Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Helpless Near Seattle

My family and I are currently up in Portland, Oregon for our annual family reunion. My dad’s side comes from the Pacific Northwest, and we make the pilgrimage back every year after Christmas to re-unite and catch up on the past year. We used to fly up, but a recent phenomenon in our lives known as “children” has negatively impacted another phenomenon known as “airfare,” so for the past few years we have made the nine-plus hour drive from California. This year, along the way up Interstate-5, we ran into a troubling phenomenon: Helpless Americans.

Now, I don’t mean to trash on Oregonians, because I have a lot of good friends and family from this fine state, but the two examples of helplessness happened to be directly attributable to Oregon life. So, do with this what you will, my friendly neighbors to the North.

The first incident took place yesterday in California. We were headed North, and a nice couple from Oregon was headed South. We met by chance, opposite each other at Chevron Station Pump # 5 in Willows, California. I pulled up to my side of the pump and got out, noticing the man, approximately 60 years of age, laughing nervously on the other side of the pump island. I began to insert my credit card into the pump as I heard him say, half to his wife, and half indirectly to me, “Boy, I just can’t seem to get this thing to work!” As I looked up across the top of the pump at him, he met my gaze and said to me, “It asked me to enter my ZIP code.” Then he qualified his bewilderment by adding, “We’re from Oregon. It’s been a while since I’ve done this.”

Now for those of you who have never had the pleasure of driving through the lovely state of Oregon, they have a long-standing state law that prohibits everyday, average citizens from pumping their own gas. The entire state is full-serve. You are only allowed to put gas in a car if your name is sewed on your shirt next to a gas station logo. I think it had something to do with preserving the gas station attendant’s way of life, but for whatever reason, you can’t fill up your own car, and it’s been that way for a long, long time.

I used to live in Oregon, and I’m very familiar with the no-pumping-your-own-gas rule, so I understood his dilemma almost instantly. I politely explained that the pump was asking for his ZIP code only to verify that it was not a stolen credit card. He said, “Well, OK. I already entered my ZIP code, but now it’s telling me to press the button. I assume that means I’m supposed to squeeze the handle trigger, but I can’t get any gas to come out.”

At that point, I ducked my head around the pump and showed him the three bright yellow buttons on the front of the pump that all say “push here,” to select what flavor of gasoline you would like to purchase. He was only mildly embarrassed as he selected 87 Octane and began to fill his Honda’s tank. He laughingly explained his dilemma by saying, “Boy, I guess I don’t get out of Oregon much.”

The second incident happened later that afternoon. We had made it all the way over the mountain range that separates our two states, and the rest of the way up the state with no problems. We were a mere 17 miles from our destination when an unexpected snow storm hit. The forecast for Portland had been rain, but a mass of cold air had slammed down the Columbia River Gorge at the last minute, and the result was five hours of big, fat, wet snowflakes the size of golf balls. Most of the afternoon travelers in and around the Portland area were caught off-guard, and the result was ugly.

We had traveled for nine hours without a hitch, and the last 15 miles ended up taking us another two and a half. We were in our four-wheel-drive Ford Expedition, so keeping the car straight was not an issue for us. The problem was all the two-wheel-drive sedans without chains that were pirouetting in front of us. As we made our way through the otherwise beautiful storm, we had no less than five quarter-mile-long waits as cars and small pick-up trucks were pushed and slid by their drivers and other helpful motorists out of their precarious road-blocking positions. Able-bodied folks near the distressed cars banded together to help out, as Americans will do, to help clear the way for those who could make headway.

The next morning, however, the news showed me a different kind of American. He was being interviewed the night before, in the middle of the snowstorm on the side of the road. As the giant snowflakes fell on his head, he complained to the reporter, “My car is just stuck over there on the side of this road. I can’t get up this hill.” Mystified by this unfair situation, and angry that he hadn’t seen a snowplow arrive at his location yet, he exclaimed, “What are they waitin’ for? We’ve got the tax money. Let’s go!”

These two stories; “bewildered gas pump guy” and “indignant snow plow guy,” are small, yet very poignant examples of what happens to people when we allow too much government involvement in our lives.

After years and years of living with a really weird gas pump control law, the State of Oregon has produced at least one fully grown adult male who can operate a motor vehicle, but has no idea how to actually fill it with gas himself.

“Bewildered gas pump guy” is a rather humorous anecdote, but “indignant snow plow guy” is actually a little scary. Mother Nature showed what she’s made of, catching this man off-guard and temporarily stranding him on the side of the road. Instead of revising his plans and making his way home by other means, he stood out in the snow and impatiently waited for the government to show up and fix his problem for him.

