Ask Matt Labash

Ask Matt Labash Vol. XLIII: Christmas in Haiti, and an essential Christmas music playlist

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Matt Labash
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      Matt Labash

      Hi, welcome to “Ask Matt Labash.” I’ll be your host, Matt Labash. The idea for this column – if idea isn’t too strong a word – is that it is not a column at all. Rather, it’s a conversation. One in which I do ninety-five percent of the talking. If you did most of the talking, you’d have to watch my eyes go dead and my attention wander until it was my turn to talk again. So trust me, it’s better this way.

      For those unfamiliar with me from my day job at The Weekly Standard, I’ll give you a capsule bio by way of introduction: I have the gift of wisdom. Does that sound arrogant? I’m sorry, that wasn’t my intention. I didn’t choose wisdom. It chose me. If I had my druthers, I’d have chosen another gift, perhaps the untold riches of Lil’ Wayne, whose teeth are made of actual diamonds, or to be the sexiest man alive, like Rachel Maddow. But wisdom is what they gave me, so wisdom is all I have to give back to you.

      This is not, you should know, a mere advice column. If you need advice, I’ll give it. But the only rule here is that there are no rules. You can ask me a question about anything that’s on your mind: current events, pop culture, media, theology, string theory, fishing tips, wicker repair. The only limits we have are those of your imagination. And those of my knowledge base. Which is considerably limited, truth be told. So try not to ask me anything that requires research. Though they tell me I have access to Google on this computer if we need it.

      If all goes according to plan, ours will not be a traditional writer/reader relationship. It’s more complex than that. I might empathize or cajole. I might educate, instruct, or inspire. I might pretend to answer your question while actually reporting you to Social Services, since you’re a dangerous person who should not have contact with children. I might tell you to climb up on my shoulders, that you’re not heavy, you’re my brother. Or I might tell you that you are heavy, and that you should hop down until you lose a few pounds. I might just sidle up behind you, put my big strong man hands on the small of your back, and whisper in your ear the words of the poet, Kenny Rogers: “We’ve got tonight, who needs tomorrow?”

      To which you’ll say something like, “I can’t, I’ve got to go home and wash my hair.”
      To which I’ll say something like, “Shhh. We’ve got tonight babe, why don’t you stay?”
      Wherever this takes us, our journey begins now:

      <i>Matt Labash is a senior writer with The Weekly Standard. His first book, <a href="">Fly Fishing with Darth Vader: And Other Adventures with Evangelical Wrestlers, Political Hitmen, and Jewish Cowboys</a> will be published next month by Simon & Schuster.</i>

Editor’s Note: Have a question for Matt Labash? Submit it here

Matt: What do you want for Christmas? Alternatively, what don’t you want for Christmas? Eyeing a 7 foot pine on the side of the Beltway, I remain ever vigilant in regarding you with all the best -  Sydney

If I’m not mistaking your inferences while sucking up to the advice columnist, I much appreciate any offer to fashion me a fly rod from scratch, even if it’s made out of unusable Beltway Pine. But it’s completely unnecessary. Though if you find any supple Beltway Bamboo, go ahead and get started. When I was a child, Christmas was all about getting: my football cards, my Adventure People action figures, my Easy Bake Oven (don’t ask, I won’t tell).

But when I became a man, I put away childish things. Now that I’m older, my joy comes from watching others receive. As with my wife, for instance. This year, I will again give her the gift of myself (she’s in luck – the Labash store is in stock). Yes, I could buy her the $15 gift card to Shoney’s or the long-lasting Renuzit Winter Berry air freshener. But how much stuff is enough?

So if this Christmas morning bears any resemblance to Christmas mornings past, then before the kids empty their stockings, or my dog gets his unusually large butcher’s bone, I will stand in front of the couch as my family sits on it, pulling Fraser Fir needles out of daddy’s glutes, because he will have again wrapped himself in a bow after getting into the chocolate chip cookies and Christmas Dewar’s left for Santa the night before (“Just leave the bottle out, kids – Santa needs to stay hydrated with all that chimney soot”), before passing out buck naked under the tree, lending scary new dimensions to the term “yule log.”

On an abruptly different, and more sober note, I received an early Christmas present the other day: the gift of perspective. This past January, I traveled to Haiti right after the earthquake to profile an American priest who lives there named Father Rick Frechette. You can read my Weekly Standard piece on him here and see the harrowing photos here.

