Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Fine Corinthian Christmas Tree

My wife waited patiently as I chewed and swallowed the last bite of Thanksgiving turkey from my otherwise empty plate. When I wiped my mouth with my napkin and leaned back in my chair, groaning the happy, overstuffed, fat-man-with-a-belly-full-of-food groan, she asked, “Are you finished?”
“Yes, thanks. It was delicious.”
“Yeah, yeah, great to hear. Let’s talk about Christmas decorations. I want to get the tree up.”

It’s a new record. She didn’t mention Christmas decorations during the Thanksgiving meal this year. She waited until afterward. Three seconds afterward… but still.

“What about the pie?” I inquired.
“There will be plenty of time for pie after the tree is up, fat boy.”

It has always been my intention to continue the Christmas tree tradition of my childhood with my own boys. The Saturday family outing on the crisp December day to the forest (and by forest, I of course mean the Christmas tree farm), to cut down and haul home our own tree. Those pine needle and sap-covered trips are a series of treasured memories from my youth, and someday soon I will decide that we can no longer deprive our children of those magically pine-scented, and incredibly sticky, experiences.

At this point however, the thought of my three boys anywhere close to a chain saw, or any type of saw for that matter, quickly erases those thoughts. So, until I can muster enough courage to start that tradition, I am left with this tradition.

The epic battle between man and the 8-foot, pre-lit, faux pine Christmas tree.

And so it begins. I venture to the side yard, open the doors of the shed, and peer inside. Since we have already gone through the inane process of removing ourselves from Daylight Savings Time, the sun goes down around four o’clock in the afternoon these days, so it is almost completely dark outside. It is pitch black inside the shed. My flashlight pierces the night. There it stands. The box is over five feet tall, and two feet on a side. It weighs well over 80 pounds. It is obscured by rakes, shovels, leaf blowers, extension cords, and countless other implements of suburban torture, hopelessly tangled together in a lawn-and-garden Gordian knot.

I don’t even attempt to untangle them. I just drag them out onto the ground in front of the shed. As I climb back over the pile, I trip on a leftover roll of roofing felt that has rolled out of the shed. Fortunately, my fall is broken by the extra five-gallon barbeque propane tank on the shed floor near the tree. Meanwhile, our neighbors have seen the dancing beam of my flashlight, and heard me thrashing about, and called the police, thinking our shed is being robbed by a group of foul-mouthed hooligans.

After convincing the police officer that I am not stealing anything, I ask his opinion on a legal matter. He does not think that I can press charges on the roofing felt company or the propane tank company for my new head injury. He leaves.

Back to the shed I go. There, sitting on the top of the tree box, is the grim reminder of my future fate. The real tree stand, that I will someday use to mount an actual tree in our living room, just as soon as I can get past the image of our three young boys fighting over who gets to help run the saw. I move the tree stand off to the side, trying to put that disturbing thought out of my head, and drag the huge box out onto the ground in front of the shed.

The box has two handles on it, and a sticker warning the workers at the big-box store, where it came from, that this is a “team lift” item. I scoff, and mumble under my breath that the big-box store’s warehouse must be staffed with 12-year-old girls. I grab both handles and lift the large, ungainly box off the ground with the classic straight-leg, bend at the waist, whip-and-snatch technique.

I cry out in pain as the box finds its former home on the ground, with me now sprawled across the top of it, my hands still gripping the handles, and my sciatic nerve sending shots of pain down my legs and up my torso.

I roll off the box and collect myself by crying for a while in the fetal position next to the shed. When I can walk again, I go inside and politely ask my wife for help. She asks if we need to “team lift” again this year. I wonder how she knows that term.

We move the heavier-than-expected box to our patio near the sliding glass door. I take a moment to examine the box, reading the advertising stickers that are near the much too small, and not nearly clear enough, team lift sticker. The tree is billed as a 7.5-foot-tall Prescott Pine, with 800 clear pre-strung lights, 5.1 feet of girth, and 1,904 tips. It comes in three easy to install sections, and there is a series of photos showing a petite middle-aged lady in a snappy pantsuit putting the tree together all by herself, with only the assistance of a small stepstool.

