home for the holidays

Christmas: The McPhersons.

I got a Christmas e-letter on Wednesday from the McPhersons.It was a two-page, full-color PDF, laid out like a church bulletin or corporate annual report, studded with family photos and well wishes for the coming year. It was such a sweet letter. Just one thing wrong: I don't know the McPhersons. The trouble with electronic greetings — especially those sent en masse — is that it's pretty easy for them not to reach the intended recipients. The letter I got was meant for Pam Worthy, whose e-mail address supposedly differs from mine by a single character. But for some reason, it didn't make it to her and came to me instead.

Before I checked the distribution list, I read the entire letter, thinking the McPhersons were long-forgotten friends of my family, business colleagues from deep within the horticulture industry or among the thousands of people I follow on Twitter.

The wife and mother, editor and publisher of the McPherson annual update, is so proud of her family. Her husband just started working for a local nonprofit. They have two daughters, the oldest of whom suffers from a pretty severe disability. Mom's days are spent shuttling the daughter to and from doctor's appointments and therapy sessions. In one of the photos, their oldest daughter had just won a blue ribbon in an event at the Special Olympics and displayed it proudly as she leaned in for a celebratory kiss from her father. The younger daughter, with curly hair and glasses, smiled wide in another picture as she held a tiny baby bunny in the cupped palms of her hands. Another photo shows her dressed for Halloween as a cheerleader.

This family has its hands full; that much is clear from the letter. The sentences are short and each paragraph jumps to completely different aspect of life. Wife and mother seemed to have trouble picking which news to share from 2010, a year full of "blessings and challenges."

In my circle of friends, we half-jokingly complain about our semi-tragic first-world problems: Not being able to get a primo reservation at Girl & the Goat. The battery dying in our $400 smart phones. Agonizing over which color to pick for that spa manicure and pedicure. Gosh, life is hard!

The McPherson family's life is hard. I imagine that caring for their handicapped child affects absolutely every aspect of their lives. Money's probably tighter than they'd like. Husband and father's job as an addiction counselor must worry wife and mother every day as she hurries from place to place with daughters one and two. And yet? There's not even an inkling of negativity to be found in that letter. The McPhersons are deeply religious and thank God regularly — in every paragraph of that letter, actually, sometimes more — for all the blessings in their life. Husband and father is doing God's work in his new job. The Lord blessed them with a new van with a ramp to help get them around with a new wheelchair in tow. God has provided wonderful doctors, therapists and teachers.

The McPhersons' life seems to be all about those little blessings, those tiny miracles: Wife and mother would miss the weekly appointments if she suddenly didn't have to go to them anymore. Disabled daughter has learned to eat real food this year, and her little sister is delighted to be learning the names of the months. The girls fed a giraffe at the zoo.

Christmas at the McPhersons' is all about the miracle of Christ's birth, that much I can say for sure. For me, this holiday has never been about Jesus. It has always been about Santa. All about Santa. (And the occasional reindeer, and maybe Frosty.) And I've always been perfectly happy with that. I get pretty cynical about religion. And I flinched when I saw the Bible verse at the top of the McPhersons' annual update. But their profound faith seeped into every word of that letter. It made me warm.

Tomorrow, they'll go to church. They will have a quiet, peaceful day basking in the simple happiness of another year together. Husband and wife will settle in together, exhausted, in front of the fire, after another joyous Christmas with their two beautiful, special daughters.

Wife and mother will never make a video of her kids throwing a tantrum that they got books for Christmas. It will never go viral with more than 1.5 million views on YouTube. I sat by myself and laughed hysterically watching that video early this morning, shared it with my sister and snickered expectantly as she watched it for the first time. There's a particular holiday pleasure that goes with laughing at some spoiled, snot-nosed 3-year-old boy yelling "POOH!" at the top of his lungs.

But it's another thing entirely getting a glimpse into the cozy, complicated and wonderful life of a family that still seems to understand the meaning of Christmas. Because it can be pretty easy to lose sight of that in my life, over here with my first-world problems. With my laptop and smart phone and the piles of presents waiting to be torn into under the tree.

I love my life, and my family, and the way we celebrate the holidays. I do. My extended family will arrive in two hours for cocktails, a beautiful tenderloin that's been marinating since before I went to bed last night, and caroling by the fire with toy instruments bought for the occasion. We'll wake up in the morning and sit with our piles of presents, with our mimosas and breakfast casserole and festive holiday napkins, with Christmas music playing softly in the background, and enjoy one another in our own way. But when the inevitable Christmas Guilt kicks in, after the hypercaloric gorging and orgy of gifting, I may take a few quiet moments and say my own version of a prayer for the McPhersons. The I'll go back to enjoying my family and appreciating those tiny miracles I find here at home.

