Holidays In Hell, Part 3: Moving Past Tippy The Tree

Staggered between burning countless sheets of cookies and the innumerable show business interviews of my youth, my mother would focus on burnishing the Image of the Season with hours of meticulous decorating.

Christmas was Margaret Lamb’s time to shine, and prove what unparalleled taste she had.

I have to give the Devil her due: For someone with no formal training she had an excellent eye for both color and proportion. Her tastes ran to the dramatic, but her affinity to pull a room together could not be denied.

She had an EXACT idea of how the Christmas decorations should be presented, and there were to be no deviations from the plan. She was uncompromising in how each bow MUST be tied and each bough must be hung: Our house at Christmas was a tableaux of her fantasy life.

There’s nothing quite like trying to put up Christmas decorations with a manic, compulsive person. You end up as agitated as they are, and nothing you do will please them. It’s a sucker’s game, and one we were forced to play every year with a silly-assed grin plastered to our faces.

Before we could begin decorating, though, one of my brothers would bring the ladder in from the garage, open the small square opening in the ceiling outside of my bedroom door, and climb into the attic to retrieve the many boxes of decorations and Tippy The Tree. (Cue the sound of a chainsaw)

Every year one box or another would have gotten damaged in the attic, somehow. This would trigger my mother’s unreasonable rage and legitimate sadness at losing a sentimental item, coupled with the certainty that it must be someone’s fault. Sometimes it was the way things were packed, sometimes it was carelessness on the part of whichever brother was asked to put the boxes back in the attic or take them down. More often, though, the culprit was water damage from our perpetually leaky roof. Somehow, it always seemed to be my mother’s art projects that were destroyed

Art Projects.

Margaret Lamb did Art Projects – because crafts were just so unsophisticated and provincial.

I cannot describe her sorrow at losing the Three Wise Men.

I was there the tragic afternoon when she opened the box to find them water stained and moldy. I can still see what they looked like whole: Their monochrome faces (one bearded), with flowing robes and gifts – and their ruin in a box that reeked of mildew.

Mom had constructed the Magi out of Papier-mâché laid over frames of upright cardboard paper towel tubes, and they stood a little over a foot high. Their perfectly proportioned outstretched hands and arms were made of modelling clay supported by toothpicks and Popsicle sticks. Painstakingly laid pieces of muslin and leftover trim gave them the sweeping garments of Kings. She used a tiny Chiclets box for the chest of gold, an old dangly earring for the frankincense censer, and a large bead for the vessel of myrrh. All three Men and their Gifts had been covered with countless whisper thin layers of deep cream spray paint, then sparingly touched with the faintest  of antiquing. Finally, they were finished with a seal of matte lacquer.

She spent dozens upon dozens of hours making them the summer of 1971. It was the rainy season of 1978 that did them in: More than 3 feet of water fell from the sky in our polluted end of the San Fernando Valley, and apparently most of it percolated through our attic and the 30-year-old roof my parents hadn’t bothered to replace during the salad days when I was on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, and making the equivalent of $3,500 a week.

The Wise Men were pretty good – really. I have no reason to lie about Margaret’s talents.

The problem was she thought the Wise Guys were gallery quality. She displayed them in a prominent way on an end table. We knew better than to move them, she would know if we had. Just like she knew when we moved cans in the pantry (you think I kid). She would obsessively know exactly where she placed them. God forgive the unlucky soul who disturbed their position. Now here they were: ruined.

Her rage was positively epic, which forced the ‘Merry Fucking Christmas’ blowup to come early, and we got two that year.

“Oh no! No, no, no!!” it began low and began to grow. “They’re ruined! Goddammit, they’re all ruined!” she shrieked.

I began to step backwards, eyes darting, trying to find anywhere to escape.

“They’re all fucking ruined! How in FUCK’s name did this happen?!!!” her voice spiked in fury. “Everything I ever do turns to shit! Why do I bother?” her fury hit a sharp crescendo.

“Why. Do. I. Bother?” her voice a study in staccato fury.

“Oh, oh, oh!!” he uncontrollable sobbing begins.

Balthasar, Gaspar and Melchior were laid to rest in an ocean of tears and savage vulgarities. Even then I understood her guttural lamentations were about her suffocated dreams, and not about her ruined Art Projects.

I feel genuinely bad to this day how much losing them hurt her.

The problem was that Weepy Mom always preceded angry, hitting, Destructive Mom.

Silly me, I was always sure if I could just calm down Weepy Mom then angry, hitting, Destructive Mom wouldn’t show up. My cunning plan failed every time. At that age I was still convinced it was my fault she was so unhappy. I just knew there was something I wasn’t doing – or something I needed to do more of – that would make her happy. I credit my older brothers for introducing me to the notion that maybe – just maybe – she was the one who needed to change.

 

Lamb Christmas Tree

 

When the annual damage had been assessed, and whatever could be fixed was repaired, my mother would start to assemble The Tree. That we had an artificial tree was due to my asthma, that it was such a piece of crap was all on my folks.

