Poop Dud the Christmas Tree

Poop Dud saved Christmas the year he was with us.

He was not a pretty tree, but the joy he brought was immense.  You can’t say that for most Christmas trees–even when they are real and cut with tenderness by those who want them as part of their Christmas.

Poop Dud was born of frustration rather than revelry.  He was a solution to mild irritation and significant disappointment.  I had just divorced and as part of that had reclaimed my right to a real tree.  I’d vowed only months earlier to have an honest-to-goodness conifer of some sort as part of my holiday decorating for the rest of my life.  The wrench in that plan came when I learned I would not be able to get my family all in the same place (my house) to celebrate until Jan 8.

Real trees are hard to keep real.  Even with daily watering, the few times I’d had them after we’d moved to the Pacific Northwest hadn’t improved my track record of turning them into very dry kindling in situ.  I accepted that trying to keep a real tree until January 8 would be an invitation to the local fire department for a dramatic visit sometime before that.

So I didn’t get a real tree.

But I was adamant about not going back to a fake tree.  I’d spent too many years as the unwilling participant in that option.  So I did nothing about the tree, assuming the world would not end if I didn’t put up a Christmas tree.

But it still bugged me.  I wanted a tree–sort of.  Mostly I think I wanted my kids to be more committed to being with me at Christmas, but I wasn’t going to admit to that kind of selfish expectation. They were old enough to have lives, and the reasons they couldn’t gather sooner were legitimate and positive. So I let “the tree thing” just hang in the air–no action and no (obvious) angst.

Until a couple days before Christmas.

Both my brothers and a sister-in-law who live near me were going to be available on Christmas Day, and we’d decided to have dinner together at my house. Without any forethought, the details I gave them a few days before included a request that they bring whatever construction materials they had on hand that might be useful in building a Christmas tree.

I come from a family who strains at the ordinary.  We did not build snowmen–we went for snow kangaroos and elephants.  We’d also learned  a lot about how to construct things growing up.  So this notion of building a Christmas tree was not all that far fetched for us.

We were down to three by the time they got there–my sister-in-law had a massive headache and opted for the living room couch instead.  After hauling in all they had, plus the stuff I had in my own garage (mostly from the previous owner), we got right to work.

It was like watching the reverse progression of intellectual development. First, my two brothers considered the very adult things–like how to make it stable, what size was going to work for the space I had, etc.  They talked triangles and opposing triangles and came up with an intelligent framework so that the whole thing didn’t fall over once we had it done.

Then we moved back to “building something.”  I ran for the saw, the hammer, etc. and pulled materials out of the pile to suggest as they worked away at creating something Christmas-tree shaped.  (I was sort of the gopher and the general contractor rolled into one.  I had final say in what went up, but also knew where the tools were.)

Once we had the “tree” up,  decorating it became the work of happy children–three siblings, all magically aged about five again.  (My sister-in-law said we sounded like a bunch of kids playing in the basement together.)

We hung pretty stuff.  We hung silly stuff.  We hung ugly stuff.   Eventually, we found a collection of letters from a mailbox I’d been married to that included two o’s. two p’s and two d’s as well as the frame to hold them.  We wanted to name our new friend.  When we realized we could turn the blank into a “u,” POOP DUD was born.

Poop dud solo

I had decided early on that it would be “seasonal art.” He was going out in the trash after we finally gathered in January. I cheated a bit on that–I could not bring myself to give up the name plate.   It makes me laugh every Christmas when I come across it in the box.

The memory of building that tree with my brothers is with me all year long.  The joy and delight we spontaneously found in doing something outlandish  together is part of my heritage.  Long live Poop Dud.

The Rise of Reader Power

The massive changes occurring in the publishing industry have created an equally large side effect–more reader power. When our only options for finding a new book were buying it in a bookstore or borrowing at the library (or from a friend who bought it as a bookstore), the publishing industry had exclusive say about what actually made it to where we could decide  to buy it.  old books

With the minor exception of mimeographed material and a few courageous–and mostly obscure–authors attempting to print copies themselves, content had to appeal to those within the industry.  It also had to get past all the assorted in-house filters–editors, marketers,  lawyers, accountants. New releases had to, in the vast majority of cases, fit the existing molds.  Publishers wanted “fresh voices” but they had to be able to sing in a familiar key.

Ah, how things have changed!  Digital printing made setting up a book for the printing process far less expensive.  More authors became willing to get their own stuff out there. Now you can print one copy of your book at a time for a reasonable cost.

Amazon, who has completely changed the retail landscape for books as well as pretty much everything else, was willing from very early on to list books by anyone and everyone, not just “the usual players.” That created a much more open access to whatever you wanted to read.

Most recently, the e-book became an option.  Now you can literally put a book out there with no out of pocket expense.  Anyone with internet access and determination can now publish a book.  So now instead of too few options, we have too many–and some of them are not good books.  (That’s not unique to the new marketplace though.)

In the old system, recommendations and helpful information from booksellers led you to the good books.  Though online sources of that kind of information have started cropping up, Amazon offered an alternative early on that’s gained an amazing amount of traction–the online reader review.  Ordinary people who read the book let others know what they thought of it.  The reviews are shorter than what you’d read in the newspaper, but there are more of them.

row of booksThis is  where that increase in Reader Power comes in.  Instead of telling five friends about a good book over the course of several weeks or months, we can now let everyone who goes to that seller’s website (overall, millions a day) know that it’s a good book–just by posting a review.  When you do it, you’re doing more than helping people who may want to buy that  book, too.  You’re encouraging authors to write more of that kind of book.  When you write a review of the books you like, you are shaping the content of the publishing industry.  Power, right?

