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All Things Bright and Beautiful (for Christmas)

xmas house copy

This is so not my house. (Photo credit: small home, big display! via photopin (license))

 

The world is a strange and mysterious place, and there are any number of things in life that simply don’t seem to make any sense whatsoever. Like Intelligent Design, for example. Or Donald Trump being considered as a serious presidential contender. Or how a person (i.e. me) who absolutely loves all things Christmas (atheist though I am — sorry, that’s another blog altogether) can so viscerally detest putting up exterior Christmas decorations.

 

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t like exterior Christmas lights / decorations. It’s just that, all things being equal, when I’m at the top of that ladder — you know, standing on that very final step that has the embossed raised lettering on it that reads “DANGER: THIS IS NOT A STEP!” — and my fingers are frozen to the bone and about to snap off due to frost bite, and I’ve just broken off another plastic clip trying to get that bloody string of un-straightenable lights fastened to the eavestrough, and I’m doing this all one-handed because I’m using the other hand to cling to another part of the eavestrough — where the bare skin of my fingers may or may not have stuck itself fast to the exposed metal — to counterbalance the alarming pendulum-like sway that seems to have developed in the rickety step ladder below me, well, at times like these, my mind has a tendency to wander to the consideration of more enjoyable pastimes like, say, being flayed alive.

 

Today, as you might have guessed, was the day that we undertook decorating the outside of our house for Christmas. What we traditionally refer to, in Clark W. Griswold parlance, as “doing the exterior illumination.” And as much as I — as a matter of principle — approach this exercise with hatred and loathing, today, as it turned out, wasn’t a complete disaster. Granted it didn’t start out all that auspiciously. Just five minutes into the exercise, before we even got out of the basement storage room with the exterior wreaths, I was already hurling expletives at my 15-year old son as I found myself traipsing through a sea of loose kitty litter on the floor that he was supposed to have vacuumed up two days ago. Once we put that behind us, however, it was more or less smooth sailing.

 

What made this year run so — relatively — smoothly, you ask? I think there were probably several crucial factors.

  • The cat litter incident notwithstanding, my 6’-0” tall, nearly 16-year old son is finally of an age that when he helps me out around the house, he’s actually capable of truly being a help, rather than just something else I need to take care of as I’m trying to get the work done.  (“You wanna pay room and board or do you wanna help me put up the Christmas lights? Your choice. Pick up that ladder and those extension cords and let’s rock!”)
  • I can usually predict with some certainty what will be the coldest day of December. ‘Cuz it always seems to be the Saturday or Sunday I finally get around to putting up the Christmas lights! This year, blessedly, not so much. It was a nice crisp day to be sure, and there was even some lightly falling snow that helped to accentuate the pre-holiday atmosphere, but no mind-numbingly cold temps where you worry about your fingers snapping off if you risk working without gloves for a couple of minutes.
  • After six or seven years of putting up exactly the same exterior decorations in exactly the same locations, I think I may have finally got it figured out! For instance, I know now, from hard-won experience, where to best use zip ties instead of string and vice versa (and to make sure I have a reasonable supply of both on hand prior to getting underway). And this time around, for the first year ever, I wasn’t even missing a single extension cord, and all the inter-looping electrical lines running helter-skelter across the front lawn terminated neatly and logically — on the first attempt — into the three exterior outlets that I have available. The key to this system is to store all your equipment together in one place throughout the year. I now have a a single box in which I keep all my wiring supplies and woe betide the the person who tries to steal an extension cord from this box in the off season! (“I don’t care that Nana needs another few feet of cord to plug in her oxygen machine, those are my Christmas extension cords — hands off!)

 

Of course, the best way to minimize exterior illumination trauma installation time is — you guessed it — leave stuff up the whole year ‘round! Yeah, sorry to burst your bubble, but I’m that guy. It’s not something I’m proud of, and I only do it for the single line of lights along the front of the eavestrough, and the lights are white and the eavestrough is white so you don’t really notice anyway….

 

The fact is, when the snow finally clears from around the house sometime in late April / early May, and those eavestrough lights catch my eye the first time I run the lawn mover across the front yard, I can’t help but think to myself, if I take them down now I’ll just be back up there — risking life and limb atop that damn ladder in a sub-zero arctic wind storm (no doubt with a vengeful teenager on the bottom rung trying to figure out a way to have it topple and not get blamed for it) — six months from now, re-installing them. Where’s the wisdom in that? As I like to remind my wife in these instances, our house is set pretty far back from the road, after all.

 

And I’m hopeful that the eavestrough lighting I put up last year, with integral clip fasteners on the lights, will serve me far better than the ones I used to put up where you had to install those persnickety plastic eave-fastening clips separately from the string of lights. The latter type seem prone to catastrophic failure after a year or two of full-time duty on the front of the house.

