Conversations with my husband Michael about being artistic often end with emphatic statements on his part such as “I’m the least creative person in this family”. And I always disagree with him. To me creativity can manifest itself in so many ways other than the traditional art, music, drama categories. But that’s a whole other discussion we could have. The one time of the year when Michael does step outside of his (mostly) linear world as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur is at Holiday time when it is his responsibility to pen our family Christmas letter. Rather than it being a newsy laundry list of what each person did and where we traveled, it has become an exercise in sometimes obscure creative writing, transporting the reader to feel a mood and state of mind. Some friends and family will express their opinions like, “I didn’t really get this year’s but I loved last year’s…” and in some cases others will reveal that they read and re-read the letters or that these essays had moved them to tears. Like a regular Christmas letter sometimes they get read and sometimes in the topsy-turviness of the Holiday season, they do not. No matter the response, it is a drill in externalization for Michael and the slow and steady compilation of a family book. Here is our family letter from 2010.
Happy Holidays to you all. I know Yanti would like to join me in wishing everyone a restful and joyous break and wonderful New Year.
When you get invited to Friday drinks you go. Even if you don't drink. Even if you dread the small talk and self-conscious superficiality. Even if you think you’d rather be alone. You go, when the alternative is a solitary tram ride, Kentucky Fried Chicken, TV rerun, and an empty apartment in a city where you have no friends. You straighten your desk, stand up, grit your teeth, and slowly stride toward the elevators. The hallway is deserted. You hear your footsteps as you walk.
You swiftly take a left and then a right, with livid, self-righteous intensity. You are right and he is wrong; there is no middle ground. Sometimes your father is just so – exasperatingly pig-headed. You love green lasagna. It’s your favorite food in the world. They don’t have it in the States, only in Italy. Who cares if you’ve had it 3 days in a row? You want it, and so you should have it. Who does he think he is? You’re 11 years old and can make your own damn decisions about what you order for dinner. And you’re sure as hell not going to wait in front of the restaurant, like a potted plant, while the rest of the family finishes eating.
As you endlessly replay the conflict in your mind, your pace quickens. You hurtle around the corner at full throttle, feet flying, tennis sneakers pounding the pavement with rhythmic fury. You are right and he is wrong; there is no middle ground. Then, in the next instant, it hits you and everything changes. You abruptly freeze in place, no longer angry, painfully aware of your predicament. You stand alone in the crowd at the Piazza San Marco, surrounded by the hustle and bustle of Venice – a lonely, lost 11 year old boy who speaks no Italian and suddenly misses his parents.
It’s a great relief when they enter the room and switch on the light. They ask if you’re ok, and you jabber away, in response, with frightened indignation. “Why were you on the wall?” you accuse your father. “Why were you on the wall?” He shakes his head and sits down on the bed without a hint of accountability. “But I wasn’t on the wall.” So you describe it in all its terrifying detail. He was right there, in miniature, on the wall next to your bed, sitting in his reclining chair, in grainy, two-dimensional, black and white. Then he gently tries to explain. “It was a nightmare. Just a bad dream. It wasn’t real. I was never on the wall.” The words faintly reassure. He smiles, lifts himself up from the bed, and exchanges a quick, knowing glance with your mother. Together, they tuck you in.
“Are you ok now?” your father confirms as they get ready to leave the room. “Do you understand?”
“Yes,” you acknowledge. “I understand. Now don’t do it again!” You roll onto your side, facing away from the wall, clutch your blankie for dear life, and gradually drift off to sleep.
Groggy and disoriented, you struggle to open your eyes. She stands next to the bed, insistently tapping your shoulder, and you feel the warmth of her breath on your face. “Daddy? Are you awake?” You mutter incoherently and force yourself into a seated position, propped up, uncomfortably, by your elbows. “I am now,” you croak blearily. “Are you ok?”
“No,” she dolefully replies, her voice quavering. “I had a nightmare. About zombies.”
You make a mental note: never again show your daughter the Thriller video on YouTube in the 5 minutes immediately preceding bedtime. Then you stand up somewhat unsteadily, and slowly walk as a team, hand in hand, back to her room.
The room is largely vacant, and you silently chastise yourself for arriving on time rather than fashionably late. With the obligatory smile and forced enthusiasm, you shake a few hands and mingle briefly, before wandering over to the window and peering outside. You carefully scan the alien, illuminated skyline, while in the foreground, your face impassively stares back at you dimly reflected in the glass. You search unsuccessfully for the one landmark with which you are familiar: the tennis stadium at Flinders Park.
