A Christmas Story

My husband is a fan of British football, and his hobby is to scroll through Twitter on his phone while he watches pirate livestreams of matches on his laptop. If I happen to be in the room at the same time, he’ll sometimes read me news headlines from Twitter.

This past Friday morning, he informed me that Visa and Mastercard are no longer accepting charges from Pornhub. “But isn’t Pornhub free?” I asked him. “Maybe they have premium content,” he said. I wanted to ask who pays for “premium content” on Pornhub, but my tea was done brewing and I had emails to write.

Along with British football, my husband is a fan of Germany. I’m not sure how this happened, but I think I can guess.

One summer my husband was scheduled to give a paper at an academic conference in Europe, and we flew through Amsterdam because flights were cheap. My husband wanted to stay in the city for a few days until he got over the jetlag, so he rented an Airbnb in a student apartment at the top of a townhouse. It was high summer, and the apartment didn’t have air conditioning, and I was tired, so I complained. “This is how people do things in Europe,” he said, and I said, “Amsterdam is budget Europe.”

For the record, I don’t actually think Amsterdam is “budget Europe.” I like Amsterdam a lot, and I love the Netherlands in general. To geek out a little, I’m interested in how “science” developed in the Edo period, especially through what people at the time called “Dutch learning.” While the Japanese were studying Dutch medicine and culture, the Dutch were also studying Japanese medicine and culture, and it’s so cool to see the legacy of that exchange in Holland, especially in its botanical gardens. The comics subculture in the Netherlands is also really interesting, and I’ve had nothing but fantastic experiences talking with the artists and writers I’ve met there.

So Amsterdam is not “budget Europe,” obviously. I was just being a brat.

My husband’s pride was offended, however, so before we flew back to the United States he decided to rent a car and go to “not budget Europe,” which he had apparently designated as Germany. Specifically, he wanted to go to the kebab shop that the former Arsenal star player Lukas Podolski opened in the city of Cologne. So we went, and Cologne was beautiful, and the kebabs were delicious, and we got fresh bread at a nearby bakery that ended up being some of the best bread I’ve ever eaten in my life. It was a fun drive, and we had a good time, and now my husband is in love with Germany.

After watching his football match, my husband informed me that he wanted to get German food for lunch at the “Christmas village” that the city of Philadelphia has set up in front of the City Hall building. Despite the city of Philadelphia being what it is – saying “budget New York” might sound mean, but I’m proud to live here and say it with affection – the German-themed carnival set up around City Hall is quite nice.

I staked out a table and remained there to hold down the fort while my husband stood in line to get beer and borscht and wienerschnitzel. It didn’t take long for me to realize that no one else was eating lunch at the German fair in the freezing cold at eleven on a Friday morning, so I had a good ten minutes to sit alone and listen to the pre-recorded Christmas music coming from the cheap speakers set up around the edges of the tables. It was awful. I’m not a fan of Christmas music to begin with, but this was something special. I think there’s brand-name Christmas music that gets played on broadcast radio, and then there’s Christmas music that’s cheaper to license. Budget Christmas music?

I was especially disturbed by a rendition of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” that sounded as though it were being sung by a man who had a gun pointed at the back of his head. I’m not sure how to describe it, but you could tell from the tone of his voice that his smile wasn’t reaching his eyes.

The feeling this performance inspired in me was, “Is this person okay?”

I imagine that the singer probably wasn’t okay. What if he had gone to Julliard, thinking that he wanted to work with a professional choir one day? He might have even specialized in medieval Christian religious music. But there’s probably not a lot of demand for that sort of thing, especially not during a pandemic. So he calls in a favor and gets hired to record “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” for Xfinity Radio or whatever, and he hates every second of it. He made his life choices when he was still young and idealistic, and now his student loans have trapped him in an industry he despises more with each passing day.

He gets back to his apartment after the recording session and eats cheap take-out food that already got cold while he climbed the stairs to his walk-up, and he thinks about all the sacrifices he’s made to become a professional singer. All of his classmates used to go out drinking after performances, but he never did, not wanting to risk damage to his voice by yelling to be heard in a noisy bar. Most of his friends from high school who followed more practical paths into adulthood are already married, and some of them even have houses. He’s lonely, not to mention broke, and none of the thousands of hours he’s put into perfecting his craft have gotten him anywhere in life. He gives up on dinner and turns on his computer before deciding that it’s probably best not to check social media, not tonight. While he’s got his computer open, he might as well go to Pornhub. Try as he might, though, he just can’t seem to finish, and he thinks that he would do anything to be able to forget the decisions he made when he was younger and believed the world was a better place than it turned out to be.

And so, I thought as I sat by myself at a socially distanced table and listened to sad Christmas music echo across an empty parking lot in Philadelphia, that’s who pays for premium content on Pornhub. Except not anymore, apparently, because Visa and Mastercard have cut off all payments to the site.

Happy holidays!