Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Learning to Fake It

R.I.P.  O Christmas Tree
“So ... I’m just throwing the idea out there, but ….”

My husband looks at me, waiting for me to continue.  I wring my hands in imitation of the contortions my stomach is performing.

I shake my head, shrug.  “I was just wondering if maybe ….”

My husband nods in encouragement.

“Well ….”

“What?” he finally asks, although now he’s a little pale and he’s biting his cuticles.

“What do you think about a fake tree?” I blurt out.

He stops biting his cuticles, but his brow falls and his lower lip slides out just a little.

“What do you mean?” he asks.

“Well, I’m just thinking …  every year we get a tree …sometimes two - -“

“Only once,” he interrupts.  “We only got two trees once.”  And then he gets puppy eyes.  “And that was really nice.”

“But we get really big trees,” I say.  “They’ve got to be at least 10 or 15 years old.”

“They’re from tree farms, they’re not clearing out forests or anything,” he adds.

“Well, yeah, but …” I concede.  “Still, 15 years is a long time and if you figure in the water and then the waste - -“

“The city recycles them,” he says.  “They get all the trees and then make them into mulch for the parks or something.  The trees don’t wind up in the dump.”

“But it’s a live thing,” I say and his face drops.  I’ve hit the right note.  “It’s a live thing that we kill just because we want something that smells good in the house.”

His brows go back up and start to furrow as he thinks.

“It’s like we kill something to make a giant air freshener,” I say.  And then for the final note, “ … and it’s a fire hazard.”

“It’s not a fire hazard,” he argues.  “I keep it watered so it stays fresh all through New Year’s.”

Doh, I pushed too hard, I think.  “Well, they’re messy,” I say.

“You’re a Grinch,” he says, narrowing his eyes at me.  “You’re hating on Christmas again.”

“No,” I say to my own defense.  “I feel sorry for the trees.”

He groans and rolls his eyes at me.  “You eat vegetables.”

“But they don’t take 15 years to grow,” I say.  “And I’m eating them, not just looking at it and smelling it.” 

He sighs.

“And the trees are expensive,” I say, especially since we moved away from our bargain tree place in Southern California.  “And it’s inconvenient since we don’t have a truck.”

We had borrowed his brother’s truck or a family friend’s truck in the past.  He didn’t feel comfortable asking anyone up here.

I know my husband’s a reasonable man.

“O.k., we’ll look,” he says.  “But it can’t look fake.”

I know he’s thinking about my mom’s lop-sided wire bottle brush tree.

“And nothing funky,” he warns, knowing that it’s not beyond me to suggest a feather tree or a tinsel one.

“No,” I assure him.  “We’ll look at something realistic.”

“We’ll look,” he says not fully committing.

“Michael’s has one on sale,” I say.  “It’s nine feet tall and bushy.”

His eyes light up.  “Nine feet?”

“Yes, and they have some taller,” I say.

“Taller?” He grins.

When we get to Michael’s, I can tell he’s wary.  He eyeballs the various trees, surreptitiously touching the “needles,” peering beyond the ornaments to check out the trunks.

“They’ve got too much crap on these trees,” he huffs.  “You can’t really see the trees.”

“But aren’t we going to put a bunch of ornaments and stuff on the tree, too?” I say.  “We hardly see any branches as it is.”

He snorts disgruntledly.  I walk over to a tree with a mix of wire and plastic needles.

“This is the one I’m thinking of,” I say cautiously.

“It’s too short,” he says quickly.

I look at it towering over us.  “It’s nine feet,” I tell him.

“No, it’s not,” he says and points to the raiser beneath all the trees.  “It just looks that way.  They just want you to think it’s a tall tree.”

I hold up the tag for him to read.

“It’s nine feet,” I repeat.

I can tell he’s still skeptical. 

“Look at the cute pinecones on it,” I say and he rolls his eyes and wrinkles his nose.

“Nobody buys pinecones on a Christmas trees,” he says.

