A Christmas Tree for a Charlie Brown Year

I love the Peanuts holiday special. As a boy, I never tired of watching those kids do their weird little dances to that iconic piano music. I wondered where Snoopy stored all the elaborate decorations in his tiny dog house. And I was always moved by Linus standing in the spotlight each year telling the story of the first Christmas. Even though Charles Schulz has been gone for twenty years, the lesson of Charlie Brown’s sad little tree lives on: Everything has beauty…maybe even this 2020 holiday.

Last night my husband Saul and I decorated our own Christmas tree. It was a welcome break from the other weekend chore we had been working on. We were finally getting our will together after putting it off for years. During a time with so much death in the news, it was harder to convince ourselves we were invincible and immortal.

But this year’s tree feels particularly special. After being cooped up inside since March, any change in our home environment is exhilarating. Putting out the bath mat we ordered from Amazon was our last big adventure.

And to me, this simple act of decorating feels comforting in an unprecedented and deeply unsettling time.

I follow a family tradition of buying one new ornament each year. And inevitably, there seems to be a corresponding tradition of at least one breaking.

This year Saul ordered a Santa Claus wearing a face mask, and it was the first ornament to be hung. Only a few minutes later, before the tree was even half-finished, I handed him a clear glass globe with a bright red ribbon inside I had bought in the 1980’s to commemorate the AIDS crisis that had decimated my community. It slipped from our hands and shattered in pieces on the floor. It seemed there was room for only one ornament commemorating a plague.

Letting Saul help me decorate was huge progress from when I was a kid and would throw a tantrum if I thought my older siblings were doing it wrong. I did have to teach my husband the proper way to hang ornaments, with larger ones on the bottom branches and smaller ones on top. I thought this rule was pretty obvious, but reminded myself he is half Jewish, so I let it slide.

As we finished, I stepped back and admired our handiwork. Some of the ornaments were passed down from my mom and have been in our family for generations. I used to stare at them as they reflected the twinkling lights. As a little boy, I was in awe trying to imagine some mysterious great grandparents I had never met bringing them over from Germany or Ireland. My mother has been dead over a decade, and these faded and chipped Christmas bells are as close to family heirlooms as I will ever have.

I reached over to touch the worn-out plush reindeer I had gotten for free with my McDonald’s Happy Meal right after I’d moved to New York City. I had only a tiny bare tree, with no money left to buy something to hang on it. McDonald’s saved the day, just like its cheap fast food had done so many times during those hungry, lean years.

Next to the reindeer was a small, cardboard stocking holding photos of my best friend’s two toddlers she had mailed to me one year. Those boys are now successful adults in their thirties who send me Christmas pictures from their iPhones.

There’s an elegant fairy in a glittery green gown I bought with my first boyfriend after we moved in together. I thought then we would spend the rest of our lives with each other.

Near the bottom is a large Sasquatch commemorating a TV series I produced called Finding Bigfoot that became a hit show. Nobody, especially me, saw that coming. Only a few years earlier I was working as a temp over the age of forty.

My favorite is an orange and blue miniature nativity scene inside a guitar I picked up at a roadside stand in Peru during a weeklong torrid fling I’d had with a handsome South American just before I met my husband. Saul always seems to hang that one in the back where it’s impossible to see.

Just a few feet away from the tree, I couldn’t help but notice the Estate Planning document sent by our lawyer sitting on our dining room table. Saul and I had spent the day focused on what to do about our house, money, and pets after we were gone, but now I worried what would happen to all these ornaments. We have no children to pass them on to. Maybe a nephew or niece will find some value in them, but they won’t ever have as much meaning to anyone else. They will never be as precious to them as they are to me.

This decorated Christmas tree is a symbol of my life.

Each ornament represents a chapter.

I reached over and held Saul’s hand, grateful to be healthy and safe this holiday season. Unlike Charlie Brown’s friends, we are growing older and staring at our own mortality.

The masked Santa sparkled before us in the lights.

Our story isn’t over yet.

One day that too will only represent a memory.