The Tree stood about 6 feet tall, with a base made of 2 giant dowels which were supposed to fit together snugly, but had the stability of a teetering Jenga stack. The threadbare branches were made of plastic pine needles and twisted metal wire, which fit into little holes drilled into the dowel. The whole thing sat in a rickety tree holder, wobbling drunkenly about and often falling over without provocation. For some reason assembling The Tree would flummox my mother every year. The art of sorting the branches from largest to smallest escaped her. Every. Fucking. Year.

“Goddammit, goddammit, goddammit! Why won’t this go right? I don’t understand it.” We would melt off to our rooms, suddenly needing to do our homework.

At least an hour later, after a fist-fight with Tippy The Tree, Margaret would start on the lights – a job that took several hours to get just so. The lights had to be done to the exacting standards that only existed only in her head. This was not a one person job, of course., which meant we all got to pitch in. Lucky us!

Children of the 60s and 70s remember well the exasperation of an entire string of 60 lights not working because of ONE random bad bulb, and how long it took to find it.

You began by plugging in the strings of lights – ALL of which worked *just fine* when you carefully put them away the year before – to find that somehow three of the four strings of small white lights didn’t work. You’d unplug them, shake them hopefully, and then plug them back in again to no avail.

Then came the laborious process of finding the bad bulb by methodically pulling each one out of its plastic socket, and replacing it with a good bulb. When the string finally blinked to life you could claim victory, and move on to the next malfunctioning string.

The tiny, fickle bulbs were clear glass with two thin filaments coming out the bottom that made direct contact with the socket, and were prone to giving you a blast of current as you gently wiggled it free from its seat.

Woe be to the fool who broke a bulb. Bulbs were precious, and it was almost impossible to find spares. You’d be concentrating like a Stanford neurosurgeon as you shimmied the bulb loose, trying to avoid 110 volts, and suddenly one of the brittle wire ends would snap. The haranguing from my mother would begin anew.

Once all of the strings of lights were operational began the next challenge: Hanging four strings of lights on a tree that would fall over if a door slammed across the house. Not just hanging the lights, but making sure they were absolutely, positively, obsessively evenly distributed around that sad tree in a schematic only my mother could see. That tormented woman would hang the lights, get halfway done, rip them off, accidentally knock over the tree, curse, and start over – again and again. It wouldn’t be unusual for her to do this ten or twelve times before she was finally pleased. God knows we didn’t stop until she was pleased.

Dad would come home and tell mom just how wonderful Tippy The Tree looked as it was falling over.

Mom would hang the tinsel garland after dinner, as we were finishing our homework. The garland could be no less perfect than the lights, and we would hear cursing from the other room as she unwound and rewound the tired tinsel. I can’t imagine how exhausting it must be to be compelled to have every light equidistant, every loop of tinsel exactly the same size. I mean I know how exhausting it is to live with, but damn. How relentless that reality must be. She thought it was a reflection on her if the surface things didn’t look perfect. She was convinced that she was being judged by everyone because she was judging everyone else for their petty imperfections.

The sad reality? The Tree wasn’t perfect – not by any stretch of the imagination. Look at that picture of the tree, again. There is nothing remotely perfect in it – but that represents at minimum 15 hours of work. Hanging and rehanging the tinsel and lights was simply a symptom of the compulsion she refused to treat. She would perform an annual feedback loop with them until she finally exhausted herself, and moved on to her next self imposed, joyless holiday labor that compounded her resentment and was just one more step towards the Merry Fucking Christmas Meltdown.

Finally, the tinsel would be just right and Tippy The Tree would be ready to decorate. But, it would be too late that night, and the hanging of ornaments would have to wait until the following evening.

Dad ignored the building mania every year. Instead, he immersed himself in the television, doing it from the comfort of an armchair whose fabric she chose, in a room whose walls were filled with her paintings and collages. Dad may have stopped drinking the year before I was born, but he was still trying to achieve that blackout state of oblivion.

As we went to bed The Tree fell over, unbidden.

 

JPEG A 0053

 

While my brothers were at school the next day dear old mom was a busy little elf.

All of my brothers had the good fortune of escaping to school. Not so for me: In 4th, 5th and 6th grade I skipped school for the day so that I could learn the ins and outs of the whole obsessive business of Decorating Madness.Twice she worked it in with a print job – so, you know… Total Win-Win for her.

By the time I was on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman I was never able to escape to school , and I had her neurotic ceremony of season memorized.

There were boxes and boxes of decorations and every item not only had a predetermined place, it had to be taken out in order. Let me repeat that: decorations had to be removed from the box – box by box – in order.

You begin by dusting the tired, dog-eared wreath with the red bow, before hanging it up on the rusty nail between the two front windows. Next, a silk holly sprig would be hung on the front door, and plastic mistletoe would get taped to the doorway between the living room and the hall.

I would be rebuked if I went too fast. Each piece must be reverently unwrapped, dusted, placed just-so, and be glowingly admired before moving to the next object. I was admonished fervently: One must NEVER rush the boxes.