“On sale, this tree costs as much as a live tree and it’ll last for several Christmases,” I say.

It’s a losing battle, I think.  Another tree is going to bite the dust.

Then suddenly it comes to me.  His Christmas nemesis.

“It’s pre-lit,” I say quickly.


“The lights are already on it,” I say.

“How can they do that?” he asks looking at the tree closer.

“The tree comes apart in sections and each section has its own set of lights,” I explain.  “When you put the tree together, you plug in the lights.”

“Hm,” he grunts examining the interior of the tree.

Putting the tree on the lights was always an ordeal.

“No more hours spent untangling,” I say.  “No more cursing,  No more frustration.”  I can see this is a deciding factor.  “Just plug it in, and it’s good to go,” I say and then take a step back.  “And there are lots of lights on the tree as well.  Just the way you like it.”

“Um-hm,” he says.

I can see the wheels turning.

“You can even get the multi-colored lights if you want?” I offer.

So, that Christmas we unfolded the fake tree.  He actually went for the white lights.  I put every ornament we owned on it.  I made sure it was the best looking tree we ever had.  I even bought a wreath so he could smell real pine. 

“See?” I said victoriously.  “It’s perfect.”

My husband gave a small nod that wasn’t entirely convincing.

“And you didn’t have to struggle with the lights,” I reminded him.

“That’s true,” he said with a sigh of relief.

That Christmas, we also acquired the Wee One.  He was a mellow dog who came to us as a “foster dog” while he recovered from kennel cough and an eye infection.  He got along perfectly with the Uber Hund and Rockstar and was so cuddly that we couldn’t let him go.

“Where’s Wee One?” my husband asked as he was putting away the empty ornament boxes.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I thought he was with you?”

Guess I got some 'splaining to do.
My husband glanced around.

“Wee One, NOOOOOO!” my husband cried out.

 I rushed over, expecting to see a puddle, a common misunderstanding for dogs experiencing their first indoor tree. The Wee One popped his head up from behind the tree and gave a low tail wag.

It was worse.  Much worse.

My husband held up the two pieces of chewed lighting cord.

As Lucy Ricardo would say, “Eeeeeeeeewwwwww.”


Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Ghost from Christmas Past

"All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth"
and for my sister to be out of prison garb.
It’s not unusual to wax nostalgic during the holiday season.  After all, Christmas as a child generally consists of all the fun parts of the holiday season, decorating, eating, visiting, and making and receiving gifts.  As adults, we realize the work involved in creating holiday “magic,” the hauling down of decorations from the attic, the unraveling of the light strings, the planning and shopping for the holiday feasts, and coping with irritated holiday shoppers.  What restores the holiday cheer is often the music, music that can instantly put us in front of the tree, sharing cheer with our loved ones, or singing in the school chorus.  To this day, the opening line of “We Need a Little Christmas,” brings me back to fifth grade on one particular day with the chorus teacher, Mrs. Krause.

It was the third year I was in the chorus.  That year, we “auditioned,” although I didn’t know anyone who was cut.  Without any advanced notice, those who wanted to join the chorus went one by one into an empty room with Mrs. Krause and were told to sing something.  I froze up, not knowing what to sing.  Mrs. Krause started me on “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” except she was a soprano and I was … well, I suppose an alto, but “halt-o” might be a better description.  Still, the tune was identifiable, so I was “in.”  Whether through kindness or charm, being a bad singer was not reason for exclusion.

In those days, school really did feel like a second family.  It seemed like all the teachers, at least by grade level, knew all the students.  Or maybe, as I learned when I took my turn behind the desk, it was that they learned the names of the rabble-rousers first, so that when they called out that child’s name, the rest of us assumed they knew all of our names. With turnabout being fair play, the students also knew all the teachers.  I never had Mrs. Krause as a teacher, but even I knew that no one messed with her.  One kid tried, and she took him by the ear to the principal’s office.  Teachers took in loco parentis seriously back then and our parents supported them.

