Christmas Is Always Coming

No, you're not imagining things. Christmas consumerism comes earlier every year. And this year may set the record: Dollar Tree has just released its 2017 "Holiday Book."  

A Public Service Announcement: Emergency Communications

Being unable to find out if my mother was dead or alive in Puerto Rico for five days post-Maria was terrifying, especially because she had a broken leg and was housebound. I learned a lot from this horrendous experience, mostly that you need to have a plan in place BEFORE a disaster. And that plan has to be more than “Call me as soon as you can.”

Here are my hurricane-inspired guidelines for communication in emergency situations.

1. Phone. The most frustrating aspect of the Hurricane Maria emergency was the complete lack of working phones anywhere – not just on the island, but on widely shared lists of governmental aid agencies like FEMA. NONE of those numbers worked, even when their area codes were in places not affected by the hurricane. Here’s a newsflash: you will not be able to rely on the government for communication in case of an emergency. It will be private citizens and NGOs that make things happen.

That said, even though phone service may be out for days, phones are still your first line of defense. Create a network of friends and family in different states and even countries. If the person in the disaster zone can get through to even one, he or she can spread the word to the rest of the network. Create your own plan, with people you know and trust, and watch out for each other.

Note that sometimes texting works even when regular phone service doesn’t. Keep calling and texting. At some point, phones will come back online. Don't fill up voicemail in case others need to leave messages.  

Oh, and keep your phone charged! Have at least one portable charger like this one and keep it/them charged too.

2. The Red Cross. If you are in an emergency, register with the Red Cross ASAP, and tell your network to check the Red Cross registry for you. The Red Cross was the ONLY functioning entity I came across in the 5 days I desperately sought information. Their website worked smoothly (my mother was not registered on it) and a real person answered the phone when I called to provide my info so they could contact me when/if she did. Kudos to the Red Cross.

List yourself as safe here.
Find out if someone is safe here.

You can also call the Red Cross about a missing person. The number is (800) 733-2767. I found it staffed by caring and competent people at a time I had almost abandoned hope that such a thing existed anymore.

And, in the belt-and-suspenders category, you can download the Red Cross Emergency App and use the "I'm Safe" button to post a message to your social media accounts. Text "GETEMERGENCY" to 90999. Like, right now.

3. Social media. The only info I received specific to my mother’s neighborhood (Dorado) was on social media. Anything outside San Juan or near a shaky dam was not mentioned by the mainstream media. But on social media, I found people who lived in or had family in Dorado, who informed me that the area was not badly hit. This eased my mind somewhat (except late at night when the visions returned of my mom and her dogs floating up to the ceiling of her flooded house).

Start tweeting and posting on Facebook with specifics about who and what you’re looking for. After Maria, hyper-local Facebook groups sprang up instantly, thanks to tech-savvy angels who know how valuable these resources are. Through the Dorado subgroup and Facebook Messenger, I met a woman in Texas whose parents live near my mother. She arranged to send someone by my mother’s house to check on her! (Shoutout to American Airlines employees!)

I posted on my own Facebook page and received messages of support as well as unexpected information, including some from a friend whose aunt lives near San Juan. The kind thoughts and prayers sustained me. Shoutout to my friends!

Tweet to news sources and celebrities affiliated with the disaster, whether through location, fundraising activities, affected family members, etc. In the case of Puerto Rico, Jennifer Lopez, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ricky Martin were all actively tweeting. A tweet I sent “@” Lin-Manuel was seen by someone who follows him – and that person got me info. The CNN reporter on the ground retweeted a message I sent him and someone contacted me with an update on the area. The power of social media is REAL.

My mother is not on Facebook, but those who are can check in via the Facebook Safety Check next time. (God, please don’t let there be a “next time”!) When enough people on FB post about a disaster, FB activates Safety Check and people in the area get prompted to check in.

Google may have a similar service, but my mother has Google-induced paranoia and refuses to use it – Bing all the way for her!

