Branching Out

Pinch, pull, twist. Pinch, pull, twist.

It sounds like the world’s strangest football chant. Or maybe a post-Thanksgiving exercise routine. (“And PULL and TWIST … c’mon, burn off that stuffing!”) Both wrong, although the second one’s close.

Namely, this was the welcoming ceremony for our new Christmas tree. An exercise in focus, patience and tedium second only to being a Colorado Rockies fan.

Perhaps I should explain.

I’ve been part of the Fake Tree Faction since childhood, when my folks decided that cleaning up pine needles (and dealing with pets who found the ones they missed) was not how they wanted to spend a significant fraction of December and January. The plastic pine they purchased – say THAT five times fast! – became part of family legend. That was partly because it also became a family journal, with each of us writing a short note about the year gone by as we unpacked the tree each winter.

So when Heather and I struck out on our own, a false fir was de rigueur. For a while, it became a pre-lit tree, with the noble intention of saving our none-too-good spinal columns from having to twist a strand of lights from top to bottom. But of course, a pre-lit tree has its own distinct evolutionary pattern:

  • Stage 1: “Oh, how beautiful!”
  • Stage 2: “Honey, I think some of the lights are out.”
  • Stage 3: “Honey! I think some of the lights are actually ON!”

After dealing with too many Stage 3 situations, we surrendered and bought an unlit pine this year. One that came with a warning that we’d need to spend some setup time to make it look right.

Boy, were they NOT kidding.

The branches on each level looked like sheaves of wheat or maybe rolled-up newspapers, tightly bunched around a central limb. Transforming it from “greenish hat-rack” to “fully-formed pine” would require shaping each branch – namely, by pinching the tip of a smaller sub-branch, pulling it free of the mass and then twisting it in the direction you wanted it to go.

Pinch, pull, twist. Over and over. For at least 20 to 30 minutes that felt like an entire presidential administration.

Remember what I said about preventing back pain? Don’t.

As so often happens, the result was worth the effort. When fully fluffed out, the tree stood tall and proud, a sentinel of the season. Especially that part of it called hope.

We use that word a lot this time of year without really thinking about what it needs. It’s not the magical expectation that a tree will leap to life from the box as soon as you cut the tape free. It’s knowing where you want to be and then putting in the effort to get there, no matter how frustrating or difficult it may become.

Hope starts with a vision. But it doesn’t end there. Real hope stays for the long haul, motivating and pushing until you cross the finish line. It’s the knowledge that “You can do this!”, not the illusion that “This will be easy to do!”

This season of the year is often about a culmination of hope, a promise that after a long darkness, light still comes. The waiting and endurance are still real. But so is the glimmer that waits at the end, shining in darkened streets.

Remember that. Hold on. Keep the vision alive and work to make it real.

And if your vision includes a simpler way to shape a plastic pine, I’ll be sending you an invitation to visit for the holidays next year.

Fir sure.

Tree Cheers

Tree Cheers

 

Missy loves to help. We love to let her. But we’ve learned she can get a bit – er, enthusiastic.

Give her a cloth and spray, and she will gladly clean a mirror. And clean it, and clean it, and clean it, until the glass retains a 50 percent Windex content.

Leave her in the vicinity of her sneakers and she will lace them up. Elaborately. To the point where two laces emerge from the same hole in a wonderful Gordian knot after a long, winding trip up the shoe … which, in turn, may be jammed firmly on the wrong foot.

All of which explains why our Christmas tree is a bit crowded this year.

I had been out on my usual Tuesday night jaunt, covering the Longmont City Council for the paper. (Before you groan, remember that city government is a lot like watching a soap opera: initial confusion followed by almost addictive interest once you learn the characters and storylines.) With a quiet night ahead, my wife Heather decided it was a good time to put up ornaments – well, minus one that I dropped on the basement floor earlier and that we didn’t really need anyway, right?

Missy, our developmentally disabled ward, took to it with a will. And with a LOT of ornaments. Three, four, even five ornaments could be found hanging from a single branch. Candy canes collided with landscapes as teddy bears jostled with Christmas mice; the tree-topper angel, safely above the fray, had to be wondering if her perch was being turned into a high-rise.

“She was having fun,” Heather said later with a smile. “As long as she was enjoying herself and the branch wasn’t going to break, I thought ‘Go ahead.’”

Not a bad rule of thumb. And for more than just trees.