Then you rotate your torso, pound a heavy, topspin forehand down the line, and thunder forward. Your 13 year old son darting laterally, faster than you anticipate, pounces quickly, taking the ball at the top of its bounce, unleashing an aggressive, dipping two-fisted backhand that angles away from you crosscourt. In your mind, you promptly pivot, glide to your left, low to the ground, and with a graceful, Johnny Mac-like flick of the wrist softly feather an unreturnable half-volley into the adjacent service box. On the court, however, knees aching and a step too slow, you strain to switch directions, awkwardly lunge, and dump the ball into the bottom of the net.
The match is finally over, and you rapidly transform from charitable exhibition ballboy to autograph hound. You bend down, retrieve the ball, and, slightly ahead of the crowd, hurry over to where the Great Man is standing. Within moments, many others haphazardly line up alongside you. In person, the Great Man seems older and smaller than on screen, but is easily recognizable despite tennis attire, wire-frames, and a cotton terry headband. You look up at him, flash an earnest, goofy grin, and eagerly present the ball for him to sign.
His reaction is astonishing. He clenches his jaw, disagreeably scowls, and then, with the same stentorian tone that once parted the Red Sea, loudly berates you for cutting in line. Your face flushes, heart sinks, and shoulders sag. You’ve just been unfairly – and publicly – rebuked by Charleton Heston, Moses himself.
You shake your head in frustration and disgust. The behavior is unacceptable. Enough is enough. “What the heck is going on in here?!” you bellow at the top of your lungs as the conflict continues to noisily metastasize. Back and forth, they parry and riposte, a primal, howling duel of accusation and recrimination.
“I said not to come in my room!”
“You didn’t say please!”
“I don’t need to say please! It’s my room! So get out!
“Why should I?! You were in my room before!”
“That’s different; I need to do homework!”
“It’s not different!”
“Yes it is!”
“No, it’s not!”
“You’re a jerk!”
“No, you’re a jerk!”
“No, you shut up!”
Until finally, you lay down the law.
“How about you both shut up?!” “You” – pointing at the boy – “be nicer to your sister.” “You” – pointing at the girl – “get out of his room. He has homework to do.” “And both of you” – pointing at both of them – “calm down, start treating each other better, and stop scaring the cat!”
Your daughter stomps petulantly out into the hallway, while your son turns to face you head on. The moment has arrived, and you wistfully lament the passage of time. For a split second, lost in your introspection, you shut everything else out. You don’t notice the ambient airport noise; the aimless milling about of parents and kids.
In that brief instant, you perceive what matters, and only him. You say, “I’m gonna miss you,” and he mumbles back, “Me too.” Then he reaches out to hug you, but the embrace is fleeting and awkward, because his friends are nearby and teenage self-consciousness intrudes. The moment has passed, and he steps back, swivels around and starts slowly moving away. You call after him as he goes. “Have fun in DC.”
Together, holding hands, you meander across the Mall toward the U.S. Capitol Building. You are young, in love, and glad to be alive. And you feel vindicated. So many people had doubted the viability of a long distance relationship of world record geographic proportions. They had never understood that the conventional wisdom didn’t apply.
It’s a special moment and vicariously thrilling. You get to experience the nation’s capital like it’s the first time, through your girlfriend’s dark, dazzling eyes. But then you look over and see her isolation and distress. She isn’t really there at all; the woman walking next to you is just a hollow, melancholy shell. In her mind, she’s still thousands of miles away, back in Australia, consumed with regret, mourning her father’s demise. The truth is inescapable. You’re here today, gone tomorrow; nothing ever lasts. And you can’t take anything, or anybody, for granted. The Capitol Building draws close as you squeeze her hand in silent affirmation. When you reach the stairs, it begins to rain.
You glance up at the sky, then back at the field, which is increasingly muddy and slick. Your daughter seems unaffected. She has the ball now and is locked in on her target. Dashing down the field, a whirling dervish of athletic intensity, she slices past and muscles through her would-be defenders. An instant later, she scores, from twenty feet out, with an emphatic, spinning, left-footed blast. Then she notices your son – her brother – on the sideline cheering her on, having just that minute returned from the airport and a week in DC. Without hesitation, she races over to him, and jumps wildly into his arms. They cling tightly to each other in an urgent, enthusiastic embrace. You look over at your wife and buoyantly beam.
She is still asleep, so you tiptoe around, treading carefully while you dress. The room, cloaked in shadows, begins to brighten as daylight slowly infiltrates the blinds. When you kneel down to tie your shoes next to the bed, she quietly stirs. You straighten up, lean over, and kiss her softly on the forehead. And in that split second, it all comes flooding back.
You peer out the window, staring out at the alien, illuminated skyline. Behind you, the room is finally starting to fill. As you turn around and reluctantly saunter over, you hear your footsteps as you walk. A young lawyer stands alone in the middle of the room. You greet each other with a firm handshake and confident grin. And your eyes lock. The connection is electric. For a brief, shining moment, you realize that she’s the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen. Then you open your mouth and start to speak.