Give what you like a push.  Write a review!


The Ugly Ornament Project

I come from an unusual family.  As siblings I have a pharmacist, a lawyer/college professor, a public health nursing manager, one of the principals in a hydrogeologic consulting firm, and a graphic arts project manager.  They are all very smart and very competent.  They are also the best playmates I could ever hope to find.

As kids, we were encouraged to ask “What would happen if…?” Intellectual curiosity was particularly lauded, but creative curiosity got a good workout, too.  We also watched as our parents used what they had–and then used it again for something else when needed. (Sometimes, with questionable results–My mom once cut up a cast-off adult coat to make a coat for my 5-year -old  sister.  She looked like a small bear in it.)  We also learned early on to take advantage of bargains when given the chance.  And to see uses for things beyond the category in which they are typically pigeon-holed.

So when my pharmacist brother suggested that those of us who live in the Pacific Northwest (he and I plus another brother and his wife) gather to repaint some glass ornaments using nail polish, the idea did not seem all that outlandish to me.  (Especially since a few years ago, I invited these same family members to build a Christmas tree out of scrap lumber, PVC and garage junk with me.  But that’s a different story.)

The original paint on the ornaments had failed in assorted ways because he’d used them on an outdoor tree.  To make it onto another tree, they needed help.  And if that “help” made them too ugly to hang on another tree, he had a solid reason to throw them out.  He’d purchased 25 bottles of discontinued colors of nail polish on super-sale where he worked using his loyalty card points as the repair medium.  All we needed was a place to play–and that was my house.

We started the evening with a traditional family dinner (which must include pork…)  Then we got down to the fun. I was concerned about the second brother.  He’s more scientist and  less weird artist than the rest of us.  But he loved the idea.  I was also concerned he might get frustrated because he’s had limited fine motor skills since a mishap in Marine boot camp 50 years ago.  (He ended up doing more intricate stuff than I did!)  My sister-in-law, who was traumatized drawing a daffodil in 5th grade, was also a concern.  She discovered the stick-on jewels  and went crazy with those.  What we knew about ourselves as adults was irrelevant once we got down to playing.

We tried assorted ways of applying the color–brush, dowel, rolling the globe in it.  (An unused stick of hot glue turned out to be the best way to make polka dots.)  We used glitter and stick-on jewels and puffy fabric paint.  Every single creation was different. Each of us had a different style, and we used the materials differently. The vast majority had old paint on part of the surface that needed to be incorporated in the new “design.”

We got so into it that we lost track of time.  When we finally admitted we needed to stop, we had well over 20 hanging up to dry–and it was really late.

But we still had 20 more ornaments.  And all that nail polish. So……..We agreed that it should go to the other siblings.  I boxed it all up the next day and mailed it to our three sisters in Wisconsin.  The Ugly Ornament Project lives on!!

Hanging them all to dry

Hanging them all to dry

Why do I write about this?  Because it was wonderful wacky fun that took us back to the complete focus on play that we all knew as kids.  There was no cellphone checking.  There wasn’t even much conversation about anything but what we were working on.  It was good honest play.  The whole country needs more of that right now.

There was only one thing that didn’t work out quite as we planned.  They aren’t ugly.

The Soothing Power of “Material”

Fiction writers have a secret weapon for dealing with stress.  All the ugly messes in our lives can be reconfigured as part of a character or situation in a future story.  When my life is not going well, reminding myself that “It’s all material” can bring my stress level down in a nanosecond.  I can take the garbage and turn it into something fun.

Right now, I am in the middle of a snit fit with the woman who’s the current President of a sports club I belong to.  She missed the memo about group process and has been handling the job more like a Medieval warlord than an elected Board (of which she is but one member).   The dynamics are fascinating, and it would be downright funny except she’s messing with one of the most sacred of club traditions–the annual Christmas party.

The whole situation has had an interesting educational impact on me.  I’m noticing things about leadership and managing that I’ve not worried about much in a couple decades. Today it was a short article about mentoring that clarified the difference between “advice” and “feedback.” ( Advice is imparting knowledge to encourage wisdom.  Feedback is proving information to illuminate a blind spot.

I have been trying to give “feedback” about some of her unilateral decisions.  She will have none of it.  It’s not third grade resistance either–more like Third Reich.

So….time to file it as “material.”  If she ruins the Christmas dance, there will be another one next year.  But in the meantime, I’m observing a ton of great detail for some pain-in-the-butt character in some novel or screenplay down the road.

This experience has brought me to  aw– of how oblivious a person can be to reality.  It’s given me a first hand glimpse of a a person concocting story after story of “why we have to do this my way” as each old reason is dismantled.  It’s world-expanding to learn that someone with that much education and life experience can be that obtuse.  I can use it all–with gusto (and a lot of the details changed!)

But then comes the whammy that goes beyond being a writer:  I probably have some kind of blind spot in my own life–and am not being any more forthright in looking at that.

That, too, is “material.”  I am so lucky to be a writer.  So much material!