Pam Worthy is a lucky woman to count the McPhersons as friends. And I was lucky to happen upon them by accident this Christmas.

God bless us, everyone.

Home for the holidays.

The first I heard of this TSA mess was about two weeks ago, when a local news reporter somewhere inconsequential did a piece on administration lackeys manhandling his toddler while she kicked and screamed. He had grainy footage from his smart phone's camera and a sniffling child in the aftermath: all the makings of a sensationalist story bound for viral Internet glory. I don't know whether it was this incident or another specific story I somehow missed, or whether these few stories are the final boiling point of the simmering rage of American travelers, but this thing has blown up like a hapless would-be terrorist's tighty whities.

There are now grown men — in suits, no less — going through security threatening to scream if a TSA agent so much as looks at them sideways, let alone touches them. Stories of verbal abuse and total lack of cooperation, just shy of rioting, really, are all over the news lately. To the point where the TSA has issued a statement saying they're reevaluating their policies.

Which I guess is a good thing.

A friend of mine thinks the TSA is just another convenient scapegoat for people who love to complain. They want to breeze through security — leave their shoes on, sip from their filled water bottles and generally proceed uninspected — but will certainly be happy to blame them again as soon as another plane drops out of the sky.

It sure is a hassle being an American privileged and moneyed enough to travel, isn't it? What a life.

It's a big job, protecting travelers in hundreds of airports all over the country. I'd imagine it's hard to do well even when 99 percent of people cooperate; just like computer viruses, it's almost impossible to keep up with changing technology no matter how hard you work.

I don't necessarily agree with the policies put in place by the TSA, but the world is a dangerous place, and I'm inclined to trust the people put in power to safeguard it. Even if I didn't choose them or don't agree with their politics.

But the people who work for the TSA are just little cogs in the system. They are people.

With homes and families and senses of humor and intense pressure to do their jobs quickly and quietly.

Marlene, the woman who checked my ID and boarding pass with a little purple flashlight, wore beautiful eyeliner along her lower lash line: an iridescent blue, perfectly straight with not a single smudge.

I'd made it my personal mission to say nice things to as many TSA agents as possible this morning as I checked in for my Thanksgiving flight home. So I complimented her.

Told her it was far too early for me even to consider applying eyeliner.

She laughed and told me she does it every morning on the bus, before she gets here at 5 a.m. Mascara's a challenge, especially in the corners, but she's got the liner down to a science.

"We all have our talents," I told her. We shared an effortless laugh, one that forgot her government-issue polyester vest and the stocking-feet walk of shame in my future.

I'd been eager to cooperate fully with the body imager; I'd even have submitted to a pat down to make a point. But the process was painless — I removed my shoes, put everything in its appropriate bin and got through without incident.

"What, no Scanner of Doom today?" I asked, trying to make light of the situation. I said I'd been all set to comply fully, which elicited a collective "Awwwwwww…" from staff within earshot. As I sauntered through the metal detector, I mumbled, "What? I've got boobs. We all know it. It's like an early Christmas present for y'all…" The woman doing the last check of my boarding pass chuckled.

Nice to get a laugh.

Finally, Pfister, a man on the other side of the conveyor, gave me good-natured hell when I ran back to the security area, breathless, because I'd forgotten my laptop. Seriously. Of all the things. I'd rather forget my coat or first-born child.

"Yes! That's it!" I cried when he produced the black and white zipper case.

"How can I know for sure, though?" he said with a smile.

I made him open it up and told him there would be health insurance documents inside.

"Ah. Blue Cross Blue Shield," he said, with a knowing nod. Just another pain in the rear. Another necessary evil. Just like airline security.

I'd love to be a fly on the wall in the break room sometime, hear their stories about bizarre carry-on items, the number of bottles of expensive water they had to empty, the old woman who didn't understand the body scan machine. I want to know if they've ever gotten away with confiscating and keeping some expensive perfume or body lotion (it'd be a shame to let that go to waste, though I'm sure it's against at least a few laws).

These are people with a really difficult, thankless job, who probably have very little hope of finding another position in this climate — especially with experience like this on their résumé — if they protest the wrongs of their working environment. They probably don't like patting people down or looking at the outlines of travelers' junk any more than we like being subjected to it.

A tall, older black man in a TSA windbreaker rode the escalator behind me on the way into the terminal. He looked tired. I turned around and said, "I hope people are nice to you this week."

After he shook off his astonishment, he thanked me. I told him he deserved someone being nice to him. "You got that right," he said, shaking his head. "You sure got that right."

Is it really that hard just to have a little compassion? It's the holidays, after all.