I’m not sure why I went with question marks there. I got nervous. We all know this is the holiday season and has been since some time around Labor Day. Or it’s the Christmas season, if the word “holiday” represents an eye-gouge to your personal lord and savior. Sorry, Lord & Savior. Not that your Lord & Savior is susceptible to Three-Stooge-style, facial assaults. Cause we know He isn’t. And we also know He wouldn’t block with that goofy hand between the eyebrows thing either. He would preempt with an elbow. An eye for an eye, you know. Anyway, I didn’t mean anything by the eye gouge thing. It’s just an expression. OK, it’s not an expression, it’s just something I said. Please do not smite me.
Again, HAPPY HOLIDAYS! And thank you. I wanted to say thank you, so I did. Specifically, I wanted to thank you for all those Christmas letters. Sure, they were generic. I received the same crucial, annual updates as Aunt Jean, the third cousins in Arkansas, and Jeff, your Toyota salesman, but they still meant a lot. They were form letters, but they had heart. Some of them were Christmas cards you forgot to sign, but the message was still there: someone, somewhere, wishes you well.
Some of those letters had real creativity. The year you included the family photo where all five of you wore matching Christmas sweaters? The image follows me still. The year you wrote the letter in the voice of your 2-year-old daughter and she spent two paragraphs analyzing how much eggnog mommy drinks? Classic stuff. Oh, and the year your dog managed to pen a 9-page breakdown of everything his family had accomplished no matter how trivial it might seem to anyone who wasn’t grandma? Oh, you moved on the friendship rankings that year, I can assure you. You moved.
What a fantastic tradition. And yet somehow I’ve never participated. Not once. In all the years since I conquered 12th grade and left the family farm in southwest Kansas, I’ve never been selfless enough to sit down and hold your festive little face under the waves of my experiences. Shames do get bigger. Think of it. A writer who never penned a holiday letter. It’s as if Martha Stewart was your aunt, but instead of homemade Snickerdoodle Cupcakes or cardigan sweaters personalized with brilliant pops of texture, she gave everyone Kohl’s gift cards. It would be worse than eyelid cancer, is what it would be.
Well friend, this holiday season prepare to have holy water sprinkled on the fire of your crippling disappointment. This is the letter that rights all wrongs, a Bill Clinton denial, only with extra finger-pointing sincerity. So where do I start? Well. you may have heard I’ve moved back home to be a farmer, that I’m living with my parents, sleeping in the same room where I once stuffed socks into my shoes to look an inch taller, showering in the bathroom where Clearasil was surely launched into a Fortune 500 product. Well it’s just kind of mean that people are saying it like that, but yes it’s true. That’s probably why I’m feeling so nostalgic and you are receiving this surprise holiday letter. Just the other day I drove by the playground where I had my first kiss and lost my first fight the same year. I don’t remember either of those girls names, but they were powerful. The memories, I mean, not the girls.
It happens almost every day. I see or hear something that drags my mind back 20 years and the surprising part is that I even have 20 years of memories. Out of nowhere, this realization jumps out of the corner and puts me in a headlock until I’m lightheaded and choked up: I’m old. Older than Apple stock. Older than ESPN. Older than freaking Justin Bieber’s mom, for the love of LegalZoom.com! Older than anyone who should have a Justin Bieber fact on stand-by. Maybe I’m not old in the generally accepted definition of the word, but certainly older than a lot of those other ages that I’ve been. Believe it or not, this is the oldest I’ve ever been. The Mayans could have left a note in their calendar about that: Returning to your hometown will feel like menopause, except for more crying.
