Saturday, December 26, 2009

I'm not putting any actual music from them in here because I don't want to encourage Sweetie to listen to them. (Sweetie's Hunk of the Week, 44)

Time to put down my presents long enough to give you Hunk Of The Week Number 44:

Daughtry! (The entire band, not just the guy!)

You Don't Know Them Without You Have a 13-year-old girl living in your house and/or no taste in music. Daughtry is the band formed by Chris Daughtry, a guy who was on American Idol. I know this because we have Middle living in our house, and Middle, despite being a student in college right now and having various parts of her face pierced, is also a 13-year-old girl, at least at heart. For hobbies, Middle does all the stuff that 13-year-old girls do: She watches American Idol, and she takes pictures of her cats, and then she buys the music from the people she heard on American Idol, and puts it on iTunes, so that I can be jogging along, minding my own business and listening to my iPod, when all of a sudden I'm sonically assaulted by David Archuleta, or Daughtry, or Aaron Carter, who I know wasn't on American Idol, but he is on my iTunes, thanks to Middle, and he's an example of the kind of terrible music that Middle, and 13-year-old-girls, love.

The band features one of each required Rock Hairstyle.
In order, from left to right: "Punk," "speed metal," "indie rocker,"
"I'm only in this band because I own a van," and "grunge."

Other than knowing who they are, I don't know anything about Daughtry, and I was surprised that Sweetie did since, so far as I know, the band never guest-starred on Law & Order; I suppose there could have been an episode about a guy who finished fourth or fifth on a reality show music competition called Continental Idol, and then formed a band, and then was onstage performing with that band when the reality-show winner died backstage, seemingly of accidental causes but those accidental causes were set up by the fourth-or-fifth place winner to get his revenge for what happened on the show, which the runner-up/murderer would say was the winner rigging the vote so that runner-up would lose.

That might have been on Law & Order, but it's really more of a The Closer kind of storyline, don't you think?

Thing That Makes You Go Hmmm About Them: I'm at a loss for anything else to say about Daughtry, since I don't know anything about them beyond the lead singer was on American Idol, and also that the band is made up of guys who don't mind that Daughtry is taking all the glory. I've always wondered about that, forming a band with the name of just one person as the band's name, like Van Halen, and... um... The Smiths, I suppose. And Fleetwood Mac, which is a lot like Mick Fleetwood, who I'm pretty sure was in Fleetwood Mac. What do the other people in the band think about that, I wonder? Did they sign up knowing that was the deal? Or were they ready to cut a record, and the lead singer was like "Okay, it's time I told you, the band is named Jim."

(In case you're wondering, a quick Google search shows that no band is currently named Jim, so Jim, or Jim The Band is available for your band-naming purposes.)

(But there are a bunch of bands headlined by guys named Jim, like The Jim Halfpenny Band:

Those guys aren't bad, I suppose, but they should rethink their name; no band named after a real guy has ever achieved any lasting success. The Doors never had a shot when they were The Jim Morrison Band (assuming they were; I don't know if they were or not, but it sounds like the kind of thing that could be true. You never know, with band names. I mean, Simon & Garfunkel began as Tom & Jerry and The Beatles were The Black Jacks, The Quarry Men, Johnny & The Moondogs, then The Nerk Twins (really!) then The Beatals, then The Silver Beetles, then The Beatles, so who's to say that The Doors weren't once The Jim Morrison Band, doomed to playing weddings and the Holiday Inn by I-65, until they changed their name?)(Who's to say, I mean, besides, you know, history? But what does history know, anyway? It can't even get things like what number president Barack Obama is correct.)

That's really the thing that makes you go hmmm about Dau
ghtry, I think: Do they have any chance at success, given that they're named after the lead singer, and given that bands named after real people never make it big?

In fact, if you Google What's the most popular band named after a real person, ever, you'll find out that David Bowie was born "David Jones" but changed his name so that people wouldn't get him confused with Davey Jones of The Monkees. Everyone who would like to see The Monkees perform David Bowie's The Man Who Fell To Earth, but with that patented Monkees slapstic comedy, raise your hand! Good!
It's unanimous! Get on that, Hollywood, or whoever's in charge of such things.

This version of the band appears to be at least 40% different from
the prior version. Note the absence of Grunge, and note that
Guy With The Van opted to wear a sportcoat. That's why he'll be kicked out next.

Are There Going To Be Any Actual Daughtry Facts In This Post: Possibly.

Okay. Fine. Since you insisted, and since I'm really just killing time until I reveal just how superficial Sweetie is, I'll point out this important fact about Daughtry:

They're lying to you, 13-year-old girls.

How's that for an earth-shattering fact? And I'm not making it up, either. Here's photographic evidence. Consider this screen shot from the front of the Official Daughtry Merchandise store! (Yes, that exists.)

Notice anything? I hope so, because I went to a lot of trouble creating that arrow, which points to a coveted Daughtry stocking cap with some sort of stylized iron cross on the front. But, it's my sad duty to point out, if you click on that cap in hopes of getting yourself a really cool Daughtry cap to show the other people in the line at Arby's that you like bland "rock," you're in for a huge letdown, as there is no headwear available at the official Daughtry shop!

To help get you down from your perch of shocked outrage, or outraged shock (whichever), I'll point out that Daughtry has a fan in Mongolia. Exactly one, it appears. But that's still one more fan than Aaron Carter has, anywhere.

And that fan can't buy this hat. I bet Aaron Carter
would never do that to his fans.

Reason I Tell Myself Sweetie Likes Him: Please don't be the music, please don't be the music ran through my head when Sweetie told me, in the post-Christmas glow last night while I pretended to listen patiently, hoping that she'd get done talking soon so that I could go back to playing with the Kindle she got me, please don't be the music please don't be the music, because what happens when Sweetie or the kids get into a new song follows these three steps:

1. They get into a new song, and download it onto iTunes.

2. Unsuspectingly, that night or the next, I will put on my playlist so that I can listen to my music while I clean up after dinner; I always tell Sweetie and the kids that I don't mind doing the chores if I can listen to my music while I do that.

3. I will be about 38 seconds into the song I've chosen, and I will hear it stop, and then the new song that Sweetie and/or the kids are into will be put on, and I will spend the rest of my time doing chores listening over and over to Poker Face, or Heartbeat by Don Johnson, or Cruel To Be Kind (all actual songs that Sweetie has on her playlist) and then, when I wrest control of the music back, it'll be declared to be too loud and turned down.

So I was relieved when it wasn't the music that Sweetie liked about Daughtry. Relieved, and not at all surprised, because I've never heard a Daughtry song, and I doubt anyone (except that one guy or girl in Malaysia) has.

Instead, I found out what it really was...

The Actual Reason Sweetie Likes Him: ... by asking Sweetie. I said "Why..." and Sweetie interrupted me, blurting out:

"I like 'em. They're cute. I'd be a groupie."