This is why people despise the marketing department. For starters, there is no such thing as a “Prescott pine.” That is a made up name, like Ricardo Montalban’s famous “fine Corinthian leather” from the old Buick commercials. In fact, they should have just ripped that name off, because “Corinthian spruce” sounds better. Next, the lights boast the imaginary feature of, “when one bulb burns out, the others stay lit.” The first time I see that actually work, I will believe in Christmas miracles. I have no idea what the “tips” are, or what they think they have 1,904 of on this tree, but if they mean branches, they over counted.

And, finally, the “easy three-step process” with the nice lady and her stepstool is a total sham. She may have put the stand on the bottom section, inserted the middle section into the bottom section, and then inserted the top section into the middle section, but those are steps, 5, 12, and 15 of a 29-step process. They neglected to mention the step where you stand the bottom section upright, and get knocked backward with a mouth full of nylon “pine needles,” as the hinged branches fall down into place. They also missed the fun part about manually folding down the 75 branches on the top section, because for whatever reason, hinged branches are only available on the bottom two-thirds of the tree.

And, they also forgot to mention the intermediate nine-step process where you have to insert yourself inside the tree with a flashlight, and hunt down the six color-coded plug ends that make up the light string, making sure to match the plugs with the red stickers and the ones with the yellow stickers to their respective cord ends. That always goes perfectly. I guess the lady in the pictures didn’t want her tree to be lit.

And don’t even get me started on step number one. There is no way Ms. Pantsuit got that damned box out of the shed by herself!

Maybe next year I’ll just get the chainsaw out of the shed, instead. Getting a real tree has got to be easier than this, right?

See you soon,


Copyright © 2012 Marc Schmatjen

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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Boy, am I Thankful

It’s that time of year again. When we all sit around the Thanksgiving table and list what we are thankful for, trying to get it done as fast as possible, because what we are really thankful for is the big, mouth-watering turkey sitting in the center of the table, and we want to get to it.

In anticipation of this ritual, I have done a little bit of pre-Thanksgiving reflection this year, without the distraction of the savory bird. I am thankful for all the major things, of course. My wife and children are healthy, we have a roof over our heads and plenty of food, and my wife and I have retained a socially acceptable level of sanity through our first eight calendar years of parenting. I say calendar years because, technically, we’ve only had kids for eight years, but we have three of them. When you have multiple kids, I believe your parenting years are actually a cumulative total of their ages. We have eight calendar years under our belt, but nineteen multi-kid years to our credit.

Raising three boys, I often think that there should also be some sort of multiplier involved in that number to account for the additional energy and mischief level that young boys bring to the table. It is probably a draw though, because the parents of girls will surely need a multiplier for pre-teen drama, and teenage dating, and boys, and specifically, that idiot with the pierced nose that keeps being seen near their fifteen-year-old daughter.  

I will take rambunctious and wild over body piercings, boyfriends, and boyfriends with body piercings any day of the week. That leads me to what I am specifically thankful for this year: Shopping for birthday presents. Specifically, boy’s birthday presents.

Son Number One’s birthday is very close to Thanksgiving, so our Thanksgiving week holiday plans always involve some kind of birthday celebration as well. Now, don’t misunderstand. I am not thankful that I have to shop for birthday presents. I hate shopping, in any form. What I am thankful for, is that we have boys, which greatly reduces the time and struggle required to find a gift.

Boys like hardware. All boys like hardware. All boys like anything hardware related. It is a universal truth that does not exist with any other store except the hardware store. Most boys like sports. Most boys like trucks. Most boys like Star Wars. All boys like hammers.

If you are invited to an eight-year-old boy’s birthday party, you can try your luck at Toys R Us if you want. You can get him some Legos, and he may or may not like them. You can get him a football that he may or may not want to throw. You can buy him a remote-control car that he may or may not want to drive around in the street. Or, you can buy him a socket wrench set that he will think is the coolest thing he has ever seen.