At this time of year, a lot of people write about “Simplifying Christmas.” I’ve done it a couple of times myself. It’s an easy target, after all, with the peace and joy at the heart of the season often crowded out by crowded parking lots, frantic Santa-themed ads and the musical Chinese water torture session otherwise known as “The Little Drummer Boy.” A space to step back and reflect seems welcome, even essential.

So far, so good.

But at the same time,I don’t want to build the monastery walls, either.

I like Christmas lights, even when they reach levels of glorious excess. (Maybe especially then; they make better stories.) I like wall-to-wall holiday music, both sacred and secular. I have friends who are energized rather than stressed when they “deck the malls” to hunt out presents for family, moving down the list like Peyton Manning driving for the end zone.

It’s noisy. It’s chaotic. And – forgive me, Linus – for some of us, it’s darned fun.

And that’s part of the holiday, too.

It’s no sin to enjoy the time of year. After all, this is a time of transformation: lights rending darkness; snow making familiar landscapes into something new; calls going out to not just exist, but to look neighbor-to-neighbor and live. Anyone who can stand unmoved by all of that is a stolid soul, indeed.

But remember the Missy Rule. Are you enjoying yourself? And is the branch breaking?

Both sides are important. When actions are done out of grudging obligation rather than honest delight, it can turn even the most joyful season into a miserable slog. When the buzz and activity no longer enhances the important things, but crowds them out, then it’s time to hold off and listen for cracking bark.

But if the stress isn’t building to dangerous levels, if it’s still a joy and not a chore, if peace and family and so many other good things are still in sight and close at hand – well, have at it. Tear into the season like a 3-year-old into wrapping paper and don’t look back.

Do look up, though.

After all, that Christmas mouse above you can only hold on for so long.

A Light Matter

It still feels wrong.

It’s like the Grinch that stole Boxing Day. Or Ralphie getting a Nerf gun under the tree. Or Santa Claus taking to the skies in a B-52. (“We have chimney acquisition!”)

But there’s no avoiding it. This Christmas, after a years-long struggle, I’m running up the white flag – preferably with multicolored lights attached.

This year, for the first time, Casa Rochat is getting a pre-lit tree.

OK, I know, I’m a little late to this party. There’s probably enough pre-lit wattage in the world right now to make the words “THIS WAY TO BETHLEHEM” visible from space, along with the related GPS coordinates.

But to me, it always seemed like cheating. There’s a right way to do Christmas lights, and that’s to drag out a series of dented cardboard boxes, untangle 17 miles of electrical cord, and solemnly intone the Ritual Seasonal Words Of Profanity before finally invoking the phrase that makes everything perfect:

“Honey … do you have a minute?”

Heather, you see, was my ace in the hole. My wife is a past master of Christmas  light spacing, trained by her father in the arcane arts of making a tree “glow from within.” No gaps. No globs. And usually, no doubt about which way her blood pressure was going as she sought perfection.

By the end, this was a tree that knew it had been decorated. With love, attention and borderline insanity.

As Heather’s back began to develop problems, I became a larger part of the crew. Which usually meant that our tree got decorated twice – once by me, and once by Heather fixing the mistakes I had made.

“Honey, I really think it looks …”

“Scotty, there’s a huge gap right in the middle. It’s really obvious.”

“Uh … gap?”

“Here, let me do it …”

Well – it’s the thought that counts, right?

But this year, things came to a head. Repeated topplings by our canine companions Big Blake and Duchess the Wonder Dog meant that our old plastic pine had gotten a little ragged. Heather’s back hadn’t gotten any better since our last tree. Mine had gotten quite a bit worse.

So – surrender.

And not without regrets.

I can feel a few heads nodding here. We may be a minority these days, but I know there’s still a solid chunk of people that mistrusts making something too easy, who insist on doing things ourselves even when it no longer makes sense. Maybe it’s a leftover strain of Puritanism, a belief that if you haven’t suffered over it, it doesn’t really count.

And I still believe there’s a value in that, of putting something of yourself into what you do. That’s why I continue my long war with Scotch tape and wrapping paper, producing the most awkwardly-wrapped presents in the Western Hemisphere, rather than simply buying a gift bag. No one can doubt that time, effort and love were spent. (Notice I did not say skill.)

But when the time comes – so be it. There’s no shame in bowing to necessity. And while my stubbornness may be a bit ridiculous, at least it’s also ensured that it wasn’t done … er, lightly. That there was a reason beyond simple convenience.

That sort of close examination isn’t a bad thing. At any time of year.

So bring on that glowing tree. I’m sure it’ll be as tall and welcoming as anything we’ve raised before.

Especially once Heather gets through fixing it.