Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The better Christmas letter

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to Family and Friends!

Where to start! Well, Jimmy graduated from high school this past spring, and we celebrated by giving him a brand new Porsche Carrera! Jimmy loves the car and is currently looking into future job options in agribusiness. And Janie is doing super great in the middle of her sophomore year in high school. She made the junior varsity cheerleading squad, and is thinking about taking the high school equivalency test in order to have a shorter wait to start her chosen career, which we think will be something in the entertainment industry (Fingers crossed!)
Dave is still at his dream job of small claims court administrator at the county, and has actively pursued his long time hobbies of designing and collecting things. He really has high hopes of getting his own HGTV show combining his varied interests.
We took a summer vacation visiting relatives in Iowa, where Jimmy and Janie got to know more of their cousins, and for the first time, Dave’s big brother, Uncle Bob. Uncle Bob was nice enough to take us to a wonderful county fair where he won the hog-calling contest and bought us all the corndogs we could eat! What a day!
We also managed to paint the house avocado green this summer with electric yellow trim! The new colors really spiffed up the look of the place and neighbors are now talking about how they should paint their houses different colors!
We held a yard sale this summer to get rid of some of the stuff we never use and managed to get $1,050 in sales! We’re thinking about using the money to buy Janie some braces, so she’ll have an even more perfect smile, Lord willing!
I’ve been keeping busy at my DMV photographer’s job, which I find very fulfilling. I meet different people every day and always have fun clicking that shutter! I still play Bunco with the girls every month where we have a potluck. I don’t even care about the game, it’s just a chance to gab with the gals and eat good home cooked food.
Next year, Dave and I are planning to go on a Carnival Cruise to Mazatlan (Mexico)! We’re so excited already because we’ve heard you get to eat as much as you want whenever you want and there’s even karaoke, which (don’t tell him I told you this) Dave absolutely loves. He does a great rendition of “Over the Rainbow” by Judy Garland.
Well, that about wraps up this year. Hope you and yours have a Merry Christmas and a Prosperous New Year!
The McFongs, Dave, Molly, Jimmy and Janie

Sound familiar?
Right before the holidays, many of us write a Christmas letter to all our friends and family, to share just how great everything is in our life.
But we Christmas letter writers, in sending out this letter, sometimes on colored paper and including family photos, should pause for a moment and ask ourselves a few important questions.
First, do all our friends and family buy our airbrushed version of our family events for the past year?
And second, does a positive spin on our Christmas letter make readers groan and roll their eyes?
Well, surveys show, No, and Yes!
The Better Christmas Letter Society wants to reverse what has become an annoying, obnoxious and all too common practice: The all-positive, self-complimentary Christmas letter sent each holiday season to friends and family. While the senders are sure their letters are appreciated as entertaining updates of family doings, the fact is, they’re all too often wrong about this. In reality, these letters do anything but make readers feel happy admiration. They more often make readers mutter quips such as, “What horseshit!” “Who cares?” and “This is sooo lame, can you believe this crap?!”
As a public service the Better Christmas Letter Society has a few tips for Christmas letter writers. All to help their efforts be appreciated instead of cruelly mocked, torn up and thrown disdainfully into the wastebasket.
First, don’t just include all the good things that happened in the past year. Sure, put in that you won your bowling league, or Dad had a great birthday weekend in Vegas. But don’t be afraid to put in a few rough goes you went through as well! People love to read that stuff. Just look at the tabloids. It’s humanizing!
On the other hand, readers are guaranteed to glaze over when there’s too much happy talk. Why? It sounds phony, made up. And it makes the reader wonder. Especially when they know for a fact that plenty of not so hot things happened to you and yours, and there’s no mention of it in the Christmas letter. Just as if it never happened. Now surveys show, that annoys readers. They think you’re trying to pull the wool over their eyes. They think you’re an idiot to even think you can fool them. So the letter will be seen for what it is: Puffery, self-serving drivel.
So go ahead. Bring in the truth, even if it’s hard to admit. Share a little dirty laundry. Just as long as you stay upbeat, maybe throw in a joke or two, and don’t sound like a drunk crying in his or her beer or appletini.
But don’t take our word for it. See for yourself. The following version has a few revealing, reality-based, not so positive admissions to the typical happy-talk Christmas letter you read above. See if you wouldn’t pass this new version around for everyone to read! That’s what you want, isn’t it?

