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Happy holidays

February 1, 2010
by Gary Tetz
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It's finally over. I'm not talking about this miserable decade, or Jay Leno's lame show, or Tiger Woods' dream to someday serve as executive director of the Monogamy Association of America. I'm talking about December 25-otherwise known as “Don't Know What to Call It Without Offending Someone Day”-and the New Year's ordeal of introspection that follows.

Don't be frightened. This isn't going to be one of those rants about political correctness or traditional values or separation of church and state or fruitcake. I'm not a Scrooge or a Grinch-my heart is not two sizes too small. I'm just a guy who's sick of people saying, “Happy Holidays!”

So far I've kept my feelings about this bottled up inside, and haven't yet started slapping the offenders. But whenever I hear someone chirp that phrase, I long to respond, “Thanks. I appreciate your lukewarm sentiment of marginal sincerity. But for whom, exactly, is this time of year a holiday?”

Not for business owners, indentured workers, or the self-employed. Not for the police, firefighters, airline employees, or restaurant workers. Not in service professions, retail establishments, healthcare settings, or even professional sports. Certainly not for Nutcracker dancers, volunteer Nativity Scene wise men, or the adorable duo singing “Sisters” three times a day in the smash Broadway hit White Christmas.

It's not a holiday for anyone I can think of and especially not for you-the long-term care professional. My guess is that you probably work harder at this time of year than any other, covering shifts and juggling schedules, accommodating for call-ins, and dealing with weather emergencies. Not to mention the compassionate energy you expend reaching out to emotionally vulnerable residents who can't be with family. Happy Holidays? I doubt you have time to let that thought scamper across your mind.

At one Oregon facility last year, in anticipation of a brutal Christmas Eve storm, employees volunteered to sleep in an abandoned wing of their building rather than risk being trapped at home and prevented from getting back to work. They packed pajamas and toothbrushes and even brought Christmas dinner to share with their residents. They were delighted to do it-insisted on it. But it certainly wasn't a vacation.

Actually, the only people I know who can be appropriately addressed with a jovial “Happy Holidays!” are school children, ages five through college, who seem to be on permanent recess from Thanksgiving to Arbor Day. For their worn-out parents and the rest of us-it's anything but. On the bright side, at least now that the holidays are over, we can all finally get some rest. Now, about New Year's…

For one thing, I don't understand why we keep calling it that-the incoming year never looks that new to me. I may like to think I'm turning over a clean, blank page of limitless potential at 12:01 a.m. each January 1, but I fear it's more likely I'm just rearranging the deck chairs on my sinking ocean liner.

Still, like many of you on a perpetual quest for continuous quality improvement, I've been known to privately set certain annual goals. Whether it's peer pressure or force of habit, I just can't seem to help myself. So to avoid the demoralizing setbacks that inevitably follow such lofty aspirations, here's my secret strategy: I never make a New Year's Resolution without adding a balancing, more realistic New Year's Reservation.

For instance, let's pretend I'm determined to lose some weight in the coming year. (Understand, that's purely hypothetical, as I'm in peak physical condition.) Having made that pledge, I will then recognize right up front that given the habits developed over years of excess and spineless self-enabling, and my almost complete lack of inner strength and willpower, it's a goal I'm unlikely to ever achieve. Resolution/Reservation-hand in hand. See how that works?

I had the privilege of spending New Year's in Canada this year and, in the quiet of the frozen North, stumbled upon what I believe will be my most useful resolution ever. The epiphany struck when a friend of mine was asked, “How do you convert from Celsius to Fahrenheit?” He responded, “By crossing the border.”

Not only did I think this was the wittiest thing he's ever said, I realized it's a good lesson for all of us in 2010-to admit what we don't know, and even what we don't yet know we don't know, and make the necessary accommodations without shame. Sure, we could learn some complicated formula to calculate temperature in a foreign country. But wouldn't it be easier and smarter to just go back home where we already know how?

I'm not suggesting self-improvement isn't important, but maybe we should focus on our core strengths this year, instead of trying to become Masters of All and Everything to Everyone. In an accelerating, data-driven society, with changes happening faster than we can misinterpret them, the pressure to keep up with it all can be overwhelming and paralyzing. So let's identify what we do well, and stick to our niche.

Let's just cross the border.

Oh, and one more thing: Happy Holidays!

Gary Tetz is a legendary long-term care commentator based in Walla Walla, Washington.

To send your comments to the editor, e-mail mhrehocik@vendomegrp.com.

Long-Term Living 2010 February;59(2):34-35

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