I then finished my question while I tried to digest that: "Why... do you know they exist?" I asked her.

Sweetie said that she'd been working out at the health club, listening to her music on her iPod while watching the TV screen; she heard her music (probably She's Like The Wind, another actual song on her playlist) while she watched the Daughtry guys pout and be bald and not have headgear for sale at their official store. So it was just seeing them that made Sweetie think I would probably follow those guys from tour stop to tour stop, hanging around backstage and trying to sneak into their hotel room and throwing various undergarments at them while they performed their big hit onstage, assuming that they had a big hit, which I'm pretty sure they don't.

Not only did that prove that Sweetie is very superficial, but think about this: She was confessing to me that just seeing Guy With a Van and Baldie Von Balderson made her think "I'd be a groupie," which is exactly what you want your wife and mother of your children to say to you, on Christmas Day: As you sit around, the holidays winding down, tired and full of Christmas pizza (our actual lunch) and enjoying the Christmas tree lights and the few remaining ornaments the Babies! haven't torn off, you want your wife to announce that she'd happily be a groupie for a fourth-tier "rock" band. It's like music to your ears.

Point I'd Like To Make About Sweetie's Actual Reason For Liking Them: Sweetie's just lucky she got me that Kindle and I wasn't really paying attention, or I might've been more...


hey, did you know you can subscribe to magazines on a Kindle? And books are only $9.99! And they've got blogs...

Where was I? Oh, yeah:

Guy With A Van got a whole suit!
And turned into Bizarro Nick Lachey!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Charity begins at home, travels to a grocery store, and then heads back home again to fall asleep. (Thinking The Lions/Essays about Stuff)

Last night, to start my Christmas vacation, I finally fulfilled a dream I've had for years:

I was a bell ringer for the Salvation Army.

For as long as I can remember, I've walked past those little red kettles during the holidays with a mixture of envy, admiration, and a little bit of panic as I tried desperately to get my spare change out of my pocket to drop it into the kettle without breaking stride or making a big deal out of it.

(Although sometimes, I walked by with a mixture that could be best described as 33% envy, 33% admiration, with the remaining 33% being "I hope they don't think I'm a jerk because I'm not giving anything.")

And each year, I've thought to myself, I should do that. I should be a bell ringer. It looks like a really neat thing to do, plus I'd be doing something good for charity.

Then I'd add: Plus I'd get to ring a bell. That was a big part of the draw.

But I never did anything about it, in my previous forty years of existence. I'd just drop the change (or sometimes a dollar bill if I was feeling particularly rich and/or charitable) and think my thoughts and move on.

This year, that changed. This year, one Sunday morning after shopping the day before, I logged onto my computer and looked up bell ringing at the Salvation Army. As it turned out, they had a website where I could log on and sign up for a bell-ringing shift, a high-tech option that appealed to me because it made it easy to get into the charity, but also which ran contrary to my low-tech view of the Salvation Army, a view that has been created entirely from just two sources:

1. The Bell Ringers, who form my primary opinion of the Salvation Army, and

2. The movie version of Guys & Dolls, which we watched in a college class I took. The class was called Humor In American Literature, and it consisted of us reading (outside of class) such humorous american literati as Peter Benchley and probably others, and then, in class, never discussing those books because we were too busy watching movies by Preston Sturges, and also watching LA Story and Guys & Dolls.

The movie version of Guys & Dolls included a scene, to my memory, now, years later, in which someone, maybe a woman, played in a band on a corner or maybe stood by a bell-ringing-kettle, and there was also a revival meeting in which various gangsters (the colorful, fun gangsters of the 1940s, not the scary gangsters of later years) were saved.

To me, then, the Salvation Army is a group that does something or other that's charitable, and has those red kettles and bell ringers to raise money, and also puts on big showy song-and-dance-numbers. I didn't know how the website fit into that vision, but I shoved that aside and signed up for a shift, after first calling Sweetie to find out which 2-hour-block of time would work out best: the first two hours of my Christmas vacation, on Tuesday night from 6-8? Or the 8-10 a.m. shift on the 23rd, my first full day off?

Or, maybe Christmas Eve itself? I saw that I could sign up for a bell-ringing shift on the Eve, and my eyes teared up a little as I pictured myself, leaving my warm home on Christmas Eve to go stand (bravely, and cheerfully) in a blizzard, ringing a bell and raising money for charity (and musical numbers) on a holiday, giving up my own free time that day to do something good for others! I'd be like a hero.

Sweetie thought maybe the Tuesday night shift would work better, though, and I agreed, because I really didn't want to go out on Christmas Eve. So, not as much of a hero, but still pretty heroic.

After logging in and getting my confirmation email, I was all set to go, and then a cheery e-reminder on the day of the big charity gave me some last minute pointers: Bring your ID with you, it told me, and set out various security procedures by which I would be confirmed as a man who could be trusted with a kettle full of money and a bell. One particularly stern line told me that I was required to print my name neatly in big letters, and that worried me a bit because I have bad handwriting.

But it's for charity, I thought, and vowed to do the best I could.

I drove from my office to the grocery store where I would be ringing a bell for the next two hours, bravely (and cheerfully, and charity-ly) giving up my dinner and comfort to stand outside in a light snow, ready to greet grocery shoppers with a hearty hello, and as I realized it was snowing, I realized that I'd also forgotten my gloves that day.

Should I try to go home and get them, and risk being late for my shift? I wondered. Or should I tough it out? The thought of letting down all those starving kids or whoever the Salvation Army helps gave me the strength to decide to tough it out. I can always pull my hands into my sleeves, I thought.

With that, I grabbed my cell phone (in case of emergencies!) and headed into the store, where I got my first surprise: There was a bell ringer there already! That surprised me because when I'd signed up, the shift before mine (4-6) had been open, so I thought I'd be the only one that night. I kind of panicked: What if he stays the whole time? Will I have to talk to him? I wondered.

"Hi," he said.

"Hi," I said, and added "I'm your replacement." That was the politest way I could think of to say "Don't hang around." I said I'd go sign in and I found the service desk inside, where a clerk took my ID and wrote down, herself, my name in the notebook. I didn't totally abdicate my duties, though -- I made sure she printed, in big letters.

Then she gave me a little piece of paper with a red Santa stamped on it. "This is to give to the guy there now, so he knows you're official."

That seemed a little low-tech -- but I was okay with that, because it was more in keeping with the Salvation Army I believed I knew. I went back up front, where my predecessor was jingling his little band of green bells. I showed him the little Santa paper, and he handed me the bells and took off his Santa hat.

The bells were disappointing; instead of a big handbell, it was a little dog-collar type of jingly-bell bracelet. As I held them up, I said "These are my bells?" and he said:

"No," and then as he took off his Santa hat, and before he could finish, his cell phone rang and he took it out and got on a call. "Hi," he said into the phone. "What? It's snowing there, too?"

