Confessions of an Ex-Grinch: My Christmas Epiphany

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I went through a long period in my 20’s and early 30’s where I absolutely hated Christmas. I ended up marrying “Mrs Claus” so choose what you hate carefully. Karma is a bitch. I don’t know why I hated Christmas. My parents and especially my grandparents always went all out for Christmas. We’d go to bed and they’d drink and set up toys. I remember waking up one Christmas morning and excitedly coming down to the tree to find that “Santa” had brought my brother an I an army set of Union and Confederate soldiers. Not only did Santa bring us this awesome gift but the tiny plastic soldiers were actually arrayed in a mock battle scene in front of the tree. There were dozens of these tiny blue and grey soldiers and my drunken relatives had stayed up late, setting them up in this wildlly elaborate battle scene. Hats off to my relatives. We’d set out cookies and milk and once we went to bed my grandfather dutifully ate them. I always thought this was proof positive that Santa existed and oddly never suspected my parents of subterfuge.

Maybe that was my problem with Christmas. After years of huge spectacle it became a rather quiet and staid affair. I’d go over to mom and dad’s, my sainted grandparents having long since passed, and we’d eat and quietly exchange gifts. It was always just my parents and my brother and I. My brother and I were both single at the time and my brother remains so to this day.

My family is extremely hard to buy for. It probably didn’t help that I was somewhat distant if not estranged from my family for a long time. The 20’s are tough years for some of us. My brother remains a mystery to me to this day, although we’re a lot closer than we used to be. We finally made the effort to connect but that’s another story. I never know what to buy my brother for Christmas. The only thing I can think of to get him, that he’d truly enjoy, would probably violate the United Nations ban on human trafficking. Ahem. “Made in China” are his favorite words.

My mother and father have everything they’ve ever wanted. They literally are the human embodiment of “the man who has everything”. For years I spent money buying my father every garment you could think of with a KC Chiefs’ logo on it but quickly ran out of hats, coats and sweatshirts to buy for him. My sainted mother actually eschews us buying her anything at all, like she feels guilty accepting gifts from her children. One year she asked for a breadbasket. Why not just ask me to stop by the grocery store and pick up some rolls. I ask for a Christmas list every year and she turns into the Sphinx. All I get back is a riddle. “Oh, Kenny, you don’t have to get me anything, just come by the house once in a while.” Sigh.

There was no one in my life back then. Or more correctly, there was a revolving door of people in my life back then. This may have also been a factor in the “hating of Christmas”. My high school girlfriend and I should have broken up at Christmas my freshman year in college, but she waited to do me that favor until April Fool’s Day, which was actually very fitting. Oddly I went through a series of breakups after that and generally they always occurred before the holidays or during them. That always puts a damper on the festivities. I never bought a tree nor made any effort to decorate my apartment in any way. I lived on Kansas City’s famous Country Club Plaza and every year the buildings are outlined in luminous Christmas lights. They turn the lights on every year in a big celebration on Thanksgiving night. I figured that was enough Christmas decoration for anybody. My mother, to mock my holiday despair, bought me my lone Christmas ornament, a stuffed Grinch hanging by a Christmas wreath. My wife hangs in my entry way every year to this day.

One year, as usually happened, I broke up with someone right before Christmas. December 20th was the date, and oddly I remember it. More accurately, the Rock Chick broke up with me but again, that’s another story for another time. We ended up married, so you never know. So, as usual, I was to go to my parents on Christmas Eve, spend the night and then drive home at some point Christmas day. My brother was in town. It was a carbon copy of the prior year and the year before that and so on, and so on. Before I headed to my folks house I stopped in O’Dowd’s my local haunt and started ordering martini’s. “Bring one of these every 15 minutes until I look ready for Christmas…” After about an hour and a half in the bar I felt I’d steeled myself for the impending holiday and headed to my folks. It was my intention to sit in my parent’s darkened basement and stare at the secondary tree they kept down there. Yes, my parents have two Christmas trees… they literally have everything.

Everyone except my father had gone to bed and I was sitting in the basement, clutching my wine glass to keep myself centered. Christmas I hated, Holiday Drinking I loved. My father came down to sit in front of the tree with me, when his cell phone rang. I thought something was wrong, who would call at 11pm on Christmas Eve? “Come with me, I need your help” my father exclaimed as he jumped to his feet. I followed him up to the garage where he quickly opened up the garage door letting in the cold. There were two brand new, shiny, kiddy bicycles sitting in the garage. “Gee dad, you shouldn’t have…I think Craig and I are a little big for these.” My father, as usual, was not amused, “They’re not for you smart ass, I’m storing these for the neighbor. He bought them for his kids and since there is a foot of snow on the ground, you’re going to help take them to his house while I stay here in the warm house.”