When I first heard the term “battle ax,” I knew immediately what it meant.  Mrs. Krause was the “Coach Beiste” of our school with an undershot jaw, a pugilist’s nose, and a chest that entered the room significantly before she did.  She always wore dresses (as did most of the teachers in the mid-70s), but because of her build, they looked homemade, usually of a “sensible” fabric, to go along with her sensible shoes.  The bottom of her slip and top of her knee-highs usually showed, probably because her chest blocked the view of anything below it.   

But Mrs. Krause was also one of the kindest teachers I knew.  There was one girl at our school who was from a seriously troubled home.  While this girl frequently acted out, I remember seeing her in quiet conversation with Mrs. Krause several times, and as I was well acquainted with the girl, I knew Mrs. Krause frequently bought her her lunch.  On cold days, Mrs. Krause left her classroom open for lunch and recess, so her students and their friends could take shelter.  Mrs. Krause also wasn’t afraid to give hugs, grabbing us with her Popeye arms and smushing us against her iron clad bosom to express thanks or to praise us for a job well done.

That one day of chorus practice, we had gone through our repertoire of traditional songs and were finishing with “We Need A Little Christmas,” one of our favorites.  We couldn’t get past the first line and we could see the growing frustration on Mrs. Krause’s face.

“Can’t you hear the difference?” she said in exasperation.  “It’s not, ‘Haul out the hooo-oooolly,” It’s, ‘Haul out the hol-ly.”

We sang it over and over again, some of us hearing the difference, others still struggling.  We muttered among ourselves, exaggerating the desired version to help those that didn’t understand until finally we all got it right.  Mrs. Krause beamed and we grinned back, continuing the song with smiles on everyone’s face.  She praised us afterwards, not just on the song, but for rehearsal that day, congratulating us on our persistence.  My friends and I laughed about how long it took for us to figure out the problem and how glad we were that we did.  Other students were doing the same as I could hear smatterings of “haul out the hol-ly” as we walked out the door.  When it came time to perform the song, we all gave a little extra effort to do “hol-ly” and Mrs. Krause proud. While I don’t think she intended for us to accent the word, her nod and wide smile said our conscientiousness was appreciated.

Whenever I hear “We Need a Little Christmas,” I always listen carefully for the “hol-ly.”  37 years later, I still smile.  My heart swells as I remember Mrs. Krause and how our chorus came together to bring a little Christmas to each other that day.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Carol of the Dogs

It might look like an ordinary porch light, but it's magic.
“What time was the guy supposed to come?” my husband asked when we first moved into this house.

“About an hour ago,” I shrugged. 

“Well, I just got a phone call from him and he said no one was home.”

“What do you mean ‘no one was home?’ I was home the whole time,” I inform my husband, my voice an octave higher with irritation.

“He said no one answered the door when he knocked.”

Crap.  I had been upstairs and the backyard.  At that time, we only had the Uber Hundus and Jindos don’t bark.  The guy could have come and gone and I would never have known.

“We need to get a doorbell,” I sighed.

Our 1929 house has had multiple additions over the years and at some point, a two car garage was added and was later converted into the current living room/dining room.  No one bothered to put in a doorbell at the “new” front door, although I suspect someday we’ll discover a doorbell somewhere in one of the closets.

When an electrician arrived for another job, I thought I’d ask about a doorbell as well.  He went outside and examined the entry, the door jamb, felt along the clapboards, knocked on walls as the Uber Hund watched with interest.  The Jindo was an excellent supervisor.  The electrician frowned and came inside and studied the interior wall and jamb.  He flicked on the light switch to the porch light.

“This shouldn’t work,” he declared, flicking the switch on and off several times.

It was the first of many times I would hear that phrase.

“Well, it does,” I said, reinforcing the obvious.

“It shouldn’t,” he said wonder written on his face as he flicked the switch on and off again.

“It’s magic.”

Uber Hundus and I exchanged looks.  The Uber Hund gave a sniff of disdain. 

