Friday, December 23, 2005

And So, This is Christmas...

Once again, Christmas is upon us.  (And so is Hanukkah.  And Kwanzaa.  And…well, you get the idea.)  And as such, I find myself thinking about the Christmases of past years.

Everyone has those “special” holiday memories, whether it be some particular gift that they got one year, a special way the family celebrated another year, or even some minor detail, like having a cold one Christmas and spending most of the day in bed.

For me, there are several Christmases that come immediately to mind.  For instance:

  • My very first Christmas.  I was too young to remember, but my Dad, old softy that he is, decided to record the Christmas morning festivities with his tape recorder, for posterity.  Most of it consists of my mother and father trying to get me to put down the box I was playing with so I could play with the toys that came in them.  My brother can also be heard trying to get my attention with some Silly Putty, but I just couldn’t be drawn away from that box.  I’ve listened to it dozens of times, and now, as a father myself, I understand why Dad recorded it.  I just wish I’d had the foresight to do something similar with my own kids.

  • The Christmas my brother Vern and I got busted for sneaking into Mom and Dad’s closet and finding our Christmas presents.  We took out our remote control cars and parked them in front of the TV with the lights off so we could pretend it was a drive-in theater.  Mom and Dad were not amused.

  • Our first Christmas in Texas, where it snowed on Christmas Eve, and we were in shorts and t-shirts by the following afternoon.  (Since we were from “up north”, all of our Texan friends blamed the snow on us.)

  • My kids’ first Christmases.  I hope you’ll understand if I don’t go into detail about these.  These are something I’d rather keep for myself.

  • The Christmas I proposed to my first wife.  I had told her mother ahead of time, and they came over under the premise of “stopping by to wish a Merry Christmas” and have dessert with my family.  I proposed when she brought out a plate with some pie on it for her mother.

  • The year my second wife and I had my folks over for a Christmas Eve dinner of beans ‘n franks – the first dinner Mom and Dad celebrated Christmas with after they were married more than thirty years before.  We even sat on the floor, just like they did in ‘68.

For me, though, the one Christmas that sticks in my mind as a prime example of what this season is supposed to be about is the one that started with my second wife. Sherri, and I being unemployed.  I hope you’ll indulge me while I tell you about it.

I had been working at a convenience store/gas station, and my wife had been working at the local phone company office.  When she got pregnant with my son, Nigel, she worked until the doctor told her she had to stop, and then quit.  By that time, I had been promoted to manager at the store, and I was making enough money to support us both.

For six months, everything went well.  Unfortunately, I was staying up way too late after I got home from work, and I wasn’t waking up and getting to work when I was supposed to be there.  It happened one too many times, and that last time was the day the district manager was supposed to be at the store to do an audit.  I overslept, and because it hadn’t been the first time, I was let go.

Suddenly, less than a month before Christmas, with three kids to feed, I was unemployed.

My wife and I were determined to find jobs immediately, so we enrolled at a program here in Michigan called Work First, which helped train unemployed people – helping them write a resume, showing them how to do an interview - so they could find new jobs.  Most of the people who attended the classes did so because they were required to in order to receive assistance from the state.

We were assigned a caseworker, Stephanie, who would be the person to oversee our progress as we searched for jobs.  One afternoon, after a particularly stressful day, she took us both aside and told us that she really wanted to help us in any way she could because we were clearly determined to find new jobs.  She explained that most of the people she came into contact with in this job were just there to fulfill their obligation and didn’t really care about working.

I spent a lot of time at that office, looking through want ads, talking on the phone with potential employers, and, because I was fairly handy with a computer, helping other people with their resumes.  The rest of my day was spent trudging all over town, taking the bus or, if it was a nice day, walking to businesses and asking about jobs.

As Christmas drew near, the chances of getting a job became pretty slim because most businesses were slowing down for the end of the year.  My wife, two weeks before Christmas, found a job at a brokerage house, processing paperwork for truck drivers who were crossing the Blue Water Bridge into Canada.  However, we weren’t going to be able to do anything for the kids for Christmas because her first paycheck wouldn’t come until after.

