Monday, December 29, 2008

How I saved Christmas OR Family Christmas parties are a drag

Does anyone else have a weird extended family? My immediate family is weird enough, but my extended family is out of control. I promised my aunt I’d write about our annual Christmas party, so here goes:

It all began many years ago when Grandma and Grandpa Barben got married and had a bunch of kids. And then their kids had a bunch of kids. And then their kids had a bunch of kids. Then one day, someone got the bright idea to squish all four generations into one place every year for a Christmas party.

So each year we get together to participate in holiday festivities, eat and pry into each other’s business.

This year, as part of the festivities there was a piñata, which meant a lot of little kids took turns swinging a bat, which also meant somebody got hit in the face with said bat. Merry Christmas, sucker. And when it broke open, it turns out the piñata was filled with candy and – of course – squirt guns. It was freezing outside and now all the little kids were armed with squirt guns. If I had had a nickel for every time a small relative ran past and squirted water on my crotch, I could’ve bought myself a plane ticket out of there.

Next, Grandma Barben has always been a little eccentric, and has gotten even more so in her old age. At what could only be described as the pinnacle of the Barben Christmas Spectacular, Grandma pulled out a giant red bag full of presents and gave one to each of us. We all unwrapped our presents at the same time and when the flurry of paper shreds had cleared I couldn’t believe my eyes. Or my ears.

Grandma had given each and every one of us, adults and children alike, a hand puppet that looked like a dog, cow or frog that respectively barked, mooed or croaked Christmas carols.

I can just picture Grandma walking into some store and saying, “I would like 50 of the most annoying Christmas presents you have to give to my family,” and the store clerk eagerly replying, “Well you won’t believe what I have in store for you!”

So now there were 50 different hand puppets in one room, most of them operated by little children, all croaking, mooing and barking different Christmas carols at the same time. If you believe in hell, I picture it being a lot like that, only hotter, and with more pitchforks. I thought I had died and really was in hell when the sounds of electronic animal noises crescendoed into a huge clamorous roar. I almost had a nervous breakdown.

The thing that almost put me over the edge was the fact that since I was staying with my parents and younger siblings, I knew that a good portion of those puppets were following me home to torment me for the rest of my break. So I decided to take matters into my own hands.

I disposed of my puppet quickly, and I will never tell where I hid the remains. Sorry, Grandma. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do when it comes to his sanity. I figure she’ll never find out since I don’t think she even knows what a blog is.

Once my fiendish puppet was out of the way, in the days following I became a Christmas-carol-hand-puppet-animal assassin, picking off the remaining puppets one by one. If anybody left their puppet unattended it was soon wearing concrete shoes and sinking to the bottom of the Rio Grande.

So that’s how I saved Christmas, and I can’t wait until next year’s Christmas party. I'm not sure this year's can be topped.

Monday, December 22, 2008

There's no time like the present

The holidays are coming up and that means presents. Not to be conceited or anything, but when you’re as popular and cool as me, it means lots and lots of presents.

But to be totally honest, getting any amount of presents always makes me a little nervous.

I know anxiety is not a normal response to getting free stuff, but I think it started when I dated this girl who was always buying me “presents,” only they weren’t really presents. They were clothes and shoes, and after a while I put two and two together and realized that she wasn’t being nice at all. She just hated my style (or lack thereof) and was trying to fix me fashionalistically.

That is just insulting. When your significant other starts to dress you, you can know with a surety that:
1. You are married, or have given up way too much control.
2. You look stupid.
3. The good times are over.

Really, she was giving presents to herself because now she could be more comfortable showing her newly fashionable boyfriend to her family and friends. When I discovered her sinister plans, I started giving the stuff away.

Her: “Did I just see your brother wearing those shoes I gave you?”

Me: “Yup.”

Her: WHAT!? Why?”

Me: “Well, I didn’t really like them, and I wasn’t ever going to wear them, and he needed some shoes. So I gave them to him.”

Her: “Do you have any idea what those shoes cost?”

Me: “No. It’s a shame really. I mean, what am I going to wear now to hang out with your friends? I guess I’ll just have to wear some of my old stuff that you hate.”

Needless to say, that was the beginning of the end. Now I worry when people give me stuff that they’re trying to “fix” me with their gifts. I’m still all cranky when someone gets me clothes.

And if I get cologne I think, “What’s wrong with how I smell?” Or, if they give me some music I wonder, “You don’t think I have good music taste?” Or, when I get a book it’s like, “Oh, so you’re saying I’m ignorant now?”

Another nerve-racking thing about getting presents is the obligation to pretend to like whatever it is you get, even if it sucks. Oftentimes, the giver is there watching you unwrap the stuff, so it’s like being in a live play.

I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but in some cases I have felt like, “Awesome. Some stuff I don’t want or need, and am now expected to wear or use or else you’ll get offended.”