I learned to carefully unwrap the 5 small Santa mugs that were purchased for my brothers by a grandmother I never met, who died before I was born. I would remove the white tissue paper from each, revealing Santa’s smiling face, and take the long pieces of cotton batting from inside the mug, taking care to replace each piece of wrapping and baffling into the box from whence it came. When the mugs were unwrapped, and sitting on the lamp table, I would take a clean tea towel of the softest cotton in hand and gently cradle each cup in the palm of my hand, brushing away any dirt or dust, taking care to never rub the paint. Now, I’d run the cloth inside the mug to make sure no offending particles are left inside a cup that no-one will ever drink from. When I’d cleaned all of my brother’s mugs I’d inspect them to make sure they gleamed. When Santa’s eyes were twinkling I’d place them in an exact semi-circle on the coffee table and look at it from the fireplace, and again from couch. All of the handles wouldn’t match up exactly – and the HAD to be precisely the same way. So, I’d gingerly move the mugs telling myself ‘For the love of god DO NOT LEAVE ANY FINGERPRINTS‘.

Good. It looks good. No – really. It’s good.

As I continued to unpack decorations I would stack the empty boxes neatly against the front door, dead soldiers awaiting their temporary return to the attic. Mechanically, I washed my hands after each box, before my mother could remind me it was filthy.

 

Lamb Christmas Dry Sink (4)

 

The candles of the carolers and the lamppost went on the top shelf of the marble dry sink, between the poor poinsettias that were desiccated from a floor heater that had no thermostat – just an on/off lever that too often got left on. The wax figures had to have the dust rinsed off of them, although they were clearly past their prime. They were of immense sentimental value to my mother, and they partially melted when I was 5 or 6. The heater was left on while we were out all day, and it got so hot inside the house that the candles began to give up the ghost. The carolers took on the shape of Jabba the Hut, and the lamppost leaned hard to starboard, but my mother refused to part with them. She considered them an integral part of the Christmas ambience.

The Christmas cards went in the copper bowl with the handle. The  brass and glass candy jar that was just for show held miniature candy canes that were packed away every year.

The 6 piece wooden angel choir, which was prone to breaking (look closely, and you’ll see an angel’s arm) had an absolute order that began with the conductor – and ended with the tuba.

Finally, we would get to the crèche. The crèche was big doings in my house. The pieces were given to my folks as a Christmas gift from Ciel – an Angel to my family before my big brother Daniel and I stated paying the bills.

The figures from the crèche were hand painted Italian plaster. The whole collection has at least 30 pieces, ranging from camel and sheep herders, to 3 angels and 3 Wise Men, cows, donkeys, camels, sheep, and lambs, and of course Jesus, Mary and Joseph. No pun intended.

Imagine the attendant ritual of unwrapping, cleaning and otherwise revering two-and-a-half-dozen chotchkes, with each piece packed so that the nativity story unfolds as you unpack it. It is so exacting that even the camel driver’s staff is a piece of straw from a particular whisk broom my mother bought for its color. The top-heavy camels may fallen so many times over the years that they all had glued legs, but these Magi would never mold.

Only when plaster Joseph and Mary were in place we were ready to take out peach colored baby Jesus. HE was always the last figure out, and the first one back into the box.  HE was to be taken out as if you are actually handling a piece of God – ignoring the fact that god is wrapped in tissue paper and stored in a dusty box in a leaky, drafty attic for 49 weeks a year. Nevertheless, delivering baby Jesus to his spot every year was a great honor for me, and I took it seriously.

Setting up the whole installation would have taken perhaps 3 hours. I could feel her sadness begin when there was no further fiddling to be done on her shadowbox of Christianity.

Over the years my mother got more and more creative with the crèche in an effort to drag the whole thing out. She moved it from the coffee table to take over the marble dry sink when I was in high school. She found a particleboard manger. She used cotton batting to make snow for the ground and to put on the roof of the manger, although no explanation was given as to why there would be snow in Bethlehem. Her pièce de résistance was the lights. She took a string of fairy lights (no trick bulbs at that point) and made the whole scene glitter. One day when I came home from school I found her cutting slits in the cotton batting to put the small lights through. The lights poked through the batting to create a field of stars, and the cord was hidden by the cotton. The last light on the string poked through the back of the manger to make baby Jesus shine in the otherworldly light of the Star of Bethlehem. She was very proud of her Art Project.

When the crèche was set up everything was almost done. Almost.

The crowning moment came when baby Jesus was taken out of the box and unwrapped. No, Silly. Not crèche baby Jesus, but Baby Jesus baby Jesus.

Baby Jesus baby Jesus was a porcelain fetish given to my family by my maternal Grandmother, Honora Bridgette, on the occasion of my eldest brother’s first Christmas. Baby Jesus was about the size of an actual infant, with blindingly white skin, blond hair, comically large and round blue eyes, blue swaddling clothes that looked like a loin cloth, and a gold metal starburst attached to the back of its skull. Aryan Baby Jesus laid atop a bed of excelsior straw in a crib made out of bent willow. My mother would unwrap Baby Jay-sus last, unwinding the sheer curtain she wrapped him in, and with disturbing care place it on the hearth.

NOW the tree could be finished.

