Ho Ho, No! Opting Out of Christmas

Here’s our annual Black Friday “How to Opt Out of Christmas” piece.

We opted out of Christmas years ago. It wasn’t the money; we simply wanted release from the stress, crowds, and mindless consumerism associated with the most intensely crass and secular of all American holidays. Spare us the Babe in the Manger speeches; Christmas in America has more to do with Adam Smith than Baby Jesus. 

We decided to reinvent December as a month of dining with friends, making contact with family, and consuming fun rather than getting caught up in rituals of reciprocity and gluttony. The breaking point came about 12 years ago, when our nieces were still children. One Christmas morning they were literally swamped under a mound of gifts. (Seriously! The wrapping paper debris was piled to twice the height of the youngest.) Our nieces no sooner opened one present than another was thrust in front of them so that every relative under the sun could snap a photo of the bewildered lasses. Soon, they were dazed and numb. As clichéd as it sounds, by mid-afternoon they were having more fun with the wrapping paper and boxes than with the presents. (The boxes made a nice makeshift fort.) And here’s the worst part: the wreckage represented expenditures of hundreds of dollars, much of it from folks that could have used the cash for much better purposes.

Christmas was even more crass when we bought for adults. It had degenerated into a zero sum game–you buy me the item on page 72 of the L.L. Bean catalog and I’ll buy you one from page 104. Christmas shopping sucks in two types of adults: those who can afford to buy things and have all they need (but nonetheless invent things to want “in the spirit of the season”); and those who shouldn’t engage in consumer frenzy, yet are pressured into doing so. If you fall into the second category, for heaven’s sake stop! Consider this sobering statistic–if you rack up $6,000 on your credit card and try to pay it off by making the minimum payment, it will take roughly 54 years to do so even if you never use the card again! Fa, la, la, indeed! In trying to conform to manufactured images of seasonal jollity you have placed yourself in economic thralldom akin to that of 19th-century sharecroppers.

It’s our seasonal prayer that none of you are in that sinking boat. But even if you have plenty of dough, there’s simply no reason to put up with the stress and the madness. Just say no. Here’s a how-to-guide for opting out.

1. Step One: The Power of Guilt. We must ask ourselves how Christmas got to be such a mess in the first place. The answer is simple: We’ve been sold a bill of literal and metaphorical goods on what a “perfect” Christmas is supposed to be like. Don’t underestimated how powerful that imagery is. To counter it, you need to present an equally powerful counter image.

As Christmas approaches, subtly drop remarks to loved ones such as “We have so much and there are others who have so little. What do you think about scaling way back and making donations to charity instead?” My guess is that about three-quarters of your friends and relatives will breathe a sigh of relief and get on board immediately. Your job is to follow up by continuing to drop reminders. Don’t call a week before Christmas and say, “We’re no giving presents this year, right?” Instead, make a plan in the next few days, and follow up in a week by reminding down with the plan that they said they wanted to give to charity. Tell them you are writing a check for a donation in their name and ask which charity they’d like you to support.

2. Step Two: Phasing In the Plan. There will be some people on your list who won’t buy in immediately. One or two may even feel hurt and assume you don’t care enough to buy them something. You need to go gentle with these folks. Start by scaling back instead of going cold turkey. Appeal to their soft side. Do they love animals? In addition to a modest gift, get a really nice card and insert a Heifer International brochure with a note that you’ve given a donation in their name. It may take a few years before these folks stop the gift cycle altogether, but they will.

3. Step Three: Be True to Your Principles. It’s not enough to say you want to spend time with friends and family instead of gift buying; you need to do it! Make sure you schedule dinners out (or potlucks in) with close friends and family. The goal is to make the holidays joyous, not to become the Grinch.

4. Step Four: Replace Consumer Goods with Thoughtful Ones. What people really want during the holidays is a reminder that you care. A plate of home-baked cookies can say this louder than an item plucked from a catalog. So too can cleaning someone’s gutters, fixing a squeaky door, or taking their car for an oil change. Are you craft-oriented? Phoenix makes earrings that cost next to nothing to make, but resonate with friends more than those $50 mass-produced “holiday” earrings you see all over the country. I’ve written a few stories and songs that I’ve shared. Want to do something really simple? Rent “It’s a Wonderful Life” and watch it with someone you care about. Provide the buttered popcorn. The biggest gift you can give is your time!

5. Step Five: Buy Your Kids a Pen Pal. If you have little ones, it’s hard to eliminate gifts totally, but the U.N. and other agencies have programs that allow you to sponsor a child abroad. Do this for your kids and spend part of Christmas with books, pictures, and maps that illustrate where their pen pal lives. Help your kids write a letter to that child. Follow it up in the weeks to come with language lessons, food, and other such items. I had pen pals as a kid and it made me think about the world. I remember a correspondent from Peru way more than I remember most of my toys.

