Wednesday, December 30, 2015


I was walking through the store with my nephew. He was ten years old now, and he insisted on pushing the shopping cart down the aisles as we picked up items for our Christmas gathering meal. 

"Why BBQ?," he asked.

"Because it's tradition," I answered.

My nephew's face was scrunched up in confusion, debating how to proceed.  It was a serious look on his face, a look that was happening quite more frequently now that he was getting older.  Part of me suspected that he was trying to decide if he should go ahead and ask me to explain or just forget about it and move on. And I guessed that part of him wasn't sure if I'd answer his question with a serious, truthful answer or give him a silly, ridiculous answer as I usually give him in order to get him to laugh. For a moment, I caught a glimpse of a boy who was no longer a small child, yet not quite an adolescent teen either. 

And suddenly, the space and the time between us became too much.  I held my breath as I remembered him being a newborn, just less than a month old when I first laid eyes on him.  He was so light and so tiny that he barely fit into one of my arms, even when he was wrapped up in a blanket, wearing his soft baby clothes.  I will never forget that first time I saw him and held him in my arms.  Even after all these years, I can still feel his warmth and soft skin and smell his sweet baby scent as I gently held him and rocked him to sleep. 

I would not see him again until he was two, walking and talking and climbing up the sofa, laughing when I tickled him or when I picked him up and held him high overhead and spun him around a few times.  Then it'd be a few more years until I saw him again when he was four. Then we'd play hide and seek or build forts out of pillows and blankets and make buildings out of blocks. 

I should explain that I live far away from my nephew, and the only time I get to see him is when I visit him and his parents for a few weeks.  Though we've often talked over the phone, especially for his birthday and when I make my usual calls to his parents at least twice a month just to chat and catch up, the truth is, the last time I saw him was three years ago, when he was seven. I spent three weeks that summer hanging out with him and his folks, getting to know him, learning that he liked to swim and took him the pool and beach almost everyday. He liked to snack on fruit and he loved eating pancakes with hash browns and eggs and sausage when I made them, so he asked for them almost everyday.  And I enjoyed making pancake breakfasts and sharing them with him. I suppose it was a nice change from his usual morning cereal.  I loved building sandcastles at the beach with him and helping him get better at swimming in the waters and diving in the pool.  The kid's a natural born swimmer and a fast learner.

He was getting to be a smart kid, and smart kids often grow up fast. And I suddenly found myself wishing that he wouldn't grow up so fast.  And I wished that I had visited him more often.  But time and life move on, whether we want them to or not.  The best we can hope for is to appreciate what time we have and spend it with people we love, doing the things that we love to do.

I was woken up from my own wistful thoughts when my nephew pressed on, "Why do we have BBQ for Christmas?  I mean, everyone else I know has turkey and ham for Christmas. So why are we having BBQ for Christmas?"

"Because we," I paused to emphasize by pointing at him and me, "are awesome people. And awesome people can eat whatever they want on Christmas!"

He chuckled a little and fired back, "What if I want turkey and ham for Christmas?"

So I declared, "Then we'll have turkey and ham on Christmas!"  I paused to gauge his smile, raised an eyebrow, then asked him, "Do you want turkey and ham on Christmas?"  I was partly curious if he wanted to try turkey and ham on Christmas so he could be like his friends or other people he knew; or if he really was craving turkey and ham for Christmas.  Either way, if that's what he wanted to eat, then I needed to start defrosting that turkey I had stashed in the freezer.

"Not really," he said, much to my relief, "I just wondered why we eat BBQ for Christmas."

Well, there was no putting it off any longer.  I sighed quietly. He was growing up and he was asking questions that required real answers, not silly ones.  The time had come to explain to my young nephew why we ate BBQ for Christmas.  And the best way to explain something, is start at the very beginning. But first, I had to clarify a few things, so I asked him, "Do you know what the word tradition means?"

Suddenly, that serious look appeared on his face again, making him seem older, forcing me to realize that he wasn't a small child anymore, that he was just a whole lot more grown up that I had thought.  He said to me, "A tradition is something that you do every year, to remind you of something important, like a birthday or anniversary."

"Very good," I said.  I was actually quite impressed at his grasp of the meaning of the word tradition.  And he beamed with a confident smile that I could not help but return.  So I continued, "And our tradition of eating BBQ on Christmas started a long, long time ago, when your parents and I first met many, many years ago."

And I found myself reliving those memories of so many years ago.  I was fresh out of high school with a job offer in a far away place that promised adventure and freedom and a way out of my small, remote coastal town.  Life was exciting and terrifying at the same time, and I couldn't wait to get started on my journey.

It took two long flights and a bus ride to finally make it all way across the country to my new job, to a totally new and unfamiliar and scary yet thrilling environment.  There, I met other new people, coworkers, the most important would become my friends.  There were six of us--3 guys and 3 girls, from all across the nation.  We were just old enough to vote yet still too young to buy alcohol. Though we all came from different backgrounds--some rural, some urban, some coastal, some mountains or plains or deserts--we all shared our desire to find our own way into the world and strike out on an adventure, to make it on our own.

The job didn't pay very much, but it paid enough to keep us housed and fed and reasonably taken care of in exchange for the long hours and chaotic situations that often happened frequently during our employment and those years of service.  Our crew was the newest and youngest in the entire company.  In fact, we got hired on to replace a whole section of our department that retired in the last year.  The few people left in our section were just a few years from retirement themselves, including our department head, the Honey Badger.

Always dressed impeccably with a sharp, business style, the Honey Badger was a tough, in-your-face, straight shooting, tell-it-like-it-is kind of boss.  She didn't suffer no fools and had no problem going toe to toe with some of the biggest and baddest mofos in the company.  Even the company's Board and Chiefs showed her respect.  And it wasn't just because she was the most knowledgeable and multi-skilled person in the company--the jack of all trades in the company, having experience in and knowing how all the departments and various machinery the company operated. Rumors from the old workers tell of the time when the Honey Badger was starting out in the loading dock bays and a supervisor had the gall to actually grab her rear.  She turned around and slapped him so hard he had to grab onto the nearest wall for support. Not only did she report him to Human Resources but the company, after failing to intimidate her into a settlement and silence, had to fire the supervisor and do a massive overhaul of their policies and handling of work place harassment. 

