Do-it-yourself holiday letter

Everyone loves to send cheery annual letters chock-full of family news, but who has time to write one?

Most of us don't have a minute to READ the letters we get (especially the really long ones in a tiny, festive typeface), much less an hour to compose our own. We're too danged busy, talking on the cell phone and driving, to write a letter.

It's not too late. Here's a form letter you can use to update friends and relatives on your family life. Fill in the appropriate names or words where it says (blank), and you can be clogging mailboxes in no time!

Dear (Blank),

Can you believe another year has gone by already? Wow. Seems like only yesterday that we were (blanking) in the (blank) together and now it's (insert correct year here).

It's been an eventful year for the (Blank) family. We had our ups and downs, like all families do, but we've come away stronger and better and closer than ever before. Most of us had a year full of joy and achievement, but there are always a few bad apples who drag down the curve, and, yes, I'm talking about you, (Blank).

But let's not go there! Ha-ha.

We're just happy to have survived another year, without the kind of natural disasters that struck this year in (Blank). We can all be thankful that we live in an area that's not prone to (blank).

The big success story of the year was (Blank), who started his own import/export business, selling (blank) to the (Blanks). Cars are lined up outside his house, night and day, full of customers. We are so proud.

Another high point was when (Blank) finally (blanked) college. What a (blank)!
Let us also brag about (Blank), who is now a fully licensed (blank)!

And of course there's young (Blank), who came in second in the (blanks). Hooray! Better luck next year!

The tragedy? Probably the lowest point was when we lost our beloved (blank or Blank). You don't bounce back from a (blankety-blank) like that. But we're slowly recovering, and we hate to complain.

After all, we've got our health. Well, most of us do. Aunt (Blank) had her (blank) removed, and that was a trial. You know how she can be, bless her heart. Cousin (Blank) hasn't been the same since the shark attack. He can walk OK, but he's kinda flinchy. Granddad had that scare with (blank), but he seems better now, if a little scattered. We found him the other day, wading in a ditch and talking to (Blank), who's been dead for years.

A few (Blanks) had trouble with the law this year, but it's all getting sorted out. Cousin (Blank) paid his debt to society, and is currently getting his mail at (Blank's) house, where he's sleeping on the couch. Uncle (Blank) got accused of (blank), as you probably read in the newspapers, but he assures us it was a big (blank) and his lawyer is on it. And your cousin never, ever had anything to do with (blanks). Trust me on that.

Uncle (Blank) finally stopped drinking and smoking and chasing women. The funeral is scheduled for next week.

On a brighter note, we welcomed little (Blank) into the family this year. The cutest little (blank) you've ever seen. The newborns give us reason to (blank).

Hope you and yours are healthy and happy and rolling in (blank)!

Until next year,

(Your name here)


Merry Christmas!

That's all. Merry Christmas to everyone.

What? Why are you staring like that? What are you waiting for?

Oh. And Happy New Year!


Have a knuckle-cracking Christmas

"Winter break" provides family units with such a prolonged period of intense togetherness, it's a wonder we don't all kill one another.

The kids are home from school for what seems like 17 weeks. Adults who normally would be busy with work get some free days for relaxing and reveling and gaining weight together. Because it's cold outside, the whole family's under the same roof much of the time.

Everything feels a bit off. Routines are disrupted. Social calendars are full. Thoughts are scattered. The kids are antsy. People keep tripping over the dog. The TV is too loud. What's that smell?

Different energy levels bouncing around in the same space create friction. Some of us are slobs; some want to decorate the Kleenex boxes. Some see a vacation and want to go, go, go, while others see it as time for lying perfectly still. We're like cars on a busy street, all going different speeds. Bound to be a few fender benders.

All the togetherness reminds us that even the nicest people have annoying little habits that could wear on anyone, given enough exposure. Repeated sniffing, say. Clearing one's throat 2,309 times per day. If you're stuck in a house all day with a knuckle-cracker or a gum-snapper or a Twitter user, your thoughts might turn to ho-ho-homicide.

Take something as harmless as a Christmas carol. The song gets stuck in a person's mind, like a jumbo thorn, so he goes around singing it all the time. Except he doesn't really know the words, so it sounds like this: "Joy to the WORLD, la-da, la-DAH." Over and over. For two weeks. Until -- snap! -- someone makes a headline.

Minor vices, such as leaving the cap off the toothpaste or the newspaper in disarray, can be ignored for days, but eventually someone will speak up, and the new year is welcomed with fireworks.

