Navigating the holidays requires every bit of wit, grit, and gumption we've got. Take shopping, for instance. Fun at first, it quickly degenerates into a morass of doubts: “Is this enough? Too much? Did I give this to them last year? Did they give one just like it to me?” When David Niven was an impoverished young actor, he and his roommate, Errol Flynn, solved the affordability problem by re-gifting things that arrived for them. Until one unfortunate day Niven sent off a lovely leather wallet to the very person who’d sent it to him; he might have tried to pass it off as coincidence except the guy had had Niven’s initials embossed on it. Oops! On another occasion, Niven bought a gorgeous set of handkerchiefs for a young lady he was romancing, and she gave him a car. You just can’t win at the gift game.
Juggling family obligations can be equally exasperating. In the old, pre-pandemic days there were endless negotiations divvying up precious celebration time. Goofy relatives became houseguests, driving everybody crazy, as in the movie Christmas Vacation. After Aunt Bethany absent-mindedly gift-wraps her cat, and the jello mold, a harassed Ellen exclaims to her daughter, “I don't know what say, but it’s Christmas and we’re all in misery.”
“That’s the thing about unhappiness. All it takes is for something worse to come along and you realize it was actually happiness after all.”
— Queen Elizabeth, The Crown
Big, boisterous family holidays are the best and the worst of times. Right now it's easy to view them through the rosy lens of nostalgia, but let's not forget the stiletto-sharp jabs only blood kin can deliver. The Crown is full of cringe-worthy family moments, such as Prince Andrew venting annoyance with his mother for “thoughtlessly” taking up media attention opposing apartheid when the headlines should be full of his wedding to Sarah Ferguson. To which Charles replies, “You can hardly blame the newspapers for wanting to write about something other than the wedding of a fringe member of the family who will never be king.” Ouch!
“Happiness,” said comedian George Burns, “is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.”
The enforced separation of the pandemic has changed many relationships, including mine with my brother Mike. We were close as kids, but as adults leading busy lives on separate continents, we connected cordially but very sporadically. As luck would have it, Mike and his wife Deb moved to Spain in February, just weeks before lockdown. Ever since then the four of us have Zoomed multiple times a week sharing news, survival tips, and Netflix recommendations. Mike and I are closer now than we’ve been since our school days, and I count that among the great blessings of 2020.
“The strongest person is the person who isn’t scared to be alone.”
– Alice Harmon, The Queen’s Gambit
“You know you’ve really learned to live with yourself,” I once heard, “if you can drive around the block without turning the radio on.” The pandemic has taught us all how to live with less human contact and often less noise and busyness in our lives. And there’s something to be said for that. Yes, of course, I miss hugs, kissing everybody on both cheeks, and long, crowded dinner parties chatting about nothing and everything. But these unprecedented periods of retreat from the world offer us a rare opportunity to slow down.
“Our life is frittered away by detail … simplify, simplify.” I remember reading Thoreau's words while racing around building my career and thinking, “Yeah, that’s easy to say when you live in the woods by a pond. But I inhabit the real world with real deadlines.” Sheltering in place may enable us to take a step back, consider our priorities, and find ways to hit the reset button on our destiny.
George Bailey: “You know what the three most exciting sounds in the world are?”
Uncle Billy: “Uh huh. Breakfast is served; lunch is served; dinner...”
George Bailey: “No no no no. Anchor chains, plane motors, and train whistles.”
— It’s a Wonderful Life
Throughout It's a Wonderful Life, George Bailey's only dream is to go abroad and have adventures, but events conspire to keep him at home. Much as we are now. I get wistful emails every week from readers mourning the fact our wings have been clipped by the pandemic. There is no telling when — or even (OK, I’ll say it) if — we will ever again have such freedom to roam the world. The vaccines offer hope, but with Pfizer once again revising its production estimates downwards, the timeline keeps getting longer and fuzzier. Officials talk of distribution in December, but just yesterday I asked a Walgreens pharmacist when she expected to be giving Covid inoculations, and she said, “Summer.”
My hopes of being near the front of the line due to my age are wobbling, thanks to articles such as this morning’s “’There absolutely will be a black market’: How the rich and privileged can skip the line for Covid 19 vaccines.” It seems some people with power and influence plan to pressure concierge physicians to provide false documentation of pre-existing conditions, hire lobbyists to get their demographic declared “essential” — yes, financial industry, I’m talking about you — or buy black market meds. As one radio commentator put it, “How long will it be before low-income essential workers sell their ID badges for $2500?”
If we can’t rely on the government to provide protection, where can we turn?
“So the aliens can't read our minds.”
— Morgan, Signs
You've already laid in ample supplies of hand sanitizer and masks, but how are you fixed for tin foil hats? Since first appearing in a 1927 sci-fi story, aluminum foil headgear has been embraced by conspiracy theorists as a barrier against electromagnetic pulses, alien telepathy, and government mind control, to name but a few. Surely deflecting Covid-19 can’t be far behind.
When Rich and I put up our tree this week, I was trying to think of a topper appropriate for this bizarre year, and suddenly it came to me.
Do I think a tin foil hat will protect the tree, or us, from anything whatsoever? No, of course not. But it makes me chuckle every time I walk by it. And that counts for a lot, especially these days. So if you find yourself in need of a psycho-spiritual pick-me-up, grab some aluminum foil and get to work. It’s easy, it’s fun, and it offers a pretty reliable cure for the pandemic holiday blues.
What are you doing to keep your spirits bright? Let me know in the comments below.
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This post is part of my ongoing series of articles on surviving the pandemic while holding on to some shreds of our sanity and sense of humor, however weird things get.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and currently visiting my home state of California.
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