I stood there, looking at the kettle and the not-my-bells and the stool and the Santa hat. What was I supposed to do? Shoppers were walking by, and the Guy Before Me just kept talking on his phone. I realized that I didn't know if I had been supposed to bring my own bell or not; I'd just assumed they'd give me a bell to ring. Who has their own bell? I thought, and stood there dumbly while the guy discussed weather in Salt Lake City.

I didn't know what to do if I didn't have my own bell. I didn't want to just stand there, loitering, for two hours, and without a bell, I knew that's what it would look like.

Guy With Bell Standing By Kettle = Charitable person doing good.

Guy Without Bell Standing There= probably a mugger.

The guy kept talking, and people kept wandering by, looking awkwardly at us. Nobody was putting money in the kettle, and I didn't know what to do. Why wouldn't he end his phone call? I didn't want to ring his bells, plus, it seemed rude to ring the bells while he was standing a foot away talking on the phone.

Then there was the Santa hat he'd taken off and set down on the stool. Was I supposed to wear that, too? If they didn't give me the bells, would they give me a hat to wear? How many other people had worn that hat?

Finally, Guy Before Me was done with his phone call, explaining that his daughter's flight had been delayed due to snow. After we agreed, several times, that such things did indeed happen this time of year, he finally explained about the bells:

"Those are replacement bells," he said. "We've had a bit of trouble keeping bells this year."

That gave me a lot to think about, right there. Beginning with the we. Who did this guy think he was? I knew the gig: Everyone just signed up online and got their bell. He wasn't any big shot in the local organization; he was just another bell ringer, like me, and the We was jarring, smacking of a guy trying to sound more important than he really was. (Unless he really was important, I then thought, and wondered if I should be trying to impress him, show him I was a pretty up-and-coming bell ringer.)

Then, I wondered this: Who steals the bell after bell-ringing?

As I pondered those things, Guy Before Me picked up his Santa hat (Thank God!) and the stool, and left, waving to me. "See ya," he said, and I was left to wonder at his professionalism: He'd not only brought something Christmas-y, but his own stool.

Then again, I thought, the stool is not necessary, and besides the point. It seemed to me important that a bell ringer not sit; something about the position of bell ringer seemed to me to make it important that I be a little uncomfortable, put some effort into it. I'm glad I didn't bring a stool, I thought to myself.

And so it began: I had to start ringing the bells and raising money. I put the little bell-bracelet on my left hand and shook it experimentally. Good. Nice and jingly. Some people were coming in. I began ringing in earnest, ringing my bells up and down and realizing as I did so that they were knocking into my knuckles and it hurt.

So as my first patrons walked by, I was adjusting the bells and trying to come up with a system that wouldn't break my fingers over the next two hours. I then went back to bell ringing, and got it right this time, a good steady rhythm, up down up down up down up down, and some people came in, smiled at me, and one of them put some money in the kettle.

"Thanks!," I said, and she smiled, and I added "Happy holidays!" She smiled again and they went in and I began to give some thought to what I'd say to people. I kept ringing the bells, up down up down up down, jingle-jingle-jingle and decided I'd stick with Happy holidays. That way, I couldn't offend anyone who didn't celebrate Christmas. I suspected that the Salvation Army was a Christian charity (something about the Guys & Dolls movie made me think that, probably the trip to Cuba that Frank Sinatra took) but I didn't think that non-Christians should be forbidden to give, or put off by giving, and none of the emails had given me any kind of ruling on whether I should talk at all, or what I should say.

Another person came in and dropped some change. "Thanks," I said. "Happy holidays," I added. He smiled and said "You, too," and I felt good about myself.

My arm was getting a little tired. I checked my watch. 6:04.

I switched hands, over to the right, and kept going. People came in about every 10 or 15 seconds, stamping their feet and smiling at me or not. This was the after-work rush, I realized, and it would be pretty busy as people stopped on their way home for groceries or last-minute supplied.

As the next 20 or 30 people came in, I picked up quickly on the different kinds of looks people would give. Nearly everyone met my eyes as they came through the sliding doors -- the kettle had been stationed just inside the door, where the carts were, so I wasn't totally out in the elements and my lack of gloves wasn't a probelm -- but there were those few people who determinedly didn't notice me at all.

Those people would come in through the doors with their eyes locked firmly ahead-and-up-to-the-right, looking off into the corner of the produce department that lay behind the doors I stood in front of, seeming not to see me or the kettle as they took the four or five steps through the vestibule. They seemed to have heard my bells and opted for complete disregard rather than at least a nod or smile as most people did.

Another type of person was the brief eye contact group. These people would be caught by surprise, coming in the door and seeing me; making eye contact required that they acknowledge my existence and they would do that, smiling or nodding or saying Hi or something like that, before themselves becoming engrossed in their shopping cart or the 6-pack of paper towels on display across from me, turning off to whatever caught their attention next with a look like they were saying I'd love to be charitable, but I really need to focus on whether the 6 big rolls are really the equivalent of 8 regular-size rolls. You understand, right?

I tried, for my part, to project "Understanding," with a mixture of "Slight guilt and disapproval," so that maybe next time, they'd give a little.

The third type were the people who would interact with me, some of them givers and some not. They included parents of children, pointing me out to their little toddlers. "See the bells?" they'd say, and I'd try to jingle with a little more spirit, and smile at them. The kids didn't care.

Others would say "Hi," or comment on the weather or my position there or say random-seeming things like "Nice, huh?", an actual comment I didn't get.

The givers usually had their money ready -- they were folding bills or grabbing for change as they came in the door, my bells having alerted them to the opportunity to do something nice. They'd tuck in their money and I'd say "Thanks!" and add "Happy holidays!", something I kept doing for some time until one lady stuck some money into the kettle, about a half-hour in.

"Thanks!" I said. "Happy holidays!"

She looked back at me with pursed lips. "Merry Christmas," she said, with a determined and steely air. I was taken aback, feeling like I'd offended her by trying not to offend her. As I kept ringing, I wondered which of us was wrong: Me for not assuming she was a Christian, or her for assuming I had assumed she wasn't a Christian? It was all very confusing and mixed me up as the next person, an older guy, put some money in the kettle.

"Um. Thanks. Happy... merry Christmas!" I said, and he smiled and said I should have one, too.

After that, it was all Merry Christmases for me. I didn't want any trouble. As more people came in I kept up the jingling, switching arms every few minutes and wishing people a merry Christmas.

Then my cell phone rang. I took it out and saw it was my Dad. "Hello?" I said, answering it, and had to explain to my Dad that yes, the message I'd left earlier was true: I was ringing bells for charity.

