Saturday, December 5, 2009

Putting Up (With) a Christmas Tree

"Christmas Tree Erection" is not as much fun as it sounds. The agony starts with bringing your "severgreen" home. A proper fir, of the genus Expensivis Fire Hazardia, will smell so good it'll be more than worth having that branch perforate your cornea.

Setting this baby up in a stand is easy, provided you have an advanced degree in reverse metallurgic architectural horticulture. If not, just prop it up against a closet, or other place frequently accessed by your spouse, who will appreciate the aggravation as an excuse to have a third cup of spiked cider. Excellent, because the biggest mistake people make when putting up the tree is doing it sober.

First, string on the lights. Easiest technique: Just electrocute yourself right away and skip the rest. Common technique: Sob over tangled cords which haven’t functioned since that miracle occurred on 34th street, the one where every bulb on a light string stayed lit for more than 20 seconds. Be sure to wrap the light strings tightly onto the tree and onto nearby objects like your left leg, which will be released soon enough when you take the tree down on Easter.

Now take out the ornaments. Categories of these include: Broken, stolen, unwillingly homemade, and accidentally sacrilegious. Therefore the once pristinely natural tree ends up looking like an Elvis-as-Gladiator parade float. Luckily this is a much less upsetting vision to people drunk on eggnog than the sight of an actual tree.

What goes on top? To honor the birthplace of Jesus, the guy who the debatably pagan tree display celebrates, you should crown your creation with a “Star of Bethlehem.” Don’t spend a lot of money on it, because the cat will knock the tree over and break it. You must then retaliate by strapping the cat itself to the top branch. Don’t worry that your family will find this disturbing. Prolonged meowing can easily be drowned out by cranking up The Chipmunks’ disco version of Silent Night.

This whole ritual really is joyful as well as frustrating. The tree’s majestic splendor will remind you of the good will Christmas engenders in people across the world. Its glory will thaw you on returning from gathering wood and shoveling snow and singing merry carols like you did as a kid. And when you take the tree down you'll finally be inspired to vacuum for the first time this century, what with the needles and the cat's tinsel-filled hairballs.

Next December you might be tempted to just decorate a fake tree, throw a blanket over it in January, and unveil it year after year. Fine. Either way, a lovingly trimmed Christmas tree is the most gorgeous thing that you’ll ever see. Just as soon as you nurse that eyeball back to health.

(A word of warning, cut trees get progressively more retaliatory every year. I heard that in 2010 they're going for the groin.)

Friday, December 4, 2009

Rock Climbing

I'm an intelligent enough person, but for the longest time I don't feel I really understood the phrase "rock climbing." I thought this couldn't possibly be a sport where one actually climbs rocks. Pardon me, but I always kind of thought of giant rock faces as very unaccommodating parts of the environment that really preferred you stayed off of them or else.

Then I acquired a boyfriend, a nature-adoring, outdoor-craving, motion-loving boyfriend (who is now my husband). Rock climbing is Jim's forte. He talked about his adventures for months, but I still couldn't imagine it. Let's see. You're safely on the ground, but of your own free will you scale a vertical and nearly flat surface to get 60 feet up in the air, with nothing between you and death but a rope.

Seems reasonable.

I went through my girly worries, wishing Jim preferred safer activities, like reading about rock climbing. Then one day I finally saw him in the gear, and decided that anything that made a guy look that ruggedly fetching had to be worthwhile. That was the day I went with him for the first time to climb. We were in British Columbia, where you can really only take gazing out at the gorgeous vistas of lakes and canyons for so long. After a while you really need to balance that out by staring at hard gray stone close enough to lick.

I had borrowed climbing shoes, which are supposed to be extra tight, so they feel like you've crammed each foot into a thimble. I got all geared up so that if I fell while I was climbing, the rope that was secured through my harness, tied around a tree atop the crag, and held at the other end by Jim would keep me simply hanging around rather than plummeting to the ground. That's the way it's supposed to work. Sounds great! There's just one little problem. When you're a newbie, your survival instinct says it doesn't care what pains you've taken for safety. It thinks that if you let go of the rock, You Gonna Die.

So I didn't get up very far. I kept looking back down at the ground, judging each advance in terms of the severity of injury I'd suffer. Hmmm…if I fall now, it's probably worth a broken ankle. Next stop, I'd say the whole leg's a goner. A few more feet up and the brain damage may be worth a lifelong disability excusal from work. Yee-ha!

Meanwhile, Jim and our other companion got all the way up to the top of the rock. I wistfully watched and wondered if I'd ever possess those kind of guts, or flexibility, or upper body strength. Rock climbing lets you know really fast if your muscles are unforgivably stiff or if like me you've spent most of your years lifting nothing heavier than a box of cereal.

But lucky for me, there's a manmade version of everything. I didn't know until last year that there are rock climbing gyms. Glory be, it has climbing walls with marked footholds and handholds. And for the night I recently spent there, it had me hooked.