I think the trouble comes down to the “surprise.” Why must it always be a surprise? Can’t we just ask each other what we’d like? I don’t even like surprises. My need to be surprised will always be overshadowed by my need for stuff that I like and will actually use.

The last thing about gift-getting that gives me holiday stress is it can make you feel old. You can tell just how old you are by the presents you receive. The more practical and boring your gifts are, the older and more used up you are. That is Jesse Barben’s Law of Presents and Aging. Take typical man gifts like an electric razor or a tie. Super practical and super useful, but zero fun. If you're getting them, it probably means you have reached an age where you are zero fun too.

I know it’s really not all about presents. Really, it’s all about me.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The story of the Christmas Beard

Christmastime is a good time of year. I hesitate to say it’s the best time, because some people might think Hanukahtime, Kwanzaatime or Solsticetime is the best time, and I don’t want to discriminate.

Some people might like other times of the year, celebrate stuff I haven’t even mentioned or not even celebrate anything at all, which is cool too. As for me, I like Christmas and Christmastime. I think part of the reason I like it is because of the traditions, like being with family, making Christmas food and listening to Christmas music and crap like that.

Traditionally, I’ve grown a Christmas Beard the last two Christmases. This awesome Christmas tradition came from the time that I went to school at a university that had a dress code that required men to be clean-shaven, which is a drag. As soon as I took my last final I would quit shaving and would not resume shaving until the first class of the next semester.

Unfortunately, as soon as I started graduate school my face broke out like I was 15 years old again. I think it was all the stress. This is unfortunate because I got on some gnarly acne meds and now they are interfering with my beard growing. You have to put all this stuff on your face and that’s nearly impossible to do with a beard. I’m only three days in and I have decided it’s a lost cause.

So I mourned my Christmas Beard. I shaved it off, built it a little funeral pyre, burned it and scattered the ashes on the Rio Grande. The Christmas Beard would’ve wanted it that way.

With the grieving process over, I started shopping for a new Christmas tradition. In my search I stumbled across “Mari Lwyd,” an ancient Welsh tradition, and I think it just might be worthy enough to replace the Christmas Beard.

I don’t know how to pronounce it, but “Mari Lwyd” is when a group of Welsh partygoers takes a creepily decorated horse skull to a pub or someone’s house and starts singing. Then the people inside have to start a “pwnco.” I don’t know how to pronounce it either (it must be in Welsh, which, as it turns out, is a real language) but “pwnco” is an integral part of the tradition. It's a contest where the people inside and the people outside trade insults in rhyme, no joke. Then, after they have exchanged disses, the Mari group comes inside and they party on.

Hecks yeah! Christmas Beard who? It’s like Mari Lwyd and I were made for each other. We are a match made in holiday horse skull heaven. I can’t get over it, it’s like a combination of Halloween, Christmas and a RAP BATTLE! Come to somebody’s house with a horse skull, spit some rhymes, then come in for a glass of eggnog. That is my kind of holiday tradition, and it sure beats the heck out of caroling. Caroling is like the poor man's Mari Lwyd. The Welsh know how to party!

Honestly, I think Mari Lwyd is a holdover from old pagan holidays that were celebrated long before Christian holidays. But seriously, what Christian holiday didn’t start out as a pagan holiday? Not that there's anything wrong with pagans, as I mentioned earlier, but I know some people get weirded out by stuff like that. I just figure any holiday tradition with Mari Lwyd's winning combination of animal skulls and rapping is cool with me.

Anyway, buy some eggnog and practice your rhymes. You never know when I might show up at your house with a horse skull and want to battle you.

And, for an early Christmas and/or other holiday present, here is a link to help you improve your battle-raps.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Baby, you're stressing me out OR Peace of mind in three easy steps and 3,000 easy calories

It's finals week at New Mexico State University and you know what that means: STRESS! And lots of it. To survive, I’ve come up with some time-tested, foolproof methods for dealing with stress.

Method #1: Yell at family or roommates

Stressful situations make the average person want to yell. Family and roommates are the perfect people to yell at. You can satisfy your need to yell, and since they are related to you by blood, marriage, adoption or lease, these people are stuck with you, barring some kind of legal action. Friends can tell you to get lost, but family and roommates are always there, at least until the lease runs out. And they will probably all return the favor someday whenever they get stressed.

In stressful situations it is never a good idea to yell at the people who are stressing you out (teachers, employers, police officers, politicians) because that will only get you flunked or fired and it generally doesn’t accomplish anything. So just stick with family and roommates and you’ll be feeling better in no time.

Method #2: Yoga

Everyone knows that yoga brings your mind, body and, uh, chi into harmony with all the wisdom and nature spirits and so forth. It also refocuses all of your energies and stuff so that you will have nothing but good vibes and your feng shui will be top notch. Something like that, anyway. It will fix your aura right up. Plus, you get to sit on a rubber mat, play with foam blocks, do sweet poses like "downward dog" and use cool words like “namaste.” Just say it out loud: “namaste.” Ahhhhhhhh. I feel calmer already! Maybe I won’t have to yell at my roommates after all. Bless you, Confucius. Or Ghandi. Or whoever invented yoga.