Dad, undeterred, launched into a conversation, making me nervous again. I didn't know if I was supposed to be talking on the phone or not. None of the rules had mentioned that, or said anything about socializing or entertaining oneself.

Guy Before Me had used headphones -- he'd rung his bell while listening to music, which seemed wrong to me, as wrong as sitting down. This was supposed to be a selfless act of charity, and how selfless is it if you're sitting there, all comfy on a stool, listening to The Who? (Guy Before Me looked to be about the right age, and had the right kind of beard, to be a Who fan.)

I assumed that I could chat with people -- and that if someone had come with me to bell ring, I could have talked with them, but talking on the phone seemed a whole different thing. It seemed rude and distancey, like I was one of those high-powered executives in a Christmas movie, the kind who can never put down the phone and go spend time with their young daughter on the night of her big pageant, until they learn a valuable lesson after almost being run down by a bus driver who lost his own daughter on Christmas Eve, twenty years ago, so they rush to the Pageant and throw their phone in a snowdrift on the way.

I got the feeling that talking on the phone would interfere with charity and that feeling was confirmed because as my Dad droned on and on about all the same things he always talks about, I kept ringing but nobody gave any money. They'd look at me and then look away, and I could feel their disapproval raining down on me.

I got off the phone with my Dad -- not an easy thing to do -- and redoubled my efforts. I'd been at this for a long time now, and my arms were really tired, but I wanted to make the last little bit count and really finish strong. I figured it must be about 7:20, maybe 7:30, almost through my shift. I checked my watch in a lull.


Oh, man, and my shoulders were getting a little sore, now, from the jingling. I tried to mix it up, change rhythms and get a little jazzy, but, really, there's only one way to ring a set of bells, and that's jingle jingle jingle jingle. Any other attempts at rhythm, at least for me, quickly fell apart and went back to the basic four-beats-to-measure.

I tried to think of a song that had a good rhythm, one that I could jingle to, as people went by and dropped money and got their Merry Christmases. My mind went blank; the only song I could think of, seriously, was Radar Love. It was as if no other songs had ever existed.

I went with that, humming Radar Love to myself, and jingling the bells in time, and wondering if anyone else could make out what I was jingling. Would they go away from that store humming Radar Love themselves? Would they forever associate Radar Love with Christmas, and wonder why?

Things were slowing down as 7:00 approached, seemingly an hour after I'd checked my watch at 6:55. I was switching hands more frequently now, and getting bored in between people. For a while, I amused myself by reading the sign advertising the various pre-cooked meals one could order at this store, turkey and ham dinners for 8-10 with various sides. I tried to figure the costs of cooking the meal oneself versus the cost of buying it, as a way of distracting myself from the increasingly-tired arm and shoulders I had, and also making time go a little faster.

That last thought made me feel morally confused. Was it wrong, I wondered, To want my charity shift to go by quickly? Either way, I would spend two hours doing this, and that was the charitable effort, right? So did it have to seem long, for it to be truly charitable? I didn't know. My morals seemed to lay somewhere between "Sitting on a stool listening to Baba O'Riley" and "Saint."

Whether it was right or not, I wanted time to go by a little faster. My knees were getting stiff from standing, and as I stood there, I realized that it'd been a really long time since I'd stood for two consecutive hours. I tried to remember the last time I'd done that, and couldn't think of when it might be. Was it when we went to Sea World last year? I tried to remember, and decided that, no, even at Sea World I'd probably sat down here and there. It might have been a decade, or more, since I'd stood for two consecutive hours, and my knees and back were starting to ache.

Across from me there was a display of snow shovels, and for a while I stood by them, jingling and looking at the various brushes and shovels and trying to decide if after my shift I should pick up an ice scraper for my car. I needed one, as the other day I'd been reduced to trying to use a soda can to get some ice off and had scratched my windshield a little.

Before I could make up my mind, I got moved back to the other side by the stock boy, who came out to fix up the display of paper towels. He and the manager worked on that while I jingled and people gave money and got their Merry Christmas, and I listened to them talk about the grocery business and the manager's sweater.

From time to time other store employees came in or out, including a small woman who had to push all the carts from the parking lot to the entry way. I felt bad for her; it looked like a lot of work, and I wondered whether I should help her out. I'm not really here for the store, I reasoned, and occasionally chatted with her about the weather while not helping her.

For a while, the little grocery baskets were gone, too, and shoppers would come in and notice that, commenting to their friends, or spouses, or sometimes me, about the lack of baskets. I felt somewhat obliged to do something about that, too, but I didn't, because I didn't want to abandon my post to go search for baskets for them. Instead, I decided that the next employee to come through, I'd mention it to. Then I didn't do that, either.

About 7:15, I noticed that the snow shovels weren't called shovels. They were Poly Snow Pushers, a name that struck me as overly technical, and unnecessary, and irritated me a bit, by that point.

Then, I noticed that there was a set of handbills posted for various plays and productions that were going to be put on in our city soon; the notices were across the room, near the door people came in by. I wanted to go look at them, to help kill time between the increasingly-sparse shoppers and donors, but everytime I wandered that way, people came in and I had to retreat back to my kettle. The best I could gather is that one of them had to do with a bridal show.

By 7:25, I was getting pretty tired and hungry, too, and the shoppers seemed less charitable. One lady came in and said, as she walked by me, holding up a hand "I donated yesterday, so don't think I'm bad," walking quickly. I said "Thanks, and Merry Christmas" anyway.

Another lady came in and shrugged at me. "He's coming with the money," she said and pointed a thumb back over her shoulder. She went into the grocery store and I kept ringing.

A woman and a small child came in.

Then an elderly lady came walking by.

I kept ringing and began to figure the lady had lied to me, and in a particularly elaborate way: Why make up a whole "guy who's coming with the money?" I thought. Why not just walk by? She didn't have to create this big work of fiction.

A minute or so later -- about five minutes after the lady had gone through -- a guy did come in, and he got his wallet out and put a $5 into the kettle. "Thanks, and Merry Christmas!" I said, and privately, I decided that this was not the "guy with the money." He was too far behind that lady, who'd I'd long since decided was a liar.

There was then a run of hipsters, for some reason: young people in their twenties with haircuts that looked stupid, but expensive stupid, and sideburns (but not on the women) and fancy boots that went up past the ankles (on the men and the women.) I tried to figure out why there was a sudden influx of hipsters. Had a coffee-bar-poetry-slam just ended? I also tried to figure out why none of them gave any money. Was charity uncool? Were there more-hip charities out there, maybe raves which donated the proceeds to Goodwill and were DJ'd by Moby?

That train of thought ended when a girl with a leather jacket, lots of zippers, strangely-colored eyeliner and a very symmetrical haircut put a $5 into the kettle, and I stopped thinking mean thoughts about hipsters and instead tried to focus on how much time was left.