Once you really start making your way up the wall, you finally start getting it – that whole "I climbed the mountain because it was there" mentality. You curse everything that gets in your way of reaching the top, whether it be fear, fatigue, or fettered feet. You get down after going only part of the way up the first time, if you're me. But the second time, you reach the top, and look down at civilization 40 feet below you, and you almost don't even want to come back down. You're damn proud. Then you gently rappel back down, stop wondering why anyone would want to climb, and start wondering why they'd want to do anything else.

I enjoyed the obvious metaphor for life. Confront a risk, take it, and bask in the accomplishment. But it's more than that. Climbing challenges a brain in a very different way than anything else I've ever done. It teaches you to reckon with the most unrelenting force there is (gravity), it accepts nothing less than your undivided attention, and it demands that you practice the art of letting go. It also falls into that great category of sports where the most important competitor is yourself.

Author's note: That was years ago. Now Jim and I kayak instead of rock climb, which I doubt I'll ever try again. Just goes to show you, for every new adventure I can wax poetic on, there's a pretty good chance I won't keep up with it. Good thing I'm so proud of my short attention span, damn proud.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Life Gems

Good news: If you give a company called LifeGem some of the cremated remains of your loved one, they'll make a diamond out of it. Score! Every woman who never gets jewelry from her husband can look forward to eventually having, say, diamond earrings made from her husbands' remains. Husbands shouldn't mind because it'll be a lot easier to haunt her if he's right there on her ears.

And try this on for size. Everyone knows about cryonics (or what most people mistakenly term "cryogenics"), an unproven science by which a person or animal is preserved with the intention of future resuscitation. What if science is over-complicating things? What if you could actually skip the whole rigmarole of freezing Grandpa, and all you really needed was his ashes to get the old geezer up and running again? Wearing him in a piece of jewelry would let you revive him at a moment's notice. Whenever you were feeling nostalgic about his psalm recitations and denture fitting stories, you could simply rub your Grandpa nose piercing, and poof! Like a genie out of a bottle he'd materialize to tell you that you're not God-fearin' enough and your skirt is too short. OK, Grandpa, now get back in there until next year.

You'll pay a premium for a LifeGem (which is kind of a misnomer – it's actually a "DeathGem"). Prices range from $2,200 to $19,000. For that kind of money, the company had better let me come witness the process. I'd want to hand deliver the ashes and watch as a diamond is created from those ashes and those ashes alone. Although who could ever really be sure what they're getting? LifeGem describes the steps of making the jewel as 1) carbon capture in a high-nitrogen, low-oxygen atmosphere, 2) purification by heating to extremely high temperatures to convert the carbon to graphite, 3) creation of the gem in a diamond press, and 4) faceting, laser-etching, inspection, grading, and certification of the diamond.

Doesn't that just conjure up the sight of an enormous Dr. Seuss-looking machine with multicolored knobs and pipes and wing-dongers and hinker-thwackers, where you feed a pile of ash into one end and after about ten minutes of piston burping and slide whistle sounds, out from the other side drops a perky little gem? It would fall right into the hands of a Cindy Lou Who facsimile, who'd hand it over to you with a toothless grin.

I'm sure many will derive much comfort from their cremation carats, but this whole notion just whets my appetite for bigger and better things made out of the deceased. I'm not a jewelry person anyway. What I'm looking for is a company that could make my loved one's ashes into some truly useful stuff. How about, say, a food processor? A nice handbag? A plane ticket to Bermuda?

Oh, how cold of me. I'd do a greater service by reminding you to treat your loved ones right, long before they become a novelty item that you store in a drawer, never to be worn again. Tell them over and over how in your heart, their fully alive presence is far more beautiful than anything else created by humankind or nature, unless after they die you end up ordering the full carat LifeGem Radiant Cut diamond mounted in a platinum tennis bracelet. This way you can be sure to engender the kind of tender feelings that will prevent people like your very own sister from regularly sizing you up regarding just how brilliant your carbon-captured, heat-purified, laser-etched postmortem shine would be.

As usual, though, my skepticism is undercoated with a search for personal gain. I do believe this idea will really take off, so put me down for a bunch of shares of LifeGem stock. Just you wait. It won't be too long before you won't be able to compliment someone's ring without hearing the reply, "Thanks. It's my mother."

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


Last year I tried snowboarding, despite preferring my bones un-pulverized. I decided to try it because the fees involved were a birthday present. I'm good with ignoring the risk of violent death as long as I don’t have to pay for it.

The limber, half-my-age Aussie instructor made the sport look easy. And our training spot wasn't even a bunny slope – it was more of a hamster slope. Yet I still stood at the top fingering mental rosary beads just to muster the courage to strap both feet into just one board. What the? The thing should really be called a snowblood.

