Saturday, December 17, 2011

I Brake For Lemonade Stands

I absolutely have been having the best time this Christmas season, not exactly sure why (although I have generally felt extremely good this whole year), but I think it may have something to do with my having put up a Christmas tree.

This, honestly, is the first time I have ever gotten my own tree. For most of my Christmases, I had gone to my parents’ house, which continued every Christmas (with few exceptions) as long as they were alive. This took me far into my adulthood.

For those few exceptions, I have lived in apartments that were too small to fit any but the smallest (artificial) tree, which sort of counts, but not really.

For the past couple of years, I have been spending the few days immediately surrounding Christmas at the house of my brother and his wife. But they do not decorate for Christmas (but my brother’s wife does the most marvelous COOKING, plus they are a blast to visit, so I am definitely NOT complaining!) I think my brother had his fill of Christmas decorating, because the brunt of that effort our mother put HIM to, mainly because he was always able to get to their house many days before the rest of us were able to make it (remember that our mother had multiple sclerosis which made her bed-ridden, so she could no longer do the decorating herself, which she sorely wanted to do). So HE was one who assembled their large (artificial) Christmas tree, put on all the lights and decorations, and did all sorts of other decorating until the rest of us got there to help. I swear, our mother wanted every inch of their house decorated for Christmas, right down to things hanging on every doorknob, dozens of needle-pointed Christmas theme pillows on all the furniture, and Christmas-oriented hand towels in the all the bathrooms. There wasn’t a square foot of wall space that didn’t have something Christmasy hanging there. And, oh yes, there were Christmas coasters and Christmas barware (you drank VERY well at our parents’ house…my father seemed to stay planted at the bar the whole season, and you WILL partake! Hey, my arm doesn’t need twisting; and if you were a friend of theirs, yours didn’t, either!).

I don’t want to make it look like the rest of us were slackers…at least, not me, anyway, because since our brother was the one who had put most of it all up, the rest of us were the ones who had the job of taking it all DOWN. I think I would rather decorate than undecorate, but that’s how it was and I’m not complaining…I wish we could still do it, parents and all (but if they have a way of checking in on me, they already know that they are thoroughly IN me).

But lately I have felt that something was missing Christmas-spirit-wise and realized that now that I live in a place large enough to easily fit a full-sized, cut Christmas tree, that was what I wanted. And I’ve been able to enjoy it ever since Thanksgiving, and will continue to do so up to New Year’s.

I pretty much knew where I would go buy my tree, a place that is normally a strawberry farm near where I live, one of the very few farms still remaining in the San Fernando Valley (which, once upon a time, was completely agricultural, but Los Angeles spread and spread and spread). They always fill up an immense lot with beautiful trees.

Since I figured I’d have to somehow get it home, myself, and I really wasn’t into getting involved with tying it onto the roof of my car or some such (guaranteed that it would slip off before I got to the next block), I felt that I’d have to get one small enough that it would either fit into the trunk of my car, or maybe my backseat (uh oh, tree needle city!).

However, fortunately, they had signs everywhere on the lot advertising that they would deliver (for a reasonable fee), and when I checked on it, I learned that they would actually deliver whatever tree I bought that very day (THAT sold me)! Good thing, too, because I saw that the four-foot trees just weren’t going to cut it, I wanted something at least my height or it wouldn’t satisfy my desires.

The truth was that every single tree they had was full and beautiful and perfectly shaped. They were all lined up in perfect rows by the species, starting with the least expensive ones, the Douglas Firs, and going up from there to the most expensive, which were Noble something…but I actually liked the Douglas Firs the best, so I picked out a 6 ½ foot one that seemed to call out my name (like a puppy in a pet shop), so that’s the one I bought. The woman who rang up my sale was a jolly elf, laughing and full of cheer and so happy that I was happy, so the entire purchasing experience was a delight.

And the delivery occurred without a hitch, with two people who carried my tree up to my apartment on the third floor and set it down in my living room right where I wanted it. Immediately, the whole house smelled like I was camping in an evergreen forest (which I now have a yearning to go do some weekend!), a feeling that has not diminished. It is such a grand atmosphere to come home to after work.

I had in my storage unit (sadly, not yet emptied out…one of the projects I hope to work on this winter break) some Christmas decorations that I got from my mother’s collection after both parents had died (most of which she had made), but that storage unit is so solidly packed that I was unable to find that box or those boxes; it would have required emptying the whole thing out, and I had neither the room nor the time to deal with that. So I realized that I had to buy some new decorations and strings of lights, with the idea of leaving some room my mother’s things for NEXT year. (Didn’t quite work out that way…it was hard to estimate and what I bought was enough to fill up my whole tree.)

