Nov 7 • 16M

Christmas is a Scam

Newsletter 2022-11-07

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James Breakwell
Family comedy one disaster at a time.
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The holidays are a scam. There, I said it. Everyone wants the same days off so they can pack themselves into traffic or cram themselves into planes at the same time as everybody else. If, instead of heading home Thanksgiving weekend or the week of Christmas, you decided to hold your festive celebration on a random Tuesday in early December, you’d have the roads and airports to yourself. Nobody will do that, though. Part of it is that we’re all followers, conditioned to enjoy the company of our families only within the safe confines of certain dates each year. The other part is that many of us are parents who have to wait for school breaks. As usual, kids ruin everything.

As much as I pretend to be a nonconformist, I’ll be fighting for those same few days off work just like everybody else. It’s not my fault. I blame the rest of my family. My nine million siblings all have limits on when they can make it home. We’ve already started the impossible negotiations to figure out when the greatest number of people can congregate at the same time. I’m an insignificant figure in all of the discussions. None of my siblings particularly want to see me for whatever reason. Okay, mostly for very specific reasons involving bears and bananas. What can I say? I’m the best at being the worst. Also, I live the closest to home of all my siblings. My brood and I are just over an hour from my parents’ and just under an hour from my wife Lola’s. For my European and Australian followers, all distances in the Midwest are measured in minutes, not miles. If I say something is an hour away, that could mean eighty miles by interstate, forty miles by winding country roads, or three hundred miles by rocket car. It makes sense if you live here.

Being close to home means I can drop by at whatever time works for everyone else. In fact, I don’t even spend the night anymore for multi-day Christmas gatherings. That was one of my few good ideas. Instead of packing the van with the ten thousand pounds of supplies we need to spend the night and unpacking it all when we get there, it’s actually faster to just drive back and forth each day. I don’t care if we stay till two in the morning. When everyone else turns in for the night, I’ll get us home so I can sleep in my own bed. You can’t put a price on not competing for morning bathroom time with twenty other people. Also, between all the visiting dogs and babies, it’s virtually impossible to sleep past 5 a.m. at my parents’ house. Someone will accidentally make a noise, setting off the first domino in a chain event that ends in a cacophony of barking and screaming. I should know. I can hear it at my house an hour away.

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The obvious solution to all of this would be to not move away in the first place. If we all lived closer together, we wouldn’t have to squeeze into my parents’ living room for a few days twice a year. Instead, we could stop by for a couple of hours Christmas afternoon because we see each other too much already. My line for “too much” is pretty low, so even waving at each other three times a year would be enough to tide me over. Instead, everyone fled to the corners of the earth at graduation. My brother Harry lives out west thanks to his duties in the Air Force. Unexpectedly, I also have three siblings living in Missouri. I assume that state was short on Catholics and launched a recruiting drive. Our kind fits right in because we like to drink and the Show Me state is one of the few places where you can drive around with open containers as long as you have one less beer than there are people in the car. Still, it’s a long way from where we grew up, on the far eastern side of Illinois within spitting distance of the Indiana border. I’m the only one who crossed that imaginary line to become a Hoosier, which explains why the next four siblings in line each traveled at least one full state in the opposite direction. That’s fine with me. I get all this corn to myself.

There was a time when families lived in the same area generation after generation. On one hand, that sounds amazing. No more driving seven hours to see the grandparents. On the other hand, it would be impossible to escape your family. Good luck coming up with an excuse for why you can’t make it to your nephew’s First Communion when you live two blocks away. The ideal distance to live from home is just far enough that you can lie believably. Do I really have a thing going on at that exact day and time? It doesn’t matter because nobody is going to drive an hour to check.

If I had a choice, I’d opt to live closer rather than farther away. I didn’t flee my hometown intentionally. After college, this was just the direction where I happened to find a job. It was the same story for the vast majority of people in my tiny high school class. Of the fifty-six of us, I can count on one hand the number who now live and work in our hometown. Partially, that might be because I can only remember five of them without scrolling through my Facebook feed. Even then, I might not find them because Mark Zuckerberg has decided what I want to see are fake gender reveal videos and t-shirt ads for hefty men. Facebook knows how much I’ve been eating lately, and I don’t appreciate it. I’d like some privacy from big brother when I eat my bodyweight in cheese sticks.