Since that rumored incident, no one has messed with the Honey Badger since.  From then on, she took on a lot of different duties at the company.  Whether she was driven to prove that she was a great employee or if there was a natural drive to be the best and most successful at work, it didn't matter.  In only a few years, she had become familiar with the complex equipment and integral to the operations of the company.  She had streamlined the line and field operations and implemented departmental changes that allowed the company to grow and thrive. 

There were other mysteries surrounding the Honey Badger.  During company holiday parties, when we were allowed to bring guests, the Honey Badger always showed up alone.  We were told that she was a widow, her husband died after a heart attack; their only child, a son, was killed in a bank robbery, or a drive by, or during a mugging.  Whatever the true story, it seemed that the basic element was that the death of her son involved violence and a gun.  Not that any of us newbies was ever going to be brave or stupid enough to ask the boss lady for the truth.  And frankly, if anyone was stupid or cruel enough to ask, they deserved to have their ass kicked!

Rumors or not, the old timers in our section and the other crews gave us newbies unsolicited warnings to keep our distance from the Honey Badger.  She was to be avoided if we wanted to get ahead in the company or if we wanted things to work out smoothly for us during our employment.  While we didn't exactly know what to make of all this, we were smart enough to remain neutral and stay out of office politics--just clock in, do our work, have some lunch, then clock out and go home at the end of the day.  And for the most part, that kept us newbies out of trouble amidst the minefield of interoffice warfare and colleague subterfuge.  We looked out for each other and were very wary of other coworkers who seemed to connive and conspire day in and day out.

That kind of stressful environment only worked to make the 6 of us newbies closer and helped our bonds as friends grow stronger.  We started work that summer and by the time the end of the year rolled in, we had proven ourselves to be a reliable, hardworking crew.  It was pretty impressive for a crew on the job for less than 6 months.  As a matter of fact, we had received recognition from the higher ups for some of the work we did during the busy and chaotic times we had to work during emergencies--natural disasters and man made crises. 

When I close my eyes, I can still the feel the heavy rainfall pounding us as we worked late into the stormy night to recover equipment from the field, our uniforms and boots soaked through and the body heat we generated from lifting and moving the heavy machinery and tools kept us warm and oblivious to the dark, cold, wet conditions.  We sloshed through mud and puddles and hardened ourselves to the pelting rain that hammered relentlessly on our bodies as we toiled in the darkness and madness, seeking shelter when the far off lightning briefly lit the dark night and distant thunder roared the promise of a never ending storm.  The focus on completing our tasks kept us from being driven insane at o'dark thirty in the morning as we scurried about in an insane race to finish everything before the rising of the sun.  We just wanted to get the work done so we could get home on time and shorten the delay the surprise summer storm had caused in our scheduled departure. 

I remember feeling my bones ache for the very first time in my life when we worked through a blizzard on assignment, doing our part to keep the city safe and running as smoothly as possible.  My gloved hands actually hurt on the inside and felt stiff from the bone numbing cold and vicious winds that cut the exposed parts of my face and forced me to wear shades and cover my nose and mouth, protecting my face from the blistering onslaught.  That was my very first time experiencing snow, and it was the biggest blizzard that part of the country had seen in a century!  The snow had piled up high, covering cars up to the door handles and shutting down streets and closing down the entire city and transportation routes.  Trees and power lines snapped from the freeze and heavy weight of the ice and snow.  Most impressive of all was that the mighty flowing river had frozen solid, and the familiar landmarks of the city were turned into towers of frost and peaks of snow. And while the denizens of the ice sieged city sought refuge and comfort in the warm coziness of their homes, we were out and about in the deserted streets, battling the blizzard at a punishing pace to restore parts of the city that had fallen dark and still to the merciless ferocity of the freeze and brutal winter storm. 

I remember feeling so heavy and moving so slow; and it wasn't just because I was bundled up in layers of clothing.  The cold had the effect of slowing me down, and if I sat down and closed my eyes for a minute, I was afraid that I would never wake up.  It was hard to move as my limbs felt so heavy and cumbersome against the fierce, shrieking winds that fought us and buried us with waves of white snow.  It hurt to move, but it was more painful to stand still, and the only comfort and warmth I felt at times was when I was actually hustling and bustling to get the work done.  I could not imagine growing up and living in conditions like these, and I still can't believe that people would actually prefer to live in icy, snowy regions that often endure seasonal, if not year round, vicious freezes and savage snowstorms.

I also recall the bright, intense, burning heat of the dry desert when we laid out equipment and started setting up logistics in the harsh, endless wasteland with more sand than stone as far as the eye could see.  We had learned the hard way to set up the machines and do most of the heavy lifting and demanding of our work during the early morning hours before the sun rose too high and scorched the earth with its searing heat.  Between ten in the morning and four in the afternoon blazed six hours of hellish heat and blasting sunlight that burned the skin and baked the stones and earth beneath our feet.  The whole desert radiated waves of sizzling heat that created large mirages of lakes of water that weren't really there.  In the mad, craziness of the devouring heat, it was actually cooler and safer to wear long sleeves and hats, to cover the body in order to stay cool and avoid the blistering desert sun.  As contradictory as it sounds, it made sense to cover up to stay cool in a stark, scorching environment where the shade was cooler yet still reached temps of over 100F in the middle of the day.  But that was not the biggest contradiction in the desert that I experienced. 

I was going to learn just how extreme the desert really was.  Imagine my shock to discover that hot deserts get freezing cold at night!  Boy, was I glad and grateful that I had listened to the others and brought some cold weather gear to the desert.  Even stranger than the extreme heat of the desert day and harsh freeze of the desert night, we were caught unaware by the savagery of sandstorms that blinded us and buried us underneath the sharp cutting blades of billions of grains of sand.  The sand stripped paint off the vehicles and destroyed some of our equipment, clogging gears and shutting down operations.  We had to dig out our trucks and heavy equipment buried under heavy sand and hunt down tools and machinery that were blown away and entombed by the ferocious winds.  I couldn't imagine living and working in that kind of extreme environment for too long.  But we did it; somehow, we survived; and towards the end, we were actually thriving and adapting very well to the conditions in those unforgiving lands.  Nothing was certain or permanent in the desert but death.  But there was beauty in that death; and there was the tantalizing promise of hope in what little life that endured and even flourished, however briefly, in these forsaken lands of hell on earth.