In fact, if you were to walk into any hardware store – I said hardware store, not Home Depot or Lowes – and go down any aisle, stop in the middle, turn to your right and point, you will be pointing at something that a boy will think is awesome. You might be in the lawn and garden aisle. Doesn’t matter. He will think that new 29-inch D-handle trench spade is the best thing he’s ever seen. Then, he will dig a thousand holes.

If you buy a boy his own roll of duct tape, he will be as happy as if you gave him a million dollars. Happier, actually, because to a six-year-old, a million dollars and ten dollars are the same thing. If you get him a whole sleeve of duct tape, forget about it! He’ll be so excited, you’ll have to peel him off the ceiling. Actually, with that much duct tape, there’s a good chance he may really figure out a way to stick himself to the ceiling. You have to be careful, there.

Buy him a real flashlight. Buy him some rope. Buy him a chain binder or a come-along. Buy him a conduit bender. Vice-Grips. It doesn’t matter. You want to be his for life? Buy him a five-pound box of ten-penny nails and a claw hammer. Done.

So, this year, among all the other regular stuff, that is what I’m thankful for. I am thankful that I don’t have to shop for girls. If my wife and I ever forget to buy a birthday or a Christmas present, I know that at the last minute I could walk into my garage, close my eyes and point, and come up with a gift that my boys would love, in less than fifteen seconds. Try that with a girl.

I wouldn’t even know where to start with a girl. I get in enough trouble shopping for my wife. Just ask her about the ironing board incident of 2001. I don’t need the headache! I do much better sticking to what I know.

Actually, come to think of it, there is one other universal love for boys besides the hardware store. You can’t go wrong at the gun counter at sporting goods store, either, but my wife thinks I should wait until they’re at least nine before I buy them firearms. Or did she say, nineteen? I can’t remember.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

See you soon,


Copyright © 2012 Marc Schmatjen

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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Deleting the Deceased

The other day at work, I received one of those thankfully rare, but occasionally necessary “We're saddened to have to report that so-and-so has passed on” e-mails from one of our vendors. He was an old-timer at a company in Arkansas, and I had never met him in person, and possibly only spoken to him once or twice on the phone in the last ten years, and only in a business capacity. If I had bumped into him on the street, we would not have known each other.

So, I read the e-mail, then promptly went into my contacts lists on my computer and phone… and deleted him.

The second thing I did was say a short prayer for his family.

I’m not sure if the order of those two events makes me extremely callous, or extremely practical. I prefer to think of it as practical, but honestly, I felt like kind of a jerk when I hit the delete button. There is no good logical reason why I should feel like a jerk, but it happened just the same. In fact, I was really attempting to be the opposite of a jerk by expediently deleting the deceased.

I was trying not to forget to delete him, and the only way for me not to forget, is to do it right away. I am deathly afraid of forgetting to delete him, because I know, somewhere in Arkansas, there is some poor administrative assistant (“secretary,” for those of you over 60), who will spend the next three months fielding emails and phone calls for the deceased and having to explain why he won’t be getting back to them anytime soon. I don’t want to be one of those accidentally uninformed people that she has to deal with.

The situation is even worse when it is a friend or a relative that has passed on. Obviously, the loss hits you harder, but I’m referring to the situation with the contact deleting issue. Even though it is a loved one, you still have the same immediate need to do it. In fact, it is because they were close to you that makes it even more important to wipe out their contact info right away. Since they were close to you, you obviously won’t forget they died, but if you don’t take care of the administrative aspect of their passing posthaste, you might completely forget to delete their contact info.

I end up feeling even more cold-hearted when my reaction to the news of a loved one’s passing is to purge them from my electronic records. Even though the prayers come first in that situation, erasing their contact info is still the second thing on my list. Again, there is a good reason for this. I am nothing if not practical, and my goal is to spare myself and others further discomfort and mental anguish in the future. I am desperately trying to avoid accidentally mailing or e-mailing something to the dearly departed.