 

 

 

 

The actual ornaments would go up after dinner. We had all done our homework (or pretended we had), the dishes were loaded into the dishwasher, and a crackling fire of newspapers rolled into logs and twisted off with hanger-wire was set in the fireplace.

Each of us would take turns knocking over the tree while putting an ornament on it.

We were allowed to pick any ornament from the box, as long as we picked the one our mother wanted us to pick. We would go to hang it on the tree, one eye mindful of setting the whole thing over and one eye on her to make sure we put it where she wanted us to. “No! It has to be even!” By the time 8 of us went through the agonizing process of putting one ornament on the tree we’d be 10 minutes into it and we were bored silly. After 15 minutes we were fidgeting, and withing 20 minutes we were pushing and arguments broke out.

“Godammit! Is it too much to ask for just one nice evening?” she barked. That brought us around quickly.

An hour later, when the tree was finally trimmed to mom’s satisfaction we were all on edge. The fragile glass ornaments would sometimes break, and Tippy The Tree was threatening bring the whole thing down and raise mom’s ire.

In 1973 Mom decided to invest in unbreakable satin ornaments. At that point Styrofoam balls covered with a fine nylon thread were the height of fashion, and she thought they’d spruce up the tree. As we took them out of the bag the nylon thread began to snag and unwind, leaving the ornaments looking fuzzy. At first she blamed it on us. But, as she took them out of the bag herself it became obvious that they were junk. She tried to trim them in vain, but they’d just keep unraveling, eventually leaving a bald spot worse than a comb-over.

They weren’t a total loss, though. The cats loved them, and would attack the tree to get one, which, unfortunately, would cause it to fall over. It became such a problem my mom refused to put them up the following year, because the cats would fling themselves at the tree, which seemed to be held together by sheer force of will.

After the tree trimming came the carols. We would each pick one, and everyone would all have to sing. The six of us kids would all want Rudolf and Frosty. Mom would insist we all pick a different tune. We would stare at her blankly waiting for her to tell us what we should sing. We would do We Wish You A Merry Christmas and The First Noel. It was with reluctance that my folks finally would sing the 12 Days of Christmas.

If I had to pick a Christmas song that reminds me most of those times it would have been the melancholy song from A Charlie Brown Christmas Christmas Time is Here. Vince Guaraldi’s whole album speaks to me – but that song can bring me back to those days in the first few bars. There’s a tightness to the back of my throat, a sting in my eyes and a deep sigh when I hear it. The beauty of the music is an explanation and a tonic.

When the Tippy The Tree had finally been trimmed and our musical selections exhausted Mom would take the tape off of a tin of cookies she had put aside for the occasion: Cookies that were too burnt for company, but still edible. We would gobble them up and wash them down with a half gallon of milk.

Every year we’d go to bed wrung out from tension and wired up with sugar, only to wake up to an entirely different tree.

While we were sleeping Margaret carefully removed every ornament, and placed it just where she thought it should be. When we were younger she always denied doing it. When were teenagers she freely admitted having done so. We weren’t able, you see, to put them where they needed to be. We always had fun putting the tree up, she explained. But, then, it was her job to make it right. You see, don’t you?

She could never accept the gift of a family with whom to decorate a tree. What she wanted was perfection. She needed her illusion so much she could find no pleasure in our expression, only offense.

That’s OK. The Universe paid her back with the tip of its hat. Our many cats knocked Tippy down daily, doing so with running leaps at the ornaments and tinsel.

Although, one cat in particular just loved to climb that poor shaky tree. Cinderella was her name – Cindy we called her. She was a nimble thing, a tiny and gray and white long haired sweetheart who she would skitter three-quarters of the way up Tippy The Tree before it would start wobbling. We’d look over to see the swaying tree and a pair of slightly panicked yellow eyes peeking out from the plastic greenery. “Mew,” we would hear just before the whole thing would come crashing down.

One of my brothers summed up that tree in one word that would ever after reduce us to tears of laughter – even as adults: TIMBER!!!

 

 

My mother’s worst was yet to come – the annual episode that made the season a minefield. It was inevitable – then.

I will recount the story of her yearly break with reality. That deserves to be told.

But not before you know that what she was didn’t define who I am, or how I deal with the season.

I don’t for a moment pretend that I was a faultless mother myself.

What I DID do was allow myself to have limits, and not to punish myself for what I couldn’t accomplish.

I let Eliot put any damned ornament wherever the hell he wanted. I held him up in my arms to let his little hands hang them higher, if he his heart so desired. Or, we’d put his favorites RIGHT where his little eyes could see them, and his little hands could touch them.

Later, I blithely smiled as our doofus dog, Buster, swept the tree with his spring-loaded tail, and shed all over it and the floor. Eliot, Richard and I laughed, shook our heads and took 15 minutes one afternoon to move all of the glass ornaments out of the reach of Mr. Dorkus’ slobbery maw the day we found he’d crunched 3 or 4  of them like they were tomatoes.

I wish once – just once – my mother could have known the joy of letting go and simply enjoying the day, be it Christmas, Thanksgiving or the odd Tuesday we trimmed the tree.

How much different would Margaret Lamb have been – would we ALL have been – if she could have let go of the narcissistic notion that everyone was watching her?