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to Family and Friends!
Good news this year! Jimmie graduated from high school (at long last) and to reward his bad behavior (just joking) we got him a brand new Porsche Carrera! Can you believe we did that? Well Jimmie was so happy about it, he got drunk and flipped it into a parked car, totaling the Porsche and the parked car. Luckily he had his seatbelt on and wasn’t hurt. He says he doesn’t remember anything about it! Go figure. He still lives at home and deals pot, but we think he has potential to be a real player in business. He gets away with everything!
Janie made the junior varsity cheerleading squad, but gosh darn it, we found out the nose guard on the varsity football team got her pregnant at some party. She’s going to have the baby and try to graduate high school early and take care of the baby out of her bedroom. Well, who am I to talk, I had Jimmie when I was 16, so this is what I get! Janie’s looking into career options, but I think once she has the kid her best bet is stripping. She’s got the booty to pull in the bucks, just like I used to!
Dave loves his job at small claims court, and still manages to find time for his beloved hobbies in women’s shoe design, interpretive dance and teddy bear collecting. He’s convinced there’s an HGTV show he could host in there somewhere!
We all drove to Iowa to visit Dave’s relatives last summer (two teens in the car, imagine that!). Jimmy and Janie got to meet more of their cousins (No kissing, I hope!) and for the first time we met Dave’s big brother, Uncle Bob.
Uncle Bob took us to a wonderful county fair where he took first in the hog-calling contest! He was so proud, he bought corn dogs and beer for everyone! Everybody ate and drank so much, we could barely get in and out of Uncle Bob’s Hummer. The next day, we were all hung over, and ate stacks and stacks of Uncle Bob’s blueberry pancakes all smothered in butter and maple syrup. Ooh, I’m famished just thinking about it!
We also painted the house avocado green this summer, with electric yellow trim. It really looks different now, we love it. But some neighbors are collecting signatures to outlaw our new colors for houses in the neighborhood. Can you imagine? Some people have too much time on their hands! I think they’re just jealous!
We did a “junk” sale this summer and cleared over a thousand bucks! Maybe that’ll help pay for braces for Janie. Gotta have a perfect white tooth smile for the cameras!
I’m still clicking license photos at the DMV. You know what? Very few people are photogenic! Anyway, I also have my monthly potluck and Bunco night with the girls. Boy, do we chatter AND eat! Never any casseroles left at the end of the night, especially when I make my Frito pie!
I got Dave to agree to a Carnival Karaoke Cruise next year to Mazatlan (Mexico)! He’s so excited, he’s planning to do his signature ballad, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” as Judy Garland. Can you believe he’ll be in full wig, makeup and sequined dress? What a scream! And the best part is, you get to eat all you want whenever you want. They aren’t going to make any money on me!
Well Whew! That about wraps up this year! Hope you and yours have a Merry Christmas and a Prosperous New Year!
The McFongs. Dave, Molly, Jimmy and Janie

This is an essay included in Mark Eric Larson's book of essays, "The NERVE...of Some People's Kids," at 