4. Apps. Internet service may be out in a disaster-affected zone, but there are many methods of communicating. Have your network download a couple of them, set up accounts, practice communicating, pick favorites and be ready. I recommend:

·       WhatsApp Messenger and WhatsApp Calling (1 billion users, internet-enabled messaging and calls)
·       Zello (50 million users, long-distance walkie-talkie functionality with no internet required)
·       Skype (500 million users, IM, voice and video calls)
·       Firechat (1 million users, messaging without signal or data)
·       Family Locator GPS Tracker (10 million users)

5. Ham radio. Yes, it lives! I had not heard that term in decades, but a friend on Facebook informed me ham radio worked in PR post-Maria. However, you must be a licensed user, and operating a ham radio takes some knowledge. Best for you and those in your network to find local ham radio operators while the sun is still shining and the ground is not moving, bake them cookies and enlist their future aid.

More info here

6. Satellite phones. These are expensive and don’t always work. However, if you have one, keep it at the ready!

A word about the elderly. My mother is in her 80s. She shuts off her computer at 5pm every day so it can’t spy on her. She has a flip phone which she only uses to call “long distance” cheaply. Until Hurricane Irma was headed her way, she had not been aware that her phone could receive texts – and she still refused to learn how to send them. Years ago, I convinced her to try Skype, but when she answered my call I saw her naked and she immediately uninstalled it. (Too late – I can never un-see my impending future body!)

Her current phone can’t download the apps mentioned here and she resists learning even lifesaving technologies. So what do I do? I communicate with her neighbor, Rose. Rose’s cell service came back 5 days after Maria; my mother’s cheapo service is still out. I will be discussing apps with Rose. I can't bake her cookies, but she will know how much I appreciate her help. 

So if you haven't gotten to know your neighbors already, what are you waiting for? Share their information with your friends and family, and have them share yours with their own. Who knows? Some may even be ham radio operators. 

My mom is fine. Me? I will be drinking heavily for a few more days.

A Democrat's Holiday Lament

It's Christmas 2016 and you're not feeling it. Somehow you've managed to throw up some decorations, bake some cookies and wrap some gifts. But the more you try to stoke the flames of holiday joy, the more apparent it becomes: This will be a sad one. SAD, as in Seasonal Affective Disorder. SAD as in Sorrowful, Anguished, Distraught.

You've tried to get into the spirit, but instead of counting your blessings, you're counting the number of petitions you've signed, the horrifying cabinet appointments, the looming decades of despair. 

Your incoming president and his minions are laying the framework to destroy the few things you liked about the government. Every day brings another "Springtime for Hitler" moment, and you watch, agape, as another Worst Possible Thing happens. No wait, here's something even worse.

Your friends are sick of listening to you bitch, and vice versa. You all agree the wallowing has got to stop, but each new announcement brings fresh wails of pain.

Your once cohesive group of Facebook friends is now a tattered assemblage of groups you've painstakingly customized to see curated posts. Your Facebook feed is littered with threats, demands and nasty comment-based mudslinging. You've been unfriended and you've unfriended others - including some family members. And so you enter the holiday season with fewer friends, and even though that's only true in a virtual sense, it feels very IRL.

You've attempted a news blackout, swearing off CNN and MSNBC and changing your home page away from The New York Times because every story you forget to avoid punches you in the gut. You feel alternately sick and guilty: The gifting of our country to one percenters and science deniers should be energizing you to take action...but all those worsts have worn you down. So you're only watching Shark Tank and Big Bang Theory on regular TV, and binging on Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime. Amazon's cancellation of Good Girls Revolt at the moment you finished the first season hit you like a sucker punch.

You've gotten fewer Christmas cards this year, and those you did get came without a cheery Christmas newsletter because, well, no one's feeling that cheery and there isn't much good news.