“So, can you put in a doorbell?” I finally asked, suspecting wizardry was not one of this electrician’s fortes.

“I - - , “ the electrician shook his head in marvel and flicked the switch once more for good measure.  “I don’t know how I would do it.”

The following weekend, my husband and I went to the hardware store and purchased a remote doorbell, the kind that is double-taped onto a surface and has a battery operated receiver.  It worked o.k., except that it wasn’t loud enough to be heard upstairs.  So, I bought an additional receiver, the kind that’s programmed to match the other receiver and I plugged it into an outlet.

It worked.  It worked very well.  We discovered that our neighborhood was a magnet for faux magazine and security system sales, with the occasional missionary and child asking for support of his/her school, club, or team.  There was also UPS, FedEx, and other shipping companies.  And the pizza guy.  And friends.  The doorbell rang at least once a day.

Not long after installing the doorbell, we acquired The Rockstar who, unlike the Uber Hund, does bark.  A year later, we got the Wee One, who also barks.  And bays:  “Aa-rooooooo!  Aa-rooooooo!”

In classic Pavlovian fashion, the younger dogs learned to associate the doorbell with pizza and friends.  Whenever the doorbell rang, The Rockstar and Wee One scrambled, barking and aa-roo-ing, to the door.  They jockeyed for front position, leaping and jumping, trying to out bark and out greet each other.  The Uber Hund observed cooly from a distance, it wasn’t going to be the pizza guy if it wasn’t Friday night.  If it was friends, they’d want to see the Uber Hund first anyway, so there wasn’t any rush.

Because of all the sales, faux and real, we stopped answering the doorbell if we didn’t recognize the person on the other side.  However, the dogs were ever the optimists.  They were staunch believers that whenever the doorbell rang, it could be the pizza guy or friends.  In fact, they probably believed that the more they barked and jockeyed, the more likely it would be the pizza guy or friends, because everyone else would be frightened away.

Fortunately, the police started to crack down on the door-to-door sales scams so they diminished significantly.  We lived here long enough so that the local missionaries stopped trying to recruit us.  We watched for the pizza guy and friends’ arrival and went out to greet them rather than have them ring the bell. 

The house got quieter and calmer.  It was a huge improvement.

And then the doorbell started to mysteriously ring on its own.

Once more, the dogs got whipped into a frenzy.  They’d do their routine, charging at the door, barking and baying.  But most of the time, they’d fade out in confusion since there was no shadow of a figure at the door.    I was a little confused as well.  At first, I thought it was a game of ding-dong ditch.  But there was no giggling, no scampering away as I watched from the upstairs window. 

After a while, I realized that whenever our doorbell rang on its own, the people next door had visitors.  Apparently, the neighbors didn’t have a traditional doorbell, either.  Our doorbells were on the same frequency.  Not only did we get double the ringing of sales visit, but we’d know whenever the neighbors had friends visiting.  And they had lots of friends.

I yanked out the upstairs receiver.

As a Christmas gift last year, we purchased a new front door.  My husband did the installation, pulling out the jamb and hanging and aligning the door.
Waiting for the pizza guy.

“What do you want me to do with this?” he asked, holding up the remote button to the doorbell.

I looked at The Rockstar and the Wee One who wagged their tails with giddy anticipation.

“Chunk it,” I said.

He examined the button doubtfully.  “Really?”

I went outside and stood in front of the glass panel of the new front door and knocked.  The Rockstar and Wee One burst into a joyous noise.

“Yep, really,” I said.

One less bell to answer, but no chance The Rockstar or The Wee One will let me miss any more service visits.

Sunday, December 4, 2011


Training Tip:  Do not reward bad behavior.
Let me say it again:  No gifts, please.  Seriously.  I mean it.  None.  Don’t.  I’m not joking.  Please.  Really.

Every Thanksgiving, a queasy sensation grows in my stomach, and it’s not just from sucking too much whip cream from the can.  It usually starts with the Black Friday ads for inane products, like the Forever Lazy or Pajama Jeans.  It’s that feeling of dread of the holidays.  It’s knowing we’ve entered the “gift-giving” season. 