Friday, December 6, 2013

A brother gone too early

When I saw his obituary from the Riverside Press-Enterprise dated two and a half years ago, it took the wind right out of me. I was trying to track down a friend and former colleague to send him a video about my 60 Chevy I just finished, since he’d always been fond of the car.
George Rooney. He’d died at age 59 of ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, in May 2011. WHAT!!??
Oh man…
George was one of the nicest people I’ve ever worked with, or met for that matter. I’d lost contact with him for around 20 years. But he was a guy that had been there for me through some of the toughest formative years of my journalism career. Kind of an older, more experienced brother – four years older – who helped calm me down when I’d been ready to hit the panic button. Which in those times of feverish paranoia, and rampant fear and loathing, was fairly often. I often sought George’s advice through exasperated phone calls.
I was a young newspaper reporter looking for a full time job, my first one. I found one at the Palm Springs Desert Sun because of a short typed note George had sent to a Los Angeles Times reporter I worked with in the Times’ then-San Diego bureau. There, I was a lowly copy aide. The editor there told me straight up that the Times never hired copy aides as reporters, so I shouldn’t entertain any fantasies that that would happen. He didn’t tell me, however, that such things did happen when they were related to somebody with clout on the staff. I saw more than a few cases of no-qualifications- necessary nepotism in my year there.
But I really didn’t care, the Times culture was so full of itself and bloated with bored but talented writers out of favor with newsroom honchos. I was ready to bail from what was known as the “velvet coffin” after being there a year.
In his note, George told the Times reporter, David Smollar, whom he’d known from a few years earlier covering county government for a small San Diego paper, that he got the Sun’s city hall beat to “punch up” coverage. And, by the way, there was an opening for a police reporter there in Palm Springs, if he knew anybody that might want to apply.
George was mentioned more than once by reporters in the Times San Diego newsroom as a guy who always helped them by sharing info – which I'm thinking they were too lazy to get on their own -- when they needed it.
Smollar showed me the note, and I added the Desert Sun to the list of newspapers I was applying to.
The Sun was the first paper that offered me the full time reporting job I wanted, so I just took it. But it turned out to be, to this day, the gnarliest job I ever had, three years of slave labor, boiler room style. It was big time dues paying, and I struggled with hanging in there. George, the leader of the staff of six or so reporters, always helped me cope.
Covering the cops was no fun at all. The cops hated whomever covered them, feeling all reporters did was, at worst, make them look bad, or at best, waste their time. I was considered no exception. Their strategy: Do the minimum in cooperating with reporters.
Then there was our editor, a hopeless drunk, often showing up with greasy tangled hair, and wearing clothes that resembled pajamas. He finally got the boot only to be replaced by a guy who couldn’t edit, write, or spell, for that matter. The editor that replaced him actually knew what he was doing. But by then I was actively looking to jump out of the plane without a parachute. George eventually switched to covering courts and moved to the Palm Desert office. After four years of hard labor, he was hired by the much better paying Riverside Press-Enterprise.
George was a positive guy to work around. He didn’t get caught up in bitching like everybody else. He’d joke about the bubbling crap-fest we were swimming in, and giggle. It was his way of blowing off steam. But he was always a total pro, and I looked up to his breezy easygoing way of doing things. On the few times when he had a little time to kill he’d go to the microfiche viewing machine off in a corner of the newsroom and pull up ancient Desert Sun stories and photos for some light entertainment. One time he was giggling continuously at stuff he was pulling up, a parade of awful, hysterical stuff. Soon we were all gathered around roaring over his shoulder at the crudely purveyed news and photos of yore.
When he wasn’t in the main newsroom anymore, I missed him. So I’d call him at the Palm Desert office down valley and vent how shitty everything was at the main office. I did my job well enough. But wow, I hated it! I had no coping skills with adversity, and I was neck deep in it.
He never told me to shut up and deal with it, but I called him enough times that he had a right to. One call I remember I was about to lose it, telling George the list of stupid crazy crap I was wading through and that I couldn’t believe it.
“Just don’t think about it,” he told me.
That sounded good, so I tried it. Couldn’t do it. But still, he felt my pain, and tried to help.
He coped by joking, laughing. He was a good joke teller, often starting one with a very sincere face as if he were telling you a true story, as he got you to believe it. Then he’d hit the punch line. He coulda been an actor.
