Happy day before Christmas!

When I was a kid this was the longest day of the year. The promise the next morning held was enough to make one hold his or her breath in anticipation. My whole body tingled with excitement… or perhaps it was one too many bowls of sugary cereal. Memories can be fuzzy.

The site of the tree with all the wrapped presents made me giddy, which only got worse when thoughts of the additional packages that would appear the next morning after Santa had dropped by. There was also a little anxiety once I was old enough to start picking out gifts for my brother and sister and parents. Would they like what I had gotten for them? This was in the days before Amazon wish lists. The closest analog we had was the annual Sears Christmas Wish Book catalog. Here’s one from 1977 when I was 10 years old. I spent hours digging through it and circling the items I desperately wanted.

I think 1977 was the year we got the Sears Video Arcade System, which was a rebranded Atari 2600 that Sears sold. Another year my dad bought us kids Pachinko machines and I have no idea why. I had never heard of these Japanese spins on pinball machines until that Christmas morning, but we played the hell out of them anyway. Considering that none of the electronics of the machines were intact the fact that they still worked was pretty impressive. Then there was the year I got my ultimate Christmas wish: A minibike. I never thought in a million years it would actually happen, but there it was standing next to the tree one Christmas morning.

These days the excitement level is much lower, but we’re a lot busier. We’re all grown and have extended families of one sort or another so there’s a lot more travel. Today will be spent at my parent’s house where we will have a nice Christmas Eve dinner and exchange gifts with my family members. This tradition has been going on since us kids became adults. It’s one of the few — if not the only — times of the year that all three of us kids are together in the same place with my folks. My nephew, who has just become a Navy medic, will be there this year with his fiance. Also present will be my niece, who is an amazing photographer that I’m hoping to be able to afford to hire someday for some nice pics of myself because I’m a narcissist. My daughter Courtney will arrive with us. It’s one of the few years that all the grandkids will be present in quite some time. Budgets being tight there will be far fewer gifts exchanged, but there’s still some of that old tingle as I look forward to seeing family I’ve not seen in awhile.

I can be a pretty materialistic guy, but I’ve been trying to move away from that as I’ve grown older. My siblings and I aren’t particularly close (literally or figuratively) so I tend to look forward to the few times we do manage to get together. Christmas still holds a lot of magic for me, just a different kind these days. I think that’s a good thing.

The joy of cats at Christmas time.

ornament killer cat

We tossed our old artificial Christmas tree last year because it was looking pretty battle weary from years of being in the same house with cats. I had planned to buy a new one during the summer off-season, but it didn’t happen. Now it’s looking like we won’t have one this year at all which makes me sad, but not as sad as my cats who have noticed that the outdoor lights are up and glowing. That usually means the tree of shiny things that tinkle when you knock them down is usually not far behind. They are very confused by the lack of the tree of shiny things.

Ring in the holidays with this viral ad from Kmart.

Here’s one you’ll probably never see on TV, but it was amusing enough that it got me to share it on my blog:

Apparently this has generated some controversy with folks who lack a sense of humor, but the overall reaction has been pretty positive. Still not enough to get me to shop at Kmart anytime soon, but it was damned amusing.

Is it too early to talk about Christmas lights?

Probably, but I’m going to do it anyway.

Yeah I know it’s August still, but after last Christmas we decided to toss our old artificial tree because it was looking worse for wear after years of having cats chew on its limbs, pinecones, and fake berries and it wasn’t a particularly realistic looking tree to begin with. We had bought it back in 2008 after finding it on sale at the local Home Depot and it was starting to fall apart. So we figured we’d wait until the summer and see if we couldn’t pick up a new one during an off-season sale. My hope was to find a pre-lit LED tree with, if at all possible, twinkle light capabilities.

It occurred to me last week that summer is rapidly disappearing and we still hadn’t gotten around to finding a replacement tree so I started looking online and came across a couple of manufacturers who sell directly to customers and who had some pretty amazing looking trees. Or at least decent looking in the photos. This prompted me to propose a trip to Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland in Frankenmuth, MI to the wife so we could look at a few trees in person, which is what we did this past Saturday.

