Home for the holidays

It's that time of year again. End of year deadlines, terrible weather, ugly sweaters. Awful holiday beers start popping up at my friends' parties. The sun stops making appearances. My dog gets less exercise and becomes irritable. Ordinarily sane people turn into maniacs. (If you don't believe me, simply search for videos on YouTube titled "Black Friday shoppers".)

But it's not all bad. Christmas actually happens to be one of my favorite holidays. In my case, it's one of the only times I get to put all my work and daily stresses aside for a few days and spend time with friends and family I haven't seen in too long. Christmas is the bright spot in the black hole of an otherwise dreary few months.

Like some of you, I'll be going back to my birthplace for Christmas. As soon as the work day ends on the Friday before Christmas (I'm guessing about 10 p.m.), I'll pack my car to the hilt with gifts, grab my wife and dog, and brave the cold, dark and icy drive to my original hometown, so I can spend time with my parents, brother, and some other relatives and close family friends.

One of my good friends from back home, Jack, will also be spending Christmas dinner with us. He knows my family well, so he fully understands they are, to put it mildly, eccentric. When you go to my parents' house, you can expect to encounter quite the cast of characters: on any given day, you'll find everyone from judges to down-on-their-luck electricians and automobile repairmen to philosophizing coffee shop owners and flamboyant hairdressers - the one common thread being that each has a larger-than-life personality. It's never dull, but if you're not prepared for it, it can be quite a shock to the system.

When Jack first heard I'd be coming home, he sent me a few internet articles centering on the general theme of "tips for surviving Christmas with your family." Maybe it was his passive aggressive way of saying I hadn't been home recently enough; that somehow I'd forgotten how crazy holidays could get at my house. I prefer to believe he intended his tips for my wife, Laura. Laura absolutely adores my family, but hasn't yet met all the folks who will be joining us for Christmas.

Regardless of the motivations for Jack's email, it was immediately clear that the articles he sent didn't really capture, and couldn't fully prepare someone for, Christmas with me and my family. The articles included tips like "let the head of the house carve the turkey or ham so as to avoid unnecessary conflict" and "bring your own pillows if you have neck problems." Seriously? Are these the types of things most people fret over in advance of a trip home for the holidays?

Using my sharply honed legal skills of document analysis, I concluded that Jack's email revealed that he, rather than Laura or me, was the one in serious need of a list of survival tips. I thus switched into full-on lawyer mode and prepared to provide the much needed, meaningful advice in this situation: after all, the specter of legal liability is a risk of our "unconventional" family get-togethers, which should be both minimized to the degree possible and also fully disclosed. Joining us gives the phrase "assumption of the risk" a whole new meaning.

Anyway, I came up with my own list of tips for surviving the holidays and sent them to Jack straight away. In the spirit of Christmas giving, I'll also share a shortened and sanitized version of that list with you, in hopes that some of you might be able to apply some of the lessons to your own trip home for the holidays.

Tip One: After driving through the night, don't barge into your family's house without calling first. Laura and I plan to roll into town about 1 a.m. on Saturday morning. If your mom is anything like mine, she'll be in a deep, deep sleep, thanks to a double nightcap and enough Ambien to kill a horse. My mother also happens to be a gun toting Democrat. Abruptly waking someone like that with sounds that could easily be mistaken for an intruder would be a serious mistake (my parents live in a busy part of the city, so burglaries are a real threat). Indeed, with the proliferation of so-called Stand Your Ground laws, she would be well within her rights to take me out. Causing your own mother to shoot you would surely ruin her holiday, and you wouldn't want to do that to your mother.

Tip Two: Once you safely make it into the house and start to get ready for bed, don't attempt to light the fireplaces without first submitting to a thorough training session. My parents live in a three story brick house originally built in the 1800s. They've eschewed central heating for the more "historically accurate" approach of warming every room separately by fireplace. Many of these fireplaces, which are mostly gas, seem to have been hastily installed by corner-cutting electricians. As a result, certain rooms periodically smell of gas, and I've had my hair singed on more than one occasion trying to light a fire without proper adult supervision. Starting a fireplace other than your own is a perilous proposition in the best of circumstances, and trying to do it when you're not really sure which one will be Santa's landing pad just raises the stakes. Rather than bumbling in the dark trying to light the fireplace in your guest bedroom when you arrive (your original bedroom having been converted into a home office, library or fully operational aquarium some time ago), opening yourself up to a claim of gross negligence when you burn the house down, you should cheerfully sleep in the cold, at least for the first night.

Tip Three: The next morning, when your parents ask if you want to take a ride in their new 1940s DeSoto, just say no, especially if they started the day with mimosas. My parents love old cars. They have a 1970's Triumph TR-6, a 1960's Jaguar, and, now, a matte black 1940's DeSoto. However, in their zest to show off their new mobile acquisitions, they often neglect to refurbish or otherwise replace crucially important parts of the car, including key safety components like the newly installed passenger seat, before taking visitors for a test spin. In the DeSoto's case, while it's a beautiful car, the tires are bald, the brake lights don't work, there are no seatbelts or heat, and it smells like it hasn't been cleaned or aired out since the D-Day invasion. Again, if you know all the deficiencies and dangers going in, it's harder to play innocent when something goes wrong, such as when the DeSoto's tire blows out and you take out somebody's mailbox. Rather than put yourself in that situation, pass on the car ride and tell everyone you'll start making the coffee while they're out for their joyride instead. Remember to add the Irish whisky.

Tip Four: One of the more difficult parts about sleeping away from home is that, well, you are away from home. Many of the comforts which you have provided yourself and all of the obstacles which you have strategically eliminated in your own residence are now things of the past. Instead, you have to embrace a totally different living environment. In my parent's case, that means five dogs, three of which are giant Great Danes (that number balloons to 7 dogs when my brother and I bring our dogs over). These dogs go into barking fits at the sound of anything (and, remember, my parents live in a noisy, urban neighborhood, so there are constantly noises emanating from the busy city streets). My parents somehow learned to sleep through the constant howling (I think the Ambien might play a key role here). I, however, am a light sleeper, and I'm wide awake at the first sign of their pug's heavy snorting, let alone three Great Danes roaring at a passing car horn at 2 a.m. If this happens to you, however, I urge you not to take matters into your own hands. Do not attempt to rid the house of the animal inspired, unending noise pollution by secretly opening the front door and releasing them into the wild. Just pack ear buds this year. A lot of jurisdictions have laws against releasing animals without leashes or tethers, and if the dogs eat the pecan pie the neighbor has cooling on their porch, a lawsuit of epic proportions will most surely ensue.

My final, and most important, tip: If your family is anything like mine, embrace the weird, the crazy, and the interesting, and be thankful that you'll never be bored when you go home for the holidays. This is the time of year to be acutely gracious for everything that we have, and I know that I wouldn't change a single thing about my family, who have taught me the most important lessons of my life (like not to own more than one dog at a time). Indeed, my yearly trip home for the holidays is the reason Christmas is my favorite holiday, and one of the main reasons I am both an attorney and a humor writer.

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© 2016 Under Analysis, LLC. Under Analysis is a nationally syndicated column of the Levison Group. Contact Under Analysis by e-mail at comments@levisongroup.com.

Published: Fri, Dec 16, 2016

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