Charlie Brown Trees, Unicorn Sleighs, and the Heart Shaped Umbrella (A Christmas Post)

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Charlie one“I guess you were right, Linus. I shouldn’t have picked this little tree. Everything I do turns into a disaster. I guess I really don’t know what Christmas is all about. Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” – Charlie Brown

It’s Christmas, and I’m broke. Y, my girlfriend, hasn’t let this alter her wish list. She knows what she wants. We’ve been together ten months, and she wants us to get couple rings for Christmas. Couple rings are a very Korean thing – when Korean couples get serious, they buy matching rings to express their love and/or signal ownership. The meaning of the couple ring is vague, they don’t signify that you’re engaged or anything, it’s more like in the ’50s when girls wore a pin to show they were going steady. And Y wants my pin, in the form of matching rings that she says will cost around $150.

asian santaSo it’s off to the mall we go. I’m anxious to get there, not because of the rings, but because I want to see if there’s an Asian Mall Santa. It’s juvenile, but the thought amuses me. I start thinking about how North Korean leader Kim Jong-un would make a wonderful Santa Claus. They’re virtually the same person: they’re both fat, come from the North, live in secrecy, are surrounded by small people, and both of them have magical horned animals (If you haven’t heard, North Korea claims to have discovered a unicorn lair. No, I’m not making that up.) True, Mr. Kim is most famous for his nuclear weapons program, but who’s to say Santa doesn’t have WMDs too? Have we ever checked? I mean, what do you think little terrorist Al Qaeda kids want for Christmas? I don’t think the elves are making them wooden rocking horses.

That’s what I’m thinking about as Y and I start looking for rings. Kim Jong-Santa and his unicorn sleigh, flying around the world, giving good little children magical toys and spreading government propaganda. We hop from one jewelry store to the next. Each time, Y tries on rings and asks for the price, and every time the price is significantly higher than what we anticipated.

“I love it,” she says. “It’s $550.”

“I’m sure you’ll find another one to love,” I respond.

couple ringsPlenty of rings in the sea. Although it turns out all the good ones are (not surprisingly) out of my budget. The jewelry store owners all seem grumpy, Scrooges all of them, and Y tells me it’s because we’re looking at the most inexpensive rings, and they think it’s ridiculous. “They see a foreigner and they think he’s rich,” she says. “They think all foreigners are rich.”

The day comes to a close, and we don’t buy anything. I tell her that I love her, but I can’t afford these rings. Then I try to make it sound like we’ve done a public service, since my broke foreign ass has shattered the stereotypes the jewelers had and we’ve enlightened them. Yes, I couldn’t afford a ring, but at least I expanded cultural awareness.

Fast forward. Christmas Eve. Y and I are watching the Charlie Brown Christmas special, which she’s never seen. This is just the beginning. I’ve also downloaded The Snowman, The Grinch, Rudolph, Garfield’s Christmas, and about 30 other specials. I see her future, and it involves stop motion animation. But before we can get to the next special, she takes out a box and gives me my present. It’s a wallet with a change pouch. I didn’t expect anything.

I don’t know what to say. I don’t have anything for her. Not a thing. What’s wrong with me? I’m the worst boyfriend ever, the boyfriend that stole Christmas.

I think she’ll get upset, but she doesn’t. She says all she wants is an umbrella. A heart shaped one. So the wet snow doesn’t fall on her. And she goes over to the computer so I can buy the gift online. The Internet, like Ernest, has saved Christmas.

charlie twoOnce, as a young man, I thought that I understood and could relate to the tree Charlie Brown buys in his Christmas special. You know, the little goofy one that helped teach Charlie the true meaning of Christmas. Over the years, I relate to it on a deeper level. Every holiday, it seems like the Charlie Brown Tree gets more and more important.

“I never thought it was such a bad little tree. It’s not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.” – Linus

No rings, that’s fine. There really is no Kim Jong-Santa, so we’ll make do with what we can. We’ve got the snow outside and eleven hours of cartoon specials. A heart shaped umbrella is on its way. And we’ve got another day to spend together, so we’re pretty lucky.

That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown tells me. Being able to find someone who needs you, just like he found that little tree.

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The Topiclessbar Christmas Special

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“You killed his Christmas present!” C-Batz said in a voice loud enough to warrant an exclamation point.  She was holding the plastic container the stag beetle came in.  I’d gotten my beetle for the Orphan Christmas Party about an hour earlier and, not thinking, put it in the shopping bag with the rest of the things I bought.  Now there it was, on its back, looking like the trip back had done it in.  I wondered if I could return it to the store and say I bought it that way.

“Maybe it’s not dead,” I said.  “Open the case up and poke it.”

“I’m not touching it!” she said.  “It’s disgusting.”  C-Batz had bought her orphan a beetle also, but since she couldn’t make the Orphan Christmas Party, I would have to deliver both of the monstrosities.  (For some background on the beetle/orphan situation, click here).