Speaking of those other ages, I might not have done any of the more conventional holiday-letter-worthy accomplishments yet, weddings or accidental pregnancies or European vacations, but I’ve done stuff. Important stuff that you shouldn’t have had to wait so long to hear about …
1995… Off to college! I enrolled at Creighton University, a small Jesuit university in downtown Omaha, Neb. I’m not Catholic, but the Jesuits are, and they are big into school. My first class was a math course taught by a priest who I would estimate—being careful to use the Price Is Right don’t-go-over method—was 168 years old. This was a rather small classroom, but that did not stop him from wearing a microphone. Not a discreet, clip-on mic one might affix to a shirt collar. This was a giant, silver microphone with a long cord and it was tied around his neck by a rope so it hung halfway down his slouched body. Barbara Mandrell must have handed it to him right out of the 1970s. Students called him “Father Time.” Not to his face, of course, because of hell.
1996… The second year in the dorms, I lived next to two basketball players who apparently didn’t clean their room often enough because there was always an odd smell coming from it, sometimes with such intensity they had to put a towel under the door to protect the rest of us. They were quite selfless and I’m sure this had nothing to do with one of those players’ multiple drug arrests in the NBA or the failed drug tests while playing in Europe.
1997… Partly because of a girl, I transferred to the University of Kansas. She would eventually marry a doctor. I also changed my major, not to anything specific, but definitely away from whatever ill-advised direction it had been going. Also, Chris Farley died. My apologies if you are finding out this way. I was not involved.
1998… Again, very little majoring occurred. A motorcycle I had bought with a student loan was towed and sold at a police auction. I watched Paul Pierce make what seemed like 30 shots in a row on Senior Night at Allen Fieldhouse and it was around that time I started daydreaming about being a sports columnist.
1999… Now I don’t want you good folks who generously gave me cash at my high school graduation to think their money got burned. This is the year I slammed my way through the William Allen White School of Journalism, bouncing toward the finish line like some sort of demolition derby survivor. My GPA was legendary, in the same way Lindsay Lohan’s decision-making is legendary. Writing seemed like something most anyone could do. Unfortunately, I was not one of those people yet.
This is going to sound like nostalgic old person talk, but I remember two things about 1999 and 2000. I bought a tank of gas that was somewhere around 70 cents a gallon. I kept the receipt for a few years. Also, these were the last years you could actually walk someone to their airport gate. Doesn’t that seem crazy? You didn’t shove them out the car door at 5 miles an hour with a wave and then swerve back into traffic. You parked at the terminal. You went through security together. There were these long emotional, “Titanic”-esqe embraces as the ticket agent threatened that the plane would in fact leave without you. The plane would start backing away from the gate and you’d go running down the jetway, your suitcase half open dragging behind, underwear flying out, and you’d leap through the air and barely catch the airplane door with one hand. You’d dangle from the side of a jumbo jet as the pilots kept backing up and making bets about whether you’d fall to your death or maybe just be paralyzed, and then the flight attendants would grab your arms and pull you up and everyone on board would cheer as you collected yourself and found your seat because they’d been in love and they knew how it felt and they were happy for you. People cried big happy tears for strangers back then. It was a different world.
Seriously, though, the true crime is we’ve forever lost a dramatic scene. You can’t go sprinting through the airport and stop someone from getting on a plane at the last possible second. We don’t get that in movies anymore, either. Now your true love does get on the plane and does study abroad and does marry a French guy. The terrorists did win on that. Or you could just call her on her cell phone, I guess.
2000… Got a job in Chicago making $26,000 (that’s enough in a major city, right?), mostly covering school board meetings and hokey festivals for a weekly paper in the suburbs. True story: I did a police ride-along with a cop who got a call about a drug dealer at a school. We went racing through neighborhoods chasing the bad guy until he bolted between two houses. The officer yanked the car onto the sidewalk behind him, jumped out and said, “Go THAT way!” Go what way? Like on foot? As in you want me to cut him off at the pass? Do you have an extra Taser? A bulletproof vest? How am I going to apprehend him, with my ballpoint pen? I’m not sure that whole ‘mightier than the sword’ thing applies to drug dealers in alleys. Luckily, drug dealers are super fast.