But worst of all had to be the oppressive humidity and heat that permeated the blacktop when we had to do inventory of the equipment under the burning, sweltering sun and steamy blanket of hot air that smothered us when we worked the swamps and woods, testing new equipment or working the field in the latest assignments.  The unforgiving heat drowned us and strangled us, sucking out the energy with every desperate breath and draining the souls from our sweltering, simmering bodies as we toiled and boiled under the slaughtering sun.  You had to take at least two showers a day, preferably three, just to feel clean and alive and regain some sense of peace after the insanity induced by the maddening heat of the oppressive sun--a sadistic sun that brutally beat down our bodies and crushed our souls. 

The ungodly heat would smash our bearings and twist our essences into raging monsters that wanted to tear ourselves and the world asunder, to find relief and escape from the devouring flames that consumed us and razed us to the very core.  Some days, we'd drag ourselves around work, only to lose our strength and fall to our knees and pray to god--any god!--to deliver us from the hell that was our existence.  But the gods were either deaf, blind, or ignored our pleas or they had died out all together.  We received no salvation and suffered only damnation as we roasted and suffocated on those hot, steamy summer days.  Everyday was torture, an eternity of suffering and endless punishment.  I learned that I very much prefer the searing desert heat to the heavy humid heat any day! 

But what does not kill us, only makes us stronger.  And with each struggle we won and each challenge we conquered, we grew better, faster, and stronger.  In our line of work, we had to rely on each other to get the job done.  It required trust and needed everyone to do their part to keep the work running smoothly and efficiently and safely.  We had made a name for ourselves as an up and coming dependable, effective crew.  We may have been the youngest, but we were proving to be one of the best.  By the end of the year, we were sent on assignment to handle situations that were usually reserved for the more seasoned teams.  We had proved ourselves an important asset to the company and the company recognized our potential and started giving us more assignments and increasing our pay.  It wasn't a big increase, but it was a still a nice reward and I much prefer that small pay raise over a trophy or plaque any day.  Most impressive, the upper echelon of the company were starting to recognize us by name and were making more requests of our crew to accompany them on assignment or to handle important tasks within the company. 

Of course, we made a few enemies during our tenure, but they couldn't touch us in any way and we didn't really care about them at all.  The very few who made sarcastic and defamatory statements regarding our crew kept their grumblings to themselves; any overt complaints would only draw negative attention to their own shoddy work and poor attendance and failure rate when compared to our successes.  Their mumbling only served to motivate us to try harder and be better at what we did.  We were young and full of energy.  And when you're that young and bursting with energy, just ready to go at anytime, anywhere, you get a little daring and whole lot bolder and stubborn.  When someone tries to tell you that you can't possibly do something, you get motivated and driven to go do that very thing, to make the impossible, possible; you aim to overcome whatever obstacles come your way and you fight and find a way to succeed.

When the company closed as usual to celebrate the holidays, the 6 of us newbies found that not a single one of us was going home for the holidays.  The truth was, it was pretty expensive to get back home, and we each had decided on our own to send that money we would've spent on transportation to the folks back home, so they'd have more than enough to have a nice meal and some presents and more importantly, not worry about money for a little while and take some time to enjoy the holidays.  Sure, we all missed our families and wanted to be with them, but the truth was, over the course of our new and close friendship, we had grown closer together to become a family.  And right then and there, we decided to spend the holidays together.  We were all ready spending a lot of our free time together, going to the beach, having BBQs and picnics and camp outs, going to parties and clubs, or heading out of town for the weekend.  At that age, we were more interested in going out and having fun than staying in.  We weren't sit down, dressed up, dinner party people.  We were adventurous, fun, casual picnic and BBQ people.

In fact, that very first Friday after our first week on the job was over, we ventured out to explore the neighborhood and ended up at the local park, where upon sighting public grills, we decided to have hot dogs as a meal.  A quick trip to the nearby store for supplies and within an hour, we were eating hotdogs and burgers and grilled veggies for dinner.  It was our first time cooking together and it was such a big hit and we had so much fun that we decided to do it again the next day.  So we got some chicken and pork and beef and potatoes, fired up the BBQ pit at the park, and had a fantastic day of fun games and feasting on great food and enjoying good company. From then on, almost every weekend or holiday off, we'd have a picnic and grill or BBQ.  It was such a fun and awesome experience, because we got to experiment and try out all sorts of new things--dry rubs, marinades, different types of meats and veggies, a variety of international and regional recipes, and coming up with our own tasty creations.  Before we knew it, BBQ and grilling and picnics were our thing.  It's what we did.  It became a tradition.

So, for our very first Christmas together, we decided to have a BBQ.  And we had chicken legs, pork ribs, and beef skirt steak for fajitas and kabobs, along with a potato salad, mac & cheese, corn on the cob, sweet rolls, and cornbread.  It wasn't the usual Christmas dinner of turkey and ham and mashed potatoes and gravy, but it was our own tradition, and it was what we wanted to eat to celebrate not just the holidays and the passing of the year, but to honor and cherish the bonds of friendship and family we had forged in our time together.  I call it a gift that the six of us actually ended up on a journey together, and it was a miracle that we became fast friends and a family among strangers in place so far from home.  Against all odds, we had found a place to call home, and we had found people who genuinely cared for and looked out for each other.