It was a bust as a tree-finding excursion. Not that they didn’t have any — they had quite a few — but not only did they not list who the manufacturers of the trees were, but none of them quite fit the criteria I had in mind. The pre-lit trees were evenly divided between traditional mini-lights and LED mini-lights and I hate mini-lights. I grew up with C7 bulbs on the tree and when I made the move to pure LED lights a couple of years ago most of the strings I bought had C7 or C9 style covers on them. We found one LED tree that had a combination of mini-light and C7-ish style bulbs on it that we thought looked pretty good, but it was also flocked (fake snow) which we thought would be a bad idea for two reasons. First, once you put it in storage chances are the snow will get dust on it and it’s probably impossible to clean it off. Secondly, if we thought the cats had a field day with the old tree with its fake berries and pinecones we could only imagine what they’d do with a flocked tree. It also didn’t help that the all of the pre-lit trees we saw were in the $500 and up range, which put a bit of a damper on my enthusiasm.

With the slow realization that I was probably going to have to go with a bare tree and put lights on it I decided to see what the latest offerings in LED lights were as I’ve only ever found one string of multi-colored LED lights that blinked and it was a shorter string I put around one of our bedroom windows. Note I said blinked, not twinkled. With my old C7 light strings I would take a string of static lights and replace every third or so bulb with a twinkle bulb that randomly flashes. Since the move to LED the best I could do was to mix a string of multi-colored LEDs with a string of white LEDs that had the chaser function which I ran up the middle of the tree. The resultant effect made the tree look like a weird UFO about to lift off. Surely by now I’d be able to find all sorts of LED strings that had blinking lights and — dare I hope — maybe even a random twinkle function.

No such luck. At least not at Bronner’s. They had a decent selection of LED strings by some company I’ve never heard of before out of China, but none of them offered so much as a chaser or non-random blinking function among them. Well, that’s not entirely true. They did have a couple of strings that blinked, but they were naked LED bulbs with no covers on them similar to the one string I already owned and without a cover to diffuse the light you may as well be stringing laser pointers on your tree. We had a static string of naked LEDs around the window next to our apartment’s front door and when you came up from the basement there was always two LEDs pointed directly at the stairs that ended up momentarily blinding you in the same way as staring into the heart of a green or red sun. There were also a couple color-wave changing strings that I consider more appropriate for outdoor use than on a tree.

That’s when I noticed them. Bags full of single-color replacement C7 and C9 style bulbs that looked like they were made of out plastic instead of glass. The printing on the bag said they were LED lights, but they had a standard light bulb socket connector on them as though they were intended to go in old-fashioned C7 and C9 strings. On another table were boxes of the same sorts of lights, but offered in multi-color sets of 25 bulbs (5 bulbs of each color) and with plastic covers similar to the LED strings I’d bought previously. I asked an associate if they were really intended to go into a standard C7 string and she said yes!

These screw right into your standard C7 or C9 light strings.

These screw right into your standard C7 or C9 light strings.

Someone had managed to squeeze all the electronics needed for the power conversion for an LED light into the plastic bulb. More importantly, they had replacement bulbs that blinked on and off. It wasn’t random like the twinkle bulbs of old, but it was at least something. They had sets that blinked between red and green or blue and green or red, green, and blue. They also had falling icicle lights that fit C7 strings. I was overjoyed! Perhaps I had reached the goal of my quest since making the switch to LED Christmas lights! I could take my old C7 strings and replace the bulbs with static LEDs with every third or fourth socket having a twinkle LED in it, just like in times past!

There’s just one snag in this otherwise wonderful plan: These fuckers are expensive. A box of 25 LED replacement bulbs — static or twinkle — costs $42. Ouch. The falling icicle bulbs were $13. Each. When you consider that a standard string of 25 C7 multi-colored LED lights runs around $12 at Bronner’s, it makes my cunning plan an overly expensive route to go. I’d need enough lights for at least three strings if I end up with another 7.5 foot tree. The extra cost makes sense when you consider that the replacement bulbs have to have the electronics in each and every bulb whereas a standard LED string only has to have them once at the start of the string. That said, it’s too expensive to justify in the face of much less expensive strings.