Throughout the night, too, I'd tried not to notice what people were giving. Bills had to be folded and shoved in and as people did that I tried not to look directly at the kettle, figuring that was between them and God and the Salvation Army. I tried to give the same cheery Thanks and Merry Christmas! to people whether it was change or paper they gave.

It was 7:35 and I was trying to make it through the home stretch, trying to figure out something to make the last leg go by more quickly. Maybe some Christmas Carols, I thought.

For a few minutes, then, I thought about whether I had it in me to be the cool Bell Ringer -- to sing Christmas carols and toss jokes out at people and wish everyone who walked by a Merry Christmas and a very happy new year, to be the guy who would be so jovial and entertaining that people would talk about it at their own Christmas parties: "You should have seen this bell ringer the other day," they might say.

I'm not that type of guy. I want to be, but I don't have it in me, and it's not my personality. Some people -- maybe Tom Selleck-- could get away with that. They'd pick up the bell, start jingling, sing a couple lines of a Christmas song, and a crowd would gather, drawn in by their natural charisma and charm. It would become a spontaneous Christmas-y event, one people would enjoy and love.

I lack any natural charisma or charm, and I feared that if I began singing, it would seem weird. So I didn't sing out loud, but under my breath; I began to sing under my breath and jingle in time with the songs.

My early blankness continued, as the first song I could think of now was "Frog Round," the song that goes:

What a strange bird
The frog are
When he sits he stands

I sang that for a while, anyway, under my breath, stopping only to thank people and wish them a Merry Christmas, jingling away, and finally, finally, I remembered another Christmas carol, one that would carry me a good ways towards 8:00: The Twelve Days of Christmas.

I began singing that, but my tiredness and the continued interruptions to thank people and wish them a Merry Christmas! and the jingling really threw me off: I couldn't remember whether it was two turtledoves or two calling birds, and I kept singing Six maids a milking instead of Six Swans a swimming. I made it through, and it was 7:50. I tried some other Christmas carols, singing quietly, but nothing worked.

Instead, I jingled my way through to 8:02 quietly, working until 8:02 because a group of people came through and I didn't think I should just abruptly up and pick up the kettle in front of people. After they were done, I took the kettle and carried it into the service desk with the bell and the little wooden stick they'd given me to push money down into the kettle with.

"Here," I said to the service desk girl.

"Thanks," she said, and took it and walked away. I felt a little let down; it seemed like there should be a check-out procedure or some sort of acknowledgement, a card or a thanks or ... something. I mean, sure, charity is it's own reward, yeah, I got it, but that doesn't mean that charity can't give you a pat on the back at least.

I didn't get one, not this time. I walked out of the grocery store, got in the car, and headed towards home, with only a brief detour to buy Sweetie some Christmas cookies. Charity may be its own reward, but Sweetie deserves more than that. She deserves some frosted sugar cookies shaped like mittens.

I didn't get one for myself; I already had my reward: the good feeling that came from volunteering my time, and the better feeling of knowing that I was done volunteering my time and could go home and watch TV.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

1001 Ways To Tune Up The World, Number Fifty-Three

53. Give in and have computers start remembering things for us.

I've joked before about subcontracting out my memory to Google -- but why shouldn't we do that, and why should it be a joke? We're already halfway there. The Boy has a cell phone, and I don't know the number for it, because I've only had to dial it one time: when I punched it into my cell phone. Now, when I want to call The Boy, I just hit "Contacts," scroll to him, and hit "send."

My email at work fills in the names and address of the person
I'm trying to send it to. I just have to start typing some part of the name and it gives me suggestions for who I'm trying to find. So I don't know anyone's email address anymore; a caller asked me for my paralegal's email one day and I had to go to my email to begin to type her name and then read it to her. My computer does the same thing for website addresses.

Having computers remember things for us makes sense: Human memory is overrated and unreliable. I can recall my phone number from when I was a kid, but I don't remember which of the two numbers I have now is for my Mom's house, as opposed to her cell phone. So my little post-it note of her numbers is next to useless. With a little suggestion and interference, memories can be overridden and made obsolete or incorrect, and once that happens, you're stuck singing song lyrics to Pour Some Sugar On Me that'll make your wife laugh.

Paper memory is worse: the speed with which things like phone numbers and addresses change makes printing up lists of memories (like phone numbers and addresses) an exercise in waste and futility. Every year, the Wisconsin State Bar puts out a directory of courts and judges and clerks. In the past year, Dane County got five new judges and others moved their offices around, so the printed list I have on my desk is worthless (and I don't know why I still have it on my desk.) I never look in a phone book for a number anymore.

Plus, we're all carrying around, at any given time, extremely powerful portable computers that can easily be made to store any information that we want; with the improvement of voice-to-data programs, all we have to do is make a simple modification to cell phones or iPods and we can then quickly store information just by saying it into the mouthpiece.

That, in turn, would lead to applications like Taking notes -- having your iPhone record a lecture and automatically turn it into searchable text that you can recall with a few key words. Imagine the possibilities not just for students, but for doctors and lawyers and everyone else. I could meet with a client and have the entire meeting transcribed and searchable and on my office's network in minutes. When I run into you on the street and you say you've moved and give me your new number, I repeat it into my phone and it's in the updated directory instantaneously.

And from then on, it's smooth sailing: Sitting in traffic and need to know when the last battle of the war of 1812 was, or what your coworker mentioned about the boss monitoring internet use, or when your wife's birthday is? It's right there on your own Personal Memorizer.

(By the way: The last battle of the War of 1812 was fought on January 8, 1815.)

Prior entries:

13. Ban driving any kind of automobile, motorcycle or other personal vehicle within 1-2 miles of downtown in any city with a population of more than 100,000.

12. Abolish gym class; instead, teach kids to play musical instruments.

11. Change copyright laws to allow anyone to use anyone else's creative work provided that the copier pay 60% of the profit to the originator and that the copier not cast the original work in a negative light.

10. Have more sidewalk cafes and outdoor seating.

9. When you have to give someone a gift, ask them what they want, and then get that thing for them.

8. Never interrupt or finish someone's jokes.

7. Periodically, give up something you like for at least a month.

6. Switch to "E-money."

5. Have each person assigned one phone number, and then add an extension for the various phones and faxes that person might be reached at.

4. Abolish Mondays and Tuesdays.

3. Don't listen to interviews with athletes or comedians.

2. Have "personal cashiers" at the grocery store.

1. Don't earn more than $200,000 per year.

Everything is okay if you just add "...but isn't that what the holidays are all about?" after it. Try it. You'll see. (3 Good Things From 12/21/09)

It's my last day of work before taking off 6 whole days for Christmas break! Woo-hoo! And I have 3 Good Things from yesterday to keep me happy while I try to do 6 days worth of work before 5 p.m. tonight. (True, I might make more progress if I did the work instead of blogging, but what fun would that be?)