But that wasn't the only miracle that made our first Christmas together special.  Imagine our shock and awe around noon on Christmas Eve, when the boss lady showed up at our place.  The Honey Badger was paying us a visit.  And she brought us food!  She had heard that we weren't going home for the holidays.  She herself was on her way to her sister's home for the holidays.  But before she left town, she decided to cook us a holiday meal, and what a meal it was!  She brought us two large roasting pans full of roasted turkey, ham, pork chops, mashed potatoes & gravy, black eyed peas, green beans, carrots & potatoes, biscuits, and peach cobbler for dessert!  There was more than enough food to last us for days!  We were astounded at her generosity and thanked her profusely for her kindness and wished her a very merry holiday season.  But she still managed to surprise us even more when she said that she was very proud of us for the work we had done, and she complimented us on our growing skills and predicted we would get even better, and she'd see to it that we'd get more specialized training and help us advance. 

And you know what?  She kept her promise!  For four glorious years we advanced and flourished under her leadership.  And when she retired, our crew soon realized that was time for us to move on, because the Honey Badger had taught us to be independent and changed our perspective and ways of thinking and problem solving.  We realized that we could be more than what we thought, and we could do anything with hard work and drive and a willingness to get educated and learn as much as we could to do the best that we could.  Where there's a will, there's a way. 

When we first started working at the company, we were just six kids who had no clue what we wanted in life and had no idea of our place in the world.  And after our experience in the company and under the guidance of the Honey Badger, we realized that life is what we make of it, and our place could be any place, doing whatever we wanted in the whole world. And that's exactly what happened to us.  We took off for different parts of the world, seeking out new opportunities to do the things that we wanted to do and enjoy.  Since we started our contract together, we ended our journey at the company together.  Within a month, the cowboy from the mountains of the West took a job in Europe; the farmgirl from the central Plains took off in the opposite end of the world for a job in New Zealand; the Comanche girl from the desert Southwest headed down to Brazil for the beaches of Rio; the southern boy married the northern girl and they moved up north to live their lives; they became the parents to my nephew.  As for me, the beach boy from a remote coastal town decided to head out West for college and found himself living in place he'd never thought he'd end up in and enjoying every minute of it.

In the years since, we've managed to get together three times for two weeks of fun, BBQs, and adventure.  The first two times were easy and a bit more wild and crazy.  There weren't any kids then.  The last time was milder but still fun, only now, we had children who attended and added another perspective and more love to our fantastic and fun festivities.  In some ways, our gatherings showed that we were grown up now and we've even changed  with the times.  But in other more important ways, our get togethers demonstrated that our friendship and sense of family was still true and strong as ever, and that we picked up right where we left off and still ran together as a smooth, effective, highly efficient, and successful crew.  Some things never change.  Even on our own, we still hold true to our traditions, and we still have BBQ on Christmas and other holidays.  And these are the traditions that we were now passing on to the next generation.

My nephew was looking at me from behind the shopping cart, waiting for my answer.  And I had to consider carefully how to best tell the story of how BBQ became a holiday tradition.  He was a little older and wiser, but he was still a child, and I had to keep my answer simple and leave out all the other stuff he was too young and too innocent to know.  So I told him, "The first time your parents and I met, along with your other aunts and uncles, we didn't know anybody.  We had just left our homes far behind us and were thrown together in a new, strange place to start a new job among strangers.  That first week at work, we stuck together, got to know each other better, and by the end of the week, we became friends.  We had a BBQ that weekend to celebrate our new friendship.  And every weekend and holiday off work after that, we got together for picnics and BBQs because it was fun and we loved doing them. That was our thing."

I paused to see if he was still paying attention.  He was, so I pressed on, "that first Christmas together, none of us went home.  It was just too far and too expensive to get back to see our families.  But luckily, we had each other, and together, we celebrated our first Christmas together, so we weren't alone.  And we had a BBQ, because that's what we did.  That's what we enjoyed doing and eating. That's how six friends became a family.  And that's how our tradition of having BBQ on Christmas and holidays started.  It was something that we made together as friends, and it's something that we still do to celebrate that friendship and our coming together as a family."

He was quiet. I wondered if I had lost him and bored him with my long winded explanation.  But he surprised me by replying, "That's what makes it a tradition: We do it every time to remember the important things like friendship and family. Because that was the beginning of friendship and family for us."

I smiled at him proudly.  He was old enough to appreciate the meaning of tradition.  And I hoped that, as strange as it was, he would continue the BBQ tradition his parents and I and the rest of the family had started so many years ago.  I wanted to reward my nephew for his insight, to give him something extra to make him feel happy, because he made me smile.  And though I still wish he wouldn't grow up so fast, I was at least satisfied that he was starting to grow up to be a wonderful, smart, and caring person.

After loading up on the BBQ supplies, we headed towards the toy section, and I asked him to pick out something he'd like. Though I all ready had a present for him under the Christmas tree at home, I thought he deserved something special for helping me with the shopping and for showing me his wisdom and appreciation of our tradition.  He looked around at the toys and I was sure he would pick some legos or toy cars; he loved those, and every Christmas and birthday of his over the last few years consisted of me sending him those items, which he always enthusiastically thanked me for sending him.  And that's exactly what I had in the gift under the tree with his name: some legos and toy cars. 

But he surprised me again, by saying, "I don't really want anything for me. But is it okay if I picked something out for my new brother?"

I was kind of shocked actually.  His pleading eyes reminded me that I should answer him immediately, "Sure! Go ahead."

You see, his new brother was a fairly recent addition to the family. He was a seven year old boy my friends had adopted, right at the end of summer.  They've been a new family of four for barely four months.  And I wasn't entirely sure how the new arrangement was working out. My friends decided to expand their family, and the idea of adoption was appealing to them, and they knew right away that they wanted to give an older child a home.  Apparently, people want to take the babies, but the older kids, the ones who are all ready in grade school and above, get passed over for the babies and toddlers.  It's heartbreaking when you think about it.

I wasn't sure how my nephew was adjusting to this.  News from his parents do tell of stress in integrating their new family and helping their newest member adjust to his new home.  And I have to be honest, this Christmas was the very first time I've ever seen and spoken face to face with the new kid.  The first time I tried to speak to him was over the phone, when he was first adopted and moved in, but it was kind of awkward, as he didn't say anything, or was too shy, or just didn't know what to say, so I let him off the hook and continued talking with his mom instead.

