So I’m back in the US of A for Christmas and based on a sample size of two (my parents), I can report that the political mood here is bleak. My mom’s dog of many years died a week or two ago and one of the pressing post-mortem issues is what to do with the now faintly embarrassing “Obama” dog leash. Two years ago this was the shizznet. Today, like the word shizznet, it pretty much just annoys people.
When you only come home occasionally, you notice strange things. Tonight I noticed that mom’s new oven, part of her recent kitchen renovations, displays not just the time, but also the day and date. Today, the oven announces, is Tuesday, December 21st, 2010. Why the hell does an oven need to know the date? It’s not like you’re going to put a turkey in and then program the thing to start it three weeks hence, right before you get back from London. I mean, you could, but no matter how you dress that turkey, it’s coming out stew.
Still, it’s always nice to be back for Christmas. But now that we have a child it’s a much more fraught exercise. There’s nothing wrong with the child himself. He’s handsome, charming and funny — at least, inasmuch as any three year old can be. But he is also, like any three year old, the Amazing Human Vector, capable of introducing disease into any population anywhere. If we dropped him out of a B-2 over Afghanistan, our problems there would be over. Indiscriminate use of biological weapons is technically a violation of the Geneva Conventions, but that kind of thing doesn’t seem to bother us so much any more, so the US Air Force can contact me care of this blog if they’re interested in picking him up for, oh, let’s say 200 million bucks. It seems like a lot for a small boy, but is totally reasonable when you consider the strategic impact and the $2.2 billion sticker on the B2.
Anyway, speaking of coming out stew, last year the Human Vector gave my entire family some kind of awful stomach illness that destroyed Christmas as thoroughly as if I’d filled the stockings with an emulsion of dogshit and gasoline and set them alight, presents and all. On one particularly bleak night Imagethief read all of Nathaniel Philbrick’s “Mayflower” in the bathroom, and that is not a svelte read. So we were pretty sure that by comparison this Christmas would be candy canes and cinnamon pixie-farts.
With cinnamon pixie-farts in mind, we went over to the little-league field where the Sea Scouts run their Christmas tree lot. My mom’s current tenant had actually left an artificial Christmas tree, but I think artificial Christmas trees are like fat-free ice cream: unnatural simulacra of things that should be by nature joyous and indulgent. If you described a Christmas tree to a police sketch artist from Mars, you might get something that looked like this artificial tree.
The Sea Scouts were in high spirits, busy dragging one of the volunteer clerks through the ring-like device they use to “net” Christmas trees so they are more compact for driving home. “It’s a boy!” yelled one, capturing in a nutshell what the scene was spookily reminiscent of. But it’s Christmas, so you have to celebrate a virgin birth, even if it’s the simulated virgin birth of an eighteen year old man being passed through a hoop of disposable red-and white netting. While they were cutting him out of the net we found a suitable tree: a six foot noble fir for $51. “Would you like the stand with that?” asked our clerk, who had not been run through the netting machine and was therefore still able to serve us.
All the Sea Scouts trees come already mounted on broad stands made of green rebar and plastic buckets. The stands cost an extra twenty bucks, but make the tree “ready to trim”, as it were. My mom already has a Christmas tree stand that dates approximately from the Lyndon Johnson administration (really), but which has always been serviceable if a bit fiddly. It seemed excessive to me to pay an extra twenty bucks for a big hunk of rebar that would just get heaved into the recycling along with the tree two weeks hence, so I declined.
Dumbest mistake ever.
Here’s a bit of straightforward advice: get the stand. Just swallow the environmental consequences and the measly two bills and get the goddamned included stand. The tree will come in the front door and be ready for trimming and presents. No hassle. And no back problems.
Ah, the back problems. Part of Imagethief’s genetic inheritance, along with a big schnozz, sweet tooth and tendency to wordy rants, is a gimpy back passed down from my father and exacerbated by years of sloppy gym technique and poor work posture. I am, it must be confessed, a sloucher. This has been my year of back problems. At 43, I should probably be grateful. My father blew his back out like a discount whitewall when he was ten years younger than I am now, and I’ve never found myself laid out on a living room floor for three days like he was. But I did have several spells of pain and stiffness culminating in a stinging pinched nerve that popped up a month ago after an ill-advised encounter with a leg-press machine (never again) and a weekend of vigorous walking, of all things. This made it impossible to run for two weeks.
I like to run. With my eye on taking advantage of the pristine Bay Area air for some running (while I write this in fragrant Palo Alto, Beijing’s air is once again “hazardous”), I spent the last month carrying myself like an octogenarian grandmother in a Venetian glass factory. I bent from the knees to pick up lint. I even managed to preserve my back while handling my son, who is probably the single biggest factor in its recent deterioration. Three year olds, unlike dumbbells, are prone to suddenly squirm and throw you off balance in ways that can cause discs to rocket out of your spine like ninja throwing stars. They think this is funny and they learn interesting new words when it happens.
I was rewarded for my care with a pain free back and more or less full range of motion. I even managed to get our two 23 kilo suitcases into PEK out of SFO without re-injuring myself, a feat roughly on par with creating cold fusion using two glasses of flat Dr. Pepper, some kidney beans and a soiled fork.
But then I had to set up the Christmas tree.
When you think about it, a Christmas tree is a really ungainly thing. It’s heavy, asymmetrical and the best handholds are buried deep inside, especially when you pay extra for a lush noble fir instead of some threadbare, piece-of-crap douglas fir. I lugged the thing awkwardly from the garage to the living room, only to find that the trunk was too short to fit into the LBJ retro-stand. This meant laying the tree down, going into the garage to dig the hacksaw out from behind the stack of plastic tubs in which my mom’s tenant is apparently storing his collection of lead ingots and anvils, and then getting on my hands and knees to saw the bottom ring of branches off of the tree so it would fit in the stand. Then a little more time on my hands and knees tightening the little collar bolts that hold the tree upright.
When I was done with this, the tree stood proudly erect but I looked like the hunchback of Notre Dame after a night of rejection and a vicious beating by dockworkers drunk on mezcal shooters. An ill-advised attempt to take an afternoon run lasted exactly one half a block before I had to stop because every step felt like I was driving lemon-zest tent pegs into my hips. With fitness clearly out of the picture, I’ve pretty much been confined to an armchair and living on a diet of chocolate and ibuprofen ever since. I really, really wish I’d just paid the twenty bucks and got the tree with its included stand.
But the good news is that it’s Christmas and my son, for all his proven lethality, was old enough to enjoy helping with the trimming of the tree and appears to have not imported some terrifying Chinese nursery school pathogen this year. Tomorrow my brothers arrive and the whole family will be together for the first time since last Christmas. In the face of so much good cheer, pissing and moaning about not having a working spine just seems like so much crabbiness. And we won’t be having any of that, will we?
A merry Christmas to all Imagethief readers.