Ladies and gentlemen, the day that this country ever becomes 51% “indignant snow plow guy,” it’s all over. We might as well just re-name the place “West France,” and pull up a chair.

Do your part to stop this trend, won’t you, please? If you ever meet “indignant snow plow guy,” remind him why God gave him two legs and a brain.

See you soon,

Copyright © 2009 Marc Schmatjen

Have kids? Have grandkids? Need a great gift?
Go to today and get your copy of “My Giraffe Makes Me Laugh,” Marc’s exciting new children’s book. Get ready for a wild rhyming adventure!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Santa Overload

Halloween was a month-long event this year. Between school parties, play dates, moms club parties and the actual night, I think my kids dressed up in their costumes every other day for the entire month of October. I thought that was a little excessive.

Then it was a quick transition to hand-print turkeys and construction paper pilgrim hats, we scarfed down some stuffing, and we were on to Christmas. If you had gone to the mall in early November, however, you would have thought that Thanksgiving was long over. There was Santa, the day after Halloween.

That’s nothing compared to our home improvement warehouses, though. I kid you not, they had the Christmas stuff out at our Home Depot in September. September, people! Now, that’s excessive.

It’s not so much the commercialization of Christmas that I’m worried about. I actually kind of like the fact that businesses try to drag out Christmas as long as possible. It ultimately serves to give more exposure to my favorite Christian holiday, hopefully giving more people a chance to remember that it’s really all about the birth of our Lord.

And since the Lord blessed me with a complete lack of sympathy toward whining children, I can easily dodge the “your parents will buy you this toy for Christmas if they love you” advertising onslaught by simply telling them, “No, you can’t have one of those. We’re not the Rockefellers.”
“What’s a Rocker-Fella, Dad?”
“Zip it, kid. Get in the car.”

What I am worried about is the amazing over-abundance of Santa sightings these days. I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid, we saw Santa maybe once before Christmas if we were lucky. And that was only if we could convince our folks to take us to the mall, which was the only place you could find him.

I did a count this year, and my kids saw Santa no less than thirteen times this year, and actually sat on his lap at least five times. Five times! I don’t think I sat on Santa’s lap five times total in my entire childhood. Most years we had to write him a letter, because we could never find him to talk to him in person.

Now, the mind of a five-year-old is not as perceptive as an adult’s, perhaps, but they do pick up on more than you think they will. This can be an issue, because as with any commodity, when you start flooding the system with Santas, you’re going to get wide swings in the quality department.

At our number two son’s preschool Christmas party, we had the Santa by which all others shall be judged. His beard and hair were real, he was the spitting image of old Saint Nick, his voice was perfect, he had real black boots, and his outfit was real hand-made satin and fur that puts anything else I’ve seen to shame. Pair him against the 18-year-old Santa that came to our house in the red felt and white acrylic “fur” suit. The entire suit, hat, fake beard and hair appeared as if they were made from the same materials as one of those ultra-thin, bright red Christmas stockings that come in a six-pack from the dollar store. He had the black vinyl “booties” with the elastic strap that covered only the top half of his tennis shoes, and he was apparently too young to attempt to muster a Santa voice, so he just went with his own 18-year-old voice, complete with phrases like “little dude,” “oh, man,” and “super cool.” As it turned out, however, Number Three, who is one and a half, was OK with surfer-dude Santa, but scared to death of the real deal. Go figure.

The wide variety of realism with the Santas in our encounters have left me fielding more than a few questions, like, “How come Santa’s beard doesn’t look the same as yesterday?” and, “Why does Santa smell like Grandpa’s adult drink?”

Other questions arose this year when we ran into a proximity and time puzzle. When I took the boys to the mall to shop for Mommy, we spent a few minutes on level two peering over the railing at Santa, below in his chair, in Westfield’s version of Santa wonderland, diligently taking orders from all the little boys and girls who have parents willing to wait in the Santa line at the mall. Then, off we went toward the Sears tool department, where we shop for Mommy. Along the way, not thirty seconds after we left Santa in his chair, there he was again at the portrait studio on level two. Come on, fellas! Work with me, here. At least spread out a little!

“Daddy, why is Santa right there?”
Hmmm. “So that boys and girls can get their pictures taken with him.”
Crunch, crunch (sound of five-year-old’s brain working overtime)
“But, he was just down there.”
“How come?”
Hmmm. “Well, he’s magic, of course. He can be in two places at once. How do you think he delivers presents to every boy and girl in the world on one night? Oh look boys, a 10-inch compound miter chop saw with a laser cut line! I’ll bet Mommy would love that!”

The thing I’m most concerned about is not the questions, and it’s not the daunting requirement for spontaneous yet non-conflicting answers. It’s the loss of wonder that I want to avoid. The boys will only be young for a short period of time, and I want them to be mystified by Santa for as long as possible, not bored with him.

This year we have seen Santa five times at the mall, five times at Christmas parties, once on the Polar Express, and once on a fire truck in our neighborhood. Oh, yeah, and once driving a Hyundai. That one was hard for my wife to explain.

Next year we’ll do our best to whittle that number down a little, because I never want to hear, “Oh, look over there. It’s Santa again. Ho-hum. Boring!” At least not until they’re fifteen.

Have a wonderful Christmas, everybody!

See you soon,

Copyright © 2009 Marc Schmatjen

Have kids? Have grandkids? Need a great gift?
Go to today and get your copy of “My Giraffe Makes Me Laugh,” Marc’s exciting new children’s book. Get ready for a wild rhyming adventure!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Five Feet of Christmas I Despise

Since I’m a Christian, I really enjoy Christmas. We get to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ with our family and friends, joyfully thanking God for His greatest gift to us. And besides, I really love sugar cookies! There is, however, one aspect of Christmas that I don’t like. Actually, “don’t like” isn’t strong enough. Loath. Hate. Despise… yes, there is one aspect of Christmas that I despise. It has to do with Christmas lights.

It’s not the lights themselves. I love those. I really like the way they make the house look. My wife likes icicle lights; the kind with the individual light strands of differing lengths that hang down from the eaves to simulate a sparkling frozen wonderland. They give the house a warm glow while at the same time making us feel like we have a winter paradise in our otherwise non-frozen California front yard. It’s really quite magical, and brings joy to my heart every time I pull into the driveway from work.

It’s not putting up the lights, either. I don’t mind that chore. I might even go so far as to say that I enjoy it. It’s usually a nice, crisp fall day. I’m bundled up against the early December breeze, high on a ladder, as the boys frolic in the red and yellow autumn leaves on the lawn below. They “help” by holding the ladder, and climbing up to my feet when I’m down low. It seems like the essence of being a father and a family man is all wrapped up in that one chore, and it makes me feel content with my life.

The problem comes when I plug them in. Night falls, and I make the extension cord connection and then stand back to proudly admire my work. And there it is. The five feet of Christmas I despise: The five-foot section of icicle lights that is out, right in the middle of the string.

Dark. Nada.

We’ve got plug end, five feet of lit string, five feet of dark string, five more feet of lit string, and the prong end. Awesome! Right in the middle of the front of the house. My house could be a magical, sparkling, winter wonderland, but instead, that five-foot section of lights, out of the ninety-five total feet of lights, makes the entire house look stupid. The five-foot outage actually takes the whole effort and turns it upside down. Instead of improving the look of the house for the holidays, I have detracted from it, and made it look like the Christmas equivalent of the neighborhood delinquent’s house where the lawn is never mowed, there’s a car with a 2-inch layer of dirt and four flat tires in the driveway, and the screen door is hanging on one hinge. What a wonderful night!

My wife comes out and asks, “Didn’t you check them before you put them up?”
I grit my teeth.

My smart-ass neighbor yells from across the street, “You missed a spot!”
Yeah, thanks, Ted. Why don’t you go back inside now?

My son asks, “How come you didn’t put any lights right there?”
Time for you to go inside now, too, junior.

I would fix it, but I don’t know how. I don’t understand how it’s possible. Is the electricity jumping from one spot to another in the cord, bypassing some of the lights? How on Earth can both ends of a continuous string of lights be lit, but the middle is dark? It’s like turning the hose on at the house, cutting it in half in the middle, and still getting water out the other end.

I’m almost positive I used that string last year and it worked, otherwise I wouldn’t have kept it for this year, right? So please tell me what happened to it while it was tucked away in a plastic tub in my garage for the past eleven months. Did the copper wires melt during the summer? Did the electrons go on vacation? Does it just hate me?

To make troubleshooting even harder, I can’t recreate the problem on a string that works. I’m fairly sure it isn’t a bad bulb, because I can pull the tiny individual bulbs out of their tiny two-copper-wire-prong sockets in the lit strings, and the rest of the string stays lit. Why? Can someone please tell me why? Please! Why???

Oh, well. At least the Christmas tree lights work. Wait a minute…. The whole left side just went out. Great! Someone find the lawnmower while I fix this screen door hinge.

I need a sugar cookie.

See you soon,

Copyright © 2009 Marc Schmatjen

Have kids? Have grandkids? Need a great gift?
Go to today and get your copy of “My Giraffe Makes Me Laugh,” Marc’s exciting new children’s book. Get ready for a wild rhyming adventure!