At that exact moment, a guy about my age came shuffling through the snow and up the driveway. Only moments before I’d been sitting alone, lamenting the fact I’d always be alone. Now a guy my age appears as if to underscore the point, to grab two bikes for his kids. He thanked my father profusely and I grabbed one bike, and he grabbed the other and we set off down the road to his house. His excitement at playing Santa for his kids and giving them their bikes was palpable. As I pushed that bike through the snow, I look up at a the stars and the snow flurries in the air and his excitement began to stir something inside of me. I suddenly felt connected to Christmas again. I remember looking at the guy and thinking, this could be me. I could own a home and have a family. It’s not too late for me. This guy not only gave his kids bikes that year, he gave me something too. He gave me the key to Christmas.

We rolled the bikes into his living room and the place reminded me of my grandparent’s house when I was a kid. I was like the Grinch… I felt my heart, which had been three times smaller than everybody else, suddenly swell to three times bigger than normal. I felt the despair and dread of Christmas fall away. I walked back to my dad’s house slowly but oddly for me, joyfully. I finally realized what I’d been missing. It’s the giving and the doing for others. There are so many people who as Bill Murray says in “Scrooged” that are having “trouble making their miracle happen” that we can all help. (No wonder I always weep during that final scene in that movie, I was that guy.) The day after Christmas I sought out a couple of charitable organizations and I started volunteering. I donated some money, even though I really didn’t have a lot. I didn’t have my own family so I started giving to my community. This may have been fundamental for most folks but somehow I’d lost touch with that.

If you’re alone, if you have a big family, whoever you are and whatever your circumstance, don’t forget what I forgot – the Holidays are for helping those less fortunate than you. And believe me, there is always someone less fortunate than you are. Even small acts like dropping some change in the Salvation Army’s bucket can help. And the giving and the doing for others feels great… Again, as Bill Murray said in “Scrooged” you start to “want that feeling, you get hungry for it” and that spirit of Christmas can stay with you, year round.

Every year my wife hangs the Grinch ornament up. For me it serves as that little reminder of that night, years ago, when I pushed a couple of bicycles through the snow, the year I got to play Santa for the first time…. and I smile.

Happy Holidays and as always, Cheers!

The Vegas Odyssey for Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon with Arkansas Joel

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I am occasionally, like all professional types, required to go to Las Vegas a few times a year for various conventions in my industry. I’ve always hated Las Vegas. I once said to my old friend from Arkansas, Joel (*named changed to protect the guilty), that when I die, if I wake up in a casino and hear the bells and whistles of slot machines going off I will know I’m in Hell. Conversely, I remember mentioning that when I die, if I awake in a beer commercial, on a beach somewhere surrounded by bikini clad young women, that I’ll know I was in Heaven. As my only devout Christian friend, Joel was a little underwhelmed by my world view.

This last winter I was once again forced to go to Vegas for some training and then a customer convention. I was in Vegas so long I was beginning to worry I’d have to register in Nevada to vote. I was absolutely miserable. I was about to lose my mind when suddenly I got a text from my old friend from Arkansas, Joel, alerting me that he and his wife were heading to Vegas the next day. I met Joel over twenty five years ago when I lived for a brief time in Arkansas. I consider those my years in “exile”, like Dante when he was kicked out of Florence. While I was unhappy in Arkansas, the people were nice, and I made a friend for life in Joel. He’s a rock ‘n’ roll and bourbon guy just like me. Joel had a young family at the time, a wife and two young boys, but he always managed to find time to step out for a drink or two with his shiftless exile friend, namely me. He was the only person I knew who could quote scripture and Radiohead in the same conversation. I imagine it was a lot like drinking with Johnny Cash or maybe Dylan post-Christian period.

After I moved back home, Joel and I stayed in touch. At one particularly dark period in my life, Joel came to KC and we were out drinking. I was lamenting something and he asked me if I knew the story of Esau and Jacob. I remember saying, “Joel, the only biblical story I seem to recall goes something like this: “God said to Abraham, “kill me a son”/Abe says “Man you must be puttin’ me on/God say “No”, Abe say “What?”/God say “You can do what you want Abe, but next time you see me comin’ you better run/Abe says “Where you want this killin’ done?”/God says “Out on Highway 61.” My photographic memory of Dylan songs aside, Joel was not impressed. He went on to tell me about Esau selling his birth right and compared it to me. He said I was taking my eye off what was important. It was a good story and it’s stuck with me for years.

While I was excited to see Joel and his wife, Tiffany (*named changed to protect the innocent), they were getting in at a really early hour in the morning, but I was still required to attend the conference I was enrolled in. I had meetings scheduled. Joel and his wife were meeting with U.S. Customs at McCarren Airport and would be free by lunch. My advice to Joel was that he should nap, while I did my conference and we’d meet later in the early evening. My phone started ringing around noon, it was Joel. He was apparently ignoring my advice about the nap. I let the call, (then the calls as he kept calling every thirty minutes) go to voicemail.

Finally, around mid afternoon, I relented and answered the phone. “Kenneth, it’s time to roll… Tiffany is taking a nap, but I’ve stayed up, drinking beer.” This was a bad sign. I wasn’t going to be able to put him off much longer. I begged off for another hour but we made arrangements to meet at the Chandelier Bar at the Cosmopolitan. I ordered a Stella, which apparently irritated him even more. Once a decade Joel turned into what we both describe as “Hostile Joel”. This was heading that direction. “Bubba, when you’re in a bar like this, you don’t order a beer, you just tell the guy to mix you up something special with bourbon.” I was impressed that he actually ordered in that vague way and the guy brought him what looked like an Old Fashion. I killed my beer quickly and ordered “what the gentleman from Arkansas was drinking” but had to almost chug the Old Fashion as Joel had an odyssey of sorts in mind.

“Kenneth, I want you to take a journey with me. It’s going to be long and arduous, we’ll have to walk quite a ways, but in the end, we will find some treasure.” Who was I to argue, Joel was hammered and this sounded like fun. We left the Chandelier Bar and headed toward Caesar’s Palace. Joel seemed to know the way by heart. He had several gift shops and lobby bars he knew about on the route we were taking, so we were able to refresh our beers about every 100 steps. Outside the Caesar’s theater, we ended up hanging around in the gift shop. Elton John and Rod Stewart both do residencies there and they were selling CDs, t-shirts and other memorabilia. I held up a pair of leopard spotted lycra tights and asked if I should buy a pair and wear them the rest of the day. I have a vague memory of singing “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” to the amusement of the shop clerk.

We ended up having to circle back to the Cosmopolitan when Tiffany woke up and called. She was hungry. At the rate we were drinking, I figured a little food couldn’t hurt. When we got to the Cosmopolitan, Joel announced that he was going to share one of Vegas’ greatest kept secrets, known only to the initiated. I shrugged my shoulders and smiled. I saw a flash of Hostile Joel when he said, “I don’t think you’re prepared for this. You’re not worthy of this kind of insider information…you’re not showing the proper reverence.” I thought of Esau, I needed to keep my eye on the prize. I tried to act contrite. We ended up walking down an unmarked hallway and discovered a hidden pizza joint and it was awesome. We took the pizza up to the hotel room and met Tiffany. Joel quickly bolted for the lobby to grab a six pack of beer, since he considered the mini bar prices to be outrageous. I’ve never really known Tiffany that well and was worried about what to say, when she plopped down on the couch across from me in the living room, and blurted out, “You know I always hated you back in Arkansas.” Jeez, first Hostile Joel and now Hostile Tiffany. Where was this evening going?

“Joel would disappear on weekends to go drinking with you. I couldn’t stand you. Of course, I didn’t know you back then, and knowing what I know now, I think you’re kind of a funny guy. I wish I’d known back then, what I know now. I was just a young mother and you were a threat. But, I’ve learned a lot since then…” she said wistfully. I couldn’t help but wonder what she’d learned that had changed her opinion of me. I always got this from the wives and girlfriends of my pals. I was the single guy. It’s so much easier to get pissed at the drunken friend than the boyfriend/husband, and I was always the target. I was hanging on every word, hoping for some real wisdom, when drunken Joel burst back into the room with a six pack. Saved by the drunken bell it appears.

