He likes melancholy Christmas songs best, ones that evoke the disappointment of kids having opened up all their presents and now having nothing left to look forward to or a mess of wrapping paper, tissue and ribbons strewn all around a living room that now needs to be cleaned up and thrown out with next week’s trash. Maybe the aftermath of a holiday party where the host sits alone amid the blinking lights and mistletoe sipping the lukewarm dregs of someone else’s eggnog and brandy.
Where the treetops glisten and children listen to hear sleigh bells in the snow.
How about an interminable flight traversing the planet on an Arctic polar route to a small, despairing Midwestern city in a country currently cutting off its nose to…something. Adam sits in an economy window seat trying to doze with his face pressed against the cool glass, his head regularly falling forward to wake him.
There’s a cliché about becoming a stranger in your hometown. Adam wonders if it’s true. It feels truer and truer every year.
Christmas Eve will find me where the love-light gleams. “So, do you feel safe over there? Isn’t it dangerous?”
“I feel pretty safe. It’s like anywhere else, I guess. There
are certain neighborhoods you don’t go to late at night, but it’s like that here too.”
“But don’t they hate Americans there?”
“I don’t know. It hasn’t come up in conversation. Some people might. Every country has xenophobes. Even this one.
“It seems to me like they’re more than willing to let us take care of all the evil dictators out there, but then they’re out in the streets protesting against us and burning our flag.”
“That’s not something I’ve witnessed.”
“So, you’re not afraid of getting killed then?”
“No. Bad things can happen anywhere. At least people
don’t have guns there. I don’t have to worry about some pathetic lunatic shooting up a theater or a school like I do here.”
Guns are generally a conversation stopper. They occupy a unique position as a conversational taboo once held by religion and politics.
There’s a cliché that you can’t go home again. He’s finding it easy to relate to, even in the presence of friends and family.
It’s been three days and for the second time since he’s been back in the country, someone is explaining the media to him. You know, who’s biased and in what way. Who’s professional and who’s clearly just a partisan shill. That Adam is a working international journalist seems somehow irrelevant to this conversation. There’s no expertise anymore, only the loud certainty of the uninformed. He’s thankful he’s not a doctor or he’d be listening to some impassioned diatribe about vaccines or pharmaceuticals from someone with a high schooler’s understanding of chemistry.
For hate is strong and marks the song of peace on Earth, good will to men.
“The New York Times? Oh please! They report directly to the DNC.”
“Well, they do have a few more Pulitzer Prizes than Joe- Bob’s Country Dumb-Shit Radio Hour on 101 FM or whatever. Maybe only a few, though.
“Great. Liberals giving liberals awards.”
Adam notices these exchanges more and more when he returns. He tries not to be a dick. He tries not to fall into the too-easy trap of snobbery. He tries not to transform actual people he knows and cares about into rhetorical straw men when he relates these encounters later or writes about them. He tries this all and he fails.
Being home is not going to be a salve after all.
There’s a cliché about travel being fatal to prejudice. Actually, it’s a Mark Twain quote. He wonders if it’s bullshit. It’s too easy to see the people you grew up with as quaint and provincial and feel estranged from them. It’s too easy for them to see you as some sort of exotic oddity.
He shows up at the local bar he used to frequent back when he lived here. He’s there to catch up with old friends and high school acquaintances. They seem to all be here on Fridays and Saturdays, and this is easier than figuring out how to schedule time with everyone individually. He hopes he can reconnect to a place and people he has so many nostalgic feelings about, but he right now feels unmoored from everything.
Faithful friends who are dear to us gather near to us once more.
For one thing, it’s weird how many people are dead. He’s only in his late thirties. This shouldn’t be the case. There have been murders and suicides and murder/suicides, drug overdoses, heart attacks, car accidents and cancer.
“Our lives aren’t even half over yet,” he thinks, unsure whether he’s spoken this aloud
So, that’s weird. But then there are issues of worldview that always lurk in the periphery of his conversations. Guns and god. Human rights and immigrants and national security.
It’s easy enough to avoid the obvious fissures. They don’t talk about the election or the president. Adam spends the majority of his life on the other side of the world surrounded by people who are unanimous in their ridicule of the current US president. Here, he tries to watch what he says. Support for the president here has little to do with politics; it’s a matter of personal identity and tribal affiliation. It’s rooting for one football team and hating the other unreservedly.