I am really, really trying to avoid the incredibly awkward situation where one of my friends’ or relatives’ family members has to get in contact with me to make sure I know that the person died.

“Uh, Smidge, you just sent an email to Bob. You remember that he passed away last Tuesday, right? I mean, you were at the funeral. You gave the eulogy.”
“Uhhh… whoops. No, I didn’t forget he died. I just forgot to take him off the 'people to forward funny jokes to' list. Sorry about that.”

Not a conversation you want to have.

The situation gets even weirder, nowadays, when the deceased had a Facebook page. It usually falls to the next of kin to post an announcement to make the online friends of the departed aware of the loss. However, if the dead person had an uncrackable password, they might “live on” forever in social media. Deleting contact info on your computer and phone is a personal and private matter. But, what do you do publically about the fact that you are “friends” with someone who can no longer log in?

Prudence would dictate that you “unfriend” them right away. Good manners and feelings would dictate that you waffle on that and wait to see what everyone else does. This leads to a lot of dead people being “friends” with a lot of live people online for longer than everyone is comfortable with. Facebook itself adds an extra weird dimension to it sometimes, also. I actually received an automated notice from Facebook suggesting that I be friends with one of my relatives who had passed away earlier in the year. Apparently he had an uncrackable password.

Being the author of award-winning books (my kids give me awards made out of construction paper and glitter when I publish a book), and the keyboard jockey in charge of this column, I have quite a few friends on Facebook that I have never actually met in person. This makes the unfriending process even more difficult. Your relatives, who know you personally, will perceive your actions in a different light than someone you don’t know, who might only see you as “the callous jerk who just deleted my dead brother.” We really need a universally adopted period of social media mourning, followed by pulling the plug, as it were, on their page.

Possibly the best idea for dealing with the Facebook issue came from a conversation I overheard on a plane. A nine year old boy and his dad were sitting in the row in front of me, and I heard the kid say, “Hey dad. When you die, I’m going to keep updating your Facebook page. I’ll write, ‘Hey, they have wifi up here.’ That will freak people out.”

At the very least, Facebook needs a “reluctantly saying goodbye” button. “Unfriend” just sends the wrong message in a time of grief. As for my email contact issue, I feel bad enough when I’m deleting someone who has died. I wish Microsoft wouldn’t pile on.

"Are you sure you want to delete this person?"

Hey pal, don't judge me. I didn't want to delete them. That was God's call. I just need to update my records before I forget and accidentally try to send a dead person a funny joke or a Christmas letter.

See you soon,


Copyright © 2012 Marc Schmatjen

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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Time for a Change

I understand time zones. Since the earth is round and rotates, they are necessary to make sure half the world doesn’t have to eat lunch in the middle of the night. What I don’t understand is Daylight Savings Time. I mean, I understand the concept of wanting it to stay lighter in the evenings, and I’m all for that. What I don’t get is why we swap back and forth. It presents all sorts of problems, and I am convinced that whoever came up with the brilliant plan to mess with the clocks twice a year never had kids.

We “fell back” this weekend, and when that happens, the news people always mention “the extra hour of sleep” we’re all supposed to get. Not at my house! On Sunday night the kids were literally falling asleep in their dinner. (And, yes, I am using literally correctly, there. We actually had to fish Son Number Three out of his macaroni and cheese for fear of him suffocating at the table.) And guess what happened on Monday morning? I can tell you what wasn’t happening. Sleep. Any mythical “extra” hour of sleep I received on Sunday was promptly nullified when I woke up at 5:00 A.M. to find Son Number One and Two fully dressed and sitting in front of the television, watching cartoons.

“What in the world do you two think you’re doing? It’s five o’clock in the morning!”
“But, Dad, we woke up at four o’clock and it was taking forever to get to six.”

Thanks a lot, Daylight Savings Time!