How much different would her life have been if she could have loved and laughed just one person once like this?

 

 

 

**Relax, pearl clutchers – it’s water**

 

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The Price Of Love

Heart

I’ll let you in on a secret: I hate Valentine’s Day.

Really.

The modern holiday as it’s celebrated is nothing but a way to separate you from your hard earned money.

There is nothing religious about the day, as it was initially celebrated. People don’t look to the saints who were honored in the past, nor is there a rush to attend any masses in their honor.

No, these days we honor Saint Hallmark and Saint Godiva and Saint FTD as we meaninglessly toss more consumer goods at one another in the name of ‘love’.

According to the History Channel, American’s started exchanging Valentine’s greetings as far back as the 1700s. The first mass produced cards were from a woman named Ester A. Howland, who used lace, ribbons and colorful pictures in 1840. So, yes, the tradition of exchanging cards dates back more than 250 years. That’s fine.

What I take issue with is that it stopped being a day to let loved ones know they are in your thoughts and your heart in a simple way with a heartfelt message. Rather, it has become a day where we feel obliged to give our loved ones over-priced flowers, candies, stuffed animals, jewelry, fancy dinners and expensive electronics.

Does that seem right to you?

Why do we let ourselves get manipulated by the same businesses that tell us Christmas isn’t really here until you’ve spent more than you can afford to shower your family with things they don’t need?

And really – it’s men who end up getting the short end of the stick on this one. Let’s just look at what the average man is expected to do for the average girlfriend or wife:

A quick check on the internet shows that a dozen long stem roses start at $30 (tax and delivery not included!) – and that’s supposed to be a deal. Flowers, check. A card is going to run you another $5. Card, check.

Now the question is do you spring for a box of chocolates? ($12) A teddy bear with a heart sewn on its chest? ($15) Some balloons? ($10) Check, check and check.

But that’s all just the lead up to the expensive ‘romantic’ dinner that he’s expected to shell out for when prices are jacked up for the evening. Yes, it’s so romantic to go to a crowded restaurant to get rushed through dinner so they can turn the table for the next poor schmo who’s buying a dinner he can’t afford because he’s been pressured into thinking he’s not a good partner unless he does so.

At dinner there’s supposed to be the big reveal of the actual gift. Perhaps it will be some costume jewelry, or if he’s feeling really pressured some actual high end stuff. Maybe it’s a new e-tablet or an iPhone. God knows car dealerships think this is a day where people are buying each other new rides. (Does anyone actually do this?)

The point is that a guy can easily fork over $250 and not be doing anything high-end. Again – does this seem right to you? The thing is, there’s absolutely no reason anyone should be doing this.

Let’s face it – Valentine’s day has become a competition. It’s not about love or affection. It’s about who has the biggest flower arrangement at work. That’s a shame, too,  because it sucks the fun out of giving or receiving tokens of affection if you have to do it.

I’ve heard people defend the ‘holiday’ and the waste of money by saying it’s nice to have a day that’s special and romantic. Agreed. But, why does it have to be February 14th? I mean, there are 364 other days you could pick to celebrate your romance. All right – 360, because most people are already busy on Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year’s, and make their anniversary a special occasion. Why not have a romantic evening because you want to, and not because you feel obliged to because it’s half way through February?

My husband and I take the time to wish each other a happy Valentine’s Day with a kiss and a hand written note. We refuse to be manipulated into spending money on gifts for each other on a day that has no meaning to our relationship. In fact, I have told my husband that I would be disappointed if he spent $30 on a dozen roses that will go for half the price a week later, and be dead by then.

I’m great with not getting flowers on February 14th, because I know that I will get them on an odd Tuesday in March or a Thursday in July. My husband will surprise me with flowers for no particular reason at all, which is far more pleasing than getting them because he felt he had to. We’ll celebrate our relationship with a romantic dinner on the spur of the moment, whether it’s a picnic in the park or a candle-lit restaurant. We don’t let retailers define when we celebrate our love.

The point is this: Why do people salivate in a Pavlovian manner at the ringing of the fabricated holiday bell? Why don’t you make your own traditions? Let the herd get manipulated into spending money, but don’t be one of them. Find a way to make your own time special, and in doing so truly celebrate the one you love.

I Pledge Allegiance to Hypocrisy

Flag

“Do you have the courage to spread this around unashamed?

‘I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” I grew up reciting this every morning in school, with my hand on my heart. They no longer do that for fear of offending someone. Let’s see how many Americans will repost without fear of offending someone.’” – Stupid post on FB

Screw. You.

How’s that for not being afraid of offending someone?

Seriously – Screw You.

Tell me where you can’t say the Pledge of Allegiance. Please, feel free to enumerate the number of different school districts that aren’t saying the pledge. I’m waiting.

Most of those with their knickers in a twist don’t realize that the Pledge wasn’t adopted by congress until 1942, and that in 1943 the Supreme Court ruled that no child can be compelled to recite it. Say it again with me: More than 70 years ago the Supreme Court ruled that it is illegal to compel a student to recite the pledge.