Shopping for Christmas decorations (at Target) was another joy. Families were there in all of the aisles and I could hear the excited voices of children that filled up my heart. “Oh Mommy, look at THIS, can we buy this, can we, please?” So sweet. Of course, I loved buying things for my own tree, but I truly loved being there among the families who were buying things for THEIR tree. I kind of feel like I am with them, even if I am not. But I would share in the fun with them and would laugh and joke with them, and everybody seemed to enjoy this sense of shared happiness. Why not do that?

Back at home, I put on some good music that I could sing along with as I worked, and I truly did have a blast decorating the tree, which ended up requiring four strings of lights (I had to go back to buy two more strings; two just wasn’t enough!). My heart just soared. I knew that probably no one else was ever going to see this (my apartment really isn’t quite yet ready for “prime time”, as I say, so I have not yet gotten into entertaining mode), but it is actually okay to simply treat ones self, in fact, that is now one of the main lessons that I like to share (to whomever will listen to me if the subject comes up)…you MUST treat yourself and not deny yourself because “it is only you”. So, please, do things for YOU. Yes, do things for others, but don’t leave yourself out. Make your life beautiful.

Here are some pictures of my tree, which I realize probably looks pretty pedestrian as Christmas trees go, I guess, and pardon some of the nearby junk (more winter break projects!), but I love it, and it looks so pretty in the evening when the white lights buried in among the feathery green branches are twinkling (hard to properly photograph THAT effect), so it’s all good.

And now that “I am participating”, I have been appreciating the Christmas decorations that everybody else has done, some of which is mind-blowingly spectacular, and some of which is simple yet still wonderful, and I am thankful for their efforts since it seems that they are communicating a certain feeling out to the general public (I, too, have some external decorations, a garland of purple lights along my balcony railing along with a Christmas snowman wind sock blowing in the breeze out there; for some reason, I am the only one in this immense apartment complex who has any external decorations). Much fewer people out in the community compared to previous years have decorated, though, which is troublesome (Increased unemployment? Continuing economic crisis?). I think there was more decorating for HALLOWE’EN (which I also did, mostly as an advertisement to the kids out there on the street that there was candy to be gotten at my house; that’s where the purple lights came from, which I bought at a Hallowe’en store—I figured I could use purple for Christmas, too, which I couldn’t do with orange as that would obviously be left over from Hallowe’en; those were the only colors sold at the Hallowe’en store. But purple is good.).

Decorating has been very sparse at work, too (absolutely nothing in the school’s reception lobby). This year, there was no “Secret Angel” festivities (gift-giving that would go on for a whole week and that usually garnered ever-increasing office decorating), but the woman who normally organized that didn’t want to do it this year, and another person who volunteered to take her place lived, according to many complaining people, “too far away” (okay, so she wasn’t a five minute drive down the hill...!). The kind woman who volunteered ended up with only six participants besides herself (with me being one of them), so she said “Let’s just do a simple gift-exchange and pot luck lunch here at work” (not a whole week of giving like we’d do when Secret Angel had twenty or thirty people participating), the kind where the first person opens their choice of wrapped gifts (NOT white elephant gifts, but something new that cost under $30), and then the second person can steal their gift or open a wrapped gift, etc. Some people hate that game (the “stealing” part), others really love it. But with us having so few people, there really wasn’t much stealing go on, but I think everybody ended up with something that they liked. Anything that anybody bought was worth having, so there really was no reason to take something from somebody else.

So that was fun, but the offices didn’t look much like Christmas (or any of the other winter season holidays).

I felt like there was a lot of generous gift-giving from our school’s parents and from some of the employees, though; I ended up with way more than I had ever gotten before (boy that sounds materialistic, but that’s not what I meant; what I mean is that suddenly at the last moment, a “lot of Christmas” came out).

I couldn’t possibly afford to give gifts to every employee (there are more than a hundred), and my administrative position doesn’t really “allow” me to choose favorites, so I had started the habit of giving gifts to those who chose to give gifts to me. Again, in a way, there’s something not quite right about that, but I honestly haven’t figured out a way around it, because I am constitutionally unable to simply receive gifts without giving anything in return. Fortunately, it’s usually the same people who give to me each year, so I already put them on my shopping list at the beginning of the season. However, there are often surprises; this year there were five surprises. I had prepared for these surprises by already having on hand something nice but generic to give in those cases, but some people fooled me by not giving me a small loaf of homemade nut bread or something like that, but really giving me something amazing and that took specific thought. So THEN I really had to SCRAMBLE to get them something somewhat equal in thought to what they had given me, which can be extremely hard to do at the last minute. Thursday evening, I spent several hours at Pier 1, which was an appropriate store for one of those who had given me a spectacular gift and which I figured might have something good for the others. I kept finding things that I wanted for myself, actually, but for the most part I stuck to my plan of finding things for the people who had surprised me.