The weather is making climate change doubters gleeful because it got cold again and that means the glaciers are saved, right? Drilling in the Arctic is back on, either way.

Sure, SNL is must-see again, but only because it makes you smile as it twists the knife. 

Satire is surely a goner. Fiction couldn't think up anything crazier than what's been going on this year.

Leonard Cohen, Prince and Bowie are silenced forever, while Kid Rock and Ted Nugent step back into the spotlight. 

Christmas 2016: The poster child for Hellish Holidays.

Unthankful

Parents go to a lot of trouble to give their kids delicious food, time with extended family and memorable experiences on Thanksgiving. Here's how some ungrateful wretches respond. (Caution: $#&*$%^ language ahead)

That Darn Election


Those Darn Teenagers



Those Darn Slackers


Irredeemable Slacker (Almost) Redeemed


Note: This guy has been on YouTube as long as Hellish Holidays has been publishing!

A Very Jimmy Halloween

The 6th anniversary of watching parents humiliate their kids and show off the poor parenting skills that created these tantrum-throwing sugar junkies.


Hungry for more? Here are the previous editions.

2015


2014


2013


2012


2011

#ThanksgivingFail

Here we go again.

Glitches in plans longstanding and last-minute. 
Travel that dooms any sense of thankfulness and reinforces the theory that hell is other people. 
Family that threatens to do the same. 
Eating to the point of bursting seams, guilt and depression. 
Continued drought...or early snow. 
Black Friday mania and marketing run amok.
The dreary trek back home.

Happy Hellish Thanksgiving!

An SNL Thanksgiving (Videos)

Thankful for Adele.



Adam Sandler's Take



Debbie Downer Thanksgiving






A Hildegarde Thanksgiving

"The Incomparable Hildegarde" (1906-2005) was a star for 70 years. At her peak, in the 1940s and '50s, she was the top supper club entertainer in New York. Despite her Wisconsin roots, she had a sophisticated European air about her: She wore long gowns and opera-length gloves. Her ever-present handkerchief served a role comparable to that of Steven Tyler's scarves today. She was best known for the song "Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup," which was written by her lover/manager Anna Sosenko.

Why the history lesson? Because Hildegarde plays a supporting role in one of my most hellish Thanksgivings.

The year was 1983. I wouldn't say Hildegarde was at the height of her powers, but at 77 she was still breathing, and for a legend that's enough. For years I'd heard stories about how my well-heeled grandparents would travel from Washington, D.C. to New York in the postwar years to take in some theater and see Hildegarde. My grandmother, known as Mimi, was born the same year as the chanteuse, and Thanksgiving that year was her own 77th birthday.

When my mom and I saw that "The Incomparable Hildegarde"> would be performing in Manhattan at the same time that Mimi would be up from Washington for Thanksgiving and her birthday, we decided to surprise her with tickets. We needed something positive because things had gotten somewhat shaky in our family--so much so that Thanksgiving dinner was actually held at my one-bedroom apartment in Queens.

There were six of us comprising three generations: grandmother, mother and four grown and almost-grown children, including the only "man" present, my younger brother. Mimi was selected to carve the turkey, which I recall did not make her happy. To her, a Thanksgiving table without a patriarch was like a Norman Rockwell picture entitled "Failure."

We dragged the kitchen table into the living room, added in both leaves, and threw a sheet over it as a tablecloth. (What can I say? I was young and no one had yet had a reason to throw me a shower.) Needless to say, the dishes were mismatched and whatever I put into service as a turkey platter, I'm sure it had not been designed with that use in mind.

Dinner was tense. Blame was flung and tears shed. The ever-stoic Mimi was able to stay focused on reminding everyone how much better her life had been than ours were shaping up to be. It was a relief to be done with it all. And finally it was the moment to present Mimi with her Hildegarde tickets and give her the good news that tonight we would all be seeing the show together.

