A Tale of Two Christmas Trees

Christmas – depending on your point of view, it’s either a celebration of the human spirit or a disaster of Hindenburg proportions that tests the limits of human endurance.  I like to think it’s the former and do all that I can to prevent it from turning into the latter.  There have been some might close calls over the years.  Let’s face it, for a single day it demands nothing less than a marathon effort.  Christmas may come but once a year but, according to my local supermarket at any rate, it starts in mid-August and ends abruptly on 26 December when the hot cross buns come out.  But for all the drama and the race against time, these days I like Christmas. 

When I was growing up, we alternated between real and plastic trees.  The real ones weren’t purchased so much as they were purloined, usually in the dead of night by my father.  One evening in mid-December, he’d disappear with nothing but a shovel, bucket and a torch.  And, possibly, his wits, although the end result suggests he may have left those at home.

He’d return home, hours later, with a branch that he’d optimistically refer to as a ‘tree’ and a series of possum scratches on his face.  The tinsel didn’t so much as decorate it as it did mask its hideousness.  Inevitably, this diseased, mangy piece of foliage would be home to a small number of pine needles and a very large number of insects which, once inside, would flee the ‘tree’ and take up residence in the house.  It was a surprise to no-one when we made the switch to plastic.

Plastic trees go either one of two ways – either they pretend to be real or they embrace their fakeness.  Ours landed somewhere in between; in that it thought it was real but looked hopelessly fake.  It was reminiscent of a talent show contestant who honestly believes they are a gifted and beautiful singer when, in reality, they couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.  Ironically, it looked real only to the extent it resembled the real one my father used to pluck from some unsuspecting neighbour’s front garden, riddled with pests and diseases too numerous to mention.  Over time, the tree became threadbare as artificial needles fell to the carpet to, eventually, be sucked up by the vacuum cleaner.  Eventually, it looked a collection of coat hangers. 

At a certain point, you grow up and find that you’re responsible for your own tree.  I had no idea where to start.  I didn’t even own a bucket or a shovel, much less a torch.  I had to buy one.  I settled on a tree that was fake but believed it was real.  That is, a fake tree with pretensions.  To obtain this super tree, I had to travel to three different ‘Myers’.  Finding it was hard.  Assembling it was no easier. 

Rather than just take the tree out of the box and stand it up in the nearest corner, there were very specific instructions about how to massage the artificial pine needles into life to give the thing a more realistic appearance.  It was as though you had to be careful not to hurt its feelings.  After several hours of coaxing, teasing and massaging the foliage, I began to harbour dark thoughts about getting a bucket and shovel.

As high maintenance as it was, it was quite a tree.  It wasn’t to last.  Some things you keep, others you lose along the way.  At some point along the journey, I lost that tree and went totally tree-less for a few years.  There’s nothing more dispiriting that a pile of tinsel in the corner with a few flashing lights.  It looked as though a disco ball had crash landed.  But things have changed and I can, once more, hang my tinsel with pride.  In fact, I have found myself (almost) right back where I started.

My partner, Katrina, would not stand for a fake tree.  She insists on the real deal.  For her, it’s a family tradition, one that her late father carried out with great pride.  What makes family her tradition so different to mine, is that they purchase their real Christmas tree from a reputable vendor, in lieu of snatching it off the street in the dead of night.  And it’s enormous.  The thing reaches out for the ceiling and takes at least two people to manage.  Getting it into position is not so much a chore as it is a quest.

Katrina’s tree is, without fail, the largest tree I’ve ever seen that wasn’t still attached to a forest.  With its arms stretched out wide, it wraps itself around the living room in some kind of pine-scented festive embrace.  Rather than a bucket of sand, this thing is so huge that it has its own special stand, complete with anchor bolts and a watering moat.  As for the decorations, I can only describe them as ‘next level’.

I’ve never known anyone who considers nine complete sets of lights to be a ‘good start’.  There aren’t many Christmas trees that can be seen from space, but I suspect this may well be one of them.  If you go to your window at night, chances are you can see it glow in the distance.  Katrina’s Christmas tree is nothing short (and ‘short’ is a term that would never be used to describe it) of a monument to Christmas itself.  Christmases past and present are wrapped up in its ornaments and the lights emit a soft nostalgic glow.  It is magical.