For this visit, the new kid was still mostly silent, and he stuck close to his parents.  I gathered it was comforting for him that way, and I don't blame him, especially since this was a new environment for him to be in and his first time meeting me, a stranger to his eyes.  While his older brother had no problems talking to me and hanging out with me, even seeking out my company, this new kid kept his distance.  And he's kept his distance over the past week since they first arrived for their visit.

I didn't know what my nephew's new brother liked, and his parents were pretty useless with information like, "He'll like whatever you get him."  As if!  Would he like it if I got him some socks? or maybe some canned tuna? perhaps a selection of dried fruits and nuts? maybe sausages and cheeses and crackers?  a roll of duct tape?  What the hell, man!?! Give me a freakin clue, here!  To be safe, I got him some legos and toy cars, too.  I figured, well, he is a little boy, and most little boys like building blocks and toy cars.

Every morning this past week, my nephew would join me in the kitchen, and he'd help me make our traditional breakfast of pancakes, eggs, sausage, and hash browns. He'd have his with juice and milk, and I'd have mine with water.  His brother would not make an appearance until both his parents came to the kitchen for breakfast a little later.  Even then, he'd only nod or shake his head when I asked him what he'd like for breakfast, too shy to even look me directly in the eye.  This morning, when his parents decided to go out and check out the local scene, my nephew decided to stick with me instead and go grocery shopping; his little brother, naturally, chose to go with his parents.  And I was fine with that.  Let him get comfortable and feel safe.  He needs that.

I suddenly realized that my nephew seemed to have spent more time in my company than he did with his parents or new brother.  Even when we went out to the beach and took a ferry ride to watch the dolphins and fish and other wildlife, my nephew stuck close to me while his brother stayed with his parents.  Still, it was such a joy for me to see the excited look on the boys faces when the dolphins came up to the boat and started swimming with us and jumping out of the water.  Even their parents were thrilled at that.  And I surprised myself when I realized how much I take for granted that I live in a place like this, where there was still so much wild life and nature, where seeing dolphins jump for joy was a common, pleasant, and almost ordinary, yet really extraordinary, everyday experience for me. 

I was instantly reminded of why I moved down to this part of the world.  More importantly, why I stayed when it wasn't part of my original plan when I first moved here all those years ago.  What was supposed to be a year only commitment turned into a permanent state of being.  This wasn't the most popular or developed part of the state.  And some would say it was quite behind in infrastructure and progress compared to the rest of the bigger cities and places around the state.  But  it was the wildness and beaches that lured me here and invited me to stay.  It reminded me of my own home, that far off remote coastal beach town, the one I was so eager to leave and abandon in search of a bigger and better life.  Only, somehow, unintentionally, I was drawn to a place that reminded me of what I longed to leave and left behind so many years ago.  And funny, how a place so similar to what I was eager to forget now feels an awful lot like home.  What can I say?  Though I've been to many places and lived in many different parts of the world, in mountains and deserts; cities and tents; plains and canyons; rivers and lakes; small towns and wide open spaces, I'm always going to be a beach boy at heart.  And though this boy left his beach a long time ago, the beach has never left this boy, and its sand is still warm and soft, and waters cool and sparkling, and breezes blow gently as palm tree leaves dance beautifully in this boy's heart and soul.

My reverie of home made me think of my nephew and his new situation.  How was he handling the new changes to the family?  He was an only child for such a long time, always getting the attention of his parents whenever he wanted.  I couldn't help but wonder if he was still getting that same level of attention or if he even needed it at all.  He was getting older now, a bit more independent.  And yet, he was still a child, albeit an older one; I'm sure he still felt the need to have his parents at hand if he should need something or just wanted to be close to them. 

This entire trip, he was sticking pretty close to me, wanting to hang out.  I wasn't sure if it was because he was genuinely happy to see me, or if he was somehow seeking attention that he otherwise had lost with the addition of a new brother.  Either way, I was glad to have him with me.  I did enjoy his company and I would gladly give him whatever attention he needed to adapt to his new situation.  But hearing him ask if it was okay for him to pick out something for his new brother really made me feel proud of this kid.  He was a good big brother.  And every little brother deserves to have a good big brother look out for them.

We browsed the toy aisles and my nephew picked up a firetruck.  He explained, "He likes playing with my firetruck at home; you know, the one you sent me a long time ago."

And by 'a long time ago', he meant only four years ago, but I guess to a ten year old, four years is a long time, especially when it's almost half your life!  And suddenly, I felt so old again.  My gawd, have the years flown by!  Sigh.  But I snapped myself out of wistful self introspection and nodded to my nephew to put the firetruck in the shopping cart. 

Then I thought, if the little brother liked the fire truck, then maybe he'd like a dump truck, too.  My nephew certainly loved it when I sent him one years before.  So I picked up a dump truck and added it to the cart.  My nephew looked at me with a big old smile and it made me feel good and joyful to know that he was happy with what we were doing.  When we got home, his parents and brother were still out and about.  So we put the groceries away, wrapped the presents for his brother and put them under the tree.  Later on that night, I got some more presents and put them under the tree. 

Christmas Eve, we had fried chicken, pork chops, corn on the cob, biscuits, baked potatoes, a caesar salad with a peach cobbler and ice cream for dessert.  Come Christmas morning, the kids were up and about early and eagerly tore through the wrappings of their presents as I prepared some hot chocolate for them and some coffee for the adults.  The look of joy on my nephew's face was priceless, as he played with his new legos and toy cars and other gifts.  The look of happiness and amazement on his new brother was just magical and special to me, as his eyes really got big and his mouth gasped open when he opened his presents and found his own firetruck from his brother, whom he eagerly hugged and thanked, and then his wonder when he got a dump truck too, for which he quickly looked up at me for the very first time and smiled a big, beautiful, happy smile.  I smiled back and he laughed and started piling the toy cars and legos into the dump truck bed and started pushing it around. 