Still, the fact that such bulbs exist is pretty fucking cool. Or at least cool enough to a Christmas light geek like myself that I felt the need to blog about it. In time I’m sure the cost will come down, but chances are someone will introduce an LED string sometime soon that does exactly what I want. If they haven’t already. It’s not like I’ve done an exhaustive search on the Internet yet. I may yet find a tree that fits all my criteria and that I might even be able to afford. A fella can dream, can’t he?

On a kinda-related side note: At least one of my neighbors never took their Christmas lights out of the sliding glass door where they hung them last season. To their credit they stopped turning them on every night sometime around March, but if you happen to glance at their apartment you’ll clearly see the strings still crisscrossing the glass waiting for their chance to glow once more. Seeing that a lot of folks seem to think I leave my lights up way longer than I should, I find this very gratifying.

Merry Christmas 2012 from all of us at SEB.

Melvin passed away this year so I won’t be using his traditional Christmas greeting.

Instead, here’s an important holiday message from Grumpy Cat:


SEB Mailbag: The Grinch that stoled Christmas Edition.

Got the following email from “Kathy & Steve Ripka” yesterday — apparently written by the male half of that duo — and thought I’d share my response to it here. It opens with the following:

Subject: Just saw your website

Unfortunately, you are exactly what this movie portrays atheists to be.

A quick note before moving into the reply proper: I wasn’t sure which movie our learned writer was speaking of — though I had my suspicions — so I sent a reply asking for clarification. Apparently he had stumbled upon this entry I had written back in September of 2010 (way to be current, Steve) about the movie Christmas with a Capital C.

Unfortunately, you are exactly what this movie portrays atheists to be. You want any mention of Christmas removed from wherever you walk. Your kind is “The Grinch that stoled Christmas.”

Evidence of my hatred for Christmas.

Evidence of my hatred for Christmas.

OK Steve, right off the bat I have to wonder if you read the entire entry I wrote.  Nowhere in my writing did I call for all mentions of Christmas to be removed from wherever I walk. I generally don’t have a problem with Christmas and if you were to visit my home you would find it decorated with lots of Christmas lights and a proper Christmas tree.

Do I think nativity scenes belong on courthouse lawns or in front of city hall? No, I do not. It gives an improper impression of government favoritism, but so long as the government allows anyone who wants to put up a display alongside it to offset that impression then I have no problem with it. I also don’t have a problem if there’s a nativity scene on the front lawn of every private residence, church, and business if that’s what people want to do. Hell, I’ll go so far as to help you set up your nativity scene on the front lawn of your home/church/business if you need the assistance. I also don’t have a problem with people saying Merry Christmas to me — or for that matter Happy Holidays, Season’s Greetings, Happy Hanukkah, or Merry Festivus.

Your website says it all.

Yes, but apparently you can’t be bothered to read it.

I get so tired of watching the news just to see atheists ruining everyone else’s Christmas, traditions, etc.

Well, you could always stop watching the news. Better yet, you could work to ensure that the separation of church and state is respected by your local government and then there wouldn’t be any need for anyone — atheists or otherwise — to ruin Christmas. It’s not like there aren’t tons of other places you can stick one where everyone will see it, but if you’re going to insist on it being on public property then you have to be prepared to share the space with others who may not agree with your beliefs.

Hey, if you don’t believe in God, that’s fine, but why do you have to get into everyone’s face about it? I don’t believe in ghosts, but you wouldn’t see me up in anyone’s face that does.

When did I get up in anyone’s face about it? I wrote a blog entry. You came here and read it. I didn’t go to your house and force you to come to my blog and read my opinions. If you were to meet me in person and ask my beliefs I’d tell you I’m an atheist. If you didn’t ask any more questions that’d be all you’d get out of me on the topic.

As for getting into the face of ghost believers, as far as I know there aren’t any ghost believers who demand the government place displays representing sacredly held ghost beliefs on public property. Apples to oranges, Steve. When was the last time you saw Halloween display in front of City Hall that represented a sincerely held belief of ghost believers?

I don’t believe that life comes from non-living matter, but if you do, hey, more power to you. I promise I will never get on a rampage, and confront every atheist and take them to court on it.

That hasn’t stopped plenty of your fellow believers from doing just that, though. Admittedly, they confused the Theory of Evolution with the Theory of Abiogenesis, but the point still stands.