My father still has the same fake tree.  To be honest, it now looks more like an aerial than it does a tree.  The family these days is so large that the tree is entirely overwhelmed by the gifts.  In a way, that little tree – denuded of needles and in danger of imminent collapse, is a reminder of what was.  And the tree in the corner of Katrina’s living room, full and bursting with life, is a symbol of what can be.  I’ll be sure to enjoy them both.  Happy Christmas to you all.

The Great Profanity Calamity

It’s so awkward.  You’re sitting with family members, having a pleasant time with music gently playing in the background before you’re unexpectedly deluged by f-bombs as the singer launches into a mode that can only be described as ‘nuclear gutter-mouth’.  When did singing and swearing become so hopelessly entwined?  Indeed, a cursory glance (a term which seems oddly apt) at the popular hits of today confirms that many artists have a vocabulary consistent with having been raised at sea.  It wasn’t always this way. 

Radio was once an expletive-free zone.  If John Denver’s house had a swear-jar, I’ll bet it was empty.  Even artists who liked to shock would avoid swear words, for fear they’d get less airplay.  But don’t think for a moment that the lack of curse words means older songs are genteel and overly polite.  Not at all.  Puccini’s ‘Madama Butterfly’ has a body count that would startle even the most hardened of gangster rappers but none of the cast stoop so far as to resort to using filthy language.  Or, at least, I don’t think they do.  (It’s in Italian, so I can’t be entirely sure.)

It used to be the same way for television.   When screening movies with questionable language, networks would often mute the sound as the actor spoke the offending word.  The effect was akin to having the line drop out for a just a moment.  I have a vivid recollection of watching John Singleton’s ‘Boyz In the Hood’ starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ice Cube and marvelling at the vast stretches of silence.  Some might consider this to be butchery, but I liked the expletive-free version.

As an uncle, I firmly believed it was my duty to ensure my nieces and nephews were exposed to a wide array of musical influences.  There’s not a child alive that won’t respond with pure delight to the sound of ‘Tutti Fruitti’ by Little Richard.  (Incidentally, I once planned to write an opera about Little Richard called ‘Cosi fan Tutti Fruitti’ but I struggled to attract investors.)  But as they grew up, I started to give them more challenging things to listen to.  I wrestled with all the big questions – like, what’s the best age to introduce a child to ‘Bad Motorfinger’ by Soundgarden?  Probably seven. 

Thinking back, the two words I struggled with most as an uncle were ‘age appropriate’.  Not just with music, either; the tendency to go ‘too early’ extended to books and movies too.  I let my enthusiasm get the better of me.  On reflection, even I would agree that Hunter S Thompson’s tale of drug-fuelled debauchery and excess as depicted in ‘Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas’ are best suited to someone who is older than twelve.  That said, the pre-pubescent recipient did go on to become a journalist so, perhaps, the book did its job.  For the sake of completeness, I should add that being a journalist is where the similarities between Hunter S Thompson and my nephew both begin and end.  But still.

I’d bought it as a gift.  It was a CD, back when people used to buy CDs so they could listen to the music of their choice anytime they liked, before those same miraculous little discs were relegated to the status of novelty drink coaster.  I’d picked up a copy of the latest album by the rap group, Beasties Boys, entitled ‘To The Five Boroughs’.    The reviews I’d read described it as a mature reflection of the impact of September 11 on their hometown of New York.  It sounded thoughtful.  Mature, even.  And it was.  At least, it was in part.

For those unfamiliar with it, the opening track of ‘To The Five Boroughs’ by Beastie Boys is entitled ‘Ch-Check It Out’.  But instead of an ode to stuttering, the song is in fact more of a promise to have a significant impact on a social occasion.  This impression is best captured in a phrase that, in the interests of politeness, I’ll describe as ‘turn this parent f-bombing party out’.  I’m paraphrasing, obviously.  It occurred to me at that moment, that I probably should have listened to the thing first before handing it to an eight year old at a family function.  The eight year old immediately put it on the stereo and turned it up as loud as he dared.

Soon the room was being showered in profanities.  Unfortunately for me, the swearing wasn’t a ‘hit and run’ situation where a single expletive can be masked by a well timed cough or clattering cutlery.  Rather, these words were the chorus and were repeated over and over and over again.  By the time the song ended, my strategic coughing was so severe that my father offered to call me an ambulance.  The eight year old – keen to distance himself from the ensuing controversy – loudly declared that the music was horrible and that this was the ‘worst gift of all time’.  That’s a direct quote.