 

I know this for a fact since, two years ago, while seeking to add a single new clip near the end of the run of lights where an existing clip had broken off, I inadvertently set in motion a Griswoldian chain of events worthy of a Hollywood Christmas extravaganza. As I held on to the cord of lights that I was seeking to fasten with the new clip, the next clip in line, weakened from having been on the house for far too long, snapped in half. Then the clip after that snapped. Then the clip after that, and so on. Until the bulk of the 42 foot run of eavestrough Christmas lights — except for the end that I held in my hand as I stood on top of the ladder —  was now laying on the ground in front of the house, covered in a sprinkling of snapped off plastic fasteners.

 

This, as you can well image, was the highlight of my son’s entire holiday season. And if he didn’t pee himself laughing, it was not for lack of trying. In fact, he was still laughing as I got in the car and headed to Canadian Tire for new lights. You know, the ones with the integral clips.

 

Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a well-illuminated good night!

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Planning for Fun: The Elusive Quest for Existential Balance

Photo by author. © Philip Jefferson

Photo by author. © Philip Jefferson

OK, I’m pumped! In 11 days I hit the road for a long-awaited, three-day “Writers’ Retreat!”

(Which is a fancy way of saying that another writer friend of mine and our wives have rented a cottage along the Northumberland Straight, about three hours away, and we’ll be bringing along our iPads for the long weekend with the purported goal of “getting away from it all” sufficiently to undertake some “serious” work on our current creative projects.)

And here is where two little voices in my head start waging a war of words that often leaves me exhausted by the end of the day.

First, the architect in me takes over — for architects are nothing if not professional planners: OK, we’ll leave by 08:00; have breakfast at the Big Stop in Aulac; then head back toward the road that runs along the shore; arrive at the cottage by noon; get 500 words down by mid-afternoon; pause for a quick G&T, then 250 more words by dinnertime; eat dinner; enjoy some after-dinner refreshments; share / critique each other’s just-completed 750 word challenge; allow for an hour or so “free chat”; partake of wee night cap; and off to bed by 23:00 (after having tabulated the day’s expenses and divided them in half to make sure both couples are paying their proportionate share of the excursion’s costs).

You get the picture: schedules, performance targets, deficiency reviews, budget updates. How could we not have fun given the breadth and scope invested in such an elaborate planning exercise? I mean, c’mon, I’ve even gone so far as to allow for an hour of “un-structured” free chat! I’ll make sure the day runs like a finely-tuned Swiss watch! (Or, as Chevy Chase’s character, Clark W. Griswold, so poetically phrases it when he realizes that his extended family just isn’t properly embracing the holiday plans he had made for them in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation: “Nobody’s leaving . . . . We’re going to press on. And we’re going to have the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tapped danced with Danny fucking Kaye!”)

Then, through the other metaphorical ear bud, comes the sibilant voice of that darker, free spirit me. Hit the road whenever — sleep in if you want, no biggie; the Big Stop would be nice, but it’s a little out of the way — you’ll find some place to eat just as good somewhere along your route and, if not, you can always have an early lunch when you get to the cottage; 750 words for the afternoon would be great, but who knows if you’re going to be in the right mood to concentrate, and, ultimately, a trip to the nearby winery before supper might help to better put the weekend in perspective; as for presenting your work after supper, just let things unfold as they will — something will happen. Just chill, duuuude! Everything will work itself out. After all, there’s nothing quite so fun as having fun you haven’t scheduled. You can’t plan to be spontaneous.

Truth be told, however, I think I do tend to gravitate more toward the planning side of my personality. I’ve already established, for example, that the “Official Coffee” of this, our inaugural autumn writing retreat, will be the Pumpkin Crème Brûlée blend I picked up last week especially for the trip. Still, I’m not completely blind (or deaf) to allure of the “Other,”  that elusive, inconstant beauty with her fickle, seductive, anarchic siren song of the “Un-planned!” At least that’s what I tell myself…

I struggle with this same dilemma every time the weekend rolls around. If I schedule the hours too carefully or too fully, Sunday night finds me feeling that I’ve not had the chance to unwind and truly enjoy what limited freedom these two wonderful days have to offer. Conversely, when I give myself permission to make no plans at all, and just enjoy the weekend as it comes, I end up Sunday night wondering if spending 27 hours binge-watching three back-to-back seasons of The Walking Dead truly represents freedom in any meaningful way.

I dunno. I’ve been told that I have a tendency to over think things. (Me? Really?) I guess when all is said and done, as far as the upcoming excursion is concerned, all I really want to do is enjoy some fall foliage along the coast, have a couple of drinks and a few laughs with friends, and produce a half a dozen pages of decent prose. That should be possible over the course of three days, right? Right?

Hap, Hap, Happy Christmas!