How I Survived the Summer of 2020

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Alfie. Photo by the author.

I dislike February and August for similar reasons. They are both times of the year when seasons outstay their welcome.

Don’t get me wrong. I love seasons. That is why I moved from LA back to the east coast, and also why I get anxious for them to move on and give us some variety.

And this summer of 2020 without vacations, parties, plays, concerts, movies and restaurants — I will take any variety I can get.

In Hot Water

My husband Saul loves the ocean. I am not quite as enamored. I love playing in the waves but loathe the glare of the hot sun and the messiness of sand. If beaches were more like forests, I’d be all in.

Our backyard — otherwise known as this year’s vacation destination — is not large enough to contain a regular-sized pool, much less an ocean or sea, so Saul has made do with a dog pool he ordered from Amazon. Every morning he fills it up, lies in it during the hottest time of day and then empties it by watering our flowers in the evening. He loves it as much as I hate it. To me it’s like taking a hot bath in the middle of the Sahara.

Ironically, our dog Alfie hates the dog pool too. He loves swimming in a raging river or the turbulent ocean but is absolutely terrified of a two foot vinyl tub full of hose water.

Alfie at the ocean

Our Lame Dog

But Alfie has bigger things on his mind. About a month ago we noticed he had developed a limp.

We immediately beat ourselves up. What had we done to hurt him? He had always been our little athlete, but had we pushed him too far?

We took a video of him walking and sent it to the vet. In this time of Covid, vets are much more open to this type of communication and that’s lucky for Alfie. He hates vet visits. He’s a high-strung cattle dog and — much like my husband — very smart, very anxious, and very wary of strangers. After reviewing the video, the vet called and told us to put him on anti-inflammatory medication and glucosamine and keep him on bed rest for the next few weeks.

Having a cattle dog on bed rest is like having Linda Blair from The Exorcist as a house guest. Cattle dogs don’t like rest. Rest makes cattle dogs even more anxious. They want to be out protecting cattle from dingoes. During those two weeks of Alfie “resting”, I was often awakened at night by him compulsively licking my exposed knees.

His limp still wasn’t getting any better, so the vet suggested x-rays under sedation. Saul and I fought…I mean…Saul and I vigorously debated this for the next week. He didn’t want to stress Alfie. I wanted to find out what the issue was. Finally I won and Saul lost….I mean…we both came to a compromise and decided on x-rays.

Betrayal on the Blacktop

“I will drop him off by myself.” I assured my anxious husband. “These types of things don’t bother me.”

Per the vet’s orders, Alfie was heavily tranquilized before his appointment. This particular visit was going to be even harder because we couldn’t accompany him due to Covid protocol. Alfie peacefully dozed in his drugged-haze in the front seat until we pulled into the parking lot. Then his ears shot straight up and was wide awake. He turned to me with betrayed eyes.

I thought this was a walk!!!

“I never said that,” I answered out loud. “If you remember I asked if you wanted to go out. I specifically did not say the W word.”

Alfie wasn’t listening. He seemed to be looking for a heavy object to smash through the back window to make his escape.

I called the front desk from my car, holding the phone tightly in case Alfie tried to grab it. “Alfie is here.”

“Did you give him his tranquilizers?”

“Yes, he’s quite tranquil,” I lied as I stepped out of the car with Alfie pulling strenuously on the leash in the direction of the McDonalds across the busy street.

When he saw the vet tech walk out the front door, Alfie immediately switched to his Emergency Plan B and laid as flat as he possibly could on the hot blacktop with his legs splayed in every direction. It was like those videos you see on TMZ where someone is having a freak-out in the middle of an airport or a Wendy’s. He clung to the smooth, flat surface with all his might. It reminded me of when he first went into the ocean and tried in vain to grab onto me when the first big wave came in. Not having opposable thumbs sucks.

He looked up at me in blind panic. He didn’t know why he was being punished. He couldn’t understand why I was abandoning him.

My heart broke but I had to keep pushing forward.