According to Pew Research, in the 1943 U.S. Supreme Court decision, West Virginia v. Barnette, Justice Robert Jackson wrote: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.”

But, in case you’re still worried that there’s a problem with the Pledge not being recited, 45 states require schools to have the Pledge recited daily. Only Vermont, Oklahoma, Hawaii, Iowa and Wyoming don’t have an absolute requirement to say the Pledge. Which of course doesn’t mean they’re prohibited from saying it, they’re just not required to take time from classes to do it.

Usually I ask people who post this if their kids are being prohibited from saying the pledge. To date not one person has answered me. Not one person has said that it’s affecting their children. It’s just a good way for them to get wound up and tell themselves that things were ever so much better during our youth. You know, the halcyon days of civil unrest and rampant sexism. Yes, the good old days when women and people of color knew their place.

Yes, no one has ever answered or offered up the name of a school or district that doesn’t allow the pledge, It’s a boogieman for people who post this stuff on their wall. They don’t know where this is happening, but they sure are upset about it.

There’s another thing about the Pledge most people refuse to acknowledge, and that’s the whole ‘under God’ thing. It was not added to the Pledge until 1954 at the height of the cold war. It was a way to show we weren’t Godless communists like the Ruskies. It was an act of bluster and a show of religion which is still being fought over by parents who don’t want God in their Pledge. I happen to agree with them that it violates the separation of church and state. Funny, but the very people who worry that it’s not being said enough are the very people who have no problem with God getting into everything. Mostly because they’re sure it’s their God that’s being represented. Not Yahweh or Buddha or Allah. You know, the real god.

The tempest in a teapot that is the worry over the Pledge not being said is similar to people who get bent out of shape about Happy Holidays or Season’s Greetings. It’s not really a problem. They know it. They KNOW it. But they need to have something to feel persecuted about. They need to feel like they’re a victim or a martyr. It feeds their narrative that the country has veered away from what they perceive to be its Godful track. Which of course brings us back to the question: Whose God and what denomination are you comfortable breaking the First Amendment with?

Just in case anyone’s forgotten this: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” It’s the first clause of the first sentence of the first amendment. How much clearer could the Founding Fathers have been? Why is it those God-botherers who insist I practice their religion don’t read the explicit instructions we were given?

There’s one other thing I’d like to know about people who have whipped themselves into a froth about their perception that children are not saying the Pledge of Allegiance every day: Are you saying it every day? If so, why not? I mean, it’s really important, isn’t it? If it’s the way all school children should start their day, shouldn’t you as an adult be doing the same thing? Shouldn’t you lead by example? It seems the country has managed to chug along without having the adult population stand up with their hand over their heart and recite the almighty Pledge.

Because if you’re not doing it, you’re exactly what I suspected: A hypocrite.

Let Others Enjoy Your light

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“There’s a fine line between super cute and super tacky Christmas decorations”

Do you remember when having your house decorated like Clark Griswold’s in Christmas Vacation was something to be laughed at and avoided? Now it’s a badge of honor and something to strive for. You have inflatables, roof top decorations, synchronized lights, lights set to music, crèches and who knows what else Costco will think of next. I can’t believe the things people put up these days. It’s crazy.

Wait. Check that. I can believe it, and before I adjust the onion on my belt I need to remember my childhood. Because, you know, super cute and super tacky are all in the eye of the beholder.

When I was a kid there was man in the neighborhood who did his house and the neighbor’s houses up in an absolutely extravagant manner. Every year his displays were different. They were intricate affairs that drew thousands of people in the weeks leading up to Christmas. He put Clark Griswold to shame.

The theme was always Santa’s Workshop and every year it became more and more elaborate, with robotic elves and eventually a real Santa Claus. Let me set the scene: Southern California, a successful middle-class contractor with access to tools and labor who delighted in making children happy.

I was told he would begin planning in the spring and start construction in the summer. He would frame out entire rooms in the front yard of his house and the neighbor’s, and it would be house quality construction. It would get finished out and decorated in the months before Thanksgiving.

As the years went by he expanded it to cover the front of 6 houses. It was a whole panorama scene you could walk through. There would be animatronic elves building toys in Santa’s workshop or dancing at a party or ice skating, animatronic reindeer moving their heads in the stable, and a Santa who you could wait in line and see. I remember that they would find out your name and surreptitiously get it to Santa before you got into his lap so that you would just know that it was the real Santa because he knew your name even before you could tell him. Santa would give you a candy cane when you were done visiting.

There was even a giant pine tree that was strung with standard sized colored light bulbs and a big star on top that you could see all the way from the freeway, 1/2 a mile away. They used to get a cherry picker to hang the lights because it was so high.

The level of craftsmanship and the quality of the work and thought put into everything was amazing. Dozens of people volunteered their time and the man behind it made sure that every year was better than the last. The fronts of half a dozen houses would disappear for a couple of months a year so that the local neighborhood and visitors could experience a Christmas wonderland. It was his gift to us.

We embraced his gift, and people flocked to it. Without fail the newspapers and local television stations would do an annual story about it. On the weekend it was packed with people and cars driving by to get a look. Probably a thousand people would visit it every weekend.

