Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Who Am I? (Part Two)

I love Christmas. I love the themes and symbols. I love the decorations. I love the food. I love giving presents. I love getting presents. I love the music.

I actually covered Christmas music pretty well in my previous “Who Am I” post, which focused on the types of music I’m into. And since we’re now in the middle of December, and the Christmas music thing seems like an ideal segue, this installment of “Who Am I” is “Who Am I at Christmastime?”

Christmas Presents

I’m always bitching about not having enough money, but my status as one of the destitute never bothers me more than at Christmastime. Because I’m a gift giver. I love getting people Christmas presents. I don’t even mind the actual Christmas shopping all that much – depending on just when during the crazy-assed ‘must-buy-presents’ countdown frenzy we’re talking about. My dad’s been known to have me help him do his Christmas shopping, which often starts on or around the 22nd of December. Not the ideal time to be facing crowds of other desperate hopeful gift-givers. But earlier in the month? No problem.

The good thing about having an incredibly tiny social circle is how short the list of people you need to buy presents for is. Even with a small list of people to buy gifts for, some of them went without last year. Last Christmas kind of sucked, during the whole “opening of presents” portion of the holiday. I hated skipping people. I hated making excuses even more.

This year, however, is economic stimulus package year. I set the check aside when it arrived in the mail. When the first of December rolled around, I hadn’t even cashed it yet. Woo-hoo! It’s not like back when I was still reasonably healthy, and had a job that brought in real ‘paycheck’ quality money all year long, but it’ll definitely be my best Christmas in years!

Making lists, buying presents, getting out the wrapping paper, scotch tape, scissors, and duct tape for when I’m feeling mischievous (nothing like wrapping a present in duct tape) . . . oh, yeah. THIS is Christmas.

Wrapping Christmas Presents

Now, when I talk about wrapping something in duct tape, I’m not talking about using duct tape instead of the regular scotch tape to secure the pretty wrapping paper in place. No, I’m talking about putting the gift inside of a disposable box, or plastic sack, or even just pre-wrapping it in newspaper . . . and then mummifying it in duct tape. Once you can no longer see any part of the package that isn’t covered, it’s wrapped. You write your ‘To:’ and your ‘From:’ on the tape with a Sharpie, and then chuck it underneath the tree.

I’m not the only person among my friends and family who occasionally does this (although I’ll admit it – I’m the one that started it in my social circle). The key difference between them and me is that I use one single (long) continuous piece of tape. And before adhering the far end of it down, I’ll fold a corner of it under, so that there’s a spot that they can pull the tape back up. Then it’s just a big long sticky unwinding job. My brother, on the other hand, wraps a present in duct tape with the premise that you’re not getting into it. Ever. Not for as long as you live. Unwrapping a duct-tape wrapped package from my brother requires very sharp blades and assurances as to the gift’s breakability levels before the ‘unwrapping’ can even begin.

Another family wrapping custom is ‘the surprise’. If you wrap a DVD, and it’s still the size and shape of a DVD case when you’re done, then where’s the surprise? Sure, they aren’t going to know the title, but they’ll be pretty sure of the format. When I was growing up, Mom put anything with a distinctive shape into a larger box before wrapping it. And while the inside-of-a-larger-box concepts works just fine . . . it’s not really all that creative, now, is it?

I’m not always over-the-top goofy with my present disguises. I use my fair share of the larger boxes myself. But every now and then something just screams out for a more elaborate touch. I bought my brother a t-shirt for Christmas one year, and didn’t want to just box it up before wrapping it. So I folded and rolled it into a rough cylinder about the length of a paper towel tube. I wrapped a couple of strips of brown packing paper around it so it would hold that shape while I opened a new roll of paper towels. And then I proceeded to transfer the entire continuous length of paper towels off of the cardboard tube and onto the t-shirt. Reel-to-reel style, rolling them onto the tube-of-shirt from the paper towel roll until it was empty. Then I wrapped that in standard Christmas wrapping paper.

Every time my brother was digging around under the tree checking out presents that year, he’d spend some time boggled by that one. Weighing it in his hands. Squeezing it. Shaking it to check for sound. He kept saying, “If it wasn’t so thick, I’d think you’d just gotten me a roll of paper towels.”

I’ve guess that everyone does stuff like that to hide the true identity of presents until Christmas morning (or Christmas eve, or whenever). The best time I ever had wrapping a present produced a package about three feet long by two feet wide by about four inches thick. It was fairly lightweight, and when you shook it, it made a noise like . . . like . . . well, now that I think about it, I don’t think that anything else in the history of existence ever made a noise like that package did. In addition to wrapping paper and scotch tape, it also made use of two full sheets of foam-core board, a stack of paper drinking cups, part of a bag of marbles, a few jingle bells, and lots of duct tape. The paper cups were cut down and glued to one of the foam core boards, each one containing either a marble, two marbles, or a jingle bell. The foam-core board was set on top of the cups glued down to the first one, and then I enclosed all of the edges in newspaper. Before enclosing the final side, I dumped in some loose marbles and a couple of jingle bells. Then I reinforced the newspaper ‘walls’ with duct tape. Then I wrapped the big bastard.

You’d pick it up, and a bunch of marbles and bells would run to the bottom (ricocheting off of the paper cups like a pinball game), making a lovely noise. While that was happening, the captive marbles and bells would move back and forth in their cups, rolling in circles (or back and forth in half-circles) whenever the package was tipped so that they rested against one end of the cup or the other. It was great. Nobody had a clue what that present was. (Actually, I did that basic wrapping job twice. The first one was a CD, centered on one on the pieces of foam-core boards. The second time, it was a paperback book.)

Christmas Eve or Christmas Morning?

When I was a little kid, we used to open our presents on Christmas morning like everyone else. But at some point before my teenage years, a family decision was made to change the big gift-opening extravaganza to Christmas Eve. So, from that point until my siblings came along and grew to Santa-aware age, it was the night of the 24th. Then it switched back to the morning of Christmas day, because how could you possibly open presents before Santa had flown by to deliver them?

Eventually my brother and sister grew up enough that it went back to Christmas Eve. Presents on Christmas Eve, stockings on Christmas morning. Until mass impatience on all sides broke out, and it was declared that stockings could be given out on Christmas Eve as well.

The Christmas Stocking

When I was a kid, Mom would put together Christmas stockings for me and Dad. Mom herself wouldn’t get one. I asked her once why Dad didn’t ever do a stocking for her, and she said that when they first got married, they’d always do Christmas stockings for each other. The stocking she did for Dad would always have all sorts of neat (and well thought out) little gifts. The stocking Dad got her would always be a few candy bars and an orange that he’d grab on his way home from work from anyplace that was still open on Christmas Eve. Eventually, Mom just made a point of talking to Dad about what would be in my stocking, and then – surprise! – presented him with a stocking on Christmas morning as well.

Didn’t seem fair to me. So, when I was about twelve, I did a Christmas stocking for Mom. She was overjoyed, and I then proceeded to give her a stocking every year right up to the year before she died.

That year before her last Christmas, Mom said that she wasn’t going to be able to do a stocking for everybody, and wanted to know if we each wanted to do a stocking. The idea went over well, so we all drew names, and everybody put together a stocking that year for one of the other participants.

It’s been that way ever since, with the minor exception that instead of having Dad draw a name and probably putting together a two candy bars and an orange stocking for that poor unlucky sucker, me, and my brother and sister collaborate on an additional stocking for Dad in addition to whoever’s name we draw (a list of names which also now includes my brother’s wife and sister’s fiancĂ©.) .

Christmas Decorations

Every year I set up a lovely little Christmas scene. It’s a fairly traditional piece of imagery. The sleigh and eight, all ready to go, Santa in the driver’s seat, Mrs. Claus at sleigh-side, and the elves loading in the last of the presents.

Okay, when I said it was ‘traditional’, I meant mostly traditional with a few minor substitutions. Santa and the Mrs. are a set of special edition Spider-Man and Mary Jane action figures wearing Santa hats and boots. (A Toys R Us clearance item in the mid-90s that I just couldn’t pass up.) Instead of reindeer, the sleigh is being pulled by eight buffalo. The bags of toys are represented by my dice bag (no D&D for me in December). And the ‘elves’ loading the sleigh are actually a bunch of Jawa action figures. Hey, nothing says Christmas like Spider-Man, Jawas, and Buffalo.

I don’t have a Nativity set, but I’ve given thought to putting together an action figure nativity scene. A lot of the Marvel Legends figures convert right over if you’re strange enough. Doctor Doom, the Sub-Mariner, and the Black Panther are the Three Kings. (Well, maybe not THE three kings, but three kings, at least.) You can put Angel in as an Angel. Things like that.

Then the Star Wars prequels came out, and I briefly thought about doing a Star Wars action figure Nativity scene, simply because since there was no biological father involved in Anakin’s creation, he could serve as a baby Jesus figure. And all of the Episode I Anakin figures were so tiny! But then I decided I didn’t want to be quite that blasphemous, and gave the idea up completely.

I’ve thought about the traditional alternative to the Nativity scene: The Christmas village. My problem with the modern Christmas village is that all of those tiny little houses are fairly expensive. Especially when buying a whole village worth of them. So when I finally set mine up, it will be built out of LEGOs. Oh sure, LEGOs are expensive, too, but at least they’re multipurpose.

O, Tannenbaum!

I’m allergic to ‘real’ Christmas trees. Mom and Dad always had a real tree at Christmas, and I could never really breathe in December. I never actually put two-and-two together until the first time I walked into their house at Christmastime after having moved next door to live with my grandmother. Yikes!

So the first Christmas tree I did on my own was an artificial tree. I did the standard artificial tree thing for a year or two, and then I decided to get clever. Artistic. Weird.

It started out when I got a small (3’) artificial tree on clearance in January one year. The following Christmas I set it up, and decorated it with the standard lights, the classic red and blue balls . . . and all of my Batman action figures. A couple of Batmans (Batmen?), a Robin and Nightwing, and then a whole slew of villains. No star or angel, instead having Man-Bat atop the tree, his wings spread wide.

The next year was the one everybody still talks about. The next year’s tree was invisible.

Every time I mentioned having an invisible Christmas tree when I was outside of my home, whoever I was talking to just kind of raised their eyebrow at me, expecting a joke. They figured that if they came over, I’d point at a completely empty space, and say something like, “That’s my Christmas tree. (It’s invisible.)” or something equally lame. Which actually made it ten times better, because when they finally did stop by to take a look, what I actually had was so much more impressive than the punchline they had been expecting, that it blew their minds.

I had gotten Casper to help me with this project. We put a hook in my ceiling and a circle of ringbolts in my floor, then strung fishing line from top to bottom until we had a wirework cone. We then wound several strings of Christmas lights around the structure, attaching it with more fishing line and ornament hooks, and afterwards, hung ornaments all over it. (Mostly from the light string.) Leaving us with lights and ornaments attached to a tree-shaped framework who’s base structure you had to get up close to actually see. The invisible Christmas tree.

My favorite Christmas tree was the result of abandoning the tree shape altogether. I had gotten hold of one of those folding wooden clothesracks used for drying your laundry. I also had several bundles of tree branch garland (once again, purchased the prior January out of a clearance bin). “This,” I thought to myself, “has the makings of a fine Christmas tree . . .”

I spray-painted the clothesrack green. After it dried, I started winding the garland around the framework. When I was finished, there was literally none of the wooden frame that was left exposed to the naked eye except for the very top four wooden rods (which would be covered up and out of sight according to my plan.) Then I started winding the lights up and down and around it. I added ornaments, and when it was done, it was time for the topper. Since it didn’t come to a point like a classic tree, I didn’t use a star or angel. What I did instead was cover a board with white fabric and cotton batting snowdrifts, set it atop the ‘tree’, and that’s where I set up my traditional buffalo, Spidey Claus, and Jawa Elves Christmas scene that year. It was a thing of beauty.

As with all of my other projects, some of the greatest trees are the ones on the ‘someday’ list. Ideas I’ve had, but haven’t been able to try and pull off yet. I’d love to build a full size Christmas tree out of LEGO bricks, but I’d have to win the lottery first. I’ve also thought about constructing a tree out of empty Mt. Dew cans. (I don’t drink the stuff any more, but it’s still part of my personal history. It used to run through my veins like blood.)

And of course, one of the main goals is to get a manikin and dress it up in camouflage fatigues, then add tree branch garland and artificial swags to it here and there. Then add lights and decorate. Spy/assassin/undercover cop as Christmas tree. Presents piled around its feet.

The Lights

Christmas lights have always been another holiday favorite of mine. I love seeing all the houses decorated in the colorful little lights. Non-tree based indoor lights have somewhat lost their holiday-specific meaning for me. I put up some indoor lights about two years ago. Never took them down. As they burnt out, I replaced them with other sets I had bought before Christmas merchandise left the stores. Why? Because all through that first Christmas with them, I could sit here with the Christmas lights on, all the other lights off . . . and it was bright enough for me to see what I was doing, but not so bright that I needed the otherwise ever-present dark glasses. Christmas lights are now ‘home’ to me. Year round.

Things to Cram into Your Face

Ah, Christmas goodies. Diabetes be damned, I’m going to eat me some Christmas goodies.

All of the good homemade stuff that Mom used to produce each December (most of which now issues forth from my sister’s kitchen). Red and green sugar cookies. Peanut butter cookies with an embedded Hershey’s kiss. Little powdered sugar coated cookies with a chocolate star in the center. Fudge. Rocky road (made with dry-roasted peanuts . . . a recipe I got from one of the customers on my old paper route after they left me a holiday tip of the best rocky road I’d ever eaten). Toffee. All sorts of wondrous homemade candies and baked goods. My blood sugar rises just reminiscing.

Then there’s the store-bought stuff. Candy canes. Chocolate-covered marshmallow snowmen. Hot chocolate. Hot spiced cider. Odd Christmas-y baked goods from the local grocery store’s bakery department.

I’ve never been a big fan of eggnog. But Mom would sometimes whip up a batch of moose milk for me to guzzle while everyone else was chugging eggnog. (Moose milk, or at least our family’s version of it – there are infinite variations – is half milk, half melted vanilla ice cream, with nutmeg and cinnamon. Like the classic eggnog, it’s also supposed to contain rum, but not being big drinkers, ours never has.)

Christmas . . . But Not to Me

Eggnog isn’t the only Christmas classic that’s never really been a part of MY Christmas.

I’ve never been Christmas caroling. (No big deal. It’s not something I have a burning desire to experience, it just seems like a classic Christmas activity, and I’ve never done it.) I’ve also never gone on a holiday hayride. That’s something I wanted to do when I was younger. I had opportunities, but I also had hay allergies. So, nope. Not for me.

I’ve never had sex underneath my freshly decorated Christmas tree. Which people tell me is a fun activity, and the best part of the whole “trimming the tree” experience. (The cruder males include the obvious pun as well, but I’ll skip it.) I’ve got to get me one of those ‘girlfriends’ people keep talking about.

I was raised Catholic, but I’ve never really considered the whole midnight mass thing to be Christmas for me, either. Mainly because while everyone else attended, I stayed home. I have vague memories of attending when I was younger. The story is that I’ve been to midnight mass twice. The first time I went, I had a massive asthma and allergy flare up, and had to leave. Mom took me to midnight mass again the next year, and the exact same thing happened. That’s when and how we discovered that I’m allergic to incense. (Which is probably what kept me from pursuing a career as a hippie.)

And then there’s snow. I love snow. I definitely consider snow to be part of Christmas. It’s just that we never seem to get any of it. Seriously. If it’s snowing in my general geographic location, it will snow everywhere except my town. Almost to the point of snowing right up to but not beyond the city limits on all sides.

On the years that it does actually snow here, it rarely sticks. And if it sticks, about half the time it will snow enough to stick, then rain enough to turn it into non-snow-like slush, then freeze into a solid sheet of what-the-fuck?

On the Other Hand . . .

I love Christmas. I’ve got no idea why. By now, the onset of the Christmas season should just scare the Hell out of me. I should be standing on the rooftop with a shotgun, warning the holiday away. “Take a step back there, Yuletide. We don’t want none of your damn holiday cheer ‘round these parts.”

Why would I say this? Well, there’s been this weird tradition of tragedies at Christmastime. Over the last dozen years, Dad’s gone into the hospital during the Christmas season for one medical problem or another (everything from massive diabetic infection to congestive heart failure) at least five times. I’ve thrown my back out three or four times. One of my best friends and his pregnant wife lost what would have been their first born children a few days before Christmas (ON my birthday, as a matter of fact).

One year I went to the doctor in mid-December, and before I left his office, he had his vampire suck a twelve-course meal of blood out of my arm for testing. I then get a phone call from his office a few days later, telling me that the test results have come back (I had no idea what he was all testing for), and that doctor needs to see me in his office as soon as possible. Yikes! That’s enough to scare the crap out of you right there. So, I tell her to set me up with the next available appointment, only to discover that the doctor’s already left for the day . . . which was his last day in the office until after Christmas. So there I am, standing somewhere in the ‘teens on the calendar with the phone in my hand, being told that the first available appointment was going to be something like December 27th. Let me tell you: That will ruin Christmas. Maybe even moreso than an actual diagnosis will, because at this point, it could be ANYTHING.

I didn’t have a whole lot of fun that Christmas. All I could think about was that I had something more wrong with me. (Like CFIDS and my other traditional ills weren’t enough?) And the more time passed, the worse the eventual news was going to be. I couldn’t sleep at night. I wasn’t looking forward to Christmas coming, I just wanted to get the post-Christmas doctor’s appointment over with.

When I finally got in to see the doc after my thoroughly ruined holiday, he sits me down to break the bad, bad, terrible, horrific news to me. The look on his face is not a good one. Before he even tells me what’s wrong, he opens my chart, so he can consult the exact numbers of the test results . . . and as he looks them over, he all of a sudden looks confused, and says, “Huh. Well, that’s kind of odd.”

Then goes on to explain that when he told the receptionist to call and tell me to get in as soon as I could (and, you know, after he was done with his Christmas vacation), he’d been looking at a print-out of test results. And the thing that troubled him – the thing that had led me nearly to the brink of a nervous breakdown – was actually a name on one line and a number of the test below it. He’d read the wrong results for what he thought he’d been looking at. I don’t even remember what it was he thought was wrong with me. All I know is that he’d done something completely insane, like mistake my blood sugar level for my cholesterol level, or some equally retarded example. Aaaaaaarrrrrrgh! Merry fucking Christmas to you, too, Doc.

And Finally . . .

I want a Santa Claus suit. A good, well-made one, not just a Wal*Mart Halloween costume quality suit. I’ve got many reasons for this. First of all, like the guy on “Miracle on 34th Street”, I could fill one out without needing a pillow or other padding. I think I’d look good. Might even dye my hair and beard white (or possibly platinum blond) for the holidays. I’ve already had young (very young) children in shopping malls freak out when I walk by, pointing at me and yelling, “Santa!” when I’m in an everyday black sweatpants and t-shirt combo. (Leaving horribly embarrassed parent or parents trying to shut the kid up without catching my eye. “Don’t call attention to the obese man, honey.”)

There’s some kind of Santa-Con / Running of the Santas-style event in Portland each year that I’d love to attend, but never have for lack of the required wardrobe.

And every year at some point I threaten to go buy a Santa Claus suit and ruin Christmas for somebody . . . I’m a horrible, horrible person. And before I even explain my hideous plan, let me say that I would never actually do something like this. It’s just a fun thing to threaten to do.

I want to go to a shopping mall. Enter at the end opposite from where Santa is set up taking pictures. I’ll be wearing my Santa Claus outfit. I’ll have a fake cast and sling on my arm. I’ll be walking with a crutch. And I will stop and apologize to every child I see . . . because since the accident when I crashed the sleigh last week, my doctor has told me I can’t make the run on Christmas Eve, so there will be no Christmas this year.

Gasp! Shock! How incredibly mean can a concept be?! Who thinks up crap like this?

In a completely different scenario, I’d also like to charge into the mall down to Santa’s throne wearing the Santa suit and a set of burst ropes, loudly proclaiming him to be an imposter. Demanding to know why he kidnapped Santa, tied him up, and kept him locked up in the trunk of his car. After riling all the kids up, and telling the bad, bad man that his name will be on the naughty list for ever, I’d probably then proceed to fight him. Probably WWE style, hitting him with a steel folding chair.

Okay, then. Goodnight everybody!

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