That eight year old is now an adult and I know for a fact that he really likes the Beastie Boys.  And I’m confident that he’s heard if not used the words he encountered that day in a sentence.  Many times.  As for me, I regret nothing.  And if you know nothing of Beastie Boys, I can only encourage you to ch-check them out.  You could do a lot worse.  I swear.

What the Dickens – From Listless Christmas Past to Glorious Present

Charles Dickens is a bona fide nitwit.  In his book, ‘A Christmas Carol’, not only did he forget to include a character named ‘Carol’, he victimized a man of advanced years just because he was thrifty.  Granted, ‘A Christmas Scrooge’ sounds somewhat unsavoury, but in less judgmental times Ebenezer Scrooge would have been lauded as a fiscally conservative hero.  Worse still, Dickens needlessly uses ghosts to transport our misunderstood protagonist to the past, present and future.  It’s totally pointless – Christmas has always been about time travel. 

There’s no other day of the year that can move you so effortlessly from one point in your life to another.  No matter what age you are, you can feel like a child again, even if it’s just for a fleeting moment.  Charles Dickens knew that.  But I don’t need a ghost to help me see Christmases past, present and future.  For me, seeing the past, present and future is what the day is all about.  Christmas is a signpost, a crossroad and gigantic roundabout with a tramline running through it (possibly) all at once.  It’s a day that tells you where you’ve been, where you are and where you’re going.  It’s glorious.

The sense of nostalgia is especially potent at my father’s house.  That’s partly because he still uses the same artificial tree and decorations he did when we were kids.  I realize that the very notion of an artificial tree can be controversial to some, but their allure lies in the promise that you’ll never have to buy another Christmas tree again.  My father has taken that promise to heart.  In the four decades since he purchased his artificial tree, the plastic needles have fallen away, leaving what’s left totally denuded and looking like a demented TV antennae.  That it he sets it up whenever he wants to watch something on SBS only entrenches this impression further.

 It’s not just the tree.  As kids, we were required to remove the wrapping paper with the utmost care, ensuring no rips or tears.  It was a task we approached with all the caution of a member of the bomb squad.  He even gave us each a scalpel.  This has enabled my father to reuse the same paper numerous times over the subsequent decades.  There’s an upside.  These days it can be difficult to secure a supply of ‘Six Million Dollar Man’ wrapping paper, but each year I can rely on my gifts being swaddled in cartoon images of Steve Austin.  It’s comforting.

Other things change quickly.  Two years ago, I headed down to family Christmas on my own.  It was a difficult day but, luckily, I had Steve Austin wrapping paper to look forward to.  A year later, I was arriving in a small minivan full of people.  It was to be an entirely different experience.  A better one.  Twelve months earlier, I’d driven down with just my thoughts for company.  It was a lousy experience.  In contrast, the following year was full of colour, movement and chaos. 

Arriving with such a large entourage was new for me.  I’ll admit there were moments that caught me off guard.  Especially when the eight year old loudly declared that his seventeen-year-old sibling had an image on his cap that, for reasons associated with good taste, I’ll simply describe as a ‘Dickens’.  The picture had been drawn on with black texta and, hopefully, was not to scale.  It was a moment of great excitement that resulted in some rather heated discussion. 

As to why the image of a male appendage had been drawn on the hat or why this hat had been selected for Christmas lunch was never explained, as the seventeen year old kept his thoughts to himself.  In a moment of panic, his sister snatched the cap and used a marker to turn the offending image into holly.  By the time she was done, it looked quite festive.  With the stroke of a pen, the Dickens had become decorative.  A Christmas miracle!

Truth be told, I’ve always loved Christmas.   But there were times when my family was no good at it.  For a little while, after we all left home, we struggled to come together on Christmas Day.  Looking back, I’ve no idea why that was.  What I know, however, is that it all changed when the first nephew arrived; Christmas was instantly reinvigorated with purpose and meaning.  It’s been that way ever since.  Christmas is a malleable thing.  It changes as we do.

I’m looking forward to all of it.  The threadbare tree skeleton that haunts the living room as presents spill out across the carpet.  The sound of children and (possibly) adults screaming with delight as they shred wrapping paper with merciless vigour (my father is more relaxed when it comes to wrapping paper these days), the decorations and the festive jumpers and t-shirts.  Crackers and tinsel, baubles and pudding, and even hats that have a giant Dickens drawn on them.  I can’t wait.  And, when it’s done, I’ll find a moment to sit down with one of my all-time favourite books – ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens and marvel at the transformative nature of good will and generosity of spirit.  Then before I go to bed, I’ll likely read the last line of that great book aloud – God bless us.  Every one!

