After one more Christmas Eve in San Diego, which in light of its pension scandals and foxy Republicans like Randy "Top Gun" Cunningham, I now fondly call "the corrupt city of my birth," I've made a resolution. Starting today I'm declaring my own War on Christmas.
For this I have that tender-hearted Bill O'Reilly to thank. You wouldn't know it from his strident banter, but deep down that old blowhard is really a sweetie pie! Still, in terms of the War thing, Bill and I DO have our differences. Although I was terribly dismayed that my local Target greeter did not once wish me Merry Christmas! on the hundred or so trips I made to the store for fuzzy socks or lip gloss, that's not what led to my War on Christmas. Nor is it about my resentment over missing Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve because apparently EVERY husband in the OC was out Christmas shopping at the last possible second. As a result I got caught in a hideous traffic jam on the Santa Ana Freeway and, much like Mary when she was turned away at the Inn, couldn't get to my church in Pasadena on time.
Here's what piqued me. Come Christmas Eve some two dozen of us were gathered at my brother Tommy's house in tony Rancho Santa Fe in northern San Diego County. The 15-year-old, in an uncharacteristic moment of cooperation, was playing Santa Claus and diligently handing out presents. So far, so good. Everyone was getting along. Not a word had been uttered about the need to "stay the course" or Bush's stirring "victory" speech. Or on my end the zillion-dollar budget deficit or illegal wiretapping of unnamed American citizens.
Finally it was my son's turn to receive. His first present was from my stepmother, a former Army nurse who sports an American flag and one of those annoying "Support Your Troop" stickers on her Chrysler. Now, I love my stepmother. Although she has exquisitely bad taste in presents-one Christmas she gave me a lime-green poncho from TJ, as in Tijuana--she's kind and smart and has traveled more than anyone I know. When I went off to school at Berkeley amid my Southern father's ranting, she calmly told him "Tom, get over it," then strolled off into the kitchen to fix him another gin and tonic. When I became a writer she also, unlike other obnoxious family members I could name, didn't make disparaging comments like "What are you going to do for a living, be a maid? Har Har." She has always encouraged me.
So when I saw her gift to my son I couldn't have been more shocked. No, it wasn't a poncho, though that would have been a godsend by comparison. Think of something a 15-year-old who plays in a hard-core rock band that has hundreds of fans on-line would NEVER EVER want. You guessed it: a book. And not something remotely literary or appropriate like "Catcher in the Rye." Actually to call it a "book" is kind of stretching it, since it's really nothing more than a string of treacly aphorisms you'd find stitched on a sampler. What was this gem? A slim little volume with the unintentionally witty title: "The O'Reilly Factor For Kids: A Survival Guide for America's Families."
Talk about a conversation stopper. After a moment of interminable silence my brothers burst out laughing. I lifted my wine glass and took a big gulp of Cabernet. My stepmother seemed not to get the joke. "I heard it was a really good book," she said a bit uncertainly.
As for me there truly are no words for what I was feeling. Insulted. Baffled. Horrified. But mostly just pissed. Was this her bizarre way of trying to convert us? Did she truly not recall that I loathe the author's politics? There was also the subtext of my parenting, or lack thereof. Did she really believe my family was on the verge of a breakdown? That my son was such a basket case he needed the advice of a known sexual harasser of women, among other refreshing traits?
Being the open-minded person I am, I cracked open the book. There, in the chapter titled "Friends," was O'Reilly's List of True Friendship Factors. Items one, three, five and nine especially intrigued me:
1. DON'T LIE.
3. BE FREE WITH COMPLIMENTS.
5. KNOW WHEN TO LISTEN.
9. LAUGH A LOT.
Detect a bit of cognitive dissonance there?
Coincidentally, a few days later I had breakfast with my college friend Theresa, another embattled liberal trapped in a family of pushy Republicans. As it turns out her oldest brother and his wife, who are evangelical Christians, gave HER the book too! Miracles never cease. Of course Theresa's the worst mother I know so her son could use the advice desperately. (Just kidding, Theresa!) She had the same impulse when she saw the book too. "I thought of throwing it out the car window when we were on the freeway, but I didn't want to litter," she told me.
Instead, she thoughtfully tried to donate it to a bookstore near her neighborhood in Oakland. Strangely, the folks there wouldn't take it. "We don't carry that here," the bookseller explained testily.
Theresa, bless her heart, has agreed to join my fledgling War on Christmas effort. In fact it's open to anyone who wants to join. It boils down to this: Starting next season, no more giving of lame political books to family members or children (including babies) in a twisted effort to convert them. In the spirit of familial peace, gifts must be politically neutral. No ponchos, either.