Finally, after hours of drinking and eating pizza, we managed to make it over to the Venetian. One of the bars off the lobby was apparently the location of Joel’s promised “treasure.” Unfortunately they were doing a private dinner for Home Depot or some other retail outlet. Joel bribed the hostess and we slipped into the bar. I quickly hit the bathroom and when I got up to the bar, I realized why we’d taken this long odyssey in the first place. Sitting on the bar, in front of Joel, were two glasses and a bottle of the infamous, rare and hard to find Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon – Do I think you’re sexy, God damn right I do. The bar actually had the 15 year, the 20 year and the 23 year bottles. The 23 year was $250 a shot, so that was out of the question. We did a shot of the 15 year followed up by a shot of the 20 year. Bourbon, served neat. I was in Bourbon Heaven. I’d never had Pappy Van Winkle but now I am a big fan. It may be the best bourbon I’ve ever had. The difference between the 15 year and the 20 year was amazing. I can only wonder in awe what the 23 year was like. It had been a long, drunken, crazy day with Hostile Joel, but it was worth every moment to taste the nectar of the Gods… Pappy Van Winkle. There were many moments during the day I thought of bailing, but unlike Esau, I hung in there… Although I must admit, I wish I’d bought the Rod Stewart leopard-skin tights. It would have been a great picture for Instagram…

Minneapolis’ Nye’s Polonaise and the Weird Ride Across the Mississippi River

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Weird stuff happens to me when I go out drinking in strange towns. I was traveling recently and this is a vague approximation of what went down on that weird and twisted night…

I have business these days that takes me to Minneapolis. I never thought in my wildest dreams I’d spend time in Minnesota. When I was younger the word Minneapolis conjured visions of people ice fishing, Bud Grant and the Purple People Eaters with their fans shivering in the blowing snow. In short, I always considered Minneapolis a winter wasteland. But then I started to travel there for business and all the perceptions of my youth flew out the window.

After my first trip to the “Twin Cities” I discovered that Minneapolis is truly a hidden gem of a city. I mean, the winters are brutal, but I think most of the natives are Nordic types descended from actual Vikings and they don’t seem to care. In the winter they have an intricate system of walk ways, similar to an ant farm I briefly had as a child, to navigate the cold streets. In the summer, the city opens like a flower. Granted I think summer only lasts about 36 hours up there, but it is awesome.  The downtown has a long road, whose name escapes me, that is filled with cafes, restaurants and groovy bars with great live music. Each of these places seems to have an outside patio and when I was up there recently the patios were packed with people who were partying like bears coming out of hibernation. Well, if bears partied when they came out of hibernation instead of eating salmon.

I was staying at my usual hotel where I ran into a business acquaintance of mine, Keith (*name changed to protect the guilty). Keith, who like me is not from Minnesota, was there with a small group of hearty natives and they were doing what I’ve noticed many Minneapolis folks do – drinking like Vikings. After a drink or two, I realized that Keith was pretty loaded on the rye he was drinking and I was about to slip up to the room when suddenly I was pulled into this hearty mob because they told me they wanted to “show Keith and you downtown”. What harm could that cause?

We started on the roof patio of a British pub that was packed with Twins fans but soon got restless. There was a pregnant woman in the bar and that always causes anxiety in drinkers, unless you’re at a Kid Rock show where I’m guessing it’s common. Someone in the group of natives decided we would pub crawl all the way down this main drag of bars and at the very end we’d find an oyster bar where we would dine. I’m no seafood expert but based on geography I was wondering what kind of quality oysters one would find in Minnesota, but hey, I wasn’t going to argue with a group of Vikings. We hit a small jazz bar where we were asked to quiet down as we were drowning out the vocalist who was trying to scat. I hate scatting and frankly I thought we were doing a public service in shouting her down. We hit a bar/restaurant with a vaguely Asian theme and then a tequila bar. Things were getting out of hand. I came to realize that we were never going make the oyster bar, which I was quietly thankful for. One of the natives, while we were in the jazz bar, told a story about a ruptured testicle which had also greatly reduced my desire to eat oysters. I mean, do the math there.

Eventually, the crowd began to thin out. It was Keith and I and two of the natives, one dude and a lady a few years younger than me. The gal was saying the oyster bar was too far to keep going. I thought this would be my chance to get back to my hotel room and barricade the door, when suddenly someone said something about a place called Nye’s.

“Yes, yes, we must take Keith and his friend to Nye’s. It’s essential that they see it before its torn down in a few months.”

I had never heard of Nye’s but apparently it is a Minneapolis institution. Once voted one of “America’s Best Bars”, it was local landmark. Alas, it had been destined to close in the near term, it was losing money. My interest was piqued. I had to check this place out. The full name of the bar is Nye’s Polonaise. It was opened in 1950 and apparently for Minneapolis’ youth it’s a right of passage to go to Nye’s and buy your first legal drink. The only thing that made me feel this might be dubious is that it was a piano bar and had a “famous” polka room. Every family reunion I attended as a child there was some drunk, distant cousin of my father’s with an accordion so naturally I was alarmed by the polka reference.