6. Step Six: Remember the Box Rule. Overindulge children and you run the risk of overwhelming them (or having them grow up to be pampered brats!). Kids need to exercise their imaginations more than they need some toy from China that will be broken by Easter. Buy and make things in which they can participate, not merely consume. The box fort was fun. So too are time-tested things that last: Lincoln logs, blocks, Legos, Slinky, bikes, fantasy dolls, train sets, interactive books, musical instruments…. Google “top ten toys of all time” and you’ll find none of the glitzy über-expensive “hot” toys of this or any other Christmas. Those things are just ads-of-the-moment that will fade from consciousness as soon as the latest “next big thing” comes along (and proves not to be the next big thing!)

7. Step Seven: Treat Yourself in December. Take some of the dough you’re not spending on prezzies and go out. Take in a concert or a show. Fun is always a good antidote for stress!

8. Step into the Light: If you live in the North, the stretch between Thanksgiving and Ground Hog’s Day is filled with (way too much) darkness. Turn this time into something pagan: festivals of light. Go for hikes in the daylight and gather pinecones, bittersweet, pine boughs, and other such things to make into Christmas decorations. We made an “Electric Forest” one year–an unsightly welter of pine boughs through which we strung dollar-store lights. It was as ugly a hound dog’s fanny, but it’s a memory over which we laugh years later. Other light-themed events include taking short drives to see electric displays, after-sunset window shopping, bonfires, and hitting an after-hours spot (ice cream shop for kids, cafes and bars for adults) in which the darkness is tempered by holiday or atmospheric lights).

9. Step Nine: Replace Old Rituals with New Ones. Okay, I admit that If I hear “Silent Night” at a mall one more time, I may spew. I loathe Christmas carols, plastic reindeer, and blow-up lawn displays. But I’d be the last to say that rituals are bad. If you dislike the old ones, make some new ones. We buy a new tree ornament every year, label it, and try to recall when we bought it when it comes out of storage. We also have some invented holidays, such as Moosemas on December 16, which is celebrated by eating clam chowder and drinking Scotch. A small ritual is walking amidst the downtown lights on Christmas Eve after the stores have closed. Another is a short walk in the woods behind the house on late Christmas morning. Still another is playing CDs of English and Scottish carols that we’ve not heard a billion times. Our most cherished is an annual pre-Christmas dinner at a restaurant with our dearest friends.

10. Step Ten: Make a Wish. Some families may find it impossible to eliminate Christmas presents altogether. Fair enough. But let’s not confuse quantity with quality. Even if you have kids, there’s nothing wrong with limiting their desires. Break out The Rolling Stones and listen to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” until it sinks in. Instead of buying everything under the sun, ask people in your lives to set priorities. If you could only get one thing, what would you really like? (If you have kids, ask for a list of three or four and tell them you’ll ask Santa to bring one of them so that he doesn’t run out of gifts for other children.)

11. Socks are not Stinky! Everyone loves to open presents. It’s horribly environmentally unsound, but a certain degree of debris is part of Christmas. So who says the stuff inside has to cost an arm, a leg, and a kidney? Sock gifts are a lot of fun–dollar store Etch-a-Sketches, crayons, and wind-up toys for kids, inexpensive foodstuffs for adults, card games to share…. You can get very creative about sock gifts; you can also fill one for a fraction of what it costs to provide gifts that will soon be forgotten.

12. Step Twelve: Make Christmas all about the Food. When you ask most people to name their favorite holiday, it’s usually Thanksgiving. Why not? It’s about food, family, and a relaxed pace. So make Christmas into a second Thanksgiving. Prepare foods that take a long time to make. Buy a really, really good bottle of wine. Have a multi-course meal that unfolds over several hours. And, above all, share it with friends and family. Don’t forget to mention how lucky you are to have so much when others have so little.   


Did Racism Play a Part in the AL MVP Vote?

A tribute to the six who didn't vote for Miggy!

In the end, it wasn’t close—Miguel Cabrera was the runaway winner for the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award. All Cabrera did was bat .330, hit 44 homeruns, drive in 139, and win the first Triple Crown in 45 years. All is as it should have been—sort of.  There were six “baseball writers” out of twenty-eight who voted for Mike Trout instead of Cabrera. Each of the six—Jeff Passan, Joe Haakenson, Jim Caple, Tim Britton, Roger Mooney, and Sean McAdam—trotted out lame sabermetrics to justify their vote. Who knows? Maybe one or two of them actually believed what they said, but let me offer a different explanation for a few of those votes: racism. Several of those guys are known conservatives and it’s easy to imagine personal preference for Trout over the darker-skinned Venezuelan Cabrera. Call it a vote for the Great White Hope.

