Monday, May 18, 2015

Chapter 6: Virtual Christmas - The Festivus for the Rest of Us!

"Frank Costanza: Many Christmases ago, I went to buy a doll for my son. I reached for the last one they had, but so did another man. As I rained blows upon him, I realized there had to be another way. 
Cosmo Kramer: What happened to the doll? 
Frank Costanza: It was destroyed. But out of that a new holiday was born … a Festivus for the rest of us!"
     Jerry Stiller and Michael Richards. Seinfeld.

The Autobiography of Ben and Bob
Chapter 6: Virtual Christmas - The Festivus for the Rest of Us!

I spent the first thirteen years of my life living in Tehran, the capital of Iran. My extended family, though, is from the Persian Gulf area in the South of Iran (Khuzestan province), right across the border from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq.

Tehran is a modern and chaotic metropolis with over ten million inhabitants. It’s also land locked and is situated at an altitude of almost 2000 meters – resulting in warm summers and cold winters with many feet of snow. Khuzestan, my ancestral homeland, however, is hot and dry with average temperatures of 115 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer months, sometimes soaring to 130 degrees in the shade.

The region in the north of Iran, just a few short hours from Tehran and adjacent to the Caspian Sea, is known for its beautiful weather and was a popular summer holiday spot. We used to go there roughly once a year, but equally frequently, we ended up going to Ahwaz (the capital of Khuzestan province) to visit family. And of course these usually ended up being in the dead of summer to cope with our school schedules - not the smartest time to go south, but family usually won out.

I remember spending many happy summer afternoons in Ahwaz with cousins. We used to wander around the town without a care - and didn't even mind the oppressive heat. I'm talking heat that melts the tar on the road. Heat that requires a cold bottle of soda against the forehead every ten minutes.

We tried, intermittently and unsuccessfully, to hide from the heat. Once, on a dare, we watched "The Guns of Navarone" (all two hours and forty minutes of it) three times in a row in the same afternoon - waiting out the blistering heat outside in the dark air conditioned movie house. The evenings, though, were magical. They were enchanting and sultry and loaded with opportunities for mischief.

So far so good. So we visited our relatives in a God forsaken hell hole in the middle of summer. So what?

Here’s the interesting part. Once in a while, we would go to a place called "Atish-ha": literally, "The Fires". These were giant chimneys sticking out of the ground burning excess natural gas from the oil wells.

So we waited for the sun to set and then went to a public area near these massive chimneys. I’m not sure what the temperature was at these locations, but I’m pretty sure it dwarfed that of the afternoon sun. The idea was to find a spot a few hundred yards away from the chimneys and enjoy a nice picnic in the evening. The older folks would camp out here and enjoy the light and the heat of the "fires" while playing cards or backgammon. I suppose I can squint really hard and consider this as the equivalent of the heat lamp seen so often in our backyards today – except multiplied by a thousand.

You have to realize that we are not talking about a park setting here with trees and a lawn. This is a desolate Saharan landscape with nothing but dirt as the backdrop - Mad Max style. Somehow I never questioned it at the time, but the idea seems absurd in hindsight. 

Of course, as children, we used this opportunity to play all kinds of games, the most popular of which centered around getting as close as possible to the fires and staying there for the longest period of time - the desert dweller version of holding your breath under water, with the additional side benefit of frying our pre-adolescent brains like an egg for the duration.

If this had been the U.S., there would have been a restricted zone a mile wide around these chimneys with round-the-clock security guards. This being Iran in the 1970's, not only was there no restricted zone, but we were encouraged by our parents to enjoy ourselves. I'm sure they'd all be in prison for child abuse today, but I have to admit - it was a blast at the time.

But what does any of this have to do with Christmas?

Let’s press the Pause button on this story - and let's fast forward to December 2014, when my wife and I spent a few days this past holiday season with our soon to be in-laws. Forty years later and a life time away, we were welcomed into the warm family embrace of our new relatives – and spent quality time getting to know each other. Let’s be clear, though. They live in Minnesota. It was ten degrees Fahrenheit outside, not considering the wind chill factor. We didn't have much choice but to get to know each other.

We even braved the frozen tundra once or twice to go visit the Amish. I was touched by their simple lives but had trouble convincing myself that such a life of hardship – with no central heating or plumbing, no advanced education or technology – was a reasonable approach to life in this day and age when we’re working on sending civilians to outer space.

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed our time with our new in-laws, but the experience left me wondering: Why do we always have to enjoy time with family in terrible weather? Why not opt for “virtual holidays” in the middle of summer instead? We have virtualized everything else in our world. Why not the holidays? Why not have a virtual Christmas in July and be done with it? We can all enjoy spending time with friends and family - and we don't have to freeze our asses to do so.

So here’s my idea… Introducing Virtual Christmas – it’s just like Christmas, only warmer. It's the festivus for the rest of us!

Let’s face it – the Europeans have a much better vacationing system than we do, everyone pretty much taking off for the month of August. We could have a similar month long summer vacation, perhaps starting with the Fourth of July festivities. I claim this results in better productivity in the office by having everyone engaged at the same time (how often do you have to postpone decisions because some random person is on vacation?), but also improves extended family bonds over time by promoting longer family-oriented vacations. Of course, this goes against our 24x7 lifestyles - some services may not be available for the month of July as businesses close for the holidays.

To our new in laws: Welcome to the family. We love you. Thank you for your hospitality, but until we have virtual Christmas in July, I recommend that we get together at our place in California next time for the winter holidays. I promise - We can even go outside without risking frostbite.

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