If you are not happy with your life, and belief system, why don’t you find something that will take away the anxiety from being an atheist that causes you to go on mindless crusades about how Christians are infringing on your rights,  you might just like the diversion. But don’t use your bitterness to ruin every one else’s Christmas season.

Who said I’m unhappy with my life and belief system? There are aspects of my life that I’m not thrilled about — I could use to earn a bit more money — but overall I’m fairly content. Being an atheist doesn’t cause me any anxiety and none of my “crusades” are mindless. If you took the time to read what I write you’ll find I’ve given them plenty of thought, but it’s apparent that you’re not willing to do much more than skim a single entry and then try to proclaim you know exactly the sort of asshole I happen to be.

As for being bitter, you can ask anyone who has met me how bitter I happen to be and how much I ruin Christmas for everyone. They’ll probably laugh at the suggestion. When little kids stop me because they think I’m Santa Claus, something that has happened more than once as I’ve gotten older and more rotund, I’ve never once taken the opportunity to smash their belief in the jolly old elf. Nor have I ever told them it wasn’t the birthday of Christ even though I know it wasn’t. They don’t care about that anyway. They’re excited cause they think they caught Santa going incognito.

I know, you have fun trying to shock others with your endless driveling about atheism, and four letter expletives, but maybe it is because you like drawing attention to yourself.

And now it’s clear you’ve not bothered to read more than the one entry. Endless driveling about atheism? How about my endless driveling about video games or movies or Doctor Who or politics or the dozens of other topics I’ve written about over the past 11 years. If you look at the tag cloud in the sidebar you’ll note that atheism isn’t the thing I’ve written the most about. Video games and computing both outweigh it among many others.

And of course I like drawing attention to myself. You have to be a bit of an attention whore to be a blogger in the first place. My swearing doesn’t have anything to do with that, though. It’s just my one vice. I don’t drink, smoke, or do drugs so eating too much and swearing is my thing. Even as such it’s not like my entries are just sentences with the word FUCK as every other word. That would make this blogging thing entirely too easy.

Why do you suppose that most atheists love all the four letter words that offend others?

For the same reason that most Christians love all the four letter words that offend others. For better or worse, that’s how people talk. It’s not limited to “most” atheists. I know plenty of atheists who rarely swear and I know many Christians who would make a sailor blush with the way they talk.

Maybe you didn’t stay in school long enough to get an education that would teach you how to communicate properly with others.

andthentheresthisassholeI graduated from high school and I’ve attended a number of years of college, though I admit that I have never bothered to finish college. Is high school not enough education to communicate clearly? I suppose it depends on who you ask, but most folks don’t seem to have any trouble understanding me.

Perhaps you’d understand me better too if you took the time to actually read what I write and spent a little time browsing the archives. It’s clear you don’t have a clue about me based on what little research you’ve done so far, but that doesn’t appear to stop you from expressing your preconceived biases about me based on one aspect of who I am. You know one little fact — that I’m an atheist — and you used it to draw all manner of false conclusions.

I wonder what Jesus would think of that approach?

Merry Christmas,

And a Happy Holidays to you, Steve.

All my love, Les.

That’s no ornament. It’s a space station!

I had a vacation day yesterday and we decided we should go up to see my folks because we didn’t get a chance to do so over Thanksgiving. As I’m sitting on the couch putting my shoes on to leave I head a rustling in the Christmas tree next to me. We had set it up last weekend and gotten the lights on it, but still haven’t put the ornaments on. This hasn’t stopped the official SEB cats from falling in love with it as the tree skirt is apparently very comfortable. Jasper, in particular, loves playing with the fake berries and pine cones that decorate some of the lower branches. So I looked over to see what they were doing in case one of them was chewing on a branch which they know they’re not supposed to do and I didn’t see any cats under the tree.

Then I looked up:

What the hell?

Jasper is only a year and a half or so old and in that time he shot up from a kitten I could literally hold in the palm of my hand to a 15 pound adult cat. He’s bigger than Cuddles who has at least a year on him in age. Last year when he first experienced the Christmas tree he climbed it several times. Apparently he doesn’t realize he’s not a little kitten anymore.

