After a long drive across the frozen wastes of Lake Baikal, Frazier arrived at a long-abandoned prison camp near the town of Topolinoe. The camps along the Topolinskaya Highway were among the most dreaded destinations in Stalin’s gulag, the prison system that claimed the lives of more than a million people during the height of the Great Terror in 1937 and 1938. Frazier walked through one of the barracks where inmates starved and froze in the Siberian winter: “This interior offered little to think about besides the limitless periods of suffering that had been crossed off here, and the unquiet rest these bunks had held.” As always, Frazier locates the apt historical anecdote that captures the horror with precision. He tells the story of two child prisoners who were given a pair of guard-dog puppies to raise, then struggled to find names for them: “The poverty of their surroundings had stripped their imaginations bare. Finally they chose names from common objects they saw every day. They named one puppy Ladle and the other Pail.”
-Joshua Hammer (from his New York Times review of Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia)
I know, it’s ridiculous.
I am, by a significantly large margin, the most cynical person I know. At times, I border on misanthropy. Show me a miracle and I’m sure to be the one who runs over and yanks back the curtain, revealing an elaborate projection system and its red-faced operator.
My philosophical role models are Hunter S. Thompson and Johnny Swift–heavy on the satire, please, and spare no one the whip hand. When it comes to contempt for our species, I make Stalin and Mao look like a couple of octogenarian nuns. It’s time to own up to it: humankind is a failed experiment, rinse out the petri dish and start again.
Except…around mid-December my normally un-sunny demeanor undergoes a marked change. Having kids has something to do with it but, when I think back about it, I’ve always loved Christmas. The closer it gets to the 25th, the more excited and tingly I get. This reaction is completely unconscious and involuntary but, regardless, I offer no defense for the shameful sentimentality that overcomes me every December. True confession: if I could, I’d spend the last two weeks of every calendar year walking around, giving money to orphans and kissing old ladies on top of their wispy, age-spotted pates.
The origins of this revolting affliction are not known to me. I have hesitated to share it with you lest I provoke the ire and scorn of my fellow curmudgeons. We aren’t exactly known as a tolerant, open-minded bunch.
I can remember very clearly, the recollection dating back over 35 years now, sitting in my pajamas and listening to an announcement on the local news that Santa’s sleigh had been picked up on radar and he was definitely on his way…
My fondest childhood Christmas memory was when I was nine (ten?). I contracted a mild form of hepatitis and missed two months of school. As an added bonus, I cleaned up at Christmas time: a couple of Hardy Boys books and one of those electronic football games, which ended up maddening me because most of the magnetized players spun in slow, futile circles on the vibrating field. My one regret was that my specialized diet meant I couldn’t have any chocolate. Watching my sisters stuff themselves just about killed me.
As I’ve gotten older, the holiday season became an opportunity to sit back and assess the year; tote up the amount of work accomplished and berate myself for everything left undone.
During that week between Boxing Day and the New Year there’s always a strong sense of something impending. Maybe 2009 with be the year. Just like 2008 was supposed to be. And 2007, come to think of it. Oh, well…
Anticipation. Expectation. Something is coming. Something important.
Waiting. Waiting. Sam Beckett made a whole career out of it.
The curmudgeon in me curls up his lip when the Hallowe’en decorations come down and the Christmas displays start going up. People have staff Christmas parties starting in mid-November. And the Santa Claus Parade often takes place a month before the fact–as a kid I often wondered how the Old Man could take time off during the busiest part of the year to haul himself up on to a float and wave inanely for two hours.
Christmas specials on TV start the first week of December. It’s the old favorites that still appeal. “Charlie Brown Christmas” and the animated “Grinch”, with Boris Karloff narrating. Alastair Sim in “The Christmas Carol” (although, in a pinch, the Muppet version will do).
We’re big fans of the “Wind in the Willows” series too so that one will likely resurface during the holidays. Anyone who has ever seen me trying to assemble something or figure out printed instructions quickly recognizes that I am the very spitting image of Toad. And my friend Dan is undoubtedly a Badger…
I haven’t seen either “Wall-E” or “Finding Nemo” so I’ve promised my family I’ll sit down and watch those two with them; I miss out on too much, sequestered away upstairs in my office. All the movies Sherron and my boys have sat through without me…
We’re not a family who believe in big, extravagant presents. It’s just not us. Small, heartfelt gifts…combined with great food, friends dropping by, the chance to spend lots of time together, no school, no work, no obligations or duties.
Sprawled on the couch or draped across the big arm chair, engrossed in a new book. My boys are teenagers now so, admittedly, there isn’t the same sort of excitement present as there was when they were little gaffers. Up until a few years ago, the house would rattle with their excitement as the big day drew ever nearer. A friend used to buy them an advent calendar and after breakfast the boys would get the calendar down and pull open the little hinged hatch to retrieve their allotted square of chocolate. It became part of our ritual, like scones on Christmas morning (we tried champagne and orange juice once but I ended up passing out at 11:00 a.m.).
Well, we’re all older…but we still enjoy sharing time and space with each other. We laugh a lot and if I was a betting man I’d say this old house will be fairly ringing with mirth in the next couple of weeks. And if this cold snap ever breaks, we’ll get a game or two of shinny in and go for long walks, gawk at the gorgeous river valley, pristine in the sharp, white light of winter.
It’s hard for even a confirmed curmudgeon to maintain an appropriate air of disdain when he is perpetually surrounded by good cheer, a loving family and devoted friends. The barbed remarks and wisecracks stick in my throat, refuse to budge.
There will be other opportunities to prick balloons, pontificate gloom and doom. This is a chance to give thanks for the blessings and good fortune that sustain me even during my darkest moments.
We’ve had enough despair. Now let us sing songs of thanks and praise for what has been bestowed upon us and be all the more grateful and deferential, knowing it can’t possibly last.