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Up on the housetop

Douglas Imbrogno
If you are a dad, there is no recourse: Those outdoor Christmas lights are not going to hang themselves.
Douglas Imbrogno The Christmas Bear and I have a complicated relationship -- I haul him out of storage, he falls apart.
Douglas Imbrogno While neighbors mount light shows worthy of a world's fair, the author goes for a rather pathetic candy-cane effect.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- This is a story about one of the less-discussed aspects of that most glorious, most wonderful time of the year.

I speak of the yearly obligation that falls upon the broad but rapidly stooping shoulders of aging dads. For it is to us dads that the task falls to head roofward to hang Christmas lights and otherwise decorate the house to keep up with the Joneses.

But not, thankfully, the Mormons -- or at least my neighborhood's Mormons. I don't know about yours.

The box arrives

I live with two female Christmasaholics. This can be a challenge.

One is a wife, the other an 18-year-old daughter. They begin to agitate for the playing of Christmas music soon after the stuffing grows cold about 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving.

I am only slightly exaggerating. We have a lot of Christmas CDs. Every holiday tune James Taylor ever sang (he sang a lot). David Archuleta and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. A Sinatra Christmas. A Celtic Christmas. A Martini Christmas. Christmas with the Flintstones.

I might have made that last one up.

But so it is that I return to the house the day after Thanksgiving to be greeted by the gale-force winds of Josh Groban belting "Little Drummer Boy."

"Isn't that a little loud?" I ask, my pancreas throbbing in time to the beat.

"Dad," says my daughter, flicking back her hair in a gesture I have christened the Are You Paying Attention, Father, bat signal.

"Do you see that?" she asks.

I look down. A rectangular cardboard box rests smack-dab in the middle of the living room.

Scrawled on the box are the words "Christmas lights, outdoors."

It has begun.

Up on the roof

The thing you must understand, you children, wives and people who have never visited a roof, is that we older dads -- or, at least, this well-seasoned dad -- do not really all that much like being up on roofs and ladders.

Sure, the first few decades you climb up onto a roof, it's cool. Hey, look, you can see the old cemetery from up here!

At a certain age, clarity sets in. One slip on the ladder, one misplaced foot on the roof, and you are not only a new resident of the old cemetery, but everyone you know is tut-tutting about how it went down.

"Did you hear? He died while hanging Christmas lights!" "That is so sad!"

And pathetic. As well as dweebish.

For are we not men? Are we not capable dads?

The problem is, I am surrounded by far more capable dads. One set of neighbors has spectacularly lined the entire outline of their house in multicolored icicle lights. Another has adopted a magenta-themed display with matching magenta wreaths. Another has cool strips of lights swirling expertly through the branches of trees, a look I've never mastered.

"Why can't our Christmas lights do that?" my daughter challenges, as we pass the spectacular house, which looks like God airbrushed all its edges with sparkly rainbows.

I say nothing. It is better not to goad Christmasaholics.

I'm thinking, "If we were Hindus, this would not be a problem."

A hard rain

Or a Mormon, of the sort that live near me.

My little pièce de résistance this year is a fairly pathetic row of "cascading LED energy efficient icicle lights" hung over the front porch whose "blink speed" (this is a technical term) can be controlled by a green knob.

I only almost tip off the ladder once. Then it begins to rain. What's that Dylan song about rain? Excuse me, as I consult Google ... "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall." Yes, that's it.

That kind of rain. A cold, mean rain. As I step down the ladder to escape it, my Mormon neighbor pulls up into his driveway. "Is everything OK?" he calls over to me, getting out.

He has not seen me wrestling with lights. I am touched. He thought there was a roof leak. I beam a warm smile toward my dear neighbor, who apparently doesn't believe in Christmas lights, from the evidence of the seven or eight holidays they've lived beside us.

As I eye the still unlit gutters, I'm thinking ...

Hmmm.

Mormonism.

North Korean lights

The thing about Christmas lights is they are an erratic technology, equivalent to North Korean missiles. Sometimes they work, often they don't.

Then there's the confounding environmental conundrum of the half-working string of lights. Do you fling them out in disgust and exasperation when you plug in strings of last year's lights and only the first 5 feet of the 10-foot string light up?

Or do you creatively double the lights back on themselves to keep them from landfills, creating an even greater challenge as you dangle your backbone over a gutter, attempting, in effect, an aerial macramé of Christmas lights?

Disgust and exasperation win!

The patient young Nigerian clerk at the local Walgreens greets me again with a smile as I return to their holiday display once again to replace no less than three North Korean strings of lights.

I am speaking metaphorically. I think they're actually from China.

I won't even get into the extremely inspired curses that followed upon the heels of my post-Walgreens discovery up on the roof. It was this: The single string of last year's lights that did work would not connect to the new lights purchased from the nice clerk because the plugs were different.

It is fortunate I know how to curse in French as well as English. My Mormon neighbors likely heard the vile sounds through the walls of their unlit house. Although unless they ran them through Google translator they would not know how offensive their only seemingly mild-mannered neighbor could be.

The Christmas Bear

My last surge of effort was to twirl separate strings of red tube lights down the length of the short white pillars astride my porch. I was going for a candy-cane effect.

The strings kept drooping. Do you know how hard it is to create a candy-cane effect? I'm just saying: not for the faint of heart. Drooping canes, more like it.

But I have to say, as dusk came on and I retreated down the ladder to terra firma one last time, I was feeling accomplished. Then, I remembered.

Damn! I forgot the Christmas Bear.

The Christmas Bear and I have a complicated relationship. First, who ever heard of a Christmas Bear? I know there are polar bears and stuff. But I mean, like, the Christmas Bear?

The other problem is the Christmas Bear is wired with hundreds of lights and put together weirdly. He always tips over and falls into bear pieces. I have to use bread-bag ties to keep his legs and head on.

I dig the bear out of the basement. Plug him in. Gratefully, he lights up fine. I note a black blur between his legs. Luna, our cat, is chewing on the bear's wiring.

"Luna, stop!" I cry. "Leave the Christmas Bear alone!"

I get the bear onto the porch without incident. Standing back in the dark, I study my day's labors.

My daughter, you see, has a rare form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. It's a variant you might call Yuletide OCD (YOCD), in which all Christmas decorations need to be exactly, evenly balanced.

If there is any Christmas decoration not in perfect symmetry -- for instance, my candy-cane lights, which appear to be something Willy Wonka concocted on an LSD trip -- this is just not going to cut it for YOCD sufferers.

I know my daughter will hate my drooping canes. I leave her a note and tape it to the front door before she returns from work.

"Dear Daughter: You may re-do the candy cane poles any way you like. Your Dad."

I know she will know what I mean.

I am done, is what I mean.

Then, I drive to Kroger and purchase a rather expensive bottle of wine.

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.


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