Personal Training by the Seat of my Pants

Eventually, we all succumb.  Whether our surrender is a result of pride, carelessness or administrative error, we all ultimately find ourselves on some kind of quest to improve ourselves.  It needn’t be much. More care with your physical appearance, learning a language or improving your diet; it all counts towards making an even better you.  And although I could have ironed a shirt, learned how to speak Klingon so I could fulfill my life’s ambition to translate ‘The Art of the Deal’ into a language more suited to its author or eaten some broccoli; I, instead, chose personal training.  

My last birthday was something of a landmark occasion; probably a small mountain or an odd-shaped building. But whatever the monument, it’s the first time news of my birthday has ever been greeted with surprise. It’s something of an insult. I’m not sure what it says about how I conducted myself when I was younger, but when people react to your birthday by muttering, ‘really?’ it’s time to act.

I’ve attended the occasional exercise class before.  Mostly, I like to blend in and not draw attention to myself, despite my insistence on always wearing bright pink Lycra.  Whilst dressing like a highlighter pen might seem at odds with keeping a low profile, it’s solely for safety reasons.  You can’t be too careful in exercise class.  Or, as it turns out, too comfortable.

The difference between exercise class and personal training is that there’s nowhere to hide.  It’s just you and the person whose job it is to hunt you down in the event you decide to take shelter in the air conditioning duct.  Despite this, I turned up having forsaken my traditional hot pink Lycra in favour of full camouflage gear and one eye on the air conditioning duct in the event I needed to execute a swift escape. 

My trainer was an easy-going fellow who, technically speaking, may well qualify as a giant.  But personal trainers should really be called ‘personable trainers’ as they seem to specialize in being friendly and encouraging.  Perhaps it’s their way of getting the best out of you.  Or, then again, maybe it’s designed to lull you into a false sense of security. 

My trainer asked whether I was familiar with the Romanian Deadlift.  Disappointingly, the Romanian Deadlift is not a band, although it probably should be.  Let me say at the outset, I’m extremely fond of any exercise that’s geographically specific. Whether it’s the Welsh Squat, the Hungarian Vault or the Dutch Oven, these exercises have a sense of tradition that makes a trip to the gym feel culturally enriching as well as exhausting.  Then he explained what a ‘Romanian Deadlift’ was.  

It involves keeping your back straight whilst bending at the hips and pushing your backside out as far as it will go.  As a middle-aged man, such actions run counter to every instinct in my body.  That’s like asking me to change my routine or skip the news – it’s simply not something I ever contemplate doing.  Also, there’s a small matter of ‘the incident’.

It was years ago.  We were looking after my father’s farm in Tyabb whilst he went gallivanting overseas.  Before departing, he provided a list of the animals he feared might ‘go to God’ during his absence.  At the top of the list was his dog, Nelson.  Some pets are simply that.  They share space with you and eat your food, but everyone goes about living their daily lives, unaffected.  Others are so much more.  Nelson was in the latter category.  I’m not sure if there’s such a thing as a ‘Hound of Distinction’ but if there is, it’d describe Nelson.  When he did, unfortunately, pass away, it fell to my brother and I to bury him in accordance with my father’s incredibly detailed and deeply impractical instructions.

Nelson was to be buried next to the lavender bush.  The problem being that it was the meeting place for a large number of bees during daylight hours.  So we had to wait until the sun went down.  Digging in the darkness, when struck trouble when we burrowed through a large underground apartment complex for bullants.  Still, we continued to dig.  The deeper we got, the harder it became.  Wielding a mattock, I stretched out as far as I could as I swung.  Then I heard an almighty ripping sound.  After a quick check, I was able to ascertain that the seat of my trousers remained in place.  It was only later when getting ready for bed that I made the gruesome discovery that my boxer shorts had ripped from top to tail.  I was shocked.  Granted, I was at full stretch, but it’s not as though I was performing a Romanian Deadlift.

As the personal trainer waited my shorts, if not large portions of my life, flashed before my eyes.  I hoped that my exercise gear could withstand the additional pressure.  I hoped that no one was watching as I gingerly moved into position.  Most of all, I hoped there was no-one standing directly behind me in case the unthinkable happened and there was a catastrophic structural failure.  Fearing that the Romanian Deadlift might trigger a Tyabb Trouser Tear, I bolted in the air conditioning duct.  Someday, maybe in a month or so, I’ll leave the duct and resume my life. Until then, if someone asks where I am, just tell them I’ve duct out for a bit. 