My search continued.

Two days before Christmas, I was out looking for a job at the mall.  I had taken the bus because it was cold and snowing, and was going into every store.  And each store I went to, they told me they wouldn’t be hiring until after the first of the year.  I began feeling more and more depressed as I walked around the mall.  All around me, last-minute shoppers were shuffling through the crowd with bags full of gifts.  Overhead, Christmas music pumped through the mall’s audio system.  After about an hour of being turned down and then seeing all of these happy people and hearing that happy music, I just couldn’t take it anymore.  I snapped.

I ran out of the mall, tears rolling down my face, and walked the three miles back to the Work First offices.  By the time I got there, it was snowing pretty hard, and I was cold, wet and still very upset.  When I walked in, Stephanie was out in the main office, talking to one of the other women working there.  She turned to me and asked what was wrong, and I completely lost it.

I burst into tears and started blubbering incoherently at her.  She took me by the hand and led me into her office, closing the door behind her and sitting down at her desk.

“What’s the problem?” she asked me, handing me a box of tissue so I could blow my nose.

Once I got myself under control again, I told her about my experience at the mall, the buildup of stress from not being able to find anything, and the feeling of uselessness because I wasn’t able to provide for my family, let alone get them anything for Christmas.

She pulled out a piece of paper and wrote a phone number on it, then handed it to me, telling me that they would be able to help us out a little to make sure we had some food in the house.  She also suggested a few other programs to contact – Toys for Tots, the Salvation Army, and one or two others – but told me not to get my hopes up too high because it was so close to Christmas already.

Stephanie also told me not to worry because it was just the way businesses worked.  After the first of the year, she was certain I would be able to find something, if for no other reason, because I wanted to work so bad.  (It turned out she was right, by the way.  I did get a job about a month later, and I’ve been there for almost eight years now.)

She finished off by giving me a hug and telling me to go home and be with my wife and kids because that was what I needed the most.  I thanked her profusely and did exactly as she suggested.

When I got home, I told Sherri what had happened, and gave her the piece of paper with the phone number, telling her what Stephanie had told me.  She said she’d call the next day.

The next day, while I was at the Work First offices, helping people with their resumes (Stephanie had told me I didn’t need to go out that day and suggested I could help around the place), I got a phone call form Sherri, who was at home.  She had called to tell me that the number Stephanie had given me was the local food kitchen, and they had said they’d be around shortly to bring some food to the house.  I went and told Stephanie and thanked her again.

Twenty minutes later, I got another call from Sherri, telling me that two very large vans had arrived, and four men were unloaded what seemed like a metric ton of food – cereal, canned vegetables, a turkey, bread…all kinds of stuff.  She said they told her that people had been very giving that year, and as a result, they were loading up the needy families in the area with a lot more than they normally would.

She was in tears on the phone and so was I.  I told her I loved her and hung up, then found Stephanie again and told her what Sherri had told me.  She started getting teary-eyed as well while I was telling her about everything.  I went home that day feeling a whole lot better than I had in quite a few weeks.

The next day was Christmas Eve day, and Work First was closed, so I stayed around the house most of the day, except to go shopping with my mother, who wanted to get some things for the kids.  Sherri and I told her that we didn’t want anything for ourselves.  We just wanted to make sure that the kids got a decent Christmas.

Sherri’s folks also did what they could, sending presents for all the kids.  Her mother and stepfather, who were living in Arizona at the time, sent a huge package full of toys, and her father and stepmother, who lived here in town, also got some things for them.  If it hadn’t been for our folks, our Christmas tree would have looked pretty depressing.

That evening, Sherri’s friend Patsy stopped by to say hi and drop off presents and cookies for us and the kids.  When she came in, she complained about the huge box on the porch that was blocking the door.

Box?  What box?