“Fine, give it to me,” I said.  The beetle was big and ugly.  I opened the container and, using the fat of my first finger, flipped it over.  Its antlers poked me, sort of like if Rudolph got really angry and poked Santa’s belly…only Rudolph was a bug instead of a deer.

The beetle was alive.  Christmas was saved.

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Friday would be the Christmas party at my school.  The school put up a Christmas tree and strung up lights.  It was, in the seven years I’ve spent in education, the first time I’ve ever seen a Christmas tree in a school.  And dang it – not gonna lie – it made me happy.

Do the kids here all celebrate Christmas?  No, not even close.  But one student, Peter, does, and he still believes in Santa Claus.  My boss Leah told me this.

“Peter believes in Santa….it’s so sad!” she said.

“I think it’s cute,” I replied, because Peter is still little enough to think Santa comes down the chimney of his apartment (?) and for that to be acceptable.

“No, he told me very sad story,” Leah said.  “Last year, he said Santa gave June a present but not him.”  June is Peter’s older brother and also attends our academy.  Leah continued, “That means Peter’s parents gave June a present and didn’t give Peter anything.  He said, ‘I wonder why Santa didn’t bring me a present.  I must have been bad and cried too much last year.’”

Leah was right – it was pretty sad.  To summarize, Peter’s parents stiffed him on a Christmas present, and instead of acknowledging that, Peter believes he was naughty and therefore Santa didn’t bring him anything.  What will he think when he gets older?  When will the denial stop?

“The other students said, ‘Peter, Santa is really Mom and Dad,’” Leah said.  “They knew because they found receipt.  Peter told them ‘no!’  He said, ‘I think it is Santa.’”

I saw Peter in the hallway later.  It was before school started and I brought him into the classroom.  I asked him about Christmas.  The story checked out.  Last year, Peter got nada.  June got a robot.

“Will Santa bring you something this year?” I asked the little dude.

“I don’t know,” he said.  “I will write him a letter the night before and maybe he will read it and bring me present.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Good luck.  Have some candy.”

At the end of the day I saw June and asked him if Santa would bring him a present for Christmas.

“Yes,” June said.  “I’m gonna get a cap.”

*

The orphanage I went to, in the northern part of Seoul, was big and marvelous, like a dream home if that term can be applied to orphanages.  The man who ran the volunteer program had me stash the two beetles and their cages (which were more expensive than the beetles, leading me to believe that my life, if a monetary value was to be placed on it, is worth less than my rent) in the main office.  He led me and the other volunteers into a big room where about fifty kids sat quietly, waiting politely.  It bore no resemblance to my classroom at all.  No one was screaming, or crying, or running around with a knife.

The Snowman - I remember him well

Two other volunteers and I were given dittos and colored paper, and we took a group of kids into a room to color and make snowflakes.  Since I didn’t know how to make a snowflake (it’s actually quite hard…shut up!), I basically just sat in the back with the bratty kid and let him hit me while the others decorated the place.  I always bond with the bratty kid; this one was funny and cool and when he wasn’t abusing me, we colored snowmen together.

Finally the time came to give out presents.  I gave the two boys their stag beetles.  Thankfully, they were happy and excited, not petrified and repulsed as I would have been.  The boys let me sit with them and go through the contents of the case, like the jelly packets they’ll have to use to feed the beetles.  When I was leaving, I saw one of the boys walking around the playground outside with his beetle.  It was cute.  Like they were new best friends.  I pictured him pushing the beetle on the swing.  Wee!

Sunday will be Christmas, and I’ll likely spend it getting drunk with my ex-pat friends.  On the other side of the world, my little niece will open her presents, and my sister will feel like a mom, and my parents will feel old.  Elsewhere, the two orphan boys will be feeding their beetles jelly and caring for them as anyone would care for any pet, no matter how cute or hideous it may be.  Peter will hopefully wake to find that his letter to Santa worked, while June tries on his new cap.  The Christmas tree will sit in our empty school.  Everywhere, things will be a little more interesting, and life will be a little more wonderful.

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A Thanksgiving Half Memory, Inspired by Truman Capote

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Today is Thanksgiving, and although I won’t be doing anything to celebrate, there are plenty of things that I’m thankful for.  For one, I’m thankful that my teacher friends back in the States are on vacation.  Secondly, I’m thankful to have my Mass XXX weight gain shake here to replace the large turkey dinner I would be having if I was back home.  Thirdly, I’m thankful that I no longer have to try and teach the story “A Christmas Memory” anymore.

Did that thought seem to come out of nowhere?  Well, it did.  For two years I taught 9th grade English, and easily the worst, most universally hated piece of literature in the curriculum was Truman Capote’s story “A Christmas Memory.”  I don’t remember one student ever liking it.  Students would turn to me, as they sometimes did, and say, “Mr. P…do you like that story?”