I incorrectly assumed Nye’s was somewhere on this main drag we were meandering on but I was wrong. We were going to have to catch a cab to get to Nye’s. This concerned me because I knew despite how far we’d wandered thus far, I could still get back to my hotel on foot, if it became necessary to run to avoid the authorities. A cab ride seemed dicey but the next thing I knew I was in the back of a cab, rushing through the Minneapolis night time toward’s Nye’s.

I’m no geography expert, but I had no idea the Mississippi River cut through Minneapolis. But suddenly we were jetting across a massive bridge, headed over the Big Muddy. I couldn’t help but wonder where the hell we were going. Keith, who was slightly drunker than I was, was more disconcerted than me. He slurred, “Hey, wait a minute, nobody told me we were going to Canada?” He was apparently as confused by the Mississippi River as I was, except he apparently thought we were crossing the border. I was also wondering how close Minneapolis was to Canada but I was too drunk to be sure. Keith, who seemed to become more agitated the farther out on the bridge we got, suddenly, yelled, above the wind blowing in the open window of the cab, “I don’t have my passport?” The mood in the car was turning weird. The cab driver, a kind Ethiopian gentlemen was laughing hysterically because we were stupid enough to think we were in Canada.

When at last we pulled up in front of the bar, Keith I leaned into the window of the cab driver and I said, “I only have American dollars, do you still take those in Canada?” which only caused Keith to freak out more and the cab driver to laugh louder. He kept trying to reassure us we were still in Minneapolis though we were having trouble understanding him through all the laughing he was doing.

A few steps later, we were in Nye’s…and it was spectacular. Keith whispered in my ear, “Don’t be alarmed, they may be speaking French here, we might be Quebec…” and he quickly staggered up to the bar. All the furniture was covered in what looked like plastic seat covers. This was the grand daddy of all dive bars. In the corner by the front door was a piano behind which was an older woman and she was belting out what I believe might have been a Taylor Swift song, but how would I know what that was?

As quickly as Keith had run up to the bar, the woman we were with kicked her shoes off and sat down squarely at the piano, right across from the singer. Her shoulders hunched over and she stared at the pianist with an intensity I’d never seen before in a bar. There was a college a girl who was dancing around the piano area and a line from a Springsteen song popped into my mind, “Angel starts to shuffle like she ain’t got no brains…” This was getting weirder.

An elderly woman was given the microphone and stood up and did a stunning rendition of Strangers In the Night, during which a round of drinks arrived at the piano that drunken Keith had sent over. Next a bald guy at the end of the bar was given the microphone. He sang an old 50s rock song but he changed the lyrics of the song so it was about a man with bad dandruff. He was like that guy on PBS, Mark Russell, who used to do piano based, politically satirical songs. After the song he was introduced to Keith and I as “the local satirist.” Keith muttered, a little loud, “That’s not satire, that’s just stupid.” The Local Satirist was not amused.

He asked where we were from and I muttered, “Kansas.” He said, “Kansas’ main exports are coal and wheat, which business are you in?” I wasn’t sure that was true or not but he was angry with Keith and I didn’t want to get kicked out. Before I could answer his query, Keith leaned forward and said, “We’re coal barons, don’t we look like it?”

Luckily at this point, the woman we were with requested to sing “the Billy Joel song about the picture from Sears.” Somehow, the woman behind the piano knew she was talking about Scenes From an Italian Restaurant. But since we’d already ridiculed the Local Satirist and claimed to be Coal Barons, the pianist was refusing to play a song that long unless we tipped extra. After a quick collection we tipped her $20 and I expected this woman we were with, who had been very boisterous all night, to blow the lid off the Billy Joel song but when they gave her the microphone, suddenly I could tell she was seized by what Hunter S Thompson called “the fear.” The best she could do was mumble, in a low voice, “Bottle of red…uh…. bottle of…white.” The pianist was underwhelmed.

The evening began to devolve from there. I seem to remember Keith staggering and falling into the college girl who was dancing around and a table of drinks being spilled. I was going to slip into the polka room, next door, where a band was playing loudly but I decided discretion is the better part of valor and finally agreed with Keith, “leaving, what a good idea.” We quickly staggered out to the curb where I pulled up Uber and summoned a driver.

Keith seemed calmed by this momentarily but then suddenly panicked and said, “Does Uber come to Canada? Without my passport, I’ll have to ride in the trunk…”

Maybe next time, I’ll go to Nye’s without Keith. It really is a spectacular bar.