Standing there behind the sofa, looking at the four them--my friends sitting, looking and smiling at their kids laughing and playing with toys under the sparkling, colorful tree, surrounded by boxes and bits of shiny wrapping paper, the sun peeking through the windows, gently lighting up the room with warmth--I could not help but feel as if I were watching a Christmas card picture of a loving family come to life before my very eyes.  And I was filled with such happiness for my friends.

It's been many years since I've actually had Christmas off and spent it with family and friends.  Most years, it was customary for me to work the Christmas holiday, in exchange for getting New Year's Eve and New Year's Day off.  That's how I liked it.  I didn't mind working Christmas.  I figured it was a holiday for families, especially families with small children.  But this year, our company closed operations on Christmas Day, and though I was not asked to work, I wouldn't have gone in anyway, because I had made sure that I would not work the Christmas holiday this year; because my friends were coming to town to visit.  And it's been so long since I had last seen them.  And I was so very glad that I was spending time with them and loving every single minute of it.

The gifts were a big hit, especially for the kids.  I had even gotten the two brothers an engineering building game, where they get to put together circuits to light up lights, make sounds, and have a propeller spin in the air.  It was a such a big hit and favorite for the two boys as the older one helped the younger one put the various experiments together from reading the instructions, and then he let his younger brother flip the switch and both squealed with laughter as the lights came on or the sounds came out or the propeller started flying.  It felt good to hear the boys laughing.

The parents enjoyed their small gifts, even though some of the items raised an eyebrow or two.  When my friend looked at me with a puzzled look on her face after opening an unusual gift item, I couldn't help but explain, "Well, when I asked you what you think your son would like for the holidays, and you said, 'he'll like whatever you get him,' I figured, well, if that's true, then I guess his parents will like whatever I get them, too."

Which included, not only some nice t-shirts and candy and souvenirs for their trip, but some new socks; canned tuna; dried fruits and nuts; an assortment of sausages, cheeses, and crackers; and a nice new roll of duct tape.  I was trying to make a point.  When I ask for something, I'm looking for a specific answer, because if you give me a wishy washy general kind of answer, well, that's just license for me to go wild and do something crazy.  They should know this about me by now; or at the very least, they should be reminded of exactly who I was:  Someone who enjoyed a good laugh and making people happy.  Someone with a wicked, usually inappropriate sense of humor, who tends to take things just a bit too far for common decency.

I recognized the look in their eyes, and instantly, we laughed out loud.  I knew my friends were thinking the same thing I was, when he said, "My leather jacket," and she said, "My mink fur coat."

It was back to the that very first Christmas that we all shared so many years ago.  The six of us had the building to ourselves Christmas Eve as we sat in the apartment and shared the rich, delicious, generous meal our boss had prepared for us.  It tasted great and filled our stomachs with pleasure and our hearts with joy.  Come Christmas Day, we exchanged small gifts and expressed our gratitude to each other for what we received and most importantly, for how much we truly cared for and loved one another.  We didn't have a lot of money, and our gifts weren't the most expensive.  But they were useful and lovely and still so precious because they came from the heart. 

We packed our gear and supplies and headed out to the park, where we found ourselves alone, to grill and enjoy for a whole day full of games and feasting and joking around.  We had the radio on to listen to holiday music and had CDs to listen to other songs when the commercials came on the radio. We sang; we danced; we tried out the line dances the cowboy and farmgirl taught us during the blizzard assignment when we were stuck indoors during our day off; the club dance moves we learned from the northern girl and this beach boy from watching music videos and from being in a break dancing group in his younger days; the southern hip hop dances from the southern boy; and the country dances and surprisingly, the salsa, from the Comanche girl from the southwest.  I'm sure if people had been out and about, they would've found it strange to see us line dancing to a hip hop song, or doing the robot to some Christmas carols.  But we wouldn't have cared.  We were having fun. And you'd be surprised at just how tailor made some Christmas songs are for the robot, especially the Christmas hymns, like Joy to the World, Hark! the Herald Angels Sing, and Angels We Have Heard on High.

We threw some frees-bees and some balls, raced around the park, and played a few card games. We sang songs and told stories and laughed out as we recalled all the things that had happened to us over the year.   The sun was out and the day was just beautiful and warmer than it had been over the past week.  There was a break in the cold spell, and for this day, this one magical Christmas Day, it was warm enough to hang outside to enjoy nature without the need for heavy jackets and hats and gloves, where we could wear long sleeves and jeans and it'd be enough to keep us warm under the shade of the trees.  It got warm enough to take the jackets off, and the wind was no where that day, so the sun was doing a great job of keeping things nice and toasty and lovely.  It was such a wonderful day, memorable and magical, and we didn't want it to end.  But eventually, the sun started to set and we quickly packed up our gear and supplies and headed for home.

It was such a nice day, so imagine our shock to come home and find our building smoking and on fire!  The firefighters were running into the building, the fire alarms ringing loudly from the inside, police cars out with flashing lights, and people, including some neighbors, all cordoned off behind emergency caution tape as we watched emergency services deal with one of the top apartments in the building billow out black smoke from the windows.  Our building was on fire!  Oh. my. gawd!  I couldn't believe it!  Good gawd! The building was on fire!

We stood there in silence, looking discombobulated at the manic scene before us, worrying about our neighbors' lives and then wondering whether we would be homeless this Christmas Day.  Dear gawd, we were going to be out on the streets for Christmas!  What an unbelievable turn of events!  It had been such a wonderful, lovely, magical day that to have it end so brutally and in flames was just too unreal and cruel and too horrible for us to fully grasp and understand.  We stood there in silence, not knowing what to say.  There was tension and worry in the air.  How could this have happened?  How could this perfect day turn out so terrible and awful?

I turned to look at my friends, and I saw the fear and worry on their faces.  Just a few minutes ago, they were all laughter and smiles; now their faces were crossed with terror and sorrow.  I couldn't just sit there and do nothing.  I couldn't just let them feel terrible.  I had to do something.  So I did what I always did in times of crisis when all else had failed and there was nothing in my power to change what was beyond my ability and out of my control.