Oh, there were sincerity tears shed. Trout, we are told, is a “more complete player” than Cabrera. As if a rookie could be a more polished player than a nine-year veteran. I think Mike Trout had a lovely year, but let’s see if the lad can sustain it before we declare him the next Babe Ruth, okay? We were also told that Trout is speedier than Cabrera—most runners are—and that the slick-fielding, swift-of-foot Trout covers more terrain and hence, is more valuable. We also get weird sabermetrics such as numerous variants of WAR (Wins Above Replacement), as stupid a category as ever devised. WAR is a classic Straw Man debate in which A (a real player) is compared to B (a hypothetical player). What hogwash! By such reckoning, abject poverty compares favorably to death.

So let’s strip the Gang of Six from the bullshit. First of all, Trout won the Rookie of the Year Award, as he should have. But is he anything special in the outfield? He’s flashy, but he did not win a Gold Glove, and his .988 fielding percentage was just the 9th best among MLB centerfielders, and pretty close to the league average. Cabrera plays third base, a harder position. He’ll never win a Gold Glove, but his .966 fielding percentage was the 6th best among third basemen. He made thirteen errors to Trout’s four, but ask Trout’s team, the Angels, is they would have gladly exchanged Cabrera’s glove for the three guys they trotted out at third who collectively committed twenty-four errors.

When it comes to offensive categories there are just three in which Trout surpassed Cabrera: stolen bases (duh!), walks (by +1), and runs scored. But, if the name of the game is total runs—and baseball is supposed to be a team game—Cabrera more than compensates for the fact that Trout scored 129 times and he just 109. If we add RBIs to runs, Miguel Cabrera was responsible for 248 total runs, Trout just 212. And if we start looking at power numbers, it’s not even close. Cabrera has a higher on-base percentage (.393 to .363), a higher slugging percentage (.606 to .564) and a higher on-base + slugging (.999 to .963).

Let’s get down to the real nitty gritty. An MVP doesn’t impress the sabermetrics crowd; he makes his team better. In August, it looked as if the Tigers would not make postseason play, but the Angels were threatening both first place and a Wild Card berth. The Tigers went to the World Series and the Angels failed to make the playoffs. In August, Cabrera hit .357, slapped 8 homeruns, and drove in 24 runs; Trout went .284/7/19. In September, when it really counted, Cabrera hit .308 with 10 homers and a stunning 27 RBIs. Trout hit an earthly .257 with 5 homeruns and knocked just one other player besides himself. The Angels could have finished third without Trout, but the Tigers could not have won the AL Central if Cabrera hadn’t put up superhuman numbers. How is there even room to debate who was more valuable? In fact, a dispassionate vote would have placed Adrian Beltre second in MVP voting and Derek Jeter third. But I guess those guys are also too black for the Great White Hopers.

Let me reiterate: I don’t blame Mike Trout for any of this; I hope does become the next Babe Ruth. But Lord deliver us from writers who twist numbers for inexcusable reasons. Miguel Cabrera is AL MVP—as it should be. There are only two explanations for those who think Trout was more valuable than Cabrera—they don’t understand the difference between theoretical math and real performance, or they are racist. Alas, my nose detects a whiff of the latter.


Michel Sajrawy Album the Antidote to Sterile Jazz

Dasam 001
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If, like me, you find too much contemporary small combo jazz little more than noodling masquerading as meditative, check out guitarist Michel Sajrawy. The Palestinian-born Sarjrawy titled his new album Arabop, which is also a nice handle to describe his sound. He works his magic in a band that includes two saxophonists, two bassists, an oud player, and a percussionist but his explosive guitar riffs are what stand front and center. They come in bursts that emulate the linguolabial sounds a kid makes when flicking the tongue against the upper lip, but there’s nothing child-like about the music. Sarjrawy plays muscular guitar with the abandon of Jimi Hendrix and the precision of Larry Coryell. He also offers flashes of humor. The title track, for instance, has the sort of giddy feel that could serve as a soundtrack for an animated Matt Groening Akbar and Jeff caper. Sarjawy also has a contemplative side, as heard on a track such as “1 Count Before 40,” and mines a few classics—one Syrian and one Egyptian—but his main approach is summed by the self-explanatory “Syncretic Beliefs.” His energy is the perfect antidote to the torpor of jazz guitarists more interested in talking to themselves than connecting with an audience. Give it a spin and prepare to stir. --Rob Weir