this post, which is that I am mildly addicted to reading advice columns. “Ask Beth” was a particular favorite of mine back in the day. I also used to love reading “My Problem and How I Solved It” in Good Housekeeping magazine. I don’t know why, I just dig that kind of thing.

A couple of years ago I read this pathetic letter to Carolyn Hax, proprietress of the “Tell Me About It” column (syndicated by the Washington Post and appearing twice a week in the Raleigh News & Observer, which is where I read it) from someone who had a terrible time with holidays, her immediate family was generally dysfunctional and she had no close relatives. She had tried various approaches — volunteering, inviting people from church, inviting friends of her kids — but none of them had panned out. She and her daughter had spent the most recent Thanksgiving “eating turkey in the kitchen and reading newspapers,” and she felt that they were destined to spend the rest of their holidays that way. She wrote to Carolyn asking how she could help prepare her daughter for coping with this sad life.

Carolyn acknowledged that there were some real problems in the letter-writer’s life that she needed try to address, but also pointed out that the rest of the letter seemed to be her taking things to extremes and wallowing in self-pity.

CH’s main piece of advice was that the letter-writer simply let go of the “traditional Thanksgiving script,” and write herself a new one — that she should look at the holiday as nothing more or less than a day off from work, and take it from there.

The reason this letter struck me is not just because eating turkey in the kitchen and reading newspapers sounds like not a bad holiday to me, but because it reminded me of how worked up people get over holidays, and how difficult it can be for people whose lives might not have turned out quite the way they had imagined, to deal with certain situations.

And I thought CH’s advice was generally good, but I would have added one other small bit of advice, which is that the first thing you need to do if, for whatever reason, you find the holiday season distressing or depressing, is to …

TURN OFF THE TELEVISION.

And possibly the radio, too.

Just take my word on this. You need to kill the commercials.

You can’t avoid all holidayness — you will have to leave the house at some point, and Christmas decorations are everywhere — but if you have the television on you are simply bombarded with it. It’s a lot easier to ignore front yards with reindeer in them and baking displays on the end caps at the local Stop and Shop than it is tune out a continuous barrage of commercials involving people giving each other expensive gifts and attending fabulous parties with a whole bunch of beautiful people who live in perfectly decorated houses and who all love each other.

That’s just all I can say. Turn off the television. I guarantee that you will feel better the instant the screen goes dark.

[Aside on living without television...
If you are at a loss as to what to do with yourself now that you cannot watch television, my suggestions would be to:

(a) read something interesting (may I recommend David Copperfield, it is 900+ pages long, that'll keep you out of trouble for a good long while)
(b) get back to an old hobby (knitting, sewing, woodworking)
(c) acquire a new hobby (ceramics, welding, boxing)

Make holiday cards, paint your house, clean the basement, bake cookies for the neighbors, trace your genealogy, dig holes in your yard and then fill them up. Who cares.

If you like having television for background noise, see if you can substitute listening to music, or talk radio (NPR or whatever else you have access to), or even audio books. Whatever you can do that is commercial free.]

This will help you, as Carolyn advised, to “write a new script.” Because you can now think about what is important to you, and what you want to do, and not get all caught up with what you feel like you should be doing based on what you think the rest of the world is doing based on what you see on tv.

The other advice I would give, which she did touch on but didn’t emphasize quite enough, in my opinion, is …

Don’t worry about what the rest of the world is doing.

If you want to be with people, then be with people, and if you want to eat turkey in the kitchen and read newspapers then do that. You can cook and eat a big meal or go to McDonald’s and buy a Big Mac or not eat anything at all. You can spend the day with family, or with friends, or with your dogs, or by yourself. Or any combination thereof. It’s all good.

And if you’re worried about what other people will think, if they will feel sorry for you or just feel like you’re odd, if you do some nontraditional activity, I would give you the advice that someone told me the artist Laurie Anderson gave in response to a question about what other people thought about her and her art. Laurie Anderson reportedly said, “No one else really cares what you’re doing.”