I cleared my throat so that my friends would all look at me and give me their undivided attention.  The worry lines were so deeply etched in their faces that it broke my heart to see them so disheartened.  So I looked at each and every one of them in the eye, nodded to them, and softly spoke out, "I'm so sorry this has happened.  It's such a terrible thing."

Farmgirl spoke out, "We know it's a terrible thing.  But you've got nothing to be sorry for.  It's not your fault or any of ours that the apartment on the top level caught fire."

The others nodded and chimed in their assent.  Cowboy spoke up, "Dude, it's going to be okay. We're still here and we'll figure something out."

The others agreed.

So I continued, "But you don't understand."

The others started to move in closer to offer me support and comfort and asked, "What don't we understand? Tell us."

I took a deep breath, paused, let it out slowly, then said, "You see, I wanted to do something special for y'all this Christmas, so I got y'all something that I just knew you would love and enjoy having."

The others looked at me expectantly, curiously, eagerly waiting for me to reveal what was so special and what it had to do with the building on fire.  So I said, "I went out and bought all you fellas a nice, expensive, top of the line leather jacket; and ladies, I got each of you some very nice fur coats: ermine for farmgirl, mink for northern girl, and otter for Comanche girl."

They all looked at me, confused and speechless, so I continued, "Unfortunately," I paused to look at the smoking building, "I had hidden your priceless, one of a kind, extremely expensive gifts in that apartment up there," and I pointed to the burning building, "and I'm afraid it's all gone now.  I'm so sorry for your loss."

They looked at the building; then they all turned to look at me with confusion, disbelief, and puzzlement.  And I held my face in a serious, sorry pose.  Then southern boy chuckled.  I cracked a smile.  Then everyone else started laughing.  Soon, we were all laughing out loud.  It was just too ridiculous!  The absurdity of my huge, obvious lie was just too much.  The thought of someone as broke and penniless as me getting ridiculously expensive coats for Christmas presents and then hiding them in some stranger's apartment where they caught fire and were presumably destroyed was just too funny!

We laughed out heartily and all the tension and worry that had plagued us so deeply suddenly disappeared as we felt so much lighter and better!  A few people turned to look at us, wondering what was so funny.  But we paid them no mind as we looked at each other, and started busting out laughing again as my friends started saying things like, "My leather jacket! My poor leather jacket!" and "My fur coat!  My lovely, custom made, expensive fur coat!"

We were caught in a laughing fit that kept going every time we looked at each other with pretend sad faces and said the word "coat",  or stroked the imaginary softness and plushness of imaginary exorbitant exotic coats, all while wailing in pretend tears at the non existent loss of such treasures we never had in the first place!

We were finally calming down from the laughing spell when northern girl said, "Well, I'm sorry, too, you guys.  I got you all some Picasso paintings and I, too, made the mistake of hiding them in that burning apartment.  I'm so sorry."

And that set us off on another laughing fit as we bemoaned the loss of our imaginary priceless Picassos!  Cowboy added, he got us some Rolex watches; Southern boy, some antique Tiffany lamps to class up the place; Farmgirl, some computers; and Comanche girl, some furniture pieces that belonged to the first US President, George Washington. So naturally, we were seized by more fits of laughter as we fake wailed and pretend cried over our incredibly irreplaceable, fabulously expensive, non existent luxury gifts that we imagined were now lost in the burning apartment fire. 

We must have laughed nonstop for at least fifteen minutes or more--long enough to have our faces and abdomens hurt from giggling so loudly and heartily!  We were actually sitting down on the sidewalk to catch our breaths!  It hurt but it felt so good to realize that we were still alive, that we were okay, and whatever happened, we would be fine because we were together, come hell or high water, fire or flood, nothing was going to stop us or stand in our way. And it was such a wonderful and memorable feeling, uplifting and inspiring and so resonant with each and everyone of us.

And as awesome as that feeling was, it was still a great relief for us when just five minutes later, the fire chief came out and told us that it was safe to head back into the building!  The fire had been contained and extinguished.  Turned out, a spark in a wall outlet had caused the mattress to catch fire.  Luckily, no one was home, and the mattress was on a metal bed frame, and even better, the building was made of concrete and cinder blocks, so not much wood to catch fire.  In fact, the smoke was mostly from the smoldering mattress and nothing else!  We cheered and clapped and thank the firefighters and emergency responders for taking care of the situation and for ensuring our safety.

We grabbed our stuff and headed into the building to the second floor, where our place was, to continue our Christmas Day celebrations.  This may have been our first Christmas together, but it turned out to be quite an adventure and so full of fun, drama, and excitement that we would never, ever forget it!  It was certainly special in so many ways.  It solidified our bonds as friends and forged us into a family that would care for and be true to each other forevermore.  It was the start of our customs and our way of life, our own culture and traditions; and these were the traditions that we had held on to and were now passing onto the next generation.

I left my friends and their kids in the living room and headed into the kitchen to start making breakfast.  Pancakes again, but with waffles this time, along with eggs, sausage, bacon, and hashbrowns, and biscuits!  It was Christmas Day after all, so why not have something truly rich and decadent?  I quite enjoy cooking.  It's a creative, relaxing, and invigorating experience for me.  And I like playing host, too, especially to people who are important to me.  I was in the middle of making pancake batter when my nephew and surprisingly, his younger brother, joined me in the kitchen.  They helped me make the pancake batter, lay out the waffles to be toasted, the sausage and bacon to be fried, and helped me mix the eggs I was going to scramble.  They even helped me mix and cut out the biscuits and set out the dishes, butter, and maple syrup.  In half an hour, together with their parents, we had a great breakfast.  In an hour, we had a fire going in the grill and we started our Christmas Day BBQ.  And it was a great BBQ--with kabobs, brisket, ribs, chicken leg quarters, veggies, and a potato salad and cole slaw, mac and cheese, with cornbread and hot dogs.  We had enough food to last us for days. And it was a wonderful way to spend Christmas with family and friends.