I visited it every year until I graduated high school and it was always something I looked forward to. I would invite a bunch of friends over to my house and we walk the mile over there caroling the whole way and back. When I was in college I heard he stopped doing it because of ill health. I’ve always thought that other people missed out by not seeing his work and gift of love year after year.

Now here’s the rub: I bet you at least half of his neighbors hated his guts for turning their neighborhood into a spectacle choked with traffic and people walking on their lawns for several weeks a year. I’m not sure how I’d feel about that being down the street from me. I’d like to think I’d be game and help out the cause.

The point is, by sheer numbers a whole bunch of people in the neighborhood had to hate the sight of it, or even the thought of it. To some it was super cute, and to others super tacky. But, to him it was a thing of beauty.

But, I’ll tell you what: He decorated for Christmas in a way most people don’t. He went at it full tilt and made a commitment most people would never make. He went big and proud and loud and did what he wanted to do. His work and vision spoke for themselves and were compelling enough for people to come from all over the city of Los Angeles just to look at it.

So, when I hear someone wonder where the line is between cute and tacky with Christmas decorations I’d prefer to think of it all as going big. It may not be to anyone else’s taste but, if you want to, go big and enjoy what you have.

Be merry and bright. Let others enjoy your light.

Merry Christmas

Elf on the Shelf: Santa’s Stalky Spy

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“I have a SERIOUS problem: I can’t find Twinkletoes!! OMFG. Total panic”

Sucks to be you.

I have no problem admitting that I think Elf on the Shelf is creepy and I’m glad I never had to deal with it as a parent.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, Elf on the Shelf – A Christmas Tradition is a 2005 children’s picture book about elves who are Santa’s spies. The book comes with a stuffed doll called a scout elf that ostensibly watches your child and flies back to Santa in the North Pole every night to report about their behavior. Every morning between Thanksgiving and Christmas finds the elf in a new position in the house. Like its cousin Flat Stanley, the more original or outrageous the position the better.

The doll itself comes in male and female, light skinned and blue eyed, and dark skinned an brown eyed so you can take your ethnic pick of who you’d like to be tattling to Santa about your child’s every misstep. The Elf gets its magic from being adopted by a family and being named, an elf might lose its magic if it is touched by the children.

I first heard about Elf on the Shelf several years ago when I saw people posting pictures on Facebook of stuffed elves getting into mischief. It was mildly cute and I didn’t think much of it as I scrolled past. As the last few years have gone by more and more people started doing it, with their vignettes getting more and more elaborate, I thought about the whole phenomenon. I came to the conclusion that I don’t care for Santa’s Stalky Spies.

My first problem with Elf on the Shelf is that I detest a marketing ploy being called a tradition. Seriously, when the book was released in 2005 the name was Elf on the Shelf – A Christmas Tradition. A tradition the day it was released? Wow. That’s something. Especially since it was a tradition that took a few years to catch on after first publication.

But, catch on it did, and are they ever marketing the hell out of the whole thing. Go to The Elf on the Shelf website and find the book and cheap toy doll on sale for $30. You can buy your elf various pieces of clothing like a $10 leather jacket, or a $7 football jersey. For $25 you can buy your elf a chef’s apron and get a cookie cutter thrown in. $20 will get you a new product for 2014 called Elf Pets: A Reindeer Tradition. That’s right you can buy a pet reindeer for your $30 stuffed elf.

The whole website is just pushing crap products on their entirely made-up Christmas tradition. That’s not entirely true, I admit. They’re also pushing crap on a completely different totally bullshit made up tradition: It’s called Elf on the Shelf: A Birthday Tradition. Yes, they’ve managed to whore out birthdays, too. They have a birthday Countdown Calendar and Birthday Tradition Game that sells for $40. The Countdown Calendar is an ersatz advent calendar that is supposed to have a trinket put in each pocket on every day for the four weeks leading up to the birthday girl or boy’s special day. That’s right – it’s not enough to have a birthday party and a big day to celebrate, the new tradition requires a month of tithing before you even get to the party. Don’t forget that for the big day you want to be sure to get the $25 kit to decorate a chair. See if you can put your arms around that. The new birthday tradition involves a month of gift giving and special decorations for the birthday boy or girl’s chair.

So, we’ve determined that Elf on any Shelf is nothing more than a sickening consortium designed to move product. It will come as no shock that there are videos, comic books, e-games, figurines and even a special edition 2014 Elf on the Shelf skirt. They have truly monetized their ‘tradition’.

But, that’s not what bothers me most about Elf on the damn Shelf. What bothers me about it is that it’s another way lie to your children about why they should behave. Don’t tell them that they should behave because it’s the right thing to do. Lie to them, and tell them that a small cheap toy is going to tell Santa if they’re having a bad day. Just over there, hiding in the African violets, is a nosy tattle-tale elf whose sole purpose in ‘life’ is to watch you and judge you all day long. Then, when you finally fall asleep it flies off to the North Pole to tell Santa how you measure up and whether or not you get a good score for the day. Blackmail parenting. Charming.