While I was at Pier 1, a woman came over to me and said, “You are a man, I would like you to answer a question for which I want an honest answer.” Uh oh. While I am always quite pleased to be a “stand in” for my gender, I sometimes wonder if I am “man enough” to do so! But anyway, she stated her problem; she had to buy several gifts for some teenage boys and some grown men, all of whom live in France, so her task was to give them gifts that they would like but that didn’t cost a huge amount of money, and that would not be very expensive to SHIP. She said that she had spent several hundred dollars just in shipping costs alone, last year, and she just couldn’t do that again. I understand her problem, because I used to give gifts to people overseas and the shipping costs killed me, so I simply stopped doing it. She then went on say that the girls and women were EASY, and she proceeded to point out dozens of things right in the vicinity of where we were standing that would work for the females, but, obviously, none of that would work for the males (and she was right about that).

Well, she gave me quite a challenge, but one that I was internally ADAMANT that I had to solve for her. It’s not often that I get to speak for all male-kind, and FRENCH ones, to boot! But gee, surely I ought to be able to figure that one out. But before she spoke, she outlined all the things she had already done BEFORE, thus instantly wiping out every idea that had immediately come to my mind. So now that I was tapped out, I kind of just stood there hemming and hawing to the extent that she decided that I was going to be no help and so thanked me for my willingness, but conceded that the task was impossible.

But it is NOT impossible, but give me some TIME, okay? I asked her if she was going to be in the store for a while longer, and she said “Yes”, that she still have some other shopping to do there, for the GIRLS.

I said, “Okay, I have to do some more shopping here, too, so let me think about it as I look around and if I come up with some good ideas, I go find you.”

She answered that that was a good idea, although I could hear the sigh in her voice that meant she never expected to see me again.

However, as it turned out, I had gotten only about two aisles away from her, when I got my answers that I was going to share with her. Fortunately, I found her nearby.

I told her that it was almost certain that the teenage boys were into video or computer games and that there would be no limit to their capacity to absorb and enjoy those. All she would have to do would be to find out from their mother (or mothers) what system they used, Playstation, X-Box, Microsoft, or whatever, because a game for the wrong system would be useless, and while she was at it, maybe she could find out what KIND of game each one liked, such as role-playing, battle games, life simulation games, building games, travelling games, violent fighting games, “Car Theft” games, sports games (basketball, football, hockey, etc.). I said that fortunately with computer games, the software standards are international, unlike, say, movie DVDs, which have to conform to a regional standard in order to be playable.

Also, computer games come on a disc, so they would be very light and inexpensive to ship.

She LOVED that idea and said that it would be snap to find out from their mothers the right system and type of game. She also seemed to know where she could find these games (I would have suggested the two places that I knew, WalMart and Fry’s Electronics, but she seemed okay on that score). I had given her THE acceptable and useful answer for the teenage boys.

As to the adult men, I said that EVERYBODY likes music, and CDs, of course, are as light and inexpensive to ship as the video games would be. Now, she might not know what taste these men have in music, or what music they may already have and what they may want, but I had a solution for that, too. I told her to go home and get on her computer and do a search for “Concord Records” (actually, when I checked it out at home afterwards, the right spot is “Concord Music Group”, but Google would send her to the right place). Concord Records would be a supplier of rare, collector, or unique artist retrospective CDS or CD sets that those in France (and in the US, as well) might not be in a position to be familiar with. I know all about Concord Records, as Hal Gaba the OWNER of that company, was on the Board of our school’s Trustees and was someone whom I personally knew (unfortunately, he died a few years ago of cancer). He, and television producer Norman Lear (his partner in that venture) bought up some languishing record companies that happened to own an incredible treasure house of classic jazz studio tapes, material that HAD NEVER EVER BEEN MADE AVAILABLE TO THE PUBLIC, by artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Theloneous Monk, John Coltrane, and dozens of others. This is stuff you really can’t get elsewhere.

I said that, stereotypically, the French have very serious artistic tastes and the French have always welcomed jazz; in fact, in the early portions of the 20th century, black jazz artists from America found a powerful welcome in France, where they did not suffer discrimination, so even if these men didn’t specifically like jazz, they would still appreciate having one of these CDs, which maybe even would open up for them an appreciation of this high quality level of jazz.

Okay, so this woman now was really excited, first the video games, and now this, yes, yes, these were the answers, and she was going home right away and search for and then log on to Concord Records. I had solved her male-gift-giving-problem! Wow, I was so happy to help!