1. The package got delivered! I'd ordered a present for Sweetie that I was worried wouldn't come in time for Christmas, but it got delivered yesterday and we're set to go. Thanks, Internet!

2. The stores weren't crowded when I ran some last-minute errands. That's probably not good for the stores, but it was good for the guy who volunteered to be the one to pick up the "Boss Gifts" for the office, then forgot to take the money home over the weekend and so he had to go do it Monday night. But there was hardly anyone in the stores and I was able to zip in and out and still get back to the house with plenty of time to eat some carry-out KFC and biscuits, and we even squeezed in...

3. The egg nog shake I got at McDonald's: One of the high points of any holiday season is the holiday treat that's only available during that time of year: like Creme Eggs at Easter, the Egg Nog shakes McDonald's serves at Christmas are something I look forward to, so after jogging on the treadmill for 35 minutes yesterday, I treated myself to an egg nog shake on the way to errands. I know, I know: It entirely undid the workout, but isn't that what the holidays are all about?

It's true: A raccoon really did eat a hole in our roof.

Tomorrow, on my first day off for my Christmas vacation, I've got to get up on the roof and shovel snow off to avoid icicles and ice dams and other problems. Then, I've got to salt the sidewalk, and shovel the driveway again, and do all those other chores that come with home ownership.

I do those things because ... well, in my case, I do them because Sweetie makes me; I'd rather be sitting around reading. But Sweetie makes me do them because it's necessary to protect our house. She's good that way, always keeping her eye on the big picture -- like when she makes sure she has good homeowner's insurance coverage for us.

Homeowner's insurance is an absolute necessity. If you've got a mortgage, the bank is going to require you to have it (or they'll get it for you and it'll be super-expensive.) But even without a mortgage, you'll need homeowner's insurance, because at some point someone's going to slip and fall on your sidewalk, or the bathtub's going to leak and wreck the flooring, or lightning will strike and knock down your chimney, or, if you're me, a raccoon will eat a hole in your roof.

And when those things happen, if you've got homeowner's insurance, you'll be fine: You'll make a call to your insurer and they'll take care of the problem.

You don't want to go with just any insurer, though: It's expensive and you want good coverage at the lowest cost; getting a bad policy or paying too much is throwing money away. That's why you want to find your home insurance through a place like That site, which specializes in finding new york home insurance, will help you quickly and easily sort through the multitude of companies, options and quotes to find the policy that's best for you -- and it's free.

They'll even help you get coverage if you're a renter -- and that's every bit as necessary because you don't want to have your stuff destroyed in a fire and not be able to replace it, do you? can be visited online or by phone at 1.800.255.2489; call them and they'll do your comparison shopping for you by getting you up to four quotes from major insurers. You'll save time, and money, and your home.

Monday, December 21, 2009

What I'm Doing For Christmas (Thinking The Lions/Essays About Stuff.)

This is the time of year that people ask other people, "So, what are your [fill-in-the-holiday] plans?"

That's kind of an awkward question for me, because the first thing I think when people say So, what are your plans? is Why, what do you want me to do? I have to be constantly on my guard against people inviting me to do something, or people inviting themselves to do something with me; if I'm not careful, people will make me go to a holiday party, or they'll have a holiday party at my house and I'll be forced to be there for it, hoping that my clever/desperate choice of serving "Black Licorice in a Decorative Glass Mug" will be seen as funny or neat, rather than the move of someone who not only forget to buy hors d'ouevres but also never had anything to put the appetizers on in the first place.

The second thing I think of when people ask me So, what are your plans is this: Why do I have to have plans?

And the third thing I think of is: At present, my plans are to continue to monitor the slow but fun deterioration of our Christmas tree.

This is our Christmas Tree, as it exists right now, in a picture I took moments ago:

There are lights on the tree, but they're not on as it's only 3:30 in the afternoon and I don't put the Christmas tree lights on until later on in the day, unless we have company over, which I desperately try never to do. So the lights aren't on yet.

Sharp-eyed and long-memoried readers will note that this year's tree not only violates every single Christmas Tree rule I was raised to adhere to strictly, but also that it is more or less entirely home-made. This tree has ornaments that touch the branches, it has ornaments that violate the tough-but-fair guidlines on what is, or is not, an appropriate color for Christmas (appropriate: Red, green, gold, silver, but only in timeless, classy shades. Inappropriate: Blue, pink, orange.) It also has yarn, something that would never have passed muster on a tree supervised and implemented by either my mom or my dad.

This is not my mom and my dad's tree. It is, though, the tree of a person who doesn't like decorating trees, and it is the tree of a person who lives in a house where Mr Bunches and Mr F also reside.

Mr Bunches and Mr F aren't really classified as "3-year-olds" or "twins" anymore. They've moved beyond those into "Forces of Nature." Soon, I worry, pediatricians and babysitters and other professionals will begin describing them using those hurricane codes, and the Babies! will be tracked on SuperDoppler radar with little warning bands across the bottom of the screen: If you live in the following counties, Mr Bunches is heading your way and he's upset because he wanted to play with the spray hose at the sink, but he did NOT want Mr F to also play with it, too, so when Daddy said that Mr F got to also play with the spray hose, that was good cause for Mr Bunches to get off the counter and to take Mr F's Astro Boy figure and run into the living room, causing Mr F to forget that he wanted to play with the spray hose and get mad, mad enough to go to the downstairs play room and tip over the empty rack that usually holds DVDs but we got smart and finally moved the DVDs, because that way when Mr F tips it over, at least we don't have to pick up the DVDs, which is good because there's no time to stop Mr F since Mr Bunches is trying to go upstairs and throw his mattress around because he's still mad, remember?

That warning would take a while to scroll past, but you'd better heed it.

Last year, we dealt with the Babies! near-total lack of civilization by building what I referred to as "Fort Christmas" :

But that wasn't a permanent solution to the problem, and couldn't have been because it required a lot of work, and also because the Babies! can climb right over the fences now. It's a terrible thing when you can no longer corral your three-year-olds and have to start treating them like actual people, but that's the phase we've reached in our lives.

(While the Babies! can climb over the fences, The Boy cannot; we had a gate that we used in the upstairs hallway to keep the Babies! out of the bathroom and our room. It was more symbolic than practical, as either Mr F or Mr Bunches could get over it without much trouble, when they bothered to try. But it slowed them down and gave us that critical extra half-second necessary to keep toys and heads out of the toilet, so we used it, until The Boy couldn't get over the gate one day and crashed down onto it. Even repairing it with electrical tape [we were out of duct tape] didn't help, and after a couple of weeks of that, we gave up on the gates and resorted to locking the doors we don't want the Babies! to get into. The result of that, I'm sure, is that one morning Mr F or Mr Bunches will spontaneously figure out how to pick locks. Or they'll just tear the door down. Either way.)