To give you the CliffsNotes version of how Frechette’s life looks, I could tell you about how he regularly travels the streets of one of the world’s worst slums, Cite Soleil, to deliver food and clean water, and to negotiate the release of kidnapping victims from some of the country’s most ruthless gangsters. I could tell you how he cleans out the city’s Boschian morgue, to give the nameless, unclaimed dead a comparatively dignified burial in makeshift cardboard coffins where the forgotten are planted in a place that translates from Creole as “The Fields of Less Than Nothing.” But if I really had to sum up what he does, it is this: Father Rick finds beauty amidst unremitting ugliness.

One day, when I was visiting the medical facility that Frechette started just outside Port-au-Prince called St. Damien Hospital, I was working the wards, trying to ask impossibly inadequate questions of young children who were newly absent limbs, and parents, and hope, after the apocalyptic catastrophe that had befallen their already broken nation. Abetting my awkwardness was an inexplicably cheerful and bright-eyed young Haitian named Ridore – who was living in the streets himself after the quake – but who gamely tried to translate my English into Creole and then back into broken English. We spent the afternoon hearing horror after horror, and the evening drinking armfuls of Prestige beer together, trying to forget them.

I hadn’t heard from Ridore since I left eleven months ago, and had indeed forgotten that I’d ever given him my contact information in the first place.  But an e-mail arrived from him the other day, with the subject line “Hi Mr. Matt,” reminding me of who he was and inquiring about my well-being. I greeted him warmly, asking how he was doing. He wrote back: “As the same when you left Haiti, still living in the street, without anything, and I lead a difficult moment in my life, so I have not any hope. How is your Christmas?”

When I probed further, he told me his translating work at the hospital dried up after all the foreigners left. Now, he said, “I just stay in the street without nothing to do.” Just as when he worked with me in person, he asked for nothing. I had to put money in his hand then, which he accepted, but didn’t expect. Now, I don’t know what to give him. What do you give to someone who lives in a hellhole at the end of the earth, and who is fresh out of hope, the only meager commodity he ever possessed?

A little rusty on the scriptures that I was forced to memorize during Vacation Bible School as a child, I feebly tried to cobble some together that might bring him a little. I relayed the story of Daniel, another translator, who fearful that he would be executed for being unable to translate King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, cried out to God for mercy. God revealed what the king’s dream meant, leaving Daniel to praise God, saying, “He changes times and seasons; he deposes kings and raises up others. He gives wisdom to the wise, and knowledge to the discerning. He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what lies in darkness, and light dwells with him.”

I gave it a go, fumbling as awkwardly as I did during those afternoons in the wards filled with child amputees, and hit ‘send.’ A few days later, Ridore responded with this: “Thank you a lot Mr. Matt for those passages in the bible and sincerely they comfort me so much and I always read them. I’m sure God will open a door and show me what to do and I will not lose hope because I trust God and he is my shepherd. May peace the lord be with you and God bless and protect you. Ridore.”

Ridore will not now, nor maybe ever, have a Christmas that resembles ours. There will be no Beltway Bamboo fly rods or Christmas Dewars or even a Renuzit Winter Berry air freshener. But I suspect he already possesses something most of us never will – the capacity to write a letter like that, under the circumstances in which he finds himself. You ask what I want for Christmas? It’s to send a few prayers up for Ridore. And though the Haitian postal system is shoddy to nonexistent, if you feel moved to send him anything else, write in to, and I’ll try to find a secure way to get it to him.

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  • killtruck

    Thanks for the perspective. I’ve been dealing with stress-y stuff lately and found myself thinking back to your Haiti piece, and saying, “Your house isn’t a tarp in Haiti. Suck it up you brat.” It doesn’t work because I’m a jerk, but I’m super-aware of it now.

    Diner is awesome. Mickey Rourke before he was Mickey Rourke.

    Blind Boys of Alabama – Go Tell it on the Mountain.

    And lastly, let’s never speak of your yule log again.

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  • deadonred

    Sorry, but any version of ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas that replaces “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” with “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough” — as Sinatra’s does — simply ruins the song for me.

    Judy Garland’s 1944 version was popular with our WWII troops because it reflected the realities of the times — many old friends would not be around for Christmas as they were overseas. The reality being faced was that “the fates” would not allow many of them to return from battle. It is good to remember that, for some, the Christmas celebration is tempered by the absence of soldier-loved ones. This is as true now as it was in 1944.

    Sinatra had the line changed in the 50s, but, thankfully, JT gets it right. His has the appropriate tone and tempo as well.

    • deadonred

      The list is great, though.

  • Ranger

    Matt – How could you leave out Fairy Tale of New York by the Pogues and the late Kristy MacColl?