“C’mon Alfie, I begged, but he wouldn’t budge. He hunted lower to the blacktop if that was even possible. I tugged on his leash and smiled wealky at the vet tech even though she coudln’t see it under my mask. I looked down at Alife





I struggled to drag him to the entrance. I would have picked up all eighty-eight of his squirming pounds if I was ten years younger and wouldn’t be risking a heart attack. The tech finally took him from me and hauled him inside. When the glass door closed behind him with me on the other side, Alfie jerked his head around and looked out in shock. He kept focused on me until he was taken out of my sight. I walked back to my car and sat down.

Well that was done.

I broke down and wept.

Our Big-Hearted Pup

“I’ll pick him up,” Saul offered.

“Oh sure. So then you’re the rescuer and I’m the guy that abandoned him? Not a chance, pal. We are both going.”

The vet had called a few minutes earlier and recommended Alfie get a second opinion from an orthopedic surgeon about his left shoulder. It was somewhat frustrating that the outcome of Alfie’s vet visit was that he should do it all over again with another vet — but that wasn’t the worst of it.

“Also, something else concerns me.” she said as her tone became more serious. “His heart seems to be slightly enlarged. Are you feeding him grain-free food?

Saul’s face dropped. When we first got Alfie, he had diligently researched for weeks the best food to feed him. Since then we had paid a ridiculous amount to keep Alfie’s tummy filled with healthy GRAIN FREE food. Now we were finding out we were prepping him for a heart attack?

The doctor went on to inform us that if that was the cause of this issue (and the FDA suspects it is), it could be reversed by changing his diet.

We ran to the store and bought dog food packed with heart-shrinking grain before speeding to the vet to rescue our pup.

We called the front desk as I tore into the parking lot and then stood outside anxiously awaiting the first sight of him. I had to resist pounding on the lobby windows screaming GIVE HIM BACK! GIVE US BACK OUR ALFIE!!

Finally the door opened, and a very loopy disoriented dog stumbled out. His eyes adjusted to the sun and then he spotted us.

I’m pretty sure I detected a dirty look in my direction before he took turns leaping joyfully on each of us. All seemed to be forgiven even if this activity probably wasn’t doing his left shoulder any favors.

Alfie then beelined to the car. C’MON! MOVE IT! DON’T BE FOOLED BY THAT PLAIN LITTLE WOMAN. SHE’S THE ONE WHO SECRETLY DRUGGED ME.

We quickly thanked the tech as we followed after Alfie.

“How did he behave?” Saul yelled to her from the front seat, but she only waved at us acting like she didn’t hear the question.

“I’m not sure they see the best side of our dog,” I commented as we pulled out.

Shakespearean Tragedy

By the end of the short drive home, Alfie’s adrenaline had run out and he was barely conscious. He plopped on the couch and went to sleep for the rest of the night.

Saul and I looked down at him. We had an expensive orthopedic surgeon in the future, and knew we’d have at least two days of an insanely neurotic dog as an aftereffect of this vet visit.

“He’s a lot of trouble,” I said. “Can we fire him as our pet?”

“Maybe we can find his old ADOPT ME vest and drop him off at the place we got him,” Saul suggested.

But we were only joking. On better days Alfie enjoys our dark humor.

That night we slept with him in our arms. I couldn’t imagine the terror he had felt without us.  

I thought of my coworker who had to drag her screaming tantrum-throwing child into her first day of a new preschool while other parents looked on in horror. Or another friend who lived through the trauma of getting his hysterical child shots.

We all understand that heartbreak of betraying the innocent trust of a being you love with all your heart — of having to be the bad guy and know better than they do about what is good for them. To paraphrase Hamlet: sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind.

And I would add a little less poetically….It really sucks.

Update: The Orthopedic surgeon decided Alfie doesn’t need surgery. He put him on six weeks of steroids and limited activity. God help us all…

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: During his free time in the summer Keith Hoffman can often be found carrying his 88-pound dog up and down the three flights of stairs in his house or seeing how long he can steep in scalding pool water.