A Hard Act to Swallow

I didn’t know what to say.  There was an awkward moment as my father held out his hand, gripping a small, plastic object; expecting me to receive it with gratitude. ‘Here’, he said.  ‘I found this.  I thought you might want it’.  Let it be said that there are few people who’d spot a piece of plastic and think instantly of their first born, but here we were.  I leaned in and saw the object in question was a guitar plectrum.  My father can’t play a note so, in one respect, it was unsurprising that he’d want to get rid of it.  But this wasn’t any ordinary guitar plectrum.

It’s been about thirty years since I lived in Tyabb.  And yet, to this day, when I visit my father, he has some item he claims is mine that he’d like me to take with me when I leave.  Over the years, I’ve learned to become suspicious. There was a broken novelty cheese knife in the shape of a pineapple.  It was only later as I attempted in vain to do some damage to a block of Camembert that I realized that I’d never owned a cheese knife.  That, rather than returning my possessions to me, my father was dumping his rubbish.  

More recently, there was a Garfield coffee cup with my name on it.  Time had dissolved the once-vivid image of everybody’s favourite lasagna-quaffing cat so that barely an outline remained.  My name, too, had faded.  Letters that were once whole were now mere fragments. Inside the cup had a rusted brown veneer, suggesting the cup had been in regular use over the past thirty years. But now my father wanted to return it.  As he tucked it under my arm, I was speechless.  Whether I was in shock or simply unable to speak with all the freshly cut cheese in my mouth was hard to say (which, frankly, is always the case with a gob full of Camembert).

But the plectrum was different.  Rather than some random piece of rubbish that my father had all of sudden decided he no longer wanted, there was every chance this plectrum was of genuine historical significance. But if it was the plectrum I was thinking of, he really ought not be giving to me.  He ought to be giving it to my brother.  After all, he’s the one who suffered most.

My brother and I played in a band.  There was an old train caboose next to the house that we’d turned into our practice space.  It was tiny.  How six of us fitted, I’ll never know.  Our ears are yet to forgive us.  But it was there that we rehearsed every week.  I hope this doesn’t sound immodest, but it became so that we were the second best band on the entire Mornington Peninsula behind the legendary Stumpy Gully Stompers (they were untouchable). Technically speaking, we were probably third; the Stumpy Gully Stompers were first, daylight was second, and we were third.  Our nearest competitors were a fair way behind – Greg and the Barn Burners played local square dances, which were aptly named, and no real threat.

For hours on end, we’d kick out the jams, entertaining local livestock and low flying aircraft. Then we’d take a break and sit around, preparing set lists and planning world domination (or, at least, the part of the world that didn’t already belong to the Stumpy Gully Stompers). It was during one of these band meetings that it happened.  

My brother was somewhat distracted.  This was not particularly unusual.  As the rest of us argued about which of our awesome songs we should open with as we attempted to stun the audience with our potent mix of musical chops, high-octane rock and punctuality, my brother amused himself by flipping his plectrum up from his thumb and catching it between his teeth.  This activity, he thought, excused him from having to contribute to the debate over our opening number.

Perhaps it was my fault. As my brother continued to flip his plectrum up from this thumb to his teeth, I called out his name. Surprised, he reacted with a sharp intake of breath at the precise moment the plectrum rose to the level of his mouth.  Caught, the plectrum was sucked into my brother’s mouth at which point he then proceeded to swallow it.  There was a moment of panic, followed by uncertainty.  Should we ignore it and hope for the best?  Or did we need to see a doctor?

Perhaps unwisely, we consulted my father.  He nodded sagely and insisted that the plectrum be retrieved.  Whether he thought that it posed a risk to my brother’s health and safety or, perhaps, we only had one plectrum and needed it to continue our musical pursuits, I couldn’t say.  Not content to let nature run its course, he made my brother eat half a loaf of Tip Top high-fibre bread.  After about half an hour, my brother returned to the practice room to advise that the danger, as well as the plectrum, had passed.

I asked my father whether the plectrum he was the plectrum.  He swore it wasn’t, before offering me a loaf of Tip Top high-fibre bread, ‘just in case’.  I’m not sure what to do with it.  Perhaps I should put it next to the decrepit Garfield mug. Or maybe I could donate it to our school to put on display together for some kind of plaque.  They’d be lucky to have it.  The band would, of course, reform for unveiling ceremony before we’d cut the ribbon with a broken cheese knife.  Perfect.