Usually I would emphatically say ‘yes,’ because I usually did like the stories we were reading.  “Yes!” I would shout.  “Gift of the Magi is classic!  Don’t you think it’s clever?  He buys the combs and she sells the hair to buy the watch…sigh.”

But in the case of A “Christmas Memory,” there was no defending it.  “No,” I would say, speaking honestly, “I don’t like it.  It sucks.”  The story had something to do with a young Truman and his family having to buy rum to make a fruitcake.  My students, in our inner city school, didn’t really relate to it very well.  Nor would anyone, really.  If there are some strange people in this world who do relate to it, I hope I never find myself trapped in a conversation with them:

“When I was young girl, I remember the fruitcakes Aunt Emily used to make.  Why, Emily would give us a spoonful of rum when the cookin’ was finished, and you should’ve seen the look on Momma’s face!”

Oh, shut up!  To any extent, in homage to Truman Capote’s wonderful time capsule of a narrative, I thought I’d reflect on Thanksgivings past.  I’m inspired, and – call me ambitious! – with enough effort, I think I can write something just as dull and pointless.  Here it goes! (PS – see if you can spot the random dog dressed up like a turkey!)

A Thanksgiving Half Memory by William R. Panara

Times were hard that year.  Mom had to have an operation on her wrist ‘cause of the carpal tunnel she got from hanging j-hooks every day at her job, and Dad was spending a lot of time in the bathroom.  Mandy, my sister, was having boy trouble and I was the same as always.  Everyone in the house was miserable.

That year our extended family decided not to get together for Thanksgiving.  It was awhile ago, so I don’t remember why.  There must’ve been a meeting, where Dad told us all the news.

“We’re not doing a family Thanksgiving this year,” he might have said.  I don’t know because I don’t remember.  Then he might have said, “Our extended family has decided getting together for one day a year is too much.  It’ll be just the four of us this Thanksgiving.”

The tradition was to go to Grandma Rheba’s house, where the whole family would eat Grandma’s soup and watch football and then we’d pass around a great big bird.  The turkey was the headliner, but Grandma was famous for her homemade chicken soup.  One time, Cousin Randy brought a girl along with him, and she said that Grandma’s soup was overrated.  That was sacrilege, so we shot her.  Hmm…maybe we didn’t, the memory is blurry.  Actually, I don’t think we shot her, but we did give her dirty looks, even though we all secretly agreed.

It was sad to know that we wouldn’t be having Grandma’s soup that year.  When
Thanksgiving came around, Mom cooked a turkey and all the sides.  She made potatoes and stuffing and everything.  We were gonna make the most of it, even if it was only the four of us.  We sat down at the table, the deafening buzz of Mom’s electric knife that she bought from K-mart in 1989 filling the air.  Yes, the turkey was being cut, and soon Mom started bringing out plates of food and setting them down.  We each got our own Thanksgiving plate – Dad, Mandy, and me.  Mom got her own plate too, and when she sat down with it, we all started eating.

Everyone was quiet for a little while until Mandy spoke up.  “This doesn’t feel like Thanksgiving,” she said.  “It doesn’t feel right.”

That was the truth, and we were all thinking it.  “You know why it doesn’t feel like Thanksgiving?” I asked, a bright idea forming in my head.  “It’s because Mom brought all the food out on individual plates.  I mean, that’s how we eat dinner every night.  This doesn’t feel special.  We should put everything on different plates and pass them around.  Thanksgiving is all about passing.”

“Billy’s right,” my father said.  “We need to be passing the food.  Let’s get put all the food back and pass it around the table.”

Mom was not happy.  “You mean you want me to dirty every dish in the house so we can pass around the food I just spent all day cooking and serving you?  And then I’ll have to wash every dish, because nobody’s going to help me.  Is that what you want?”

We all nodded.  That was EXACTLY what we all wanted.

On Thanksgiving, passing food is as much a tradition as eating it.  My family went back into the kitchen and brought out a bunch of bowls and spoons.  After that, we pushed the food off our plates and into the bowls, one for corn, one for turkey, one for stuffing, etc.  When our plates were empty, we eagerly passed the food to one another.

“Mandy, can you pass me the potatoes?”

“Certainly, Bill.  Can you pass the green beans?”

“I can’t believe this,” Mom said.  “Look at all this work I have to do.”

We were too busy passing the food around to pay her much attention. This brings me to an important point in the story, because I don’t remember anything else that happened after that.  It wasn’t the best Thanksgiving ever, but at least something memorable happened.

This Thanksgiving, with no celebrations to attend here inKorea, I’ll just sit around and think about stuff from the past.  I’m not a super nostalgic person like Truman Capote apparently was, so the memories won’t make me feel as though I’m soaring like balloons into heaven.

Most memories are like that.  They aren’t saccharine.  They’re just there.

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