It started out as a seasonal thing. As you’d imagine. The end of the year would roll around, and people’s personal disputes would get heated, and they’d call me. Pretty soon, it was all I was doing between November and January. Every year, I’d get a few more cases, until pretty soon it was all I was doing.
Now it’s year-round, or close to it. I used to be able to take off on vacation a couple of weeks in August. I couldn’t do that this year, though, because of Ramadan. It changes dates every year, most people don’t know that—I didn’t, not until I researched it. Ramadan causes more problems than you’d think. I had three different corporate clients who’d scheduled their summer picnics the week before Eid without even thinking about whether they had employees that were Islamic and fasting. All sorts of aggravation and hurt feelings over that.
That was just the start of it. Once I got those cases off my calendar, along comes Rosh Hashanah and the High Holy Days, and that gets you into the exact same set of problems with fasting and people not being able to come to work and all that. And just as soon as that’s over, you get into Halloween, which is a giant pain in the neck as far as I’m concerned.
Most of your other holidays are about food, families and traditions. Halloween is about candy, costumes, and scaring people. The candy part is easy. Everybody likes candy. But with costumes, you get in to all kinds of stupid arguments. I had a whole corporate HR department in here last week going toe-to-toe on the dress code for their Halloween party—how slutty the costumes could be, how much cleavage you can show, that kind of thing. They had to practically rewrite their sexual harassment policy just to have a little fun.
Then there was the company that wanted to have a haunted house. You wouldn’t think that you’d need a mediator to settle how scary the haunted house could be. You’d be wrong. We spent forty-five minutes going over whether you could put fake glass eyes in the punch bowl.
Halloween’s just a sideline, though. The majority of what I do is Christmas, of course, and Christmas comes earlier every single year. Right now you’re mostly looking at travel stuff—people trying to book their holiday flights early. I get half my referrals from travel agents this time of year. Those are almost always about which side of the family you want to spend time with. If you live here, and have family in Oregon, and your spouse has family in Montreal, there’s no way to keep everyone happy. Then it just gets down to negotiation—maybe you go see Aunt Pearl in Boca Raton over Thanksgiving and go have Christmas in San Diego. Most of that gets decided on frequent-flyer miles anyway, which makes it easier.
You can reason with people on travel. Can’t do that on food, though. That’s where the really vicious arguments happen. You take two middle-class women, sweet as can be under normal circumstances, and put them in a conference room and have them argue with each other about who makes the better turkey gravy, and they turn into Spartans. This time last year, I got hit right between the eyes with a lemon bar. I had to make a new rule that nobody was allowed to bring food into my office anymore. The carpet cleaning got to be too expensive.
I had a whole family in here not too long ago that spent an hour of my time arguing about whether you put marshmallows on sweet potato casserole. Wait a second, no. That wasn’t it. You had one side that wanted to put big marshmallows and one side that wanted to put mini-marshmallows. The one side said that the big marshmallows were better because they got brown and crispy, and the other side said that the mini-marshmallows melted easier. I don’t even like sweet potatoes, much less mashed up with marshmallows on top. But I was able to get it resolved, because that’s what I do.
The food stuff is one thing. Everybody likes to eat, when you come down to it, especially at the holidays. No question. What really kills me more than anything else is the decorations. Do you put the angel on the top of the tree or the star? I mean, come on. You have a six-dollar plastic angel that you’re going to put on top of an artificial tree, does anyone care whether you use that or a tinsel star? Doesn’t matter. Or it shouldn’t matter. But it does, and most of the time it’s huge in the mediation.
It’s not even an angel-versus-star thing. If that’s all it was, then it would be easy. You put one up one year and the other one up the next year and you deal with it. But it’s never just an angel. It’s the angel that was up on the tree when you were three, the one your mom made out of pipe cleaners. Or it’s the star that your kid made in day care. Or it’s the ornament that Great-Aunt Hattie gave to your on your deathbed that has to be on the same place on the tree every year. There’s always some kind of complicated backstory regarding every ornament, and you have to deal with all the emotional baggage that all of it represents.
That’s where the mediator comes in. What I do is very simple. I get everyone to stop talking and sit down and think for a minute. I get them to close their eyes and envision what they think of as the perfect holiday, with each of them getting their own way about every single minor point possible. That’s the easy part, and it works because people are so totally selfish and love the idea of getting things the way they want them.
Then I flip it on them. I get started talking about the spirit of Christmas, or Hanukkah, or whatever—works for pretty much every holiday. What I tell them is that the real holiday is about being unselfish, giving to others, being together, you know, all that kind of stuff. What that does is start getting them to feel guilty about how selfish they’re being. Once you get them both feeling guilty, then you get them in a frame of mind where they can start making concessions. You reach that point, and then it’s just a matter of working out the negotiations. It works every time.
I am looking at my calendar, and I have Christmas stuff booked all the way up until the 24th, practically, and that doesn’t count any emergency calls I might get. After that, I have a couple of corporate MLK Day events to worry about and then Valentine’s Day after that. But February 15, man, I am out of here. I’ve got two weeks booked at an all-inclusive in Jamaica, and I am going to spend the whole entire time drinking rum and hanging out at the hot tub. I’d stay three, but I think Easter is early this year and that’s a whole other set of problems. You see what I mean about it being year-round now.