Let me clarify.  It’s not the giving that freaks me out, it’s the receiving. I’m terrified of offending the giver, and it’s a justified fear.  I was not blessed with a poker face and my social filter is defective.  I’ve been known to blurt out things, horribly ungracious remarks.  I know, “it’s the thought that counts,” and I do appreciate the thought.  Really, I do.  And yet somehow I can’t help myself.  And then I just feel awful. 

I try to avoid gift giving situations.  I don’t have bridal showers or housewarming parties or birthday parties.  Although, I did have a fortieth birthday party.  I was blunt on that one.  I specifically stated on the invitation and with conformations “no gifts.”  But, wouldn’t you know, I still received some.  So I’ve decided to no longer mention that an invitation is in celebration of an event.  Still, when the holidays come, there’s no getting around it.  It’s expected for one to give AND receive gifts.

It’s not that I’m a Scrooge.  I enjoy holiday decorations, parties, kids getting whipped up about Santa and reindeer.  I like going into The City and looking at the giant Christmas tree in Union Square and seeing decorations in the stores and shop windows.  I like how people try to be a better version of themselves.  I even like getting gifts for my nieces and nephews, especially because they know exactly what they “need.”  The older ones prefer gifts they can put in their wallets and the younger ones have their consistent likes.

It’s more complicated with adults.  As adults, we usually have the funds and access to get pretty much anything we want, especially in this age of instant gratification.  We all hear the suggestion to get the thing others wouldn’t get for themselves.  Well, there’s a reason why we don’t get “it” for ourselves.  I’ve gone to enough yard sales and thrift shops to see where these gifts end up.  And gift cards, while widening the possibilities of purchases often end up languishing in wallets or bureau drawers – money generously spent, but frequently wasted.  And I feel guilty about that as well.

I understand the desire to give gifts, to show appreciation but at least in my case, my family, friends, and colleagues are gifts in themselves.  I neither need nor want more “stuff.”  I’ve finally convinced my husband that we should do something together for our anniversary, Valentine’s Day, and Christmas to avoid a gift exchange.  I’m being perfectly honest when I tell him all I want is to spend time with him or to share something we both can enjoy, like our new front door or a great bottle of single malt scotch.  Ideally, that’s what I want from my family and friends as well, a moment of sharing.

The holidays are full of hustle and bustle, so I know time is the one gift few can spare, but there’s no reason that the gift of time must be given during the holiday season.  The best gifts I receive are spread throughout the year:  the glasses we raise at Great Big Sea concerts, the confidences exchanged over Wahoo Fish Tacos, the emails we send sharing news of our lives, the words of encouragement we exchange when we’re feeling low.  These are the gifts that I treasure, and truly, they’re enough.  They can’t be purchased and they can only be given by those who love me and by those whom I love.  That’s why receiving tactile gifts worries me so much. I don’t want to hurt the people I love with my boorishness, especially knowing they have only the best intentions at heart.

And yet, there is the compulsion to give.

Some memories have grown a bit hazy with time and martinis...
So, how about a compromise then, dear family and friends?  Since I don’t take pictures, a photograph of you or your children at a memorable event would be great; consumables that we can share at a later date like cookies or a bottle of Two Buck Chuck; a self-made coupon to watch a dvd together at one of our homes, share a frozen yogurt and chatter, or a martini and gossip, or a hike and dog play time; an email with a link to a video that conjures a fond memory we share.  Easy on the wallet and guaranteed to bring a smile to both of us.

For my part, I will try try try to find something that won’t force you to grimace politely and hide that cringe with a sneeze.  I’m sure I’ve come up with some doozy gifts, but my family and friends are much more gracious than I. 


Well, there you go.  That’s another gift given to me, which I’ve been too ungracious to appreciate.
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The Cranky Cow by Kou K. Nelson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
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