And that is the truth.

No one else really cares what you’re doing. Just do what you want. All the time. But especially during the holidays.

6 Responses to “The Holiday Corridor”

  1. Pat Says:

    That’s best and most transgressive advice in the world: Do what you want. All the time. It’s also always helped me to remember that what other people think or say about me is none of my business. Happy holidays!

  2. Mary Hall Says:

    I would agree 100% with turning off the television. About two years ago, I gave up my television. First, I cut off the cable. Sure, I mourned HGTV for awhile, but then I found a lot of other stuff to do. I read a LOT (and having a Kindle Fire helps), I cook more now than I used to, I sew (finished the quilt for my son!), I garden (and plan for the garden when the weather is cold), I paint (took a watercolor class even!), and find a thousand different ways to fill my time. A short time after I cancelled the cable, I realized I never even watched television (I’d bought a TV antenna), so I got rid of the television set–free on Craigslist! Although I do have a few shows I still follow (via Amazon Prime and the television station’s websites), I find it most difficult to find the time to watch them! I’ve also discovered that I’m much more selective about what I watch–no more sitting in front of the “boob-tube” killing my evenings. There’s simply too many other things for me to do!

  3. lessisenough Says:

    @Mary Hall
    That is exactly right.

    It feels strange at first, but eventually you don’t miss it at all, and all of this time seems to open up. I didn’t feel like I watched much tv, but I often had it on in the backgound, and I would tend to watch as a default activity. You don’t realize how much time that turns out to be.

    I moved into a new house and we didn’t have cable, and no reception for network tv. I wasn’t going to go to the trouble of getting cable installed, and my housemate who was living in the house was traveling a bunch right after we moved in, so he didn’t hook it up either. When our third housemate moved in, he hooked it up right away, but by that time I’d gotten used to not having it.

    The time I noticed the most was on weekends when I would finish one activity and want to take a break before starting something else. That was when I had typically turned on the tv and would watch a sports event or something for a little while. At first I was at a little bit of a loss — what do I do for a break if I don’t watch tv? — but eventually I discovered that I didn’t need a long break, I could read a magazine or something for 15 minutes and that was enough. If I had been watching tv, I might have been there for an hour or more because I would get sucked in.

    It’s definitely life-changing to stop watching. I wish more people would try it.


  4. I cancelled cable 1.5 years ago and don’t really miss it. I go through periods of time where I may watch things on Netflix, but I also go WEEKS where I watch maybe 1/2 hour a week.

    I think some people felt sorry for us this year. We used to travel to visit family. For years my husband cooked a big dinner and we had a ton of people over. Last year we went on vacation. But this year – we have two boys, 7 and 1 and didn’t feel up to any of that. So we bought a pre cooked dinner from the grocery store.

    It was the BEST HOLIDAY EVER. Relaxing, almost no cooking, lots of leftovers, and just a 4 day weekend to chill out.

  5. lessisenough Says:

    Yeah, sometimes no work is the way to go. Otherwise you need a break after the break, just to recover.

    I think it’s all how you describe it, if you don’t want people to feel sorry for you. (Though it seems how people feel is not the main problem, the problem is actually people feeling so sorry for you that they invite you to do things you really don’t want to do, then you have to come up with polite ways to decline perfectly lovely invitations, not always easy). You just have to be kind of vague — “Oh, I think we’re going to have a quiet family holiday this year, we’re really looking forward to it.” You don’t have to give specifics. No one really cares what you do.


  6. AMEN!

    The hardest part my husband and I have had (since we don’t live close to family) is graciously declining invitations to others’ big events (we love our new Christmas tradition of going and getting Chinese food). When we say we are looking forward to it (actually my husband loves it so much he talks it up to everyone), we get the whole “No no we insisit, come to our “holiday party, dinner for 40 here.” It can be very difficult to turn down an invitation politely when the hosts insists that you show up and are crazy if you don’t want to. We’ve gotten better at it over the last 7 years though.


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