(The Murphy's Law winter break guarantee: Whether you prefer the toilet seat up or down, it will always be the wrong way. Mention this to the others at your peril.)

As the winter days of togetherness wear on, we start to see loved ones' quirks as being intentionally annoying. We start perceiving motives.

"She knows she's doing that," he mutters. "She could stop any time. But no, she keeps doing it, because she knows it drives me crazy. She's just getting even because I--"

From the next room: "What's that, dear?"


But it's not nothing. It's the beginning. Pretty soon, the couple is locked in an escalating passive-aggressive loop: If she's going to crack her gum, he thinks, then I can pop my knuckles and sniffle as much as I want. She counters with an impressive symphony of tuneless whistling, trying to drown out his honking nose. Which, naturally, forces him to play Neil Young on the stereo, because she HATES that reedy voice. So she runs the vacuum cleaner. He gets a wrench and removes the toilet seat altogether and--

Whoa, whoa. Take a deep breath there, partner. It's always like this at winter break. It'll be fine once we get out of the house, and we're all exposed to smaller doses of our mutual foibles.

The adults go back to work, where our nervous habits can annoy our colleagues instead of our relatives. The kids go back to school and annoy their teachers. The dog gets some rest.

Soon, we're back in our well-worn ruts. Ready for another year.



Boys will be chefs

Nothing says “Merry Christmas” like a young boy playing with his new train set, his baseball glove and his toy kitchen.

That’s right. Kitchen. As in junior-sized appliances, where the lad can pretend to cook and do dishes.

According to an article from The Associated Press, boys increasingly are playing “chef” with toy kitchens, even though the thought of it can make uptight fathers dash out into the yard and roll in the flowerbeds.

Many modern dads are OK with their sons playing with toy kitchens, the article said, partly because the dads themselves spend more time in the real kitchen. Boys see their fathers whipping up dinner, or they see male chefs on the many food shows on TV, and they want to emulate those activities. Toy companies are catering (ha!) to that interest by making gender-neutral kitchens for kids, the article said.

“Men are reshaping and rethinking their roles,” said Dr. Michael Kaplan, an assistant clinical professor at the Yale Child Study Center. “They are doing much more (cooking and housework) than they ever have.”

Kaplan said boys shouldn’t be discouraged from playing with toys usually associated with girls because it can lead to self-esteem problems.

That’s where he lost me. I’m a living, breathing example of a man who played with a toy kitchen, over his father’s objections, and, as anyone who knows me will tell you, “self-esteem” is the least of my problems. Just the opposite, in fact.

My toy kitchen was a little turquoise-colored number -- a stove, a sink and a refrigerator with food items and condiments painted on the inside -- where I whiled away many hours making mud pies that I insisted all the grown-ups actually eat.

I was 4 years old at the time, which would’ve made it around 1961. Not an era when men spent much time in the kitchen.

I vaguely recall my dad expressing concern over his firstborn son spending so much time baking mud pies and what that might do to my developing male psyche. At least I think that’s what he was saying as he rolled in the flowerbeds.

Clearly, everything turned out fine, as I grew up to be a housewife. Kidding! I grew up to be a work-at-home dad, who doesn’t mind spending time in the kitchen. Still not much of a chef, but at least I don’t serve up mud pies anymore.

Today’s toymakers can appease all the worried dads and still make a buck off the toy kitchen market. It’s simply a matter of tailoring the appliances to men.

For instance, toy kitchens for boys shouldn’t come in colors like pink or turquoise that might “feminize” them. They should be made of stainless steel. Like a DeLorean.

Manufacturers could make macho dads happy by designing a toy fridge that holds nothing but beer. For the garage.

Microwave ovens didn’t exist when I was a child, but now we can’t get along without them. Every boy’s kitchen should come with a microwave, preferably one that can actually make live cats explode. (Kidding some more! Take it easy, cat-lovers. Sheesh.)

Even the most manly man thinks it’s OK to cook outdoors. Most will, in fact, hip-check their wives away from the barbecue grill so they can char their own steaks.

If toymakers want to make a really authentic barbecue grill, they should rig it up with a 10-foot-tall blaze that will singe off hair and eyebrows. Then Junior can look just like Dad.

To extinguish the flames, they can roll in the flowerbeds together.


An anniversary

Twenty-six years ago today, I married my one true love.


Enjoy holidays -- one halftime at a time

During this season of giving and reflection and renewal, a man's thoughts naturally turn to football.