Honestly, this one is kind of tricky for straight dudes to get away with because people kind of look at dudes who do yoga kind of funny, you know? I know I shouldn’t care, but can’t bring myself to do yoga. But I’m sure it’s great. So let me know how it goes.

Method #3: Emotional eating

Nothing cures stress like chocolate chip cookies. Or a bag of almond M&M’s. Or an enormous blue Symphony bar. Or a slice of peanut butter cup pie. Or all of the above. In a bowl covered in chocolate syrup. Topped with jelly beans. And Swedish Fish.

But the magic bullet for stress is Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream. “Phish Food” deserves a Nobel Prize for chemistry because of the mind-blowing chemical achievement of fitting a whole day’s worth of calories into one tiny carton. In my mind it deserves two more Nobel Prizes: one for peace and one for medicine. Eat a pint and you won’t be stressed any more, I guarantee it. It will take years off your life, but you will be so relaxed.

Ben and Jerry hold the universe together as far as I’m concerned. My whole life could be coming apart at the seams (actually, it seems to do just that this same time every semester) and Ben and Jerry, being the magical, dairy farming hippies they are, can hold it all together.

The sad part is, I’ve been trying to quit sugary stuff so I am struggling. First, there are the withdrawals: shakes, headaches, flashbacks. And now I have to figure out a different way to deal with stress.

Coming home after a bad day and eating an apple is just not the same.

PS - If you have other cool/effective methods of dealing with stress, please post them in a comment for the benefit of us all.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The truth about truth OR Honesty is still the best policy, especially when it's uncensored and brutal

The other day I walked around with barbecue sauce on my face after an awesome meal for a good five hours. No one had the heart to tell me I was covered in “Sweet ‘n’ Smoky.”

It’s times like these that you need a brutally honest person.

Take my brother Brennan, for example. He would’ve told me, “Hey, you look like a baby who is just learning how to use a spoon. Did any food get into your mouth, or did it all end up on your face? Wear a bib next time.”

My mom is also really blunt, and bless her for it. When I bring a girl home to meet the parents my mom won’t hesitate to tell me what she thought of her. She says stuff like, “She’s a spoiled brat,” or “High maintenance! Does she know you’re majoring in social work?” or "She has freaky nostrils. Don't they frighten you? They frighten me." She’s not mean about it at all, just matter-of-fact.

She’s also not shy about saying positive things either, like, “Wow. I didn’t expect you to show up with a girl that pretty,” or “What does she see in you?”

I think the older you get, the less you care about what people think. Really, who is left to impress? Thus, the older you are, the more able you are to speak your mind.

In my mom’s case I don’t think she started out so straightforward, she just learned to not waste time and to just blurt out whatever was on her mind.

That’s why really old people often get accused of being crotchety and mean, but really they just have something that needs to be said and they know that they are running out of time to say it. And they have faulty memories, so if they don’t say it quick, they might forget it.

That’s not to say my mom is old, she’s not even 50 yet, so statistically she has over 30 more years to be candid. And frankly, I think my mom is just too ornery to die. Plus, having eight kids and living with my dad have made her so tough I think she might possibly go on living forever.

Anyway, don’t get the idea that honest people are mean or rude, because they aren’t. Basically, when you’re honest and sincere, who needs tact? Wouldn’t it be great if someone was talking your ear off and you could just come right out and say, “Hey, I appreciate you and all your vast amounts of awesome knowledge on everything ever, but right now I would be thrilled to death if you would just stop talking. No offense. You’re just making my ears bleed.”

Or, if someone had really bad breath (like locker room mixed with burning hair mixed with onions, for example) and they were talking really close to your face, you could totally exclaim, “I love you man, but if you don’t buy a toothbrush and start using it stat I am probably going to die.”

If I were doing those things, I would want someone to tell me. Wouldn’t you? It's not easy to hear, but no one wants to be that guy.

In a breakup situation, honesty would be great because you don't have to say any of the nonsensical niceties like, "It's not you, it's me." Instead you get to say, "Hey, clearly we make each other miserable so we should break up," or "Clearly you make me miserable so we should break up." You could even say, "Think of this as the divorce that we would eventually be getting if we continued this relationship."

Being honest just saves everyone’s time. If I could have all the time back that I’ve wasted mincing words in my life, I'd probably be able to build a house, write a book and burn some stuff with a magnifying glass and still have time left over.

It’s not easy being an honest person, and they are often unpopular. They're like the mirror you pass when you're getting out of the shower, they can seem cruel as they show you sides of yourself you don’t want to see. Let's face it: nobody likes to hear the truth.

Unless they're walking around covered in barbecue sauce. Then you have to tell them.