It was pretty clear he was having an “oh shit” moment where he realized he not only was in trouble, but he had no idea how to get down without breaking his neck. It took both Anne and I to extract him from the tree.

On the one hand I’m glad my laziness kept there from being any ornaments on the tree for him to break, on the other I’m hoping he’s had enough tree climbing adventure that he won’t feel the need to do it once we do put the ornaments on. Still, it makes for a great picture.

22 days into the new year

… and the last of Christmas 2011 is packed away. The cats don’t know what to do with all the free space in front of the door wall. It’ll soon be occupied by the dining table and they’ll once again have something to hide under, but it won’t be as cozy as the Christmas tree was. What with its felt tree skirt and low hanging branches. Plus all those glorious ornaments hanging within easy reach! What’s a kitty to do? #seb #Christmas #Life #melancholy

In album Christmas 2011 (42 photos)

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You know you’re getting older when your pragmatism overrides your sentimentality.

Part of what the neighbors had to put up with this year.

I did something today that I always hate doing and yet I do it every year: I took down the outside Christmas decorations.

I’m not much of a romantic, but I am very, very sentimental. Part of the reason I’m a huge fan of the holiday season despite being an atheist is because of all the wonderful memories I have of it from my childhood. The religious aspects of the holiday took a backseat to the whole Santa thing and the cliche that it’s the one time of the year when people are a little more decent to each other. A cliche I bought into as a child with each Christmas special that I watched. It really did seem magical to me as a kid and I reveled in it. When I was finally old enough to participate in putting up the decorations it only added to the excitement each year.

As with most things you highly anticipate, there’s a minor feeling of loss that occurs once it has come and gone. It’s kind of like riding a roller coaster. All that excitement and build-up and then it’s suddenly over with the memory already starting to fade along with your heart rate. When it comes time to take down the decorations and pack them away for the year it brings a definite finality to the events. You can’t even pretend that Christmas was just yesterday anymore by turning on the lights just one more time. In years past I’ve so dreaded this day that it wasn’t unusual for my decorations to stay up until into February. For years I’ve had a standing agreement with my wife that they come done by her Birthday, which is January 30th.

Of course as you get older you don’t get as excited about the same things you did as a kid and thus the let down afterwards isn’t as strong as in the past. Eventually you get to a point where your pragmatism starts to override your sentimentality. Or at least I do. Today when I woke up the sky was clear and almost cloudless with a outdoor temp of 33° — practically a heat wave for a Michigan January — so I went outside and took down all the lights I had put up back in November along with the other miscellaneous decorations.  Didn’t even bother to put on a jacket.  I felt the old familiar pang as I did so, but it wasn’t as bad as in years past. My reasons for doing so were definitely pragmatic. There’s no snow on the ground, as unusual as the temperature for this time of year, and I know that if I let the opportunity pass that the next time I get up the gumption to do it before the birthday deadline will probably be after it has snowed six feet and the temps are sub-zero. Better to get it done now than once the winter finally catches up with us.

But I was still a little bummed while doing it. The only lights still outside are the lanterns that have the fake LED candles in them. We thought they’d make excellent lights for the path to the back door and they aren’t particularly seasonal so they’ll stay up. My Christmas tree is still up and I’m trying to decide whether to take it down today or wait until Courtney visits us next weekend. It’s looking a little sad as the cats have gotten most of the plastic ornaments on the bottom half of the tree off to play with, but if I use the excuse of Courtney’s visit to keep it up then I could at least pretend that the holidays haven’t fully passed for one more week. It’s definitely tempting.

I think this is part of why religion has such a tenacious hold on people. We don’t like letting go of things that make us feel good. We become irrational in trying to hold onto those memories and emotions. We want to keep those warm feelings regardless of the date (or the truth). It can lead us to do foolish things like ignore global climate change or, as I did the first year I lived in my apartment in Canton back in my early 30’s, leave a Christmas tree up all year long*.

Don’t know if any of that makes sense, but I wrote it down anyway.

*In my defense I was traveling a lot for a job with GMAC dealing with upgrading computers to prevent problems with Y2K and was rarely home long enough to mess up the apartment let alone put the tree away.

An answer to the question “How do Atheist families celebrate Christmas?”

The following answer is totally and unequivocally true: