Most of us have holiday traditions that—good or bad—we take part in each year. My recent trip home reminded me that in my house, an important custom is the telling and retelling of family stories. The favorites—the ones that never seem to die—are those in which one of us has fucked up but good. We love reliving the times we made an awful mess of things.

In high school I had a friend that was a few years older than me who had come home from college over winter break. So I stopped by his mom’s house to say “hi” and catch up—it was the first time I met his family. They were decorating the house and putting ornaments on the tree—an important ritual that they had saved until my friend came home from school.

At some point, his mom very excitedly pulled out a box and proudly showed the rest of the family the brand new angel she bought for the top of the tree. It was this big, puffy white mass of satin and lace and gold garland trim and it was like her Christmas present to herself, she was so stoked about it.

The stoke levels registered much lower with her sons.

My friend, who had mastered the dramatic monologue, told his mom in no uncertain terms that the angel had no business on their Christmas tree. He held up this 1970s-era fiberglass star—flecked with rash-like patches of glitter remnants and specks of paint that could only serve as a sad reminder that it once had color. He then launched into an impassioned speech about how that star/abomination had been on their tree every Christmas for as long as he could remember.  He said, “It just wouldn’t be Christmas without this star on the tree.”

His mom and that puffy angel never stood a chance. She tried to make a case at first, but you could see in her face that she knew she was fighting a losing battle. This sad, rusty old star symbolized the very meaning of Christmas and the angel would never even leave the box.

Until…

Triumphant, my friend tried to place the star on the top of the tree, which was just out of his reach. After watching him make a few attempts, I (FOR SOME FUCKING RIDICULOUS REASON THAT DECADES LATER I HAVE YET TO UNCOVER) offered to help.

I mean, sure — he was a foot taller than me and, oh yeah, I had ABSOLUTELY NO BUSINESS GETTING INVOLVED! But at the time it seemed perfectly natural to step in and take possession of what he had just very elegantly demonstrated to be an irreplaceable family heirloom.

I don’t think I held that star in my hands for more than four seconds. To say that I “broke” it would be a gross understatement—like saying Nicolas Cage “breaks” movies. I crushed it. I reduced it into a glittery pile of sentimental dust and assassinated the ENTIRE MEANING OF CHRISTMAS while my friend and his family watched in horror.

That star was Kennedy and my hand was a magic bullet and we all stood silently in the Dealey Plaza that was their living room for what seemed like an eternity. I held out the handful of shiny garbage pieces while my face turned red, wishing I could just disappear, or die, or install a flux capacitor in my Chevy Nova and relive the last minute of my life like it was Opposite Day.

There just wasn’t a “whoops” big enough to express my regret.

My friend very politely pretended that it was no big deal and that he hadn’t literally spoken the words, “It just wouldn’t be Christmas without this star on the tree” only moments before. I left his house faster than Nicolas Cage makes terrible decisions.

Every Christmas as I’m trimming my own tree, I think about that night and wonder if the Franco family’s Christmas traditions, which I assume feature a satiny, lacey, gold-garland-trimmed angel tree topper, include the telling and retelling of the story of the year Christmas was ruined when some interfering ditz came over and made an awful mess of things.

I should say that I have never thought of myself as Christian. Even before my Catholic mother definitively settled the running custody battle by leaving the state without warning, I had spent enough time and high holy days with my father’s urbane, agnostic, Jewish clan on Long Island to establish firmly my identity as a New York Jew. Now, married to a Jew and raising my kids Jewish, I am the one who stands firm against assimilation, saying no to Christmas trees and telling my boys unequivocally that Santa does not come to our house. I don’t tell them, but Christmas exists for me, in a way.

There was a time when my mom wasn’t around, the stretch when cocaine addiction and other demons caused everything to fall apart, sending her back to the reluctant care of her mother in Iowa. When that happened, I was seven years old and New York City was my whole world. Iowa was a concept without substance, a sort of void you could call on the telephone and fill up with notions. Since it was Fall when my mom disappeared to there, and December when she started calling and telling me about the snow and the country quiet she could see through the window from her bed, Iowa turned into a sort of abstract Christmastime wonderland in my head.

After she left, my mom also told me why she had left. It was an absurd, horrible story, about how some enemies of hers from the Portland, Oregon, branch of the mafia (I know) had hired my father and grandfather to break into her apartment in Brooklyn and inject a huge amount of cocaine into her nose with one of those four-pointed needles they use to give tuberculosis vaccines, so that her inevitable death would look like an overdose (I know!). But of course, my mother’s flinty midwestern grit was too great for them, and though she collapsed and hit her head on a typewriter and didn’t wake up for days, she survived and fled to Sioux City. I didn’t know what to make of this narrative, which, among other things, apparently placed me in the care of a shlumpy, overweight computer programmer who moonlighted as a mob hitman. I loved my dad too much to believe that he really could have done this, but I loved my mom too much to think she was lying. (Also, I was seven.) So the story settled into a nebulous region of half-truth – true insofar as an injustice had been visited upon my mom, but inaccurate as to my dad’s involvement.

One way or another, I needed my missing mom desperately. She had turned rather suddenly from a six-foot-tall, combat-boot-wearing Brooklyn superhero to a frail voice from out of the snowy void, describing old-time country Christmas traditions and bizarre criminal conspiracies, alluding cryptically to her illness and her recovery. So I grabbed onto Christmas as a lifeline. I picked out a delicate glass ornament to send her as a gift, off into the snowy nothingness of Iowa, a life preserver tossed to a castaway unseen amid the waves. I imagined that ornament sitting on my mom’s bedside table, giving her strength to get better and come back to Brooklyn, to me. Since then, I have always associated Christmas with hopeful struggle, with a distinctly Iowan chin-up optimism in the face of cold weather and poverty and December’s crowding darkness.

The next year my mom came back and found an apartment on Ocean Avenue, and my dad grudgingly let me spend most of December with her. She was jobless and weird and government cheese-poor, and I spent most of my school vacation with the other kids in the building, tearing up and down the fire escapes and across the roof and through the basement, or in my mom’s little apartment doing arts and crafts, baking bread in old cofee tins, and stringing popcorn and cranberries on thread to decorate the Christmas tree my mom had gotten free from Our Lady of Refuge.

Our trips out of the house could generally be divided into three categories: going to church, going to local charities for food and other handouts, and walking Jackie, a runty terrier mix my mom had adopted and imbued with a dubious back story of neglect and survival. I didn’t really understand the import of the food pantries and the free gift grab bags at the church, but I could sense the desperation of my mom’s situation. At one point, a gap-toothed Jamaican in painter’s coveralls came to the apartment and gave my mom a bag of weed, then argued with her about money while I pretended to draw in the bedroom. Later, a jittery crackhead friend came over and my mom sent him away with a loaf of bread. My mom explained to me that the only “fancy” presents we would have would come from the church, but that we should spend our time in the week before Christmas making gifts. She would sit in the window with a cup of tea, holding a big magnifying glass to the winter sun to burn patterns into blocks of wood she’d found in the trash.

On December 23, it was cold with flurries, and we stayed in for most of the day baking bread and cookies and painting Christmas cards for each other with watercolors. We had corned beef hash on toast for dinner (“In the army,” my mom said cheerfully, “they call it ‘shit on a shingle’”), lime Jell-O for dessert, then a joint for my mom while I sipped sweet, milky tea. Before bed we took Jackie out for a walk, away from the bustle of Ocean Avenue and into the quiet blocks of the orthodox Jewish neighborhood that abutted the busy thoroughfare. As we headed out, my mom reminded me to keep my eyes open as we passed garbage cans, as people were likely to dispose of old but still useful items when new things came as Hannukah gifts.

My mom and I took turns surveying the trash by the kerb and holding Jackie, who strained energetically at the leash and barked at the distant rumble of trucks. I found a pair of running shoes, used but in decent condition. They were much too big for me, and too small for my mom, but she tucked them under her arm anyway. Later, she found a box full of decorative tin medallions, which would ultimately join the popcorn and cranberries on our old-time, unelectrified Christmas tree. Finally, as we were nearing Avenue K and the end of the block of single-family houses, my mom veered from the sidewalk onto a snow-dusted lawn, toward nothing in particular that I could see. Without breaking stride, she swept her hand low like an infielder charging a slow grounder and snatched something there, a leaf or a crumpled piece of paper, I couldn’t tell. While Jackie pulled obliviously against my grip on the leash, my mom turned to me with a triumphant grin, her left arm still clutching our bundles of found items. In her right hand she held a twenty-dollar bill.

The next day, with that twenty snuggled safely in the pocket of her old army jacket, my mom and I began our one lasting Christmas tradition. We took a long walk to the Salvation Army on Flatbush Avenue, a mighty, multi-story repository of the cast-off things of Brooklyn. My mom had the cashier give us two tens, and we split up, each of us with our found fortune and half an hour to buy the perfect gift for the other. We agreed that I would go to the upstairs checkout and she would go downstairs, and we would make sure to have our purchases well swaddled in shopping bags before we met at the front door.

I remember that I got her a set of lemonade glasses and a tray, etched with a 1950s space-age pattern that matched the linoleum top of her little kitchen table. We took turns wrapping the presents in the back room of her apartment, and because my present to her was five pieces (four glasses and a tray), the patch of white fabric that my mom had fringed around our little tree seemed bountifully laden with presents. We ate chicken soup and fresh bread in round, coffee-can sized slices, and my mom let me have a cup of coffee so I could stay up for midnight mass. The church was on Foster Avenue, over a mile away, and I ended up falling asleep slung over her big bony shoulder on the walk back, waking up in the lurching, foul-smelling elevator of our building, groggy and cold and eager to open presents. My mom had bought me a Swiss Army knife and an old army canteen, which seemed like the coolest presents in the world, and we fell asleep together on the couch in the living room with Christmas music playing on the radio.

As I got older, I gained some perspective on what had happened when my mom went away. In my teenage years when I saw people high on coke, I realized how strangely familiar their behavior seemed, how it reminded me of the time when my mom had grabbed me and run away from parked electric company vans, explaining that they were there to spy on us. By then my mom had moved to Philadelphia and I had moved with my dad to Oregon, and I was pretty content never to see her and barely to talk to her. When I went back to New York for college, I saw her once a year out of obligation, and she bailed on my graduation at the last minute, claiming a potential Philly mob hit had forced her once again to flee to Iowa.

By the time my wife and mother met, on our wedding day, I had pretty much edited my mom out of my identity. I had defined myself as a New York Jew, the sort to scoff at Christmas trees and go to the movies on Christmas day. It didn’t matter that my mom was Catholic, that I had probably been to as many Christian religious services as Jewish ones. As our sons got older, I didn’t hesitate to tell them that Christmas, while perfectly lovely, was not for us.

This year, December brings difficult times for our family. A hoped-for raise at my job has been held up by budget concerns, I forgot to submit and invoice for freelance work, and now we find ourselves shuffling money from savings to checking, transferring balances, thinking about moving to a smaller house. And suddenly, on Christmas morning, I realize the holiday is inspiring in me the slightly silly, middle-American optimism that it did when I was about the age that my older son is now. Somehow, I say to myself, this will work out. We will drink sweet tea and eat chicken soup and find twenty bucks on the street. We will do arts and crafts and listen to the radio. We will be OK.

Last year, at the age of eight, my daughter left a letter for Santa Claus by the fireplace (along with some carrots and cookies). She said she knew she was fortunate and didn’t need anything herself besides maybe a good long book series or two. She said she’d like to communicate with Santa at the North Pole all year, if possible. Other than that, she wished for all the unfortunate kids to get presents and for it to snow everywhere on Christmas Day.

To her astonishment, Santa wrote back. Here’s what he said (in a script font):

Dear M. Fishman,

Thank you for your letter. Since I am very busy, I have had to dictate my reply to one of my elves. I apologize for his poor handwriting.  I will answer your requests one by one.

First, the North Pole is only open one magical day per year, and we’re very busy that day, so there is no way to contact me directly.  I’m sorry.

Second, there is only so much snow to go around, so it can’t snow all over the world on Christmas.  Everyone has to take turns.

Third, I just gave my last long book series to a little girl who is much less fortunate than you. So maybe your parents or your grandparents will give you one.  Either way, the important thing is that you keep reading everything you can.

Finally, Santa does his best for the poor children all over the world. But even Santa doesn’t have the power to help everyone all the time. That’s why it’s important for you to have a kind heart and to help the poor people of the world yourself whenever you get a chance.  I know I can count on you to do so, because the elves tell me you have one of the biggest hearts in the world.

Be good always and remember: love is not measured in gifts or other material things, but in the way we treat all those around us, especially when it is hardest to do so.

Love,

Santy Claus

This year, at age nine, she writes again:

Dear Santy Claus,

I enjoyed hearing from you. This year I decided to type this on my computer to show you something, your elf has quite neat handwriting, see it’s as good as the computer can do! Any how, I really would like to know a bit about this elf who is writing my letters for you. I’d really like to know his name, his favorite color, it’s gender, it’s favorite thing to do, and it’s favorite job that it does at your work shop! I don’t want any thing for Christmas except a letter back and some answers to some questions that I will soon list. Actually, I know I’m very fortunate and am not in big need of this, but if you could get me some more doll house things and a french bulldog puppy for my mom (this is not very important just a thought) that would be excellent! I want to tell you a few things about your letter…

First, I completely understand that the North Pole is only opened one day, and I’d like to know where you live when you are not there? At the beach perhaps?

Second, it’s a cool fact that snow can’t fall all over the world! Can you make it snow where ever you want or does mother nature do that?

Third, I think it’s really great that you give your biggest things to the less fortunate people. I feel so happy for the girl you gave your last long book series to! I wish her and all others less fortunate than I a merry Christmas this year!

And last, I love that you try your best with the poor and less fortunate, and as I grew older I realized that nobody can change anybody else’s lives except their own lives. And that is a very unfortunate thing on this earth.

The second letter is for Mrs. Claus and the elves. Please give it to them. I hope you take some treats home for Mrs. Claus and the elves but I hope you enjoyed the ones you chose for your self. This year once again we have some carrots for the reindeer, but if they like something else please tell me so in your letter back so I can get the treat for next Christmas. Hope you have no trouble with getting stuck in the chimney!

Love,

M. Fishman

Dear Mrs. Claus and elves,

Do you all work a lot on Christmas Eve? Does Santa have an iPad? What do you guys (gals) want for Christmas? How many reindeer do you all own? Do you ever ride them? What are their names? What does Rudolph’s (if you have a Rudolph) nose look like? Is it hot? Can you use it as a lightbulb? Do you guys (gals) ever do another job besides work for Santa? I’m really proud of all of you for doing such a good job!

Love,

M.

And Santa replies:

Dear M. Fishman,

How nice that you keep writing to me and what wonderful questions from such a little girl.  But wait!  I just realized that you are a pretty big girl by now.  I have so many children to follow that I lose track of their ages sometimes.

Last year I discovered that my writing elf was cheating by using the computer’s script font instead of writing by hand.  Ah, well.  What’s Saint Nicholas to do?  There are so many letters to answer that I can hardly blame the little fellow.

This year, my writing elf is so busy, in fact, that Mrs. Claus has had to help out.  She’s taking dictation while I tack up my sleigh.  If we make a mistake, please forgive us.  Tacking up takes lots of attention, and if I get just one little strap out of order the sleigh won’t fly and the presents will be late!

So, to your questions.  The elf’s name is a secret, I’m afraid.  We don’t give out elf names because we don’t want them to be overwhelmed with individual requests.  His favorite color is red, which is the favorite color of all elves.  His favorite thing to do is to make toys, of course, especially Wii games.  Sometimes it makes him sad to know that Nintendo takes credit for all the Wii games he makes, but I remind him that forgiveness is in the spirit of the season — well, so long as they’re not on the naughty list.

Now, with regard to your feedback on my letter…

First, when I am not at the North Pole, I am at the South Pole.  With my big belly and my thick beard, hot places are not for me.

Second, I cannot make it snow wherever I want and I’ve no time to worry about that, as I’m busy coordinating toy delivery for a big world.  Everyone has their own job on Earth — it’s called compartmentalization.

Third, the little girl in question did indeed love her long book series.  Thank you for being so understanding.

Last, you’re right that no one can change anybody else’s life but their own.  Yet I must add that this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t show compassion for those who are having problems making those changes.

Now, with regard to Mrs. Claus, I will answer for her, as she is not authorized to communicate with anyone but elves.

First, yes she does work on Christmas Eve.  She slaves over a wonderful stew that she cooks in a great cauldron for me and the elves.  We never touch a drop of it until the last present is delivered in Kamchatka. (No iPads, by the way.  I keep everything in my head.)

Second, the number of reindeer is classified information.  Also, I can’t say anything about their names except that the man who wrote that silly poem got almost every one wrong.  Shows what he knew!

This whole thing about Rudolph has also gotten blown way out of proportion.  Poor thing just had a little shine there from moisture and that was years ago.  I fly above the clouds, where the visibility is always perfect, and the moon guides me. No need for lightbulbs or glowing noses.

And, no!  You can’t ride reindeer.  They’re too small.  A man of my size would crush them.  (That goes for Mrs. Claus, too.)

Finally, yes, I do have another job.  You may see me most days in the off-season, sitting at my—

Whoa!  Uh-oh!  The last bit of tack just slid under the last keeper and off we go!

Merry Christmas to all and to all — aw, you know the rest, kid.

Love,

Santy Claus

Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer was a plutonium-toting, off-key singing tailgater; a rabble-rousing, Scrabble-nabber so high on grain alcohol and greenhouses gasses that he couldn’t even parkour his way across a simple thought.

Dear Dust

Every Christmas my sister and her husband fly in from the Midwest for a week of festivities at my home. In recent years, my sister’s husband “Ron” has become a real problem. In most respects we get along exceedingly well, but Ron has a very annoying habit. Mainly, he insists on making “Ron’s Special Christmas Nog,” even though we repeatedly ask him not to. Both my sister and I are a bit overweight. Egg nog is full of milk, cream, eggs, and sugar. Ron whips up a batch every night. It’s great that he’s festive, but all that sugar gives me a headache in the morning, and I hate the extra pounds I pack on over the holidays. Can’t he do something creative with celery instead?

Ms. Waistline

Christmas stories have pretty morals – things like “Giving is important” or “Family comes first” or “Maybe snoop through your husband’s closet a little to find out what he got you before you up and cut off all your hair” or “If you don’t want the inside of your hotel to be covered in placenta and overrun with shepherds, go ahead and tell that nice pregnant lady that you’re all booked up.” This is a story about Christmas, but its moral is much murkier.

Family Truth

By Summer Block

Humor

Occasionally, I am Jewish. I am Jewish when watching Woody Allen movies. I am Jewish at delis and bar mitzvahs and seders and synagogues. I am Jewish when talking to a good-looking Jewish man. But I am never Jewish at Christmas.

What do I mean? It’s simple: my father is Jewish; my mother is not. By any reasonable standard then that means that I, along with my younger sister, am half Jewish. But somewhere along the way, my family simply decided that a mixed marriage meant that half of the children would be Jewish and half not. In other words, I am Jew, and my sister is a Gentile. The most remarkable thing about this conclusion was the ease with which it was accepted by everyone.

The origins of this strange myth are easy enough to trace.  My sister is the less “Jewish-looking” of the pair, with blue eyes that inspired envy in my childhood, fair freckled skin, and a charming Muppet nose. Growing up, her hair was a glittery translucent blonde above near-invisible eyebrows. Though no one would likely mistake me for Middle Eastern, as often happens with my dark-complected father, I do bear some traces of the Semitic – darker, curlier hair, brown eyes, and a nose that, if not prominent, would still be a challenge to fashion out of felt. In temperament, too, I have always been said to favor my father, and as a young child I consciously patterned my behavior on his amiable reserve and dispassionate intellectualism, while my sister shared my mother’s open heart, ready emotions, and inexplicable comfort with hugging. Does all that mean, then, that I am Jewish and my sister is not? Of course not: obviously none of us thinks this is actually true, but still, it’s an amusing thing to believe.

As an adult, I’ve adopted a dubious new schema. Instead of representing the Jewish half of my family, I have simply decided to be Jewish about half the time.When that handsome man asks me if I’m of the tribe, I usually respond by saying “Well, my father is Jewish,” a statement that is technically true but intentionally misleading when spoken by someone who was in fact baptized as a child. In fact, I grew up attending Christian churches—albeit progressive L.A. churches, laid-back, friendly, non-judgmental places that were a lot more about acoustic guitars and drum circles and scruffy beards and singing “Kumbaya” than sending anyone to hell–but churches just the same.

So why do I lie? Some of it, no doubt, is just the desire to appear different, or interesting, or ethnic, probably stemming from my time as the only non-Latino white person in my elementary school, who when everyone else brought tamales and kimchi on Diversity Day had to content herself with scones, a weak alimentary link to a long-ago English past.

But also, I like Judaism, I find it interesting. I like reading about whether or not giraffe meat is kosher, or about mechirah, the part during Passover when you pretend to sell all your dogs to Gentiles. Now I don’t keep kosher or pretend to sell dogs personally, of course, but it’s a great concept just the same.

About ten years ago, my father began listening to the late-night radio hosts Art Bell and George Noory on the 10pm-2am show “Coast to Coast AM” and Whitley Streiber on the weekly “Dreamland” podcast. On these shows, callers report their direct experiences with the dreadful and the fabulous, while self-appointed experts (including a panoply of UFOlogists) opine on the hollow earth, alien implants, reptoids, astral projection, the Planet X, and the “coming global superstorm.” Over time, this harmless habit became a veritable obsession. My father now listens almost every night, then rises the next morning to fill my inbox with emailed links to sites advertising time machines and powerful magnetic healing devices.

Through it all, though, my father has remained as I’ve always known him to be—intelligent, rational, and bemusedly skeptical—but these traits are hard to square with his newfound enthusiasm for the Freedom of Information Act and its promised disclosure of the government’s secret Roswell files.

“Look, Dad,” I said, “I know you think all this alien stuff is funny, but do you actually believe it?”

“I believe it because it’s funny,” he said.

“Yeah, I know, but seriously, do you think all this stuff is true?”

My father looked at me and said, “You know, truth just isn’t that important to me.”