My second-youngest sibling, Arthur, might buck the trend. He’s majoring in something to do with computers in the age of remote jobs. With luck, he could work from our parents’ home forever. In my younger days, I would have looked down on that plan, but now that I’m older and wiser, I know that adulthood is a trap. I say mooch off your parents as long and as hard as you can. Unless you’re my kids. Then you should move out the day you graduate from college. Just don’t live too far away.

Given the distances and conflicting work schedules involved, getting everyone home at the same time is a rare event. It won’t be happening this year. We’ll be down two siblings at Thanksgiving and one at Christmas. The latter is Harry’s fault since he has a baby due two weeks before. If only he had read my newsletters to learn the dangers of continuing to pump out children. Hopefully the new kid won’t come a few weeks late and be born on December 25th. One hundred percent of kids who receive combo Christmas and birthday gifts grow up to be serial killers.

If you must skip a holiday, Christmas isn’t a bad one to miss. You’ll still get presents. Thanks to the magic of Amazon, they’ll be shipped directly to you and save you the trouble of hauling them back in your car. It’s also the worst time of year to travel. You never know what you’re going to run into in terms of weather. Driving in freezing sleet surrounded by motorists who have apparently never seen snow before does not fill me with good will towards my fellow man. Most of the vehicles I see in ditches are trucks and SUVs because people think four-wheel drive gives them superpowers. It doesn’t matter if you have twenty-wheel drive if you hit a patch of black ice. December is a bad time for a major holiday in the northern hemisphere. If Jesus had been more considerate, he would have been born in June. That’s why staying home for Christmas isn’t a bad thing. One year, someone in our house had covid, and we ended up opening presents over Skype. Thirty seconds after we were done, Lola and I were day drinking and watching the new Wonder Woman movie. That seems like a good model for every year.

closeup photo of baubles on christmas tree
Photo by Chad Madden on Unsplash

Missing Thanksgiving also isn’t the end of the world. You don’t need a designated day for gluttony. You should feel empowered to eat way too much any time you want. I like eating, and I like football, so Turkey Day doesn’t seem to have any downsides. That’s because I never host. It’s the most stressful day of the year for one person and a chill day of TV and carbs for everyone else. Despite mostly living on meat, I’m not a huge fan of turkey. God gave us so many other delicious animals to eat. I’m not sure why we all settled on a flavorless brown peacock for the last Thursday in November. If I were the king of holidays, I’d declare ham to be the official entrée of every special occasion, with pizza as a backup for the kids’ table. Literally no one would complain about that—except maybe the pigs.

For me, the most important holiday of the year is obviously Halloween. That doesn’t bring my family together, though. In fact, it separates us. I lose kids as they get tired and give up on trick-or-treating and go home with Lola. By the end, I only have the best—or at least biggest—of my children left. I would also never miss out on Easter. The weather is nice, and the entire point is candy. I’m noticing a theme here. The best part is my parents host a full-contact, adults-only Easter Egg hunt for plastic eggs filled with dollar bills. Easter has it all: candy, violence, and ham. Christmas better improve its game if it wants to keep up.

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As much as I think Thanksgiving and Christmas don’t deserve the hype, they do serve a purpose. They’re a convenient reminder that it’s been a full year since you’ve seen certain family members. It’s nice that we’ve set up a system where everyone in the country can feel guilty about it at the same time, although it does lead to the travel congestion I mentioned at the start of this email. Maybe we can stagger it somehow. People with last names starting with A through C can do Thanksgiving in January, D through F can have February, and so on. Of course, anyone who gets married and changes their last name would wreck the system. To make it work, from now on you can only get hitched to someone in the same last name letter grouping as you. That way, each family would still get together at the same time. On second thought, perhaps the best solution to a simple scheduling conflict isn’t to pass draconian measures regulating who can and cannot fall in love. Maybe for Easter or Halloween, but not for Thanksgiving, and definitely not for Christmas. If it did become law, though, it would create an awesome new genre of Hallmark movies. Think A Christmas Prince meets Romeo and Juliet, hopefully with a little bit of Die Hard mixed in.

Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for now. Actually, it’s not. This week, there’s an addendum.

***

It’s been a while since I’ve had a postscript, but this week deserves one. As you might have heard, Twitter is undergoing some turmoil. I won’t get into the politics of it, but I will say it’s objectively a bad thing when fifty percent of the people who work anywhere lose their jobs. What I want to focus on today is the check mark issue. On most social media platforms, that little smudge of blue indicates I am who I say am. Of course, I write under a pen name, so it verifies a lie, but you get the idea. The blue check mark proves I’m the actual liar who writes these tweets and books and not some imposter.

I get messages on a weekly basis from people on all platforms about scammers pretending to be me. I can’t think of a worse target to impersonate (Seriously, how much money do they think comedy writers make?), but these people actually exist. It might be the only thing more pathetic than actually being me. Currently, when my readers get a message from one of these scammers, they can tell the difference because of that blue check mark. On Monday, that’s going away on Twitter. Anyone can pay eight dollars to get “verified” and pretend to be anyone they want. Worse, anyone who pays will be prioritized by the algorithm, and anyone who doesn’t will be buried by the noise. If I don’t pay, you’ll never see my tweets again, and if I do pay, I’ll just be on equal footing with the scammers. Expect a wave of slight variations of my Twitter handle that copy my exact profile picture, header, and tweets. Unless you check the follower count, you won’t be able to tell us apart. Given how many people claim to be leaving Twitter, even that might not distinguish us. We could all be sitting at zero quite soon.

I’d like to say I’ll never message you to ask you for money, but obviously that’s not true. I’m trying to make it as a writer. I do my best every day to sell out. To be clear, my grifting is extremely specific. I’ll ask you to sign up for my newsletter or to buy a book. That’s it. If I ask you to give me your bank account info because I represent a Nigerian prince, do your due diligence first. Transitioning to a newsletter is one of the few correct decisions I’ve made in recent years. I’ve seen too many people hurt when social media networks implode. Believe it or not, there used to be content creators who made a living on Snapchat, and, before that, Vine. The market for one collapsed, and the other doesn’t even exist anymore. That’s why I’ve been pushing so hard for my followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to sign up for my Substack account. It’s the only way I can be sure I’ll reach you, no matter what shenanigans feuding billionaires decide to pull.

I explained all this a few weeks ago at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop in Dayton, Ohio, where I taught two sessions on how to run a newsletter. It’s a message I’ve been shouting from the rooftops for years to any content creators who will listen. This Substack account is my most realistic shot at quitting my day job and becoming a full time writer. I’ve only been on Substack for six months, but in that time, my paid newsletter earnings are set to outpace my book earnings by a factor of ten. The royalty rate on all my books is 7.5 percent, which means 92.5 percent of the money goes to someone else. Maybe my Twitter impersonators aren’t the scammers I should be worried about.

That’s the philosophy I shared in Dayton, and for once, it clicked. One new convert was Bob Eckstein, a New York Times best selling author and New Yorker cartoonist. Here’s an example of his work:

Even creatives at Bob’s level are scrambling to string together multiple revenue streams these days. After my session, he pulled me aside and said he plans to adjust how he runs his newsletter based on my advice. More importantly, he promised to send me a drawing he made of me while I was teaching the class. I would have rather he spent the time listening to me talk instead of doodling, but whatever. At least when he zones out, the result is great art. When I zone out, the only thing I produce is drool.

If you want to see more of Bob’s work, you can check him out at his site:

http://bobeckstein.com/. That’s also where you can sign up for his new, improved newsletter. He’s going to be an exciting one to watch. And who knows? Maybe someday he’ll space out while you talk and make a drawing of you.

Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for now. Catch you next time right here in this newsletter, because who knows if we’ll ever see each other again on Twitter.

James