'Tis the season for men wearing plastic reindeer antlers and a fine dusting of Doritos crumbs to sprawl on sofas, basking in the TV glow while our plucky families celebrate all around us. It's a season of hope and joy, anticipation and disappointment, the thrill of victory and the agony of sweatsock feet. It's the time of year when grown men ask Santa to please, please grant one wish: a first-and-goal on the two with a minute to go.

While others sing carols and make resolutions and gobble leftovers, we men display as much holiday energy as your average potted poinsettia. Lumps of coal we are, as we watch round-the-clock games, sometimes two or three at once, moving nothing but our eyes and our overdeveloped remote control thumbs.

It's not that we're lazy. We're pouring all our available resources into rooting for our favorite teams, occasionally even jumping up from the La-Z-Boy to shout, "Yes!" and grab another egg nog. Our teams can't do it without us. We're the Twelfth Man, pouring spiritual energy into the television sets of America.

Our families, on the other hand, seem able to soldier on with the decorating and the turkey-basting and the party-throwing without us. Or, with the limited participation that we can offer during halftimes.

The football leagues and the TV networks pander to sports junkies by televising the important games during the holiday season, when the biggest audience is likely to be off work and lying in front of a big-screen TV, naked except for boxers decorated with candy canes and evergreens, eating day-old guacamole directly off its fingers.

This year, men will be distracted from their loved ones by an estimated 137 college bowl games. Plus the NFL playoffs, which take us well into the new year, finally culminating in the Super Bowl, which I believe is sometime in July.

While the rest of the world makes merry and bright, we football fans relish tackles and sacks and crackback blocks. We wallow in the violence and the spirited competition and the mud and the blood and the beer. Nothing says "Happy Holidays" like a crushing blindside tackle in the secondary.

Our preoccupation with football is partly a coping mechanism, a way to deal with the bustle and glow of the holiday season. All that danged JOY. Brrr. It's also a primitive urge. It's winter, so we eat lots of big meals and hibernate in our dark dens, waking only when the crowd noise alerts us to a big play, just in time to watch the slow-motion replay.

We know our football fixation sometimes stresses our spouses, who are forced to use food aromas and actual beer to lure us off the couch long enough to, say, open our Christmas gifts. Our lethargy sets a bad example for our children. Our children. You remember the children. The ones who run screaming in front of the TV screen once in a while? Them.

Our families should not despair. Eventually, the football season will end. Spring will arrive, and we men will rise up from our sofas and shake the crumbs from our pelts and emerge from our caves. We'll stop obsessing on point-spreads and statistics and fantasy leagues and and bad calls and boneheaded coaching. We'll once again gather our families in the warm embrace of our full attention.

Until March Madness.


Screwed by the holidays

Grumpy dads everywhere dread the approach of the holidays. To us, the gift-giving season means one thing: "ready-to-assemble."

We'll spend the waning days of the year hunched over a random collection of parts that don't fit together so well, trying to assemble them into something useful. We'll try to decipher instructions written in a secret code by someone with only a rudimentary grasp of English, while we simultaneously keep one eye on televised bowl games.

Things will go wrong.

Nothing terrible. It won't be the end of the world, for Pete's sake. But it will be frustrating, enough to edge us dads one inch closer to our inevitable heart attacks, and to make us say "bad words" in front of the children.

Even if you avoid "ready-to-assemble" your whole life, you'll still face minor repair jobs that will challenge your sanity. Things break. You've got to fix them. It won't always go smoothly.

Here's why: The recalcitrant screw. The screw that won't turn properly, no matter what. The rusted nut. The missing gizmo. The broken whatsit.

It's not the overall job that's so daunting, it's the minor complication. That's the part that drives us nuts. So much so, that we dread these jobs. So much so, that it ruins the experience for us. We can't revel in the fact that we successfully fixed Aunt Mabel's lamp. Instead, every time we pass that lamp, we think: "I remember that (mutter, sputter) stripped bolt. That was a dark day."

I got to thinking about the recalcitrant screw recently while helping my wife with a home repair project. Rather, while watching my wife accomplish a home repair project. My contribution was to hold the flashlight, some distance away.

In our kitchen, a fluorescent light fixture had buzzed and winked for, oh, two years. It was annoying, but we'd all sort of grown accustomed it because we were too lazy or ignorant or unmotivated or scared to try to fix it. Mostly lazy.