Apparently it’s not all that important to me either.  Anyone who has seen me nod appreciatively at a klezmer concert in July would be surprised to visit my home in December. Because despite any Jewish proclivities, I love Christmas. I love Christmas as much as I’ve ever loved anything, and I love every part of it, from the carols to the gingerbread. I have five labeled tubs of Christmas decorations in storage, and every year I drag them all out, then go buy a tree, design cards, hang wreaths and stockings and mistletoe, bake cookies, and make gifts by hand. I love Christmas—yes—even more than I love pretending to be Jewish.

This year my eighteen-month-old daughter is just beginning to get in on the action; she takes candy out of the Advent calendar, says the word “tree” on command, and kisses all of the Christmas ornaments individually every morning.

Recently one of my friends, a scientist, asked me whether I would tell Beatrice about Santa Claus and flying reindeer and elves at the North Pole when she was older.

Now we are a family that believes in science, in progress, in telling it as it is. We don’t use baby words for bodily functions or tell confusing bird-based myths about sexual practices – but Santa? Hell yes we’ll do Santa. We’ll do Santa like you’ve never seen.

“You don’t think it would be better to tell her the truth?” my friend asked.

“You know,” I told him, “the truth just isn’t that important to me.”

I can feel your anxiety from here.

Christmas is just over two weeks away and you’ve still got shopping to do.  You opted for the “lots of little presents” route, instead of the “one big enchilada” route, and now you find yourself a few gifts short of a stocking.  Worse, you’ve got one or more rockers on your list, and they’re such ungrateful snobs that you’re afraid to get them anything having to do with music for fear of the inevitable snarky comment ending with the word “lame.”

What’s an elf to do?

Relax- I’ve got you covered.

Every year one of my Jewish friends will try to explain how lame Chanukah is and how it couldn’t possibly stand up against the awesome power of Christmas. With a junkie’s conviction they tell you how much they love all of it: snow! Reindeer! Stop animation TV specials and the mountain of presents under that glorious tree, with the needles that smell like they’ve been hauled out of some magical forest just yesterday!

We, at The Nervous Breakdown, take writing very seriously (for the most part) but the 2010 Limerick Contest promptly dropped those drawers and put an archaic poetic idiomatic form to task with contemporary quills scrawling away with some, well, compelling results. Yes, the institution of the beginning and ending “C” regulation did provide a sturdy challenge (thank you, Satan) for some and for others, a downright study in frustration.

I can’t say I have never been a religious person, but I can say that I figured most of that stuff out by the age of eight. My parents didn’t attend church, but would take my brother and I if we wanted to go, to any church we wanted to attend. Now that I think about it, I guess they left all the big decisions to us–they didn’t discuss who they voted for, they let us choose our own middle names (we both declined), and they left the fate of our immortal souls in our adorable child-sized hands.

My atheism is rarely discussed–barely even noticed–until someone dies. Then in the middle of all the sadness, certain friends or relatives want to know how I can live with the idea that my uncle isn’t playing fetch with my dog, Patches, on a cloud somewhere for all of eternity. We are hardly theological scholars (in fact, that statement remains true if you replace the word “theological” with any other word besides “Dr. Pepper”), so it can be difficult to explain my beliefs without making them think I’m shitting on theirs.

Something interesting happened after my Dad passed away in 2005. My family started a new holiday tradition in which we each buy a gift for ourselves and we call it our Christmas present from Dad.

The first year my dad gave me some art from Michael Paulus and Sam Brown that I had been wanting forever but kept putting off buying. The next year I got an iPhone. Each year I try to find something unnecessary–something that I can live without but really want, the idea being that it should be a true gift, and not fulfilling a need I would have to take care of anyway.

This year Dad cleaned out my Amazon wishlist (he’s really spoiling me, now). The items will remain wrapped until Christmas morning, when I will find a pretty box with a card that says “Merry Xmas from Dad” containing the 30 Rock soundtrack, the new Amy Sedaris book and a selection of movies that includes Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous Stains, Over the Edge and Night of the Comet.

I can’t wait to see the look on my face!

Ironically, my father would never have actually picked any of those things. Like, there’s no way he would have spotted a copy of Night of the Comet and thought, “Oooh–Darci will want that.” (Whereas, I am reasonably sure that literally every other person who knows me, who stumbles upon a copy of Night of the Comet thinks, “Oooh–Darci will want that,” unless they assume I already have it).

But it doesn’t matter what he would or wouldn’t have done. Death has made my Dad a much better gift-giver. And this new tradition has made the holidays without him a little easier to bear.

I want to reassure those certain friends and relatives that I am just fine without the belief in Heaven or any kind of afterlife. I’m fine because I remain connected to my father in the ways that really matter to me.

He will find me whenever cheerleaders from the Valley take on scientist zombies in the wake of a cosmic apocalypse.


In a scenario reminiscent of My Dinner With Andre, only with way less creepy background music and little or no Wallace Shawn, two Nervous Breakdown newcomers utilize the cold war-era concept of the “face to face chat” in a likely misguided effort to push beyond the personal essay format. Daly, already a TNB darling due to his heavily reported dust-up with Wally Lamb, and Beaudoin, still reeling from the announcement of David Coverdale’s defamation lawsuit, come together for a wide-ranging discussion on a number of subjects. They each arrived armed with three pre-prepared questions in case things hopelessly flagged, but the idea was to wing it as much as possible. No topics were off limits and no feelings were spared. So here it is: unedited, unexpurgated, and without a single national security redaction:

Sean Beaudoin: (sliding into a booth in which Joe Daly is already comfortably ensconced. An awkward male-bonding slap-five handshake-y thing follows) So, this diner is a little on the sleazy side. Just the way I like it. But I’m guessing you took a pass on the eggs benedict.

Joe Daly: Food poisoning changes your perspective on everything.

SB: Our waitress looks exactly like Endora from Bewitched. If you don’t get that reference, I’m even older than I thought.

JD: You’re barking up the right tree, brother. I remember both Darrins. And they were both Dicks.

SB: They were, weren’t they? Dick Sargent and…

JD: Dick York.

SB: There used to be a bar in San Francisco called Doctor Bombay’s.

JD: Nice!

SB: Actually, it was good place to get punched in the neck by some guy who decided you stole his bar change.

JD: Yanno, the last time I was in San Francisco, some guy tried to pick a fight with me.  Has it always been a big fighting town, or was it just me?

SB: I think there are just certain places where it’s unwise to stare at the expensive vodkas, mostly because they’re full of people who see your back as an opportunity.

JD: Have you ever been in the mafia?

SB: Lipstick or Trenchcoat?

JD: Either.  Your comment about sitting with your back facing people made me wonder. That’s the thing about TNB- we really don’t know much about each other. That’s the royal “we” by the way.

SB: It’s true. I sort of feel like I know you through post-osmosis. But in reality, I know absolutely nothing about you. I guess that’s why we’re sitting here. I’m going to take out my folded piece of paper with three questions on it now.

JD: I’m keeping mine in my pocket until the last possible second. My list of questions, that is.

SB: Okay, here’s the first one: let’s talk about the ubiquity of Joe. It seems like every post I read, you’ve already commented on it. Which I mostly take to mean you’re really conscientious about participating in the TNB model, as opposed to just slinging your own work up and basking in the glory. Do you feel an obligation to make the rounds, or do you just really dig the give and take?

JD: (pulling fake pencil from behind ear and leaning over napkin) Hold on-I need to write down “The Ubiquity of Joe.” If I ever record a folk album, I now have a title. I just need the Irish sweater and kinky hair.

SB: I can see the cover. You’re on a stool in a pirate’s jacket with a banjo, doing tunes from David Crosby’s solo album. Which I’ve actually listened to, by the way. Every single song is called something like Ecology, Ecology, Mustache, Drugs. Or Morocco, Booze, Mustache, Freedom.

JD: Classics.

SB: Anyway, I know “ubiquity” might sound sort of negative, but I’m trying to say I think it’s kind of an excellent thing.

JD: How so?

SB: Just that there’s a certain sort of “writerly cool” that requires being all enigmatic and not putting yourself out too much, trading ironic for earnest, not being willing to say things if they’re not always “brilliant”…  I see you out there sort of just being supportive and I like it. It’s anti-cool. It’s zero-hipster.

JD: (chuckling) I’m like the Hootie of TNB. No, I mean, I realize some people might think it’s sort of a yahoo thing to do-to consistently comment. But I really appreciate the feedback when I publish something, so I want make sure I’m supporting other writers in the same way. Personally, I find virtually all comments on my pieces to be enormously helpful-at the very least it brings my attention to what caught their eye, good or bad, and what they related to on some level. And you?

SB: At first I felt weird commenting beneath my own pieces, like I was fluffing the totals. But I got over it. And I really like the dialogue. It forced me to think about the entire process in a different way. That whole dynamic of “I am the writer, you are the reader, there will remain a wall of silent genius between us.” Totally subverting that.

JD: I hear you. My first thought on commenting on my pieces was that it was a pretty slavish way of pimping yourself out. Then some other writers suggested to me that actively commenting on your pieces was a good thing because it drives discussion and brings readers deeper into the piece, as well as the TNB community. Let’s face it-the Bible is online, the complete works of Shakespeare, most of the Garfield cartoon strips. There are some pretty good options for readers looking to kill time on the internet. I think that for people to spend their time reading a piece on TNB is deserving of some grateful acknowledgment, in my opinion. Oh, and yes-I just implied that I’m bigger than Jesus.

SB: You are. My oatmeal is bathed in loving light.

JD: I wish I ordered oatmeal. Maybe I’ll try to multiply yours.

SB: Can you multiply me a coffee refill, too? Okay, here’s my second prepared question: Writing about music is easy in a way, because almost all of us have spent our lives immersed in it, and also pretty impossible, since almost all of us have spent our lives immersed in it.

JD: Exactly.

SB: So there’s pretty much not a single thing you can say-“I love Rush, I hate Rush”-that won’t be considered by someone to be not only ill-informed, but actively offensive. So why take that whole package on?

JD: (briefly considering) Writing about music isn’t the most original endeavor. We music obsessives all suffer from the delusion that our passion is unique in intensity and/or variety. In reality, the only thing unique is probably our album collections, which are like snowflakes-no two are exactly the same. When I crawl into an album or a band’s catalog, sometimes a theme pops up, or I find myself struggling with the question of “what it is about THIS music that makes me feel this way, when this other music doesn’t?” And next thing I know, I’m writing about it. Know what I mean?

SB: I do. Except I tend to ignore that compulsion. To write about it. To me it’s like covering a Pro Choice rally. There’s two groups of people with signs and bullhorns, a bunch of nervous cops, and no possibility of convincing anyone of anything.

JD: Speaking of convincing, you used to write for The Onion. How in the world did that happen?

SB: I pitched the SF city editor an idea and he liked it. Never thought I’d hear back from him. They were desperate, obviously.

JD: Did you just come up with an individual story idea and send it to him, or was your idea to write a regular column?

SB: I pitched him “How to Spend Christmas Day Alone” which was essentially about being that guy who doesn’t have the cash to fly back to his parents’ in Cleveland like the rest of his roommates. The idea being, okay, here’s a list of places you can go to stag in hopes of warding off the crippling depression.

JD: So what’s open?

SB: Um, not much. The Avis rental car counter. Walgreens. I advised stealing lots of candy, getting caught, and spending the day with friends in jail. Also, David Brenner does a comedy night at this Chinese restaurant in North Beach every year. Which sounds almost like jail. After that I kept pitching the idea that SF really needed a sarcastic weekly sports column. And they finally agreed. As it turns out, it wasn’t at all what SF needed.

JD: What happened?

SB: I got canned.

JD: Sexual harassment?

SB: I wish. No, like two days after Lehman Brothers ate it, the SF and LA offices were shuttered. I’d just finished my column and the editor calls and says “don’t bother to send it in this week.” That’s more or less the last I heard from them.

JD: (reaching into pocket for notebook) I guess this brings me to my first pre-prepared question: In the cultural juggernaut Road House, Patrick Swayze’s character Dalton imparts nuggets of wisdom to friends and enemies like “Pain don’t hurt,” and “Go fuck yourself,” to name a few. Ok, in one of Buddhism-lite lectures, he tells the battle-weary staff of the Double Deuce, “I want you to remember that it’s a job. It’s nothing personal.” Is it possible for a writer to follow this advice?

SB: (Crossing fingers over chin in a Zen manner) Well, you probably remember that just before the climactic fight scene, the bad guy tells Swayze “I used to fuck guys like you for breakfast in prison. That’s pretty much my writing motto.

JD: It’s all starting to fall into place.

SB: Not to mention the 26-point Helvetica banner I have tattooed across my back…

JD: I’m sorry, but I’m going to need to see that.

SB: Obviously you’ve done a little research, and I appreciate you slyly bringing up Road House. Yeah, the lead character in my next book is named “Dalton.” And, yes, it’s an homage to Swayze.

JD: People are going to think you’re kidding. But you’re not, are you?

SB: Nope. It’s called You Killed Wesley Payne. But let’s talk about how Brad Listi called you and me onto the carpet of his mahogany-lined Fifth Avenue office last week.

JD: Good idea. We haven’t had a chance to break it down yet.

SB: So, after the usual niceties, he essentially told us-

JD: -to shape the fuck up.

SB: Yes, but also, if we did get our act together, we had the potential to be the Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry of this year’s TNB freshman class.

JD: Right.

SB: You seemed to think he was warning us not to stay up all night doing coke with Lenny Dykstra/Greg Olear anymore. I sort of thought he was trying to tell us to enjoy this time of innocence, because it doesn’t last.

JD: Seriously? I’ve been having a blast at TNB. It’s like a literary Lollapalooza. But without the eight dollar bottles of water and overflowing port-a-potties.

SB: You’ve mentioned you’re working on a book.

JD: (tenses up) Wait, is it bad luck to talk about a book that you’re still writing?

SB: Yes, and now the thing is doomed. Even so, what’s it about? What are your wildest expectations for it?

JD: The book is a direct consequence of TNB. I know it sounds trite, but the author community really inspired me to give it a shot. Being outside the literary world, I always had the idea that all novelists were pretentious and unapproachable-

SB: Aren’t they?

JD:-and riddled with fear and sarcasm. But most of the authors at TNB seem down to earth, passionate about the writing process, and sincere in participating in a community vibe. I realized I could either keep doing the one-off pieces and being a hired gun for other artists, or I could take on the challenge and see what I’m all about…the book will deal with music, which means that any expectations I have for it are hellaciously modest. In a genre populated with Nick Hornby, Chuck Klosterman, and Michael Azerrad, I have no pretensions that I’m going to burst onto the scene.

SB: The scene could use some bursting. You could be the new Klosterchuck.

JD: I’ll just be happy to get it published and read by a few people whose opinions I respect….(suddenly laughing) um, excuse me, Miss? Yes, waitress? Did we really order all these cliches?

SB: She’s like, “fuck off and tip me already, you guys are camping at my best table.

JD: Here’s my next written question, while we’re on the subject: You’re quite a music aficionado, seemingly across a number of genres. One of which is apparently jazz, which is sort of like the absinthe of music-few dare to sample it for fear that they won’t understand the experience. Even established musicians can be intimidated by the unfamiliar scales and chord progressions. What does jazz do for you and is it possible to discuss it without sounding pretentious?

SB: It’s unfortunate but true that you pretty much can’t talk about jazz without sounding like an asshole. Unless I meet someone who’s as much of a twitchy stalker about it as I am, I usually play dumb. There’s definitely this sense that, if you’re into Charles Mingus or Sun Ra, it must just be a bid for hipster credibility. It’s like, “there’s no way you actually listen to that for pleasure!”

JD: Right, right.

SB: But, you know, I will cop to the fact that there have been times in my life when I claimed to like things that I was actually not that into-Foucault comes to mind-because I thought it might impress people. One of the great things about getting older is completely not giving a shit anymore. I mean, if I want to waltz into Starbucks and order a triple caramel whipped cream enema, I’m going to do it and not worry what the cute barista thinks, you know?

JD: It depends how cute.

SB: And I would say that the “intimidation” aspect of jazz is probably more about the fear of looking dumb at a party than the complexity of chord changes. Even the name is sort of meaningless, because it encompasses so many different styles of music. You mean your grandma’s Artie Shaw collection? Cake walks? Hard bop? The fifteen incarnations of Miles Davis? Machito? Free Jazz? B-3 funk? Fusion-y shit?

JD: So then what’s the appeal? Does it relax you, inspire you, make you want to lay with a woman?

SB: A long time ago, and this was back in the cassette days, I worked the overnight desk shift at a hotel, and I had this one TDK of Coltrane’s Ascension which is, you know, a challenging piece of music. Seriously dissonant. People would walk into the lobby, hear it, pick up their suitcases and walk right back out again. I wore that tape down to the felt.

JD: It’s like you’re a conundrum, inside of a mystery, served next to some potato croquettes.

SB: I get bored easy. Verse, verse, chorus, solo. Turn on the radio, here’s another song about a girl you like. Here’s another song about how it sucks to be twenty and have no idea how your life will turn out. Here’s an ironic song about a toy we all grew up with. Did you really order the croquettes?

JD: I did. Out of all the world’s vegetarians, I have the worst diet by far. (gripping non-existent tofu gut). And I’m ok with that.

SB: A bunch of people I know got into a massive pixellated conflagration about Lady Gaga on Facebook last week. One side loves her, mostly for campy reasons, but still some true acolytes. The other loathes her, mostly because she doesn’t sound anything like ZZ Top. And the middle thinks arguments about musical preference need to be left in the dorm room, so grow the fuck up already. But I thought it was interesting that the main sticking point seemed to be that while some people admitted to finding her entertaining, they weren’t willing to concede she had any actual talent. Well, Joe Daly, does she?

JD: Wow. I do have a theory on Lady Gaga, which may or may not impact this question. The theory is that there are at least five Lady Gagas.

SB: Good, I like it….keep going…

JD: If you look at any series of pictures of her, she looks wildly different across all of them. Basically, you’ll see that her body and facial structure aren’t particularly unique-just the outfits, makeup, and hair. It occurred to me that if she got really blown out at a party, and was too hungover to make an appearance the next morning, she could easily send a similarly-shaped friend to do the gig, and no one would ever be the wiser. Plus, the way she sings has been auto tuned up to the max, so really there’s probably a legion of women who could pass themselves off as LGG in the studio. You see where I’m heading?

SB: Completely. And I do think she’s incredibly talented. It may just be that her incredible talent does not lay in the musical arena. I mean, she and some very smart people got together, came up with a character to inflame the pop fires, and every day they deposit truckloads of cash into various accounts. They’re just really bald about it, which I sort of admire more than bands or singers who pretend they’re not all about business.

JD: Dead on! You do have to respect an artist who plays it straight like that. So it’s my own personal conspiracy theory that Lady Gaga is like Lassie in that she’s played by a number of different actors/singers.

SB: And also that she can bark and claw the dirt in a way that tells you there’s a little boy who’s been kidnapped by Apaches and it’s time to run and get the sheriff?

JD: She would also probably be really handy if someone got caught in a bear trap. “What’s that Lady Gaga? It’s Timmy? Timmy needs help?”

SB: Seems like a good time to introduce a pretty clichéd scenario that was asked of me last week, mostly cause I got no more good material on Gaga…

JD: Bring it on.

SB: Okay, you’re going to the typical theoretical deserted island and can bring the entire recordings of only one artist to play on your coconut-fueled iPod. The caveat is, you don’t get any bootlegs or re-issues, just the studio albums. To listen to over and over, for the rest of your life. So, even if Working for the Weekend is your favorite song ever, choosing Loverboy limits you to a tiny pool of recordings. Who do you pick and why?

JD: Well, if it were one album, I was going to go with the Best of the Stone Roses, but as they only have two studio albums of original stuff, they don’t make the island.

SB: The smart move would probably be to snag Mozart, not only for the volume of material, but because you could while away the years studying him. If only to keep yourself from talking to a volleyball. Unfortunately I’m not that smart, so I’m going with Slayer.

JD: Because…

SB: Because only Slayer will keep me and my new monkey-wife sane.

JD: I’m going to have to go with The Who then.

SB: Really?

JD: I’ve just always related to them on a very deep level. I got into them in high school, when I was starting to feel my oats, and that was the same general age that Townshend was when he began writing some of his best stuff. I’ve always thought Daltrey was money. Great rage. Plus, end to end, they have a great legacy that includes anthems, punk, heavy riffing, and very melodic, stripped-down stuff.

SB: Supposedly Hendrix hated Pete Townshend. So, by extension, I am obliged to hate Pete Townshend, too. But I dig Live at Leeds. Total early punk.

JD: And one of the best motherfucking live albums ever! (waitress walks by, glares, shakes head.) Whoops-sorry for the profanity, miss. (In a quieter voice) Didn’t realize she was right behind us.

SB: We’re totally getting 86’d. I better do my final question.

JD: Good idea.

SB: (composing mentally, taking deep breath) Okay, so yesterday I was thinking about how, as a society, we process things in tiny increments-

JD: I agree. Next.

SB: (laughs)…we spend all our time like, what do I have to get done by noon? Who am I hanging out with this weekend? It’s pretty amazing how much has changed just in the last year alone, but we don’t really acknowledge it. For instance, Tiger Woods. He’s a punch-line. His iconography is permanently shot. But eight months ago he was a walking brand, one of the most revered, most reliable money-machines of the last century. Pretty much a god, at least to people who find their gods in someone else’s backswing. Okay, so….sorry this is so long-winded….so I was just reading that David Shields self-interview where for the third time he more or less said “literature is dead” and I was thinking how that was like saying “Tiger fucks waitresses at Waffle House.” Bang! Hit the defibrillator, lock your kids in the rec room, start selling off all those valuable first editions. But golf goes on. Tiger’s still playing. People still watch and care. It’s just different now. It seems to me that saying “literature is dead” is really “here’s a contentious generalized statement with which to drum up interest in my $25.95 hardback.” You know what I mean?

JD: I think I do. I mean, does anyone really think literature is dead? In fact, it’s more alive than ever-look at the growing list of contributors to the TNB, many of whom have their own books out. Maybe print is dying, but the fact that it’s easier than ever to get people to read your thoughts, via book, blog, or social networking site, shows that literature is very much alive, it’s just diluted. But for the record, I think the “contentious generalization” tool is about as original as the serial killer not being dead at the end of the movie.

SB: Right. You gutshot Michael Meyers. He gets up. Light him on fire. He gets up. But I do like that Shields is really confident about staking out his position. He’s like, “here’s what I think, here’s what my book is about, buy it or don’t, I’m not trying to make any friends.” He’s obviously spent years thinking through this stuff while the rest of us were running with scissors. I guess in the end I just feel protective of the old model. Which is dumb, since I mostly get screwed in the old model.

JD: Speaking of which, you just posted this thing called Read My Finger: How Not to Get Published

SB: I did. Which will probably guarantee I never get published again…

JD: All the TNB literary critics, editors, and very serious writers knocked each other over to effusively praise the thing. It felt like it was Christmas Eve and someone said there was only one Cabbage Patch Kid left, and it was in your article. Being an outsider in the literary world, I found the piece to be thoroughly entertaining, and at the same time, quite humbling. Not only did you name check a legion of authors I’ve never heard of, but you revealed the submission and acceptance process to be tired, saturated, and impersonal.

SB: Actually, once it was done I considered scrapping the thing. Even though most of it was intended to be comical, in the end I don’t want to genuinely discourage anybody. Writing is just too hard as it is. But, you know, it was all true. The truth cannot be denied. On the other hand, my mother called me up and was like, “that’s the last time I write anything but XXOO on your birthday card.”

JD: Nice one, mom.

SB: Since we’re at the end here, it does seem like I should mention that, even on a telepathic level, we seem to have agreed not to speak of the Steve Almond contretemps. Maybe if for no other reason than that we’re both bored to tears by ever single facet of it. But it occurred to me to ask you one thing, and maybe with this question put it all to bed, permanently, next to Hoffa in a layer of quicklime…

JD: (nodding warily)

SB: Did that experience give you, in even the most fractional way, a glimpse of what it’s like to be pinned down in the public eye like a Lindsay Lohan? By which I mean, caught up in some “spat” that was probably bullshit to begin with, but for whatever reason becomes a cultural snowball, conducted through headlines and discussed by third parties and generally taking on a life of its own, so that it goes way past really being about you, and you sort of end up standing by watching it happen?

JD: Yeah, it was really strange to watch things spin out so quickly. My thinking is that Steve had every right to say what he wanted to say, and I responded to him accordingly as a comment to his piece. My involvement ended there. I wasn’t going to get baited into some internet feud. As the saying goes, “never pass up an opportunity to keep your mouth shut.” But next thing I knew, people began weighing in and a very different debate arose. Greg Olear’s piece, Something Nice,” was awesome because it set off a very thoughtful and sometimes animated discussion about what the TNB culture means to different people and what their expectations are for the site. Apparently it was time for that discussion to happen at TNB.  But as you say, the debate had little to do with me or my writing.

SB: I feel compelled to mention that I do admire pretty much any willingness to leap into the fray brandishing unpopular sentences. To not worry if your opinion is going to keep people from being gentle with your own pieces. To toss it out there like a raw steak and deal with how it effects your Amazon ranking later. I mean, essentially, the internet is nothing but a massive binary excuse to be righteously pissed about stuff. So the guy with the pointy stick, in the long run, is sort of doing everyone a favor.

JD: When the TNB dust up was still pretty new, one of the more veteran authors told me that when you put something out there, some people will like it and some won’t, and to realize that none of them are right. The important thing is to just keep writing because that’s all I can control. I’m not going to say that I don’t care what people think about my writing, but I think that as long as I’m writing about topics that mean something to me, and not for other people’s approval or feedback, I can be happy with my process.

SB: Listen, people who say ‘I don’t care what anyone thinks about my work’ are either lying or Thomas Pynchon. I mean, everyone cares. Deeply. The locus of writing is showing off. It’s narcissistic just by definition to imply “my deepest thoughts are worth your investment in time.” So I think it’s how much of that ego you can deflate, you know, that makes certain writing rise above. How much can you ignore your nature and access your true feelings without censoring them, or tailoring them to a specific audience. No matter what the genre, guns and spies or Jane Austen, that’s the kind of writing that, to me, never feels disposable. So, you know, I guess I’m trying to say, if you feel like you’ve written something artfully, but with a minimum percentage of bullshit, you can pretty much get away with anything. You can call anyone out, or reveal things that are totally ugly and not be condemned for it. But if you’re going to attack someone for the intellectual rigor of their distaste for Dave Matthews, man, you better have a pretty solid handle on your own failings.

JD: Ok, they’re turning the lights out in here. I need to ask one more question though, if that’s cool. When I was researching your works, I found out that your first book, Going Nowhere Faster, was just translated into Polish. Polish!

SB: I know, right? Now it’s called Donikad Byle Szybciej. I’m embarrassed to admit how pleased I am with how entirely random that is.

JD: Why Poland over say, France? Is there a big Young Adult market in Krakow?

SB: No clue. But I intend for my empire to span from Budapest to Helsinki by 2012. And by 2112, I intend for it to span from Spirit in The Radio to Tom Sawyer.

JD: Ha! In a perfect world, where would you like to see your writing take you? If you could decide your own fate, what does the future look like?

SB: Totally honestly? If I can sell just enough to not worry about checks or agents or self-promotion, to be able to sit in my little office with my laptop and concentrate on whatever project I’ve got going that day, I would be extremely happy. Anything beyond that is frosting.

JD: Amen.

SB: Selah.

JD: What does that mean?

SB: I’m not entirely sure. Hunter Thompson used to say it all the time. Something like let those with eyes see, and those with ears hear.

JD: It doesn’t get any more profound than that.

SB: No, sir. It really doesn’t.

I have stolen the keys to the TNB blog and am now going to take it for a spin. I may get booted off TNB for doing so, but before I’m found out, I thought I’d show some pictures of me hanging out with various TNB contributors, just to brag about the fact that I personally know them and stuff.

This year, as we careen towards Christmas like an out of control 18-wheeler, I’ve decided to take my hand off the wheel, lean back with a smile and enjoy the rush of impending doom with a gleam in my eye and a trigger finger on the RECORD button. My foot is off the brakes, kiddies. This puppy is gonna hit and there ain’t nothin’ I can do to stop it.

The foreign affairs office was taking us out for Christmas.

“Where are we going?” I asked Judy, another teacher.

“I don’t know,” she said. “But I hope it’s a Peking duck dinner.” She paused. “Chuck’s going too.”

My stomach sank. “He is? I thought he was boycotting us.”

“I guess he’ll make an exception for Christmas.”

It was 1998, ten years before the Olympics, when bustling hutongs still snaked through the nation’s capital and the only coffee you could get was from McDonald’s. I taught English to graduate engineering students in Changping, a small town outside Beijing, and hated every minute of it.

I wasn’t sure which was worse, teaching apathetic students or being a foreigner with a Chinese face. Neither native nor foreign enough, I couldn’t blend in, nor did people believe I was American.

“But you look Chinese,” they’d say.

“I am,” I’d answer. “I’m Chinese American.”

Puzzlement. “But you look Chinese.”

My students could spot my long purposeful gait a mile away. (I tried to shorten it but didn’t have the patience.) Once in a store, some younger kids pointed at me. “Laowai!” they said, though I hadn’t said anything.

Laowai, old foreigner, referred to anyone, regardless of age, not from China. In The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan writes that when she stepped off the plane in China, she became Chinese. I became a laowai.

By December, I had been there four months and missed everyone: my boyfriend, my friends, my family. It wasn’t as bad as the beginning when I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, and was so terrified of teaching, several hairs on my head turned gray. The terror had dulled to an ache as I imagined the holiday hustle and bustle back home: New York streets crowded with tourists and shoppers, the modest tree my parent put up in their house in New Jersey, the Heat and Snow Misers duking it out on TV.