I went to the front door, and there was indeed a huge box on the porch, marked only with the words “Springer Family” on the top.  I picked it up and brought it inside where we opened it.

Inside the box were presents for everyone in the family, each one labeled with our names, but nothing hinting at whom it had come from.  My first thought was that it had been Stephanie or one of the others at Work First.  They insisted that it hadn’t been any of them when I asked the next time I was there.

To this day, I still don’t know who left that package on our porch, so I was never able to thank them properly.  So, from time to time, I tell this story, hoping that whoever it was may see it one day and see how thankful I am that they made such a kind and selfless gesture to a family that really needed it.

I don’t mind saying that this simple gesture very probably saved my life, I was so depressed.  I had never even considered the prospect of doing anything so drastic until that year when I felt so completely and utterly useless because I couldn’t provide for my family.

Anyway, that’s my story.  I know it’s depressing, and I’m sorry about that.  So let me finish by wishing all of you the very best for Christmas and the entire holiday season.

All the best,


Sunday, December 18, 2005

Look Out! They've Got A Jewish Guy!

Hiding Under the Bed – (DCF) – Watch out, world!  The warriors in the farcical “War on Christmas” have brought out the big guns, and you better watch out.

Earlier this month, comedian Jackie Mason announced his involvement with a group called Jews Against the Anti-Defamation of Christmas, a group that stands on the side of ass-clowns like Bill O’Reilly, John Gibson and Sean Hannity in the so-called “War on Christmas”.

What does this mean to you and me?  Not a damn thing.  The bottom line is, there is no “War on Christmas”.  It’s nothing more than an attempt by Fox and its stable of non-journalists to bring together tens of people who are certain that they are being persecuted because of their religious beliefs.

“But, Derek,” I hear you asking, “how do you know that this War on Christmas isn’t a real thing?  What makes you so sure that nobody cares whether you say ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy Holidays’?”

Well, it’s funny you should ask.

Turns out that former Fox News producer Charlie Reina had this to say about it:

"It’s no surprise, of course, that this phony call to arms, this ‘Christmas (ergo, Christians) Under Attack’ hysteria, emanates from the bowels of Fox News Channel. The network is, after all, ground zero in the culture wars that polarize so much of America these days. Make no mistake about it: Fox is on a mission. Its slogans say, ‘Fair and Balanced’ and ‘We Report, You Decide.’ But in the six years that I worked there, what I heard most from Fox management were mission statements – about turning things around, taking news back from the liberals, and giving ‘middle America’ a voice long denied it by the ‘east coast media elite.’ In other words, using its news report to bring about change -- in the media and, ultimately, in the direction of American culture."

So, what we have here is a former Fox News producer, who is admitting that this whole thing is nothing more than an attempt by the management of Fox News to force the mainstream media into a carbon copy of itself, a media mouthpiece for the right wing.  Really sad.

And now they’ve got Jackie Mason fighting for them.  Who’s next?  Don Rickles?  The reanimated corpse of Rodney Dangerfield?

Come on, Fox!  How about, oh, I dunno, actually reporting on some real news?  Like, perhaps, the fact that the renewal of the Patriot Act was shot down in the Senate by not just the Democrats, but also a few Republicans – including John Sununu of New Hampshire and Larry Craig of Idaho.  Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who is currently under investigation for questionable political contributions, also voted against it after he saw which way things were going, so that he would have a chance to raise another vote at a later date.

Or how about reporting on the story in the New York Times concerning “President” Bush’s authorization of illegal spying on U.S. citizens?

Still got nothing?  What about Tom DeLay’s ongoing money laundering trial?  Or the investigation of Karl Rove’s role in outing Valerie Plame?  Or, since I mentioned Bill Frist, what about the new questions concerning his suspicious political contributions?

No.  Instead, Fox wants to convince the 1% of America that watches them that Evil Liberals are trying to take Christmas away from them, while the other 99% of us who watch real news just don’t care.

All the best,