He’s wondering if resistance sometimes works the same way because it’s nearly as bad with his old university friends when they meet for drinks a day later. There’s anger after the election, sure, and that’s understandable, even a year or two on. But there’s this other thing that permeates all their interactions and keeps Adam permanently on edge. Performative outrage. Finger-wagging pedantry. Hyper- vigilance for anything that violates the dogma of contemporary liberal progressivism. He legitimately feels left behind by their evolving rhetoric and chooses his words carefully for fear of being disqualified as privileged and clueless, never mind the fact that he’s spent the past decade traveling the world and has witnessed firsthand inequality and suffering that would make the average upper-class millennial faux critical theorist blanch.
Someone tells him that some phrase he used a few minutes before was symbolically violent. He has no idea what this means or what the phrase was, but he understands he has run afoul of the dogma.
What he’s learned is that everyone shares a deep hatred of nuance. These days, it’s the only common ground.
There’s a cliché about how you can choose your friends but not your family.
It’s Christmas day, and he’s drinking beer around a large rectangular dining table with the whole family. His uncles and cousins are getting increasingly more animated in their pronouncements about society and current affairs. He’s unsure if staying a little bit drunk all day is a better bet for avoiding conflicts or intensifying them.
In fields where they lay, they keeping their sheep on a cold winter’s night that was so deep.
Everyone’s been discussing how climate change is bullshit and how mass shootings didn’t happen back when everyone drove pickup trucks with gun racks in them to school. When he writes about this later, it feels like he’s oversimplifying their arguments, but, if anything, he’s actually adding some subtlety. It goes without saying that no one at the table, including him, knows much of anything about current research on climate science or crime prevention.
“At least we can say Merry Christmas again.”
“Were you not able to before?”
“No, it was all this Happy Holidays horseshit. I know there
are other holidays in December, but we should be able to wish someone Merry Christmas without offending everyone.”
“Were people really offended about this? Like actual people you know or just made-up people on cable news.”
“Oh, the liberals were. Thankfully, I don’t have much to do with them.”
“No, no Jägermeister for me, thanks. Definitely not. I’ll stick with this Xmas Ale.”
Adam thinks of every previous Christmas he’s been home for. He pictures himself walking through retail stores past Christmas trees and Christmas decorations and listening to a soundtrack exclusively of Christmas carols, and he wonders where this idea came from that celebrating Christmas had ever been forbidden. That it’s nonsense is irrelevant. What matters is what feels like truth.
Two days later, he’s at lunch with his ex-girlfriend and her sort-of-estranged father, Doug, who spent much of his adult life in and out of prison. Doug’s on a tangent about something or other, but he’s deflecting and using these weird caveats.
“Look, I’m not racist, alright? I worked with a lot of black guys when I was at the plant, and we got along good. I played on a beer league softball team with some of them. We golfed together. There are some good black people out there. I know. But what people don’t understand is that there are a lot of bad ones too. And you should be allowed to say that because it’s the truth. I might not have gone to college like you two, but I know the truth when I see it.
“And now that this election is over and we’ve won, maybe we can start telling the truth again in this country. Because this place has been a mess for a really long time.”
Doug’s daughter tries to redirect the conversation. Adam doesn’t know whether this is for his benefit or just because people often find their parents embarrassing.
“It’s dangerous where I live now. And it’s mostly black people there. People sell drugs in the parking lot. You have to make sure your windows and doors are locked because people will just break in and steal your stuff. Other day, I get back from the store and someone’s tried to jimmy my sliding glass door open. Another time, I pull up outside my building, and three black kids take off running away from my neighbor’s window. Yeah, I know not all black people are criminals, but I don’t see the white kids in the building doing these things. But I can’t point this out or else I’m racist.”
Adam cringes and hopes Doug will keep his voice down, but, realistically, he’s not saying anything that’s going to scandalize an Applebee’s in the Midwest. Adam also doubts that Doug’s the only “I’m not a racist, but…” rhetorician blowing on his onion rings to cool them in the vicinity right now.