Unlike the Lunar New Year with celebrations that lasted for weeks, Christmas wasn’t a big holiday in China. Even under the modern Communist regime, there were very few Christians, at least those who’d admit to it, and all Western religions tended to be lumped together. My students used the sign of the cross to mean everything from Protestantism to Catholicism to Judaism.

Although Beijing may have had a more festive feel, in Changping there was nothing. We had the day off, but it was like any other morning. In fact, with no classes and students hiding from the cold in their tiny dorm rooms, it was worse. The campus was like an icy ghost town. The waiban was doing us a favor by taking us out.

We met in the courtyard between our houses. Judy and Ron, a fiftyish couple from Oregon, had been teaching all over China for the past decade. They were friendly with foreigners and natives alike, unlike some laowai who preferred to be one of a kind. Judy looked nervous.

“Will he talk to us?” she wondered.

“Don’t worry,” Ron said. “We’ll have a good time no matter what.”

Chuck, like us, was an American English teacher. Middle-aged and skinny, he had a thick thatch of steel-colored hair and a beak nose. He had been ignoring us since October.

We weren’t sure why. We knew he wasn’t happy about how the school was run, and was always making suggestions to Mr. Sun, the head of foreign affairs. The first time Chuck and I met, at breakfast in the dining hall, he had talked at me for half an hour about how terrible the Chinese educational system was, and that it was up to us to change it.

Us, change the system? All I wanted was to get through my next class.

After that I avoided him. “I have laundry to do,” I said by way of apology if we crossed paths in the dining hall again. Or, “I have to prepare my lessons.”

“You’re a very solitary person,” he told me.

Since then he had been giving all of us the cold shoulder. “Look, another foreigner,” he said once to Judy as she rang her bike bell at him, then kept walking.

One rare warm day, as the three of us sat on Ron and Judy’s porch sunning ourselves, he walked right by us, his hood up like blinders, and didn’t say a word.

The week before Christmas, Chuck’s family had arrived. It was hard to imagine the lone figure marching across campus in his parka as being close to anyone. But they seemed nice. Heftier than her husband, his wife Debbie had short brown hair and rosy cheeks. In their early 20s, his son and two daughters rode around on bikes in the bitter cold. Whenever they saw us, they waved and smiled.

The waiban arrived in their shiny black van. Mr. Lee, a youngish guy with floppy hair and a missing incisor, was driving while Mr. Sun sat shot gun.

“Merry Christmas,” said Mr. Sun, stereotypically squinty-eyed and big-toothed, as we got in.

“Merry Christmas,” we chorused back.

“Where’s Chuck?” Mr. Sun asked.

We shrugged.

He muttered to Mr. Lee in Chinese, “That other guy hasn’t shown up yet. Go knock on his door.”

People always seemed to forget that I understood them. “What is this nonsense?” one of my students asked in Mandarin when I tried teaching similes.

“Do you have a question?” I asked him in English.

He froze, then didn’t speak for the rest of the class.

Mr. Lee hadn’t moved. Chuck’s grouchy reputation preceded him.

“I’ll go then,” Mr. Sun said. Then to us, smilingly, in English, “I will get Chuck.” He got out of the car and jogged up Chuck’s walkway.

“Maybe he’s not coming,” Judy murmured.

Mr. Sun returned with Chuck and Debbie in tow. I was surprised to see that Chuck was smiling.

“Cold enough for you?” Chuck asked, climbing in.

We all glanced at each other. “My thermometer said 10 degrees,” Ron said.

“Worse with the wind chill factor,” I said.

Judy rolled her eyes. “Wind chill factor. Made up by meterologists.”

Mr. Sun shut his door. “Let’s go,” he said to Mr. Lee.

Being driven into Beijing was a nice change from the cold and smelly bus. Every Friday Ron, Judy and I rode it to go on various excursions: shopping for knickknacks, visiting museums, trying different foods. The other week we visited a Taoist monastery, where the monks padded around silently in blue and white, their uncut hair wound in complex spirals around their heads. Afterwards we ate hand pulled noodles, slurping noisily against the bitter cold. Ron had invited Chuck to join us multiple times, but he never did.

“Here we are,” Mr. Sun said.

To my delight, we were pulling up to the Grand Hotel Beijing, one of the fancier places in the city. It catered to foreigners and I missed being catered to. I was sick of restaurants with bones on the floor and gristle on the table. Even if they were confused by my Asian features and perfect English, the staff would be too polite to say anything.

Mr. Sun led us to the dining room, clean and spacious with potted plants and white tablecloths. Tiny white lights twinkled from the ceiling while holly and mistletoe hung in every corner. Christmas carols played softly. “You can have anything you want,” Mr. Sun said of the elaborate buffet.

Judy glanced around. “I don’t see any Peking duck,” she said.

Tired of Chinese food, I nearly wept for joy at the sight of meat loaf, roasted chicken, green beans, mashed potatoes, and bread pudding. It would be a merry Christmas after all.

As we ate, we talked and laughed like normal people, like friends. That day Debbie and her daughters had gone shopping in Silk Alley.

“Did you haggle?” asked Judy, a champion bargainer.

She hadn’t. “Ten dollars seemed like a good deal for a silk scarf.”

“Ten dollars!” Judy cried. That was eighty RMB. “Highway robbery.”

“We also visited Embassy Row,” said Debbie, deftly changing the subject. “We saw a lot of parents with their adoptees.”

Judy nodded. “It’s one of the last stops before they can go home.”

I had seen it too: white men and women pushing strollers with Chinese girls. I always wondered if they’d think I was a grown-up adoptee, and I’d have to explain that no, Chinese people did raise their kids in America.

As we left, I was surprised to see that Chuck and Debbie were holding hands. The strange crabby man seemed to be gone. Maybe he had simply been lonely all this time. Sometimes foreigners went off the deep end in China, Judy said. I certainly had.

We were quiet on the ride back to Changping. My belly was full of good American eats yet I still yearned for home. I wanted to wake up to hear English outside my window, not Chinese. I wanted to speak and understand without effort, to see other colors in a sea of black hair. I wanted to sink back into anonymity and not stick out as the foreign girl with a Chinese face and soldier’s stride.

Back on campus, Mr. Lee let us out in our courtyard. “Good night!” Ron and Judy called as they disappeared inside. “Merry Christmas!”

Chuck and Debbie waved. Their windows were brightly lit; I could see their kids moving around.

“Think the munchkins fared all right?” I heard him ask his wife.

“I think they’re fine,” she told him.

Later, after he left Changping for good, we’d raid his house for extra supplies. His family had gone home right after Christmas, and he had had several weeks alone. We were flabbergasted by the state he left. The living room floor was covered in peanut shells, the toilet tank lid lay broken in half in the hallway, and inexplicably, a plate of sliced raw mutton was left out on the kitchen counter.

“He was worse off than we thought,” Judy would say, shaking her head.

But for now I didn’t know this. For now I was jealous that Chuck got to have his family around him on Christmas morning, and that they’d be together tonight. Maybe he and Debbie would talk about what they ate, and the kids would be jealous, already craving U.S. fare. They’d tell how they went exploring, and how everyone stared, and they’d laugh and shake their heads because there was only a few more days of this, not months on end.

If Chuck could have all that, I wondered as I unlocked my door, why didn’t he want it all the time? Why did he leave? Did he prefer to be alone in a strange country where Jews were the same as Christians simply because they weren’t Chinese? Maybe where he was from wasn’t good enough for him. There he wasn’t special. Here at least he was a laowai.

I went alone into my dark house. I turned on the heaters and changed into my pajamas. I flipped on the TV and watched an incomprehensible Taiwanese soap opera. Later, before turning in, I’d etch another scratch mark on the paper I had taped to the wall, counting down the days till I could finally go home.