Because I didn't want to go to the effort of building Fort Christmas again, I began, about a week ago, pondering what to do this year for the Christmas tree. I'd long ago abandoned my family's strict rules on that subject, anyway, and each year that I got further and further away from those ideas, I felt more and more freedom to just do what I wanted to do. By this year, I was free enough to know that I could wait to put up the tree until the week before Christmas (unforgivably late, in my family's honor code), and I thought perhaps I could tinker even more with the whole concept of a Christmas tree.

I briefly considered "Not having a tree this year," something I would be glad to do, but which I didn't think, in good conscience, I could actually let happen.

I'd be glad to not have a tree because the tree has never been a big part of the holiday for me. As a kid, the tree was scary. We spent hours walking around Christmas tree lots up by the A&W and Red Owl, watching Dad hold up trees and shake them, and Mom frown them off. We watched Dad saw the trunk and saw off branches and wire them into different places in the tree. We went through tense moments getting the tree into our stand, and making it stand level. We tested lights, and unwrapped six big boxes of fragile ornaments, each of which had to hang a certain distance from all other ornaments, and from all other branches. We hung tinsel, strand by tremulous strand, and then we spent the remainder of the Christmas season forbidden to go near the tree at all.

Then, as a young adult, my Christmas trees posed different problems: Raised to believe that only a "real" tree is a good tree, I snuck real trees into my apartments, then worried that landlords would find them and I'd be evicted just for following the rules of Christmas trees. Alongside that I worried that the real trees would catch fire and burn down the entire building, including me. I'd never worried that the trees would catch fire at home, but it seemed more dangerous in an apartment: Why else would they have rules against having trees in an apartment, if it wasn't because "real" trees were that much more likely to ignite like matches on a hot day once placed in an apartment?

Then, once married, Christmas trees became my own battle, first with Sweetie and the kids, who preferred all-white lights to colored lights. We were never allowed "all-white" lights on a tree as a kid, and I'd grown to associate doing that with lower-class, distasteful displays that the neighbors might look down on. But Sweetie liked the all-white look, and I eventually caved to that. I had a few years of my own battles with the kids, trying to get them to understand the importance of hanging ornaments the right way, and such, before I abandoned that, too.

That history of Christmas tree problems meant that I didn't care, much, whether we had a tree or not; it had always been a source of work, or worry, or trouble, for me, and I could easily not have one, except that not having a tree made me worry that things would fall apart the way they had when I'd stopped using birthday cards.

A few years back, I opted to stop buying birthday cards, except under two very limited circumstance: One, if I didn't get you a gift at all, I might get you a card -- or maybe not; if I didn't care enough to get a gift, the odds are I wouldn't bother picking out a card, either. Two, if I sent you a gift card or check, I'd send it in a card because an envelope with just a check in it seemed a little cold (and invited thieves to steal it, and one big part of my upbringing that I've never forgotten is that everyone, everywhere, is a potential thief and serial killer, so why ask for trouble?)

It didn't make sense, to me, to give Sweetie a card with her gift. She'd have to open and read the card (sometimes a long process, because for a wife or grandmother, you have to get a card that's heavy on text and roses) before opening the card, and the card always said something like "Happy Birthday, I love you," which is what I'd be telling her, anyway, over dinner.

"Don't forget to open the card!" people are always saying at gift-giving occasions, and I began to wonder why? What's the big deal with the card? Why can't you just say "Happy Birthday" when you give me the gift?

So I stopped buying cards. I just bought gifts, and gave them to people, and that had two results.

For most people, it perplexed them. They would pick up the gift I gave them and I could see them look around, nervously, waiting for someone to say "Don't forget to open the card!" Some people even asked "Is there a card?" When I'd say No, they seemed confused, and a little disappointed, but I stuck by my guns.

That was the result outside of our house. Inside of our house, the result was to completely break down the bounds of society, devolving us to near chaos.

My simple decision not to buy cards any more was welcomed by the kids and by Sweetie, who agreed that it was dumb to buy a card and that we'd just as soon not waste the two or three or four bucks cards cost now. I was proud of myself, until I saw what came next as we descended into the maelstrom.

It's not my fault, really; I couldn't have known that greeting cards were the fragile thread that held up the safety net preventing my family from descending into savagery, but they were.

Before long, we also didn't light candles on birthday cakes. Nobody in our house smoked, making it dicey to find a lighter or match (and our stove doesn't work that way.) So we'd put the candles on the cake but not light them, and then the candles dropped away because why have candles if you're not going to light them?

Once the candles were gone, the singing faded out, too. No more quavery versions of Happy Birthday To You, with guys trying not to sing on key so they didn't seem lame, no more slight hesitation while the kids try to figure out if they should sing Mom or her name, none of that. If we weren't going to light the candles that weren't on the cake, there wasn't much point of singing, right?

Then presents were not wrapped any more. They were put in their boxes, or into a gift bag, perhaps, but there wasn't even tissue covering them up if they were in a gift bag. That, too, made sense, in the long slow slide down; we're just going to tear the paper off, and it costs money, so why waste that extra funding?

I put the brakes on when we had a birthday where Sweetie was given her gifts by the kids, still in the bag from the store, with the tags on. The cake was on the table, people were milling around, and Sweetie was surrounded by what looked like the results of a recent shopping trip. We were, figuratively speaking, one rung above ruin, "ruin" being the kids just saying "Here's a couple bucks, buy yourself something nice."

So I re-imposed some rules: Presents must be wrapped -- nicely, I had to add, one year -- and tags removed. Cards were optional but the present must be purchased and made to look nice. Even with that, I'm still fighting: Oldest had me in the extended family gift-drawing this year, and we exchanged presents at my in-laws yesterday for that. Oldest "exchanged" with me by tossing me some of my asked-for dress socks, unwrapped and still tagged. "Sorry I didn't wrap them," she said, and wandered away.

If all that could come from not giving birthday cards, I could only imagine what the result of We're not going to have a Christmas tree would be; the kids would stop wearing pants, I figured, or would take up arson. Whatever it would be, I didn't want to find out.

But we still had the problem of the Babies!, the problem being that somehow we've never really instilled in them an understanding of the dichotomy between "things that are okay to pick up, touch, and throw at your brother"and "things that are just for looking at."

We try to teach them that. But it's tough, and sometimes at the end of a long day when the Babies! are crabby and it's 8:15 and I've got a cold and I still need to help The Boy with his homework and Sweetie's cleaning up the kitchen, sometimes then I decide that maybe my cell phone is okay to play with.

And then I try to figure out the best way to get chocolate off a cell phone.

Faced with the need to have a Christmas tree in order to stave off the older kids' transformation into Visigoths, and the need to not put out a collection of glass balls that would soon be ground into the floor and tiny feet, I came up with the solution of having a Christmas tree that celebrated all the great things of the season, the great things being paper, and yarn.

I'm not kidding -- paper and yarn are two household things we can have without worries, but I didn't sell it that way, of course. I sold it to Sweetie like this:

"We could take colored paper, and print up pictures of the kids and us and the family, and cut them into shapes, and hang those on the tree with yarn as a kind of family-photo Christmas tree."

Sweetie was sold on the sentiment and celebration of family that represented. Or, as she put it:

"That way, the Babies! can't pull it down and break everything."

So that's what we did. Saturday, I got out the basics of Christmas: The tree, the lights, the singing, dancing Cookie Monster who plays "Blue Christmas" when you press a button, but with these lyrics:

Me'll have a blue Christmas
Without me cookies

To those, we also added a Santa, and a rudimentary Nativity scene. I assembled the tree and began putting on the white lights while Sweetie and the Babies! and The Boy ran some errands. I got halfway up the tree when I realized that we were going to be short of lights, as many of the strands from last year were no longer working. (You'd think that when you pay a whole dollar for lights on the clearance shelf at the drug store, they'd last longer than one season, but there you go. That's our country for you.)

I called Sweetie and told her to pick up more lights. "About 400," I said.

Then I put together the rest of the tree and began printing the pictures to cut out. Sweetie and the kids got home with the lights.

"You win the battle," she said. "Finally."

I met her in the kitchen and said "What do you mean?" She held up 8 boxes of 50-light sets, multicolored.

"You finally get your colored lights," she said.

I took her out to the half-finished tree, wired from the ground to midway up with white lights.

"They didn't have any white lights," she said, so I began unstringing the white lights and then restringing them, intermingled with colored lights, while Sweetie and The Boy began cutting the pictures into Christmas-y shapes.

"What's a Christmas shape?" The Boy had asked. I pondered, and said:

"Stars, and circles, and diamonds."

"What's Christmas-y about a diamond?" The Boy asked.

"What's Christmas-y about a circle?" I fired back. I don't give in to his terrorism.

They went back to cutting, and I only had to intervene once, when I noticed that there were a lot of circles (sort of) and not a lot of stars -- and what I'd really wanted, most of all, was stars.

Then I had to give some guidance on the pictures that didn't lend themselves to Christmas shapes, pictures where the subjects were far apart, or obscured by things The Boy didn't think should be in the picture, like milk cartons or alligators. We decided that additional shapes could be used, shapes like oblong and I did the best I could.

Sweetie pitched in by glittering some of the pictures, and, when he got up from his nap, Mr Bunches pitched in by helping take the leftover yarn, yarn I'd strung on the tree as a sort of garland, and hanging some himself. Mr Bunches wasn't as focused or diligent as I was about making the yarn hang decoratively -- but he was more energetic than I was, and hung a great deal more yarn in a shorter amount of time.

It's easy to be efficient when you're three. Mr F helped out by trying to unstring the yarn, pulling at it as quickly as I could string it back up (but not as quickly as Mr Bunches could clump it onto the branches.) Then, when Mr F finally was dissuaded from that, he opted instead to get behind the tree, standing in between it and the wall (probably so that he could push it down on me when I least suspected it.)

It took the Babies! only a few minute to realize that they could pull the pictures off of the branches to create a good, clean ripping sound, and also to make the adults in the room instinctively yell No before we settled down and remembered that this was the whole point, to create a tree that the Babies! could touch.

"If they pull them all off," I told Sweetie, "We can always print and hang more," and in saying that, I not only created the world's first Disposable Christmas Tree, but also engaged in a little of the fiction of the holidays, the pretending that we would fix the tree. I knew we wouldn't, of course, print more pictures. If the Babies! pulled them all down, we'd never print, glitter, tie, and hang more pictures. We'd just shrug and get on with our lives, the way we already were doing when they pulled yarn down and then threw it back on, creating great loopy tangles that only enhanced the charm, from my perspective.

We wouldn't print more pictures, and we wouldn't straighten out the yarn, and we would probably be slow to stand the tree back up if they pushed it down, because Sweetie and I understand that Christmas isn't about trees and ornaments; it's about not doing stuff. It's about not having plans, about not overloading ourselves with errands and work and tree-trimming and shopping and all the other trappings of the holidays.

Our holidays don't involve days and days of baking Christmas cookies; instead, we tend to stop off at the diner and buy a couple of their perfectly-frosted Christmas cookies the kids and Sweetie like, because we want the cookies, and time to sit and eat them -- not the mess and trouble and hassle of getting the ingredients and baking them.

Our holidays don't involve the massive amounts of outside- and inside decorations that light up everyone's house. We like to look at them, but we don't want to freeze our hands off and spend weeks putting them up and then weeks protecting them from the Babies! and then weeks taking them down. So we blow up the Giant Inflatable Rudolph, hang the pictures and yarn on the tree, and then go dance with the Babies! to the Lady GaGa song they like for some reason, and relax a little.

Our holidays rarely involve having a houseful of guests over, or driving someplace on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. We'll go visit you if you want, or have you over if you insist -- but we probably won't do that on Christmas itself, as that day we'll be lounging around, still in pajamas at eleven as we sit around the kitchen table and tease The Boy and talk and watch the Babies! jumping on the couch, killing time until we make ourselves a dinner of mostly pre-prepared food and then go, as a family, to watch Godzilla or some other movie that, while not holiday-themed, is the movie the kids want to watch and will be enjoyable because of that.

Those are unorthodox choices, I know; they run contrary to the idea that we should have fancy trees with perfect decorations, not trees covered in whorls of yarn and a hodgepodge of lights. They go counter to the image of families gathering around a sumptuous table with a centerpiece of turkey or goose, of moms and kids cutting out cookies and decorating them, of friends and families gathered in Christmas sweaters to talk and joke and laugh and be loud and stay late. The way I spend my holidays now is not the way most people spend their holidays, and not the way I spent my holidays as a kid.

But it's the perfect way to spend the holidays, for me. It's perfect because there's no stress, no trouble, no bickering and late nights and hard drives and excessive clean-up. Instead, I spend days and nights around this time of year sitting and joking with the kids, reading to the Babies!, snuggling up to Sweetie as I watch Bad Santa and she pretends to sleep but is probably secretly watching it, too.

And when you ask me, What are your plans for the holidays?, that's why I hesitate a little: Not because it's hard to explain, and not because I'm embarrassed about those plans. If there's a better way to spend Christmas Eve than sleeping in followed by chasing Mr Bunches around and then playing a game with Mr F, eating lunch and talking football with The Boy, asking the girls what they hope they get most for Christmas, and then sitting in the dark eating pizza rolls and watching horror movies, I can't imagine what that better way might be.

No, I'm not embarrassed or at a loss for words. I hesitate to answer the question What are your plans for the holidays because if I told you what I'm really doing, you'd probably want in, and that'd spoil it.