Lift your toes to turn left; lift your heels to turn right. Got it. Turning is how you slow down. But snow is very slippery. It connives with the waxed snowboard to generate a speed inversely proportionate to your skill level. Therefore you probably shouldn’t immediately proceed to the top of the slope after only one lesson and a lifetime of acute risk aversion. So naturally, that’s what I did.

That meant braving the ski lift, and I’d only ever been on the fake kind at amusement parks. You have to ride strapped into your snowboard with only one foot, so your inevitable leg tango with your similarly outfitted lift mate ends up twisting your ankle before you even get the chance to mangle yourself properly on the mountain. Dismounting the lift was also challenging. There’s nothing quite like falling on the ground and looking up to see the next lift car swinging amicably toward your skull.

Then it was the moment of untruth. I flapped and curled down the mountain, thrashing like a bull (on a snowboard) in a china shop. I skirted moguls at the last second. I clamored to keep up with six-year-olds. I mopped up meltwater with my improper denim attire. My heart raced from the fear of colliding with snowboarders barreling right behind me. I had so much fun I figured it would take only one more time down the slope to awaken my inner Olympic snowboarder.

Once at the top of the slope again, I got cocky. Neither my ill-fitting boots nor my desire to walk again were about to hold me back. I took a mere half an hour to arrange myself in the starting position. Then I remembered being told that going faster would actually afford me more control. So I dug those edges in, I dug those edges out, I put my left knee in and I shook it all about. I pointed my snowboard straight down the mountain, scoffing at both gravity and my obvious balance deficiency. My momentum picked up and soon I was thrust into that Peppermint Patty commercial, where you’re so exhilarated that your eyeballs ice over.

Then I realized I’d better slow down if I didn’t want to fly across the resort parking lot and out onto the highway. I’m not sure what I did, but it was The Wrong Thing. Suddenly my momentum flung me backward as forcefully as in a cartoon, crashing me down onto my head and upper vertebrae with brain-numbing impact. My sunglasses flew off my face and I saw not just stars, but planets. It took me a full two minutes to regain a standing position. Spasms of pain banished me for the rest of the day to the lodge’s fireside, where not even vending machine hot cocoa and watching my jeans dry could save me from the overwhelming, cataclysmic boredom.

Of course, I’m well aware that when something defeats you, you have to get right back on the horse. I've promised myself I'll be brave and drive out to the mountain again with friends soon. Only this time I plan to triumph over that boredom in the lodge by bringing a bunch of books.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Discount Cards

So I buy some bread at Great Harvest Bread Company. Along with the loaf, the cashier hands me a Frequent Buyer’s Card. Printed on it are “Buy 10 loaves, get 1 free” and spaces to keep track of my purchases.

I shove the card into my wallet, already bulging from other store cards. I have ones from Borders CafĂ©, Genuardi’s, Ritz Camera, Vitamin Shoppe, Staples, PETCO, Radio Shack, ad infinitum. My wallet immediately explodes, violently spewing plastic bar-coded bits and coinage carnage all over the store.

I don’t try to recover anything. I just run, hoping to travel back to the time before capitalism coughed up these cards. Who doesn’t have dozens of them? You’re supposed to present them whenever you buy stuff, and you get lower prices or more nebulous rewards. If they’re not frequent buyer cards, they’re “membership cards,” “preferred customer cards,” or “discount cards.” But mainly, they’re “extremely annoying cards.” They pile higher and higher, waiting for you to return to their mother ship establishment two years later and forget to use them anyway.

Yet a collection of these cards, in my experience, is no house of cards. It’s a major stronghold to be reckoned with: No mere mortal consumer is psychologically capable of disposing of or even thinning the herd. What if one day you return to Pete’s Shoelace Emporium in One Acre, South Dakota? You’ll need the membership card you signed up for on your first visit. You haven’t been letting some day job chip away at your sanity for years just to pay the non-member price for rhinestone bootlaces.

When cashiers swipe your card, a database records your purchases and tracks your spending patterns. Supposedly everybody wins. The consumer gets discounts, and the store learns how to perfect the target marketing which results in greater profits.

One of my friends said he’d rather forego economic rewards than let a store know his shopping habits. I can’t understand his card-shunning from that standpoint. I’m pretty sure nobody’s reading the data scans and yelling, “Joe, look – this guy's only 26 and buys Dentucreme! Call the Associated Press!”

But I have no trouble understanding the desire to stop juggling all these cards. In my wildest dreams, all venues of commerce come together and centralize their databases. Then – believe it or not – you’d need one and only one card. Think of the benefits. Wallet space would open up. No more stink-eye from customers in line behind you as you spend an hour searching through twenty cards for the right one. The Society for the Abolishment of Discount Cards would disband, and the president could get on with her life.

But don’t forget the best benefit of all. I’ll invite everyone reading this to a huge bonfire at my house. I’ll supply the lighter fluid, if you supply my preferred fuel for the fire – be sure to leave none of your discount cards behind.