“When I was a kid, I remember hanging out one time at my buddy Mike’s house up the street. We lived in the city in a real bad neighborhood. We was getting drunk and smoking a little weed with his older brother Tom, and we heard some noise downstairs in the basement. Tom opens up the door to check it out and sees there’s a black guy down there. He must’ve came in through the little basement window near the ceiling. People was always getting robbed then. Tom runs back into his room and comes out with his gun. Me and Mike follow him to the basement door. He opens it up and yells, ‘Merry Christmas, asshole!’ Then he starts firing the gun down the steps. We can hear the bullets bouncing around everywhere down in the basement ricocheting off of stuff and the black guy down there screaming ‘Stop! Please! Stop! Don’t kill me!’ and crying. We was on the ground we was laughing so hard. And Tom starts singing ‘Deck the halls with boughs of holly. Fa la la la la la la la la!’ and just unloading his gun down there. When Tom stops firing, we don’t hear nothing. We’re wondering if the guy’s dead. We go downstairs, and the basement’s empty. I couldn’t believe it. The black guy must’ve climbed up and went through that little window up top. It had to have been seven foot off the ground. He must’ve been scared shitless. It was so funny.”
For the rest of lunch, Adam nods politely as Doug laments how bad the world has gotten and how kids aren’t raised right anymore, not like when he was young.
Maybe it’s time to hang up the clichés now.
Adam visits his grandfather a few days later, who points out that this is probably the last time they’ll see each. He says he’ll be dead by the next time Adam comes home. Adam humors him and nods somberly despite the fact that his grandfather has been saying this for years.
Said the night wind to the little lamb, do you see what I see?
Adam’s grandfather is watching the news turned up extra loud, and Adam has to shout to talk to him over the broadcast, which isn’t helping Adam’s hangover. Although he’s interested in Adam’s life, he is currently preoccupied with providing color commentary to the nightly news program from his fraying recliner. It follows a predictable pattern. A new event is introduced and explained, and, within about 30 seconds, Adam’s grandfather is sure he understands it well enough to render a verdict.
“Well, that’s why we shouldn’t be giving so much money to support other countries. We should take care of our own.”
“We give billions to these other countries with no strings attached, and they hate us. And our own people suffer.”
“And, if people want to come here, they can learn the language.”
“More decaf then? There’s still pie in the fridge too.”
Adam can’t put his finger on this. It isn’t just a generation gap. If it were, it would be easier to dismiss this as the typical misguided fear and xenophobia of old people. It’s more than that. It’s a schism in worldview that transcends generations. It’s a monoculture, two monocultures. Where did this come from? Lack of exposure? Echo chambers of homogenous, like- minded people spending so much time parroting each other’s views? Is it media? High speed internet? He doesn’t remember it being like this before he went abroad.
A week or so later after hugs and goodbyes and some genuinely nice moments with loved ones, Adam is in the airport in Detroit waiting for his connection for a long flight over the North Pole back to Asia. He’s sitting at a high-top table having breakfast in some forgettable diner and overhears part of a conversation two tables down. There’s an old woman, who looks disheveled and seems to be mentally ill. Maybe she’s just eccentric. She’s standing and talking loudly to a seated young woman, whom she has obviously never met and who looks mortified.
“You’re a millennial. January 17, 1873. Look it up. We had a revolution then, and on January 17th this year we’ll have another.”
The young woman smiles uncomfortably, and the crazy old woman moves on. Adam picks up his mobile phone and searches for the significance of the date. It refers to a battle in a war between the US government and an American Indian tribe, which makes everything even stranger since both women were clearly white. Unless, this is that thing where all rural white people imagine themselves without any evidence to be a quarter Cherokee or whatever. He doesn’t understand, but he starts laughing, thinking that this will be one of his final glimpses of home until next year.
And, while it’s not quite an epiphany or a Christmas miracle, he’s suddenly aware of a lightness he hasn’t felt in awhile. He does feel like the gloom has subsided a little, which was supposed to be the point of coming home. Then, he laughs even harder because he feels like Jimmy Stewart and then notices the young woman now watching him with same expression she’d had for the old woman a few minutes before. She soon picks up her bag and walks quickly to her gate. Adam finishes his breakfast, still lightly chuckling.
Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays because no matter how far away you roam, when you pine for the sunshine of a friendly gaze, for the holidays you can’t beat home sweet home!