Mimi took one look at the tickets and burst into tears. None of us had ever seen her cry before, even when her husband had died. She was more of what you might call a carrier: she caused tears but didn't have much first-hand experience with them. It was quite a shock. She composed herself quickly, though, and explained that even just seeing the name Hildegarde had brought back vivid memories of better times before her disappointing grandchildren had been born. (OK, she didn't say that last part, but it was implied.) She had mixed feelings about going: what if Hildegarde's voice was shot and she was a pale imitation of her former self? And, more importantly, what would we all be wearing? Did we even own decent clothes, because obviously what we were wearing didn't measure up.

Well, to fast forward through the subsequent arguing and transportation issues, we all calmed down and went. Hildegarde sounded great, and everyone had a much-needed brush with elegance. We might not have been the most stylish members of Hildegarde's audience, but I'll always know in my heart that we were the most dysfunctional.


Originally posted Thanksgiving 2010.

Turducken... (Videos)

You Say Turducken...



Peking Turducken


The most disturbing part is that the Dr. Pepper is not the most disturbing part.

New Year's Resolution Song


"Just raise the bar to walk effortlessly underneath." Words to live by!

No One to Kiss

I wrote the following post seven years ago but never published it. I guess it felt too raw, too maudlin, too self-indulgent. Maybe I didn't want my recently moved-on husband to know how much I was hurting - like he read my blog! 

A year earlier I'd coined the term and launched the website "Hellish Holidays." The irony of my own fresh hellishness was not lost on me.

These days, I've not only embraced life's complexities, I can laugh at them again. I even performed a one-woman show a couple of months back about my years of online dating: "All the Wrong Men." Hell, if I can laugh at 73 "one and dones," being single on New Year's Eve is a mere chuckle.

Here's where I was on New Year's Eve 2007. I'd like to think I've come a long, long way. Thank you, friends, therapy, cabernet and Tinder!

It's just past midnight and I have no one to kiss. My husband is with a woman 25 years younger than he is and my son is staying over at a friend's house. I went to a party where I knew very few people and no one I wanted to kiss except the hostess, which wasn't a thrill, even though she's hot. I just don't swing that way.

My son is a freshman in high school and I had planned not to get divorced until he was a freshman in college. What's that they say about the best-laid plans? I guess the operative word is laid. My husband moved on and now I guess it's my turn. Trouble is, I don't know how. There are lots of books about getting divorced but nothing that acknowledges that your divorce feels completely different because it involves you.


I don't quite know what happens next. It feels like a lot of time has passed, yet I know I still have decades ahead and I don't want to spend them alone. On the other hand, I appreciate my time by myself. That's divorce for you: It's a ping ponging of emotions. I love my freedom. I miss being a family. On the one hand, I have no other hand to hold.

It feels good to have moved past this place of pain and confusion. Not that I'm always happy and have everything figured out, because if that were the case...well, is that the case with anyone? As the late Gilda Radner used to say, "If it's not one thing, it's another." We must learn to survive that rapid succession of "things." Looking back, survival looks a lot like progress. 

Even if I still have no one to kiss on New Year's Eve 2014.

Dec. 26th Hellishness

Macy's shoe department. I took one look and ran!

Christmas for Atheists

Despite the title of my blog, I semi-love the holidays. Lighting the Hanukkah candles, baking cookies, wrapping carefully chosen gifts, decorating the house, creating Jib Jab cards with pictures of friends and family, Christmas Eve dinner at my aunt and uncle's house...when I'm not having an emotional breakdown tied to a broken oven or lost shipments, I mostly revel in the split personality of the Christmas/Hanukkah season.

Then there's the religious aspect. Sure, there's less and less "Christ" in "Christmas" every year, but Jesus' birthday is still the raison d'etre of the holiday. As an atheist with a Jewish son, I've carefully honed my skills at avoidance, denial and obliviousness. Fortunately, these come fairly naturally to me!