2001… A winter of foot-deep snow must have messed with my mind because I took a sportswriting job in Selma, Ala. The closest I’d ever been to the Deep South is an Oklahoma water park. Many of the things you hear about the South are exaggerations and many of them are exactly true. It was a gain-20-pounds kind of year, a glorious year that no amount of denial will block out completely. Did you know there are a lot of bears in Alabama? Did you know you can almost drown in the Alabama River if you try to show off for women in bikinis like you’re in some country song? The research has been done.
2002… If you’re going to move to Wisconsin, say, because a better newspaper comes along, don’t do it in mid-January. The lowest temperature my first year in the Cheese State was -18. Wisconsin state law requires a bar every 30 yards for the assurance that everyone will stay warm. At least I assume that’s why there’s a bar every 30 yards.
2003 … My first look at Lambeau Field. The Packers beat the hated Chicago Bears. Brett Favre was king of all the frozen world and that would never change, no matter what happened, no matter what was said, you could just tell Favre could only be unanimously loved in Wisconsin for the rest of his life. For the rest of anyone’s life. He would run for governor, probably, feed the homeless, bathe the dirty, tuck in the children with monsters under their beds. If the Tooth Fairy took a day off, he would be there. I would have guaranteed it, which is why I shouldn’t gamble.
2004… In sort of a long-distance competition, my dad I both started to lose weight. He did Atkins. I didn’t really try. I was writing columns about fun things. I vomited in a Blue Angels jet. I jumped into the frozen Mississippi River in a coconut bra. I went bald. I had a couple billboards and people said I looked 45. I was 27. I started trying.
2005… I ran a marathon in Minnesota. I might still be running, actually. That’s how long it took.
2006… My friend Mike warned me that Fresno, Calif., was in the desert but that did not stop me from taking a newspaper job there. I’m not sure what rainfall total qualifies a location as a desert or a savannah or a mesa or plateau or whatever other geographic terms I don’t remember correctly from 8th grade, but Fresno isn’t a beach. I know that. Also, I got engaged that year. If you’re angry you weren’t invited to the wedding, you can relax. It didn’t happen. The only drawback to dating intelligent women is they often make good decisions.
2007… The thing I envy about you parents is there are distinct ways to mark and remember time. A child’s height marks on a wall. The first steps, first baseball game, first date. The school years make it easy. What happened in 2007 for me? I’m sure plenty of great things it’s just hard to recall exactly what. I know I watched a lot of college football and spent a lot of time in airports.
2008… The economy fell apart. Newspaper advertising started to dwindle. Journalists were nervous, but still optimistic. They shouldn’t have been. I was a finalist for a columnist job in Florida that was eliminated before the editor could do the interviews. I spent two weeks in Omaha when Fresno State baseball won the College World Series. Omaha had gotten a lot nicer since I lived in a dorm there.
2009… My first house! I bought it in Fresno because the housing market was about to turn around. Except that it wasn’t.
2010… I renovated a house. OK, I mostly paid other people to renovate a house.
2011… Two editors called me into an office. It felt like I was a big league ballplayer getting cut and everyone in the room felt terrible about it. My services had been appreciated, but circumstances, ya know. I had survived several rounds of layoffs already. It was a relief, actually. When you see your industry becoming obsolete that quickly, it’s not losing a job that’s stressful. It’s figuring out what’s next. I sold a house.
2012… I visited old friends in Seattle and Minneapolis. I wrote part of a book that doesn’t have a publisher. I wrote a stand-up comedy set that I am too nervous to perform. Then my brother and his wife, as you know, had their first baby and I moved home this summer to be near family again. And then I woke up as a farmer. Sort of. I’m a guy with a lot of Banana Republic clothing pretending to be a farmer.
I’m sorry for not including any wedding or newborn photos, but the people at the hospital get weird every time I take my camera down there. Perhaps next year. Have a wonderful holiday season. Remember to think of Brett Favre this time of year because he’s probably lonely. Also, don’t deal drugs near schools because police officers and possibly even reporters will chase you.
I promise to work on my baking skills, but for now, this is all you get. You must have been bad this year.