Now, here’s something else that happened that same Thursday evening. I had left work to take to the post office some very important mailings that had to be postmarked that day (December 15 was the deadline). Instead of taking my normal route home, I took a road that went down the hill to a spot that would take me quite close to the post office that I was going to use. It was already quite a dark evening anyway, but it had been a cold, rainy day, which deepened the sense of darkness.

Just as I came to a curve in the road, I saw a bright, “glow in the dark” hand-lettered sign that said “Write Your Teacher’s Name, Unique Christmas Gifts Here!” and a young boy and his mother sitting in front of their house at a table covered with what looked like a collection of small potted plants. Now, you remember the bumper sticker that people used to have, “I Brake For Small Animals”? I think maybe there was another one that said, “I Brake For Garage Sales”. I ought to have one made for me that says, “I Brake For Lemonade Stands”, and by that I mean, generically, anything that a child or a group of children have enterprisingly got together to sell, I will pull over for and buy from them. First of all, it is such a pleasure to deal with excited children, but also, I like to support what they are doing, which I think is a valuable help for their future. I want them to know that what they are offering will have an appeal to people, even though probably a discouraging quantity of cars will simply drive on by. So, in the past, I have bought lemonade dozens of times, large pink grapefruits that kids had grown in their yard, cleverly-carved miniature pumpkins that kids were selling prior to Hallowe’en one year, and more high school car washes than I can count.

Well, I WAS on my way to buy gifts at Pier 1 (described above) after going to the post office, so this one was in all ways a no-brainer. I had to find a place to turn around, and then wound my way back to the house, and since it was a busy road with a curve, the only reasonable place to park was in their driveway, which I did. I said it was quite a dark evening, but when that boy and his mother saw me enter their driveway, it was as if a spotlight had turned on. They were so HAPPY…and remember, they HAD been sitting out in the RAIN to do this (but at the moment, the rain had blessedly stopped).

What they had for sale were potted Christmas cactuses (that’s a smart idea right there), but they were better than simply one plant potted. The boy (whose whole idea this was), had put together little artistically arranged miniature gardens with several sizes of Christmas cactuses, some of which were blooming red and some of which were going to bloom soon, and also what his mother called “Thanksgiving cactuses” that were soon to bloom white, all set with beautiful stones in a way that was what I would call “casually zen-like” (if “zen” even CAN be casual…). Also, the boy had painted the perimeter of the flower pots below the lip or rim with blackboard paint, and had “planted” in the cactus garden a nicely-made brass “wire” that held up a piece of white chalk that was inside of a carefully spiraled loop. The idea of this was that you give this gift to your teacher, for example, and you could write her name on the blackboard portion of the pot, “#1 Teacher”, or whatever you wanted, or one could write and erase their own messages, just like writing on a blackboard.

And the prices were reasonable ($10, $15, or $20 depending upon the size) and intelligently set in that they didn’t require messy change-giving. I would have bought one of them regardless, simply to support the boy’s effort, but honestly, I LOVED them, and bought one in the $15 size that already had a really nice red bloom going on and several white ones that they told me would open in about a week. At the time I figured this would be a good “generic” gift to give to someone who had surprised me on the last day of school (Friday), but honestly, once I got it home and saw it clearly in the light of my kitchen, I realized that I liked this so much that I decided to keep it for myself. Up until now, I hadn’t had any plants in my apartment, but my Christmas tree (even though it was cut and will have to be thrown out after Christmas) seems to have risen within me the desire to have a plant in the house.

It ends up that while the boy goes to a different private school from the one where I work, the mother said that they knew a family whose children had gone there, and she told me the name and I knew who they were. Also, the woman told me that her mother’s best friend is the mother of one of our substitute teachers, whom, when she told me her name, I described as “a goddess”, and absolutely IS the first substitute teacher that any teacher of ours calls when they are sick, and, in fact, that teacher is basically there on our campus every single day. So that was fun, having those connections, and I am sure the mother will mention me to those people and say that I bought one of the boy’s cactus gardens. But I hope that he sells a lot, as he should. When I told one of my friends about this at work, she loved the idea of it, especially the idea of being able to write a message on the pot, so she told me she would go down there after work to buy one, too, which I hope she did.

I had to research on-line how to take care of this cactus, and found out that unlike most cacti, this kind comes from the JUNGLE, not the desert, so it doesn’t require, or like, hot sun baking down on it, which means that it doesn’t have to be outside, but can live quite well indoors (it does like LIGHT, though). Perfect.

This morning, as I was making my breakfast, I saw that beautiful red bloom with those waiting white buds, so perfect for Christmas, and instantly this blog entry was written in my mind, so here it is, now, all ready for you.

I hope you have a glorious Christmas, and may you thoroughly enjoy the joyfulness of the season.

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