I grew up going to church, so carols and Christmas-themed hymns bring back vivid memories, and good or bad, those memories of our youth hold significant power. I recall the tension caused by my parents' different religions, the negative messages spoken and unspoken. I recall the last Christmas my parents were together (1972) and realize how hard they must have been trying to keep it together. And the first Christmas after they'd separated, how awkward to bisect our celebration.

Perhaps most vividly, I recall sitting with my mother and youngest sister in the front row at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church on Christmas Eve 28 years ago, right before I left New York for Los Angeles, and all of us sobbing uncontrollably at "Silent Night." (I had the same reaction to the movie Platoon around the same time. Hard to believe I had such mixed feelings about moving cross country!)


These days, I get lots of requests to participate in caroling, Christmas performances, such as Handel's Messiah - even midnight Mass. Occasionally I give in, and try to enjoy some bonding and/or aesthetic fulfillment. But since I'm not a believer, those songs ring hollow and feel like an uncomfortable melding of mawkish and fraudulent.

For atheists, 'tis the season for hiking and movies!

Hellish Letters to Santa

If you ever find yourself in northern Michigan, make sure to set your Waze for Frankenmuth. This year-round Christmas town features Bronner's Christmas Wonderland. Don't worry if it's July and you're covered in cherry juice from the roadside stands: At Bronner's it's always frosty and jolly in the most December 25th sense of that term. The place is a city-sized Christmas merch mecca.

According to Michigan-centric website MLive, Bronner's invites kids to submit letters to Santa and this year received the au courant yet typical marketing-driven pleadings for "iPods and iPhones, tablets, 'Frozen' paraphernalia, LEGOs and Zoomer — an interactive toy dog."

I've seen arm-length wish lists before, both from my own child and as a participant in a charity-sponsored event to purchase something for an underprivileged child.

I only did the Santa charity thing once because most of the lists asked for at least a dozen very specific and expensive items: video game systems and games, computers, electronic toys... Almost everything included a brand name. You just knew these kids were not going to be happy with some random gift from a toy drive. They wanted what they saw on TV and even the most well-meaning donor couldn't come close to satisfying their desires.

I realize that Christmas is commercialized. That it's (almost) all about the presents. But seeing wish lists adding up to many hundreds of dollars is depressing regardless of the financial situations of the children's families. I still wonder where I went wrong every time I look at what my own teen son craved, both in quantity and specificity.

Luckily the joy of Christmas morning comes from being with family and giving of yourself - not just taking. No matter how high the greed level and how impoverished the household, the magic can still happen. All it takes is a different kind of list.





The Death of Santa

I didn't want to kill Santa Claus, but ultimately he had to go.

It all started innocently enough. Every Christmas, presents appeared under the tree, one or two bearing gift tags from Santa. Santa always brought Greg something special.

We were never the kind of family that leaves out milk and cookies out on Christmas Eve - after all, our last name is Cohen! - but around age eight Greg insisted. He felt it was the least he could do in return for the cool gifts. He was thrilled when Santa left a thank you note in return.

Due to the timing of his lost teeth, Greg never noticed that Santa's writing closely resembled the tooth fairy's. Every time he lost a tooth, he would leave it under his pillow and the tooth fairy would take it, always leaving a note on a hand-made TF notecard with the requisite payment.


And so fantasy became reality in our house, Even when Greg hit age 12 said his friends were denying Santa's existence, we told him to make his own decision - then had "Santa" leave a begged-for electric guitar that Mom and Dad had told him he couldn't have.

Psych-out accomplished. Surely Santa was real. Who else could have overcome parents' objections to get the guitar under the tree? The fat man who was able to come down our narrow chimney and fatten up further with the cookies Greg had left him. Greg returned to school insisting he had proof his friends were wrong about Santa.

Naturally this came to a bad end. I realize now we should have given him the guitar ourselves and let Santa fade out of our lives. Greg's vehement schoolyard defense of Santa was of course not just shot down but derided and I had to take the blame for "lying."