I have a good excuse for ignoring the problem. As the man of the house, I am terrified of electric shock. The reasons behind my phobia -- why I can barely stand to walk on carpet and touch a doorknob -- are deep and complicated, but let's cut to the chase: Me big sissy.

My wife fears nothing. She looked up some instructions in a book and took the fixture apart and repaired a shorted wire and put it all back together again with a new bulb, and it works like a new one. I witnessed the whole thing. For this feat, she will always be my hero.

However, there was a moment when it didn't look so rosy. When she reached the recalcitrant screw. It was the final one, of course, that last little business before declaring "mission accomplished." The screw went in crooked and stuck there. She had to work it out of the hole, then try it again. Crooked. She started over.

It went on like this for a while, and she never once lost her patience or shouted curses. She just quietly noodled that recalcitrant screw until it fit where it belonged.

Not the way I would've handled it at all, and she wasn't trying to watch football at the same time, but whatever. I'm happy the buzzing is gone.

I've learned one thing from this experience. Come Christmas, my wife's in charge of assembling everything.

I've got to look after my heart.


Stretching your holiday dollar

Dire economic times make it harder than ever to buy appropriate gifts for friends and relatives, but you can still make Christmas merry for one and all. It just takes a little creativity.

Here are some tips for scrounging up gifts:

“Re-gift” items from previous holidays. You never used that waffle-maker Aunt Marge sent you. Might as well send it to someone who could make use of it (or who has more kitchen cabinet space than you do). But make sure you don’t send it to the Aunt Marge by mistake. She’ll remember. Trust me.

Thrift stores offer potential gifts at a fraction of retail prices. So what if the items have a few dings and scratches? Nothing a can of spray paint won’t fix.

You can’t use spray paint on clothes without a lengthy explanation. If you make gifts of used clothing, you must call them “vintage.”

Really old items can be offered as gifts as long as you specify that they are “collectible.” The items will appear more valuable if they bear a famous celebrity’s autograph, which you can accomplish with an inexpensive Sharpie.

Why not turn to Mother Nature? Live plants make wonderful gifts until they die, and floral arrangements are always welcome. You can make beautiful autumnal centerpieces from the colorful leaves currently littering your yard. Even inert items such as acorns, pine cones and rocks can be offered as unique gifts. Remember to spray-paint them first.

Another do-it-yourself gift is food. People love getting food at the holidays, particularly tons of sweets and baked goods. Nothing says “Merry Christmas” like a diabetic coma.

If you’re careful handling books, you can offer them as gifts without mentioning that they’ve been used. If the recipient notices turned-down corners, etc., respond that the book has been “pre-read.” Library books are out, however. There’s no explaining away the “Shasta Public Libraries” stamp.

Batteries always make good gifts for the kiddies. Someone (probably a grandparent) will give them noisy toys that need batteries. If the batteries you supply are old and don’t work, you can say, “Gee that toy must be broken.” The parents no doubt will appreciate the peace and quiet.

Or, you can simply give the children cardboard boxes, available for free from supermarkets and liquor stores. We’ve all seen that imaginative kids have more fun with the boxes than with the actual toys. Why not skip a step? If you want to get fancy, you can spray-paint the boxes to cover up the liquor advertisements.

Sometimes, it’s a short hop from creativity to duplicity. With so many retailers going out of business, it’s possible to re-use gift cards that you cashed out long ago. Send the worthless gift card to a relative, then express surprise to learn that the company on the card no longer exists.

Another trick is to mail a broken item to a distant relative. When the recipient reveals that the gift showed up in a hundred pieces, you can blame the beleaguered workers of the U.S. Postal Service. They’re used to it.

“Gag” gifts are always a scream, and they’re easy to come by. Even convenience stores sell last-minute gag gifts. Oh, how fun it will be when Aunt Marge opens her gift and finds dirty magazines and condoms! The whole family will laugh themselves silly!

When all else fails, cheap booze makes a good gift. It’ll help us forget the economy for a while. And the hangovers will prompt our New Year’s resolutions. That’s a gift that keeps on giving!


Crime wave ends in hernia

Today's tip for aspiring criminals: If you're going to steal a safe, be sure you have some way of lifting it into the trunk of your car.

Police say a 75-year-old robber forgot this important tip, and ended up getting caught in upstate New York. The robber, wearing a snazzy fedora, stole the safe from an office where he had recently been let go. He got the 100-pound safe to his car with a hand truck, but then couldn't lift it into his trunk.

Full story here. Don't miss the photo of his pencil-thin mustache.