And why do we always change the clocks on Saturday night? I think the theory is that if you take care of it in the middle of the weekend, the people who forget won’t be late for work. So, let me get this straight. They’re OK with me being late for church, but not for work? Something tells me God doesn’t see it that way, but that’s not even my main objection. If I’m going to have to go through this hassle, you should at least give me the opportunity to have a semi-legitimate excuse for being late for work twice a year. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. I’m already tired from my kids either waking up in the middle of the night in the fall, or having to drag them out of bed and give them CPR just to wake them up in the spring.

A Sunday night time change would be great. It would be called “time change Monday,” or “DST day,” and no one would expect you in the office before noon. It would end up being a holiday for the school kids, since, in my experience, school districts rarely miss an opportunity to take a day off.

And don’t even get me started on the actual clocks. My cell phone, my computer, and my Blu-ray player all automatically adjust themselves, and that’s fine. They are connected to the internet, so I trust that they’ll do it when they are supposed to, and even if they don’t, what do I care? I don’t use them to wake up on time for work. My alarm clock, on the other hand, has an optional setting for DST. This is possibly the worst “feature” on an alarm clock ever. I never know if the DST function is activated or not, and how the hell should my alarm clock even be able to know what day it is supposed to adjust the time, anyway? It’s not connected to the internet. I end up setting my clock ahead or back before I go to sleep, and then waking up three times in the middle of the night, comparing it to my wife’s clock to make sure it didn’t automatically change itself again at 2:00 A.M.

Then there are all the other clocks I have to deal with. At last count, that included the microwave, the stove, four bedside clocks, the house phone, two wristwatches, the VCR (yes, we still have one of those), two thermostats, the automatic sprinkler timer in the garage, a wall clock in my office, and two cars. Since the microwave and the stove clocks are right on top of each other, it takes me twice as long to set them, because I have to make sure they are exactly synchronized, or it will bug the bejeezus out of me when they say different times. One of our cars takes forever, too, because we have an aftermarket stereo in it, and we can never remember how to set it. My wife actually had to take it back to the electronics place where we bought the stereo once, just to get them to show her how to do it, because we gave up trying to figure it out.

And if the clocks themselves weren’t confusing enough, what about the states? Hawaii and Arizona do not use Daylight Savings Time, and half of Indiana doesn’t use it, while the other half does. What the hell is up with that? Trying to do the math on time zones is already enough of a headache, but when some states are allowed to further complicate the issue by going renegade on us, that is too much. I mean, come on, Indiana, half and half? Really?

I have first-hand experience in how confusing this can be. When I was in college in California, we went to Arizona for spring break. Arizona is on mountain time, so we knew we were in a different time zone, and needed to adjust the clocks ahead an hour, but someone knew that Arizona was either always on DST or never on it, but didn’t know which. Since we didn’t know whether they were permanently sprung forward, or permanently falled back, and no one was really even sure when we were supposed to change the clocks in California, we didn’t know if we should leave our watches alone, set them ahead an hour, or set them back two hours. Since this was before the internet and cell phones, the end result was a vacation where no one could agree on what time it was. Fortunately, the beer supplies held out, and no one really cared.

I personally think we should put all 50 states on permanent DST and be done with it. Sure, the winter mornings will be a little dark, but who cares? We’ll still have longer summers evening hours to play baseball, and no one will ever have to change the time on 17 clocks again, or deal with a seven-year-old who’s body doesn’t adjust, no matter what the clock says.

Like I said, the time zones are confusing enough. Let’s be done with unnecessary time changes and all the “spring forward, fall back” nonsense. Why overcomplicate things? As long as we’re on the subject, I also think it should be illegal for a state to have two different time zones. If you lived right on the line, how would you know when the store opened, or what time your favorite TV show comes on? How would you ever plan anything?
“Meet me at three o'clock.”
“Which three o'clock?”

 What if you lived in one time zone and worked in another?

That would be my idea of hell. I can’t even imagine what those poor folks in Indiana are going through right now.

See you soon,


Copyright © 2012 Marc Schmatjen

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