This morning, I was making breakfast when who should show up first, but my new younger nephew!  He's actually been showing up to help make breakfast everyday since Christmas Day.  I can honestly say that he seems much more open and friendly with me.  And it's a good feeling to know that he trusts me and feels safe around me, and he enjoys being around me.  His brother soon showed up and we started mixing our pancake batter and I started chopping our potatoes for hash browns.  I let them pick out the sausages and mix the eggs. As I started frying up the pancakes and scrambling the eggs, they set up the butter and syrup for the pancakes. 

And when everything was cooked and I had the coffee pot running, I fetched the milk and juice and poured them out in cups for the boys to drink and got myself a glass of water.  Then I set up our plates with food and sat down to eat with the kids.  As we were enjoying our jointly prepared meal, we started talking.

I began by asking them if they liked breakfast and if they wanted something else.  But both boys responded that they liked what we were eating and they didn't want anything else.

Then the younger nephew said, "I like pancakes and eggs and sausage and hash browns."

And I replied,"Me, too!"  Though I didn't tell them that I wasn't usually a breakfast person; brunch, yes, but early breakfast, not so much; but for them and for any welcomed visitors, I would gladly get up early to prepare a big and hearty breakfast.

The younger nephew continued, "At home, we usually eat cereal, and sometimes waffles.  But here, we eat pancakes, and I like making pancake breakfast with you."

My heart tightened a little to hear him say that, so I responded, "And I like making pancake breakfast with you, too."

Older nephew then added, "It's what we do.  Every time we visit or if he visits us, we have a pancake breakfast.  It's a tradition."

My younger nephew looked puzzled, so his older brother explained to him, "A tradition is something that we do to remind us of something important, like a birthday or Christmas, or it's something that we do together because we like it and enjoy doing together, like pancake breakfast."

My younger nephew nodded understanding and smiled and continued to eat his breakfast.  And my heart was full of pride and joy, because I realized that my nephews now understood the meaning of tradition and had some grasp of its importance.  It wasn't an obligation or something done out of duty.  Rather, it was a custom and an act carried out for enjoyment and out of love, to celebrate how it all started, and remember what was important in our lives: our families and friends.

Though I had not thought about it when I first started making pancake breakfasts with my older nephew, somehow, it became a tradition for us.  And that tradition now included his younger brother, and I could not be more proud of how my older nephew was handling it, and I was overjoyed that my new, younger nephew felt like he was now a part of that important tradition.

When I was a small child, I followed customs and traditions, because they were comforting and because I was taught to do so.  As I got older, I started to question these customs and wondered about why we did things a certain way.  By the time I was a teenager, full of hormones wreaking havoc with body and emotions and thoughts and feelings, I was pretty much primed for rebellion and started to reject the aspects of culture and tradition that bothered me and did not fit my newly emerged perspective of the world.  And by the time I was a young adult, it was almost a requisite to reject tradition as old and outdated and embrace the new and unconventional as an affirmation of independence and free thinking.  Now that I'm older, I've come to realize that customs and traditions are the things that we do and the beliefs that we hold, not because we are told to do so, but because they represent the ideas and people we hold most dear. 

There's nothing wrong with holding on to old traditions, even if they don't make any sense.  So long as it's not harmful to anyone and gives the believer and practitioner some truth and enjoyment, then let the tradition stand.  Who are we to take away something that gives someone else some hope and a reason to live and believe they'll make it through?  If it doesn't fit our view, and if it harms us or others, then don't follow that tradition.  And we should feel free to embrace the ones that make us feel good and help our families and friends and loved ones and fellow man. 

A tradition is really just a way of doing something that reminds us of the important things in life, to celebrate those we love and cherish.  It's what we do to get the most out of life.  Life is short, and time passes by us mercilessly and blissfully ignorant of our wishes and longings, dreams and desires, joy and suffering, our lives and our deaths.  We have to do the best with what time we have, and how much we have is something we never truly know, so live each day as if it were your last, and do what makes you happy, and be with the people you love.

With New Year's Eve tomorrow and New Year's Day the day after tomorrow, there are more traditions to be had in my home.  I'm sure we'll be up late, if the kids can stay awake, to countdown to midnight with their parents and me to greet and welcome the New Year.  And come New Year's Day, you guessed it, we're going to fire up the grill again.  Why?  Because it's tradition, it's what we enjoy and we do it to remember our friends and family and celebrate our time together.  This time of year, I go around and send good cheer and wishes and greetings to friends and loved ones.  And I would like to wish you the same.  So, wherever you are, I want to wish you a very Happy New Year, and May it bring you Peace, Joy, Good Fortune, Good Times, and Good Company.

Holidays are a time of traditions.  And whatever your traditions, I hope they are something that gives you comfort and warmth.  Be they pancake breakfasts or making fruitcake, volunteering in the community or helping out a friend or loved one, watching a sentimental movie or reading a favorite book, I hope it's a tradition that means something to you.  At the very least, I hope you make new ones that make you smile and feel good.  Remember that you are an important part of this universe, however small you may seem.  You have an effect on the world, and what you do matters to the people and places around you.  So whatever you do, make it count for something; make it something worthwhile.  Make it something that gives you joy and hope and makes the world just a little bit brighter, more peaceful, and more wonderful.  So Cheers and Best Wishes to You and Yours!  And Have a Happy New Year!

Related Links:
A good jacket keeps you warm
Hope is a yellow dump truck
Holiday Dismay
Are you there, Santa? It's me
It's the Most Stressful Time of the Year
Finding the way
The thing about fathers
Veterans Day Reflection
Best Laid Plans
The Boys of Summer
Brothers and Sisters
That offal taste

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Peace on Earth

Every year, people ask me, "What do you want for Christmas?"

And every year, I say, "I want the same thing that every beauty pageant contestant wants: World Peace."

...And being declared the pageant winner, and therefore, the most beautiful, and evidenced by strutting down the walkway with a shiny crown and winner's sash for all the world to see...and hopefully not have the judges send the host over to say that there was a mistake and take away my crown and sash because I was not a winner but a loser, so get off the stage.

There may not be world peace now, but at the same time, in my small piece of the world, I have peace. And I hope you have it, too.

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year to y'all. May the holidays surround you with peace & love. And may the New Year bring you good fortune, good people, & good times.