If you need a stuffed elf to help you get your kid to behave for one month a year you might want to rethink your parenting style. Not only that, the subtle message you’re sending a child is that if they don’t get everything they want for Christmas it’s because they just don’t measure up. If they’d been better, done more and tried harder they’d be getting everything on their list.

Beyond the crass commercialism and unintentionally damaging messages is the idea that it’s normal to have someone watching your every move. You must always be on guard because you are always being watched.

Just for fun you can look at it like a conspiracy theorist does: The Elf represents our surveillance state in an insidious way: We’re only being watched for our own good, we’re told. If you’ve got nothing to hide you’ve got nothing to fear from the Elf’s report to the Big Fellow, who keeps the information far away in a place you have no access to. (Let’s not even talk about the metaphorical layer of bureaucracy the Elf represents.) Are we comfortable with a myth that desensitizes children to constant surveillance and lack of privacy? Are we also getting how this meant in jest?

Yes, of course, it’s harmless fun. I’ve no wish to get between you and your fun. Just give a thought to its larger implications about glorifying invasion of privacy and stalking in exchange for material goods.

If that seems far-fetched to you at least admit that this is a modern commercial construct masquerading as a tradition, and that the only thing its manufacturers care about is moving units. Just because you call it a tradition doesn’t make it so.

Goodwill towards Mankind and all that crap

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“The Countdown to Christmas Has Begun!”

No it hasn’t, that began in September.

Honestly, Why not just go ahead and start Christmas in July. Hell, keep the decorations up all year. Why not? It’s really what people want.

The first Christmas stuff I saw this year was over Labor Day at Costco. It was Christmas decorations in a Star Wars theme. They were sitting next to the Halloween costumes which were also out too early.

Here’s the thing: Costco wouldn’t be stocking these things if people weren’t buying them. So, who are these people? Who are the people who see a fully decorated Christmas tree in the first week of September and think, “Sure, it’s a full quarter of the year away, but I want to get ready for Christmas now.”

They’re just as bad as the people who refuse to take their decorations down. We’ve all been in a place where you can’t believe the decorations are still up at the end of January. These people are so into Christmas that they have decorations in and on their homes for nearly a third the year.

Don’t you get bored with it? If not, why bother to take them down at all? Why not just go ahead, make the commitment and just have your decorating scheme Christmas.

Or, would doing that get in the way of Halloween decorations? Which, by the way, kudos to the person who sold the idea of giant inflatable yard decorations for the average consumer. They’re unbelievably overdone and the majority are on side streets where no one will ever see it, except the people who own it. Even then, they only see it when they turn it on or off.

Why not just give in and make it the most wonderful time of the year all the year? We can sing Christmas carols all year long, send out Christmas cards a couple times a year, wear our Santa style bathing suits to the water park. It’ll be like Christmas in Florida all year long.

There’s a house near me that put up their light display a week before Thanksgiving. Same thing with the mega-church in my neighborhood. They can’t even let us have a day of Turkey and feasting without rushing into the season. So, yay for them. They win the race, I guess. How much you want to bet they’ll be the last to go down?

As a personal note I don’t start decorating the house until after my birthday, which is at the beginning of December. I don’t like celebrating a Merry Birthday. So we don’t usually get our tree until the first weekend in December. We take it down just after New Year’s Day. It’s pretty simple. Now, hey, if your thing is decorating the tree the day after Thanksgiving have at it. It’s a very common tradition. But doing it before that, or keeping it up much after the first of the year is just stretching out a time of year to make it something it’s not.

People who have to make it a longer holiday than it is – and dammit it’s long enough as it is – end up having the firetrap tree. You know what I’m talking about: a standing wooden match. A tree so dry that a spark from static electricity could set it off. One that’s been sitting there so long that the needles fall of when you simply look at it, a la the Charlie Brown Christmas tree. It’s a sad thing, the tree is, but not quite as sad as the willful stretching of a holiday that has come and gone

My prediction is that they will start selling Christmas trees the day after Halloween. Mark my words, it will happen. There will be demand and early sales will justify the availability. The Christmas Season will start on Dia de los Muertos and stretch out until Valentine’s day. They already have stores open on Thanksgiving, so that inviolate line has been crossed. The season can be redefined in any way a marketing person wants. Early season sales will try to draw consumers in, although the fake ginned-up shopping day that is Black Friday will remain. Even though it’s not the busiest shopping day by any means, marketers are not going to let go of that image. And as long as they can fabricate a need for people to get into fist fights for electronics there will be a Black Friday. Conversely, as long as people are selfish and hypocritical there will be shopping on Thanksgiving. Which is to say it’s here to stay.

But really, there’s one good reason why Christmas all year long won’t work: It’s because we could never be kind to each other that long. Something about the season sort of brings out people’s better natures. There’s no way in hell people could – or would – do all that brotherhood, charity and be kind to others crap more than the 4 or 5 weeks they’re already forced to do from Thanksgiving to Christmas. People like to be good, but not that often. More accurately, people like to imagine they’re good. But, actually having to do the work of being kind and thoughtful all year long is more than most ever want to do.

Goodwill towards all mankind is nice and all, but really hard to do.