He’d do full sections of dialog from Monty Python movies, laughing as he did it with a British accent. And like me, he loved reciting the many barbs, wordplay and literary references of Firesign Theatre.
George was from Wisconsin, a real Midwesterner, tall and rangy, dark brown eyes and hair and, in those days, bangs and a scraggly beard. His dad was Irish, his mom Italian, but he looked all Italian. Married to his University of Wisconsin-Madison sweetheart, Sally, he was steadfastly loyal. He loved Badgers football and basketball, followed the Milwaukee Braves, then Brewers, had affection for the Chicago “Cubbies,” and of course, was a Green Bay Packers fan.
He never wore sunglasses for some reason, even in the glaring desert sunshine, telling me he couldn’t see as well with them. I think the real reason was he thought they were too flashy. He always had a handkerchief in his back pocket, which my father, also a Midwesterner, also did. The handkerchief, no sunglasses and several other things showed that George was definitely a no frills guy, Old School to the bone.
He believed in union labor and tried to help organize unionization of the poorly paid, overworked staff at the Sun. It didn’t happen, and he knew which management spy was taking notes at the organizing meetings. He made it clear who she was and that he was no fan of hers. He once pounded his desk with his fist, smiling and yelled, “Let’s shut ‘em down!” followed by a high-pitched laugh.
He was pretty irked when he found out the custodian who regularly cleaned the tiny Palm Desert bureau, an older guy, was let go. “He needs the work,” scoffed George. He knew even menial jobs were important to somebody. “It keeps you young,” he said.
He’d mock the publisher, a tall old white-haired overly tan, bulbous-nosed guy who wore white shoes, white belt and loose fitting casual golf clothes. The guy was rarely in the office, and part of the local good old boys hardy-har-har business establishment.
“He wouldn’t know a news story if it bit him on the nose,” George would say, laughing.
George brushed off pretension or phoniness. A guy on the staff played guitar and sang a horrible folk song at a party, and George hated it so much, he walked out. He thought the guy was a deluded buffoon to act like he could play and sing well.
I play guitar and after hearing him pooh-pooh the bad amateur, made sure I never brought out my guitar when he was around. (A few years later, when his son Tim was playing in a band, George told me he snuck in unnoticed to check it out. “They were pretty good!” he said, very proud.)
George was a good dad, better than most.
His father once chided him for changing his daughter’s diaper, he told me. His dad was really old school, and didn’t think that was among a father’s duties. But George shrugged him off.
He and Sally took parenting seriously. But he once joked having kids reminds you of your own “creeping fartism.” How could it not?
He'd curse sportswriters who took five paragraphs to get to the game score. He believed people, himself included, wanted to read the score up top, not as casual, buried information due to a lame attempt at a literary intro.
Color photographs were beginning to appear in newspapers back then to add appeal to readers. But George didn’t think they added anything. To him, the old school gray and white newspapers did the job just fine delivering news stories.
George drove a Mercury, or “the Merc” as he called it, and had an abiding faith in unpretentious American made cars. I think he’d owned more than one Merc in his time.
He loved the outdoors, hiked and fished. I remember going on hikes with him, Sally and seeing their then infant daughter Kristin’s little socked feet dangling from her seat on George’s backpack-style kid carrier.
One weekend, he and I drove in my 60 Chevy to hike and camp in the Golden Trout Wilderness area of the Southern Sierra Nevadas. I noticed George put a hatchet near his sleeping bag before nodding off. I figured he learned that in the Boy Scouts as something to ward off bears or other predators. I’d done my share of camping at that point, and it never occurred to me to have a hatchet at the ready. Kinda freaked me out.
After those years of working together, we kept in touch during occasional summers. Every time we met, without fail, George asked: “Still driving the Chevy?”
He lit up when I’d tell him I was.
That’s why when I recently finished the video on the Chevy, I knew he’d like it, even though it did have me singing and playing guitar on it. He loved the Chevy. 

So George, if you happen to be looking down on this, here’s a Chevy update. She’s still alive and well. Miss you, brother.

Mark Eric Larson has written two books of essays, "The NERVE...of Some People's Kids," and "Don't Force it, Get a Bigger Hammer. To read, visit: 

Monday, January 28, 2013

Frustration? No. Art? Oh Yeah!

I recently went to see a local concert by singer/songwriter/guitarist Shawn Colvin. It was a great show. But it didn’t come easy. It had to be earned! By everybody there. Including Shawn Colvin.
Thinking back, I realized how much frustration, and the opposite reactions to it, played a part in the concert. The doors were supposed to open at 6:30 and the Sunday night show was supposed to start at 7:30.
We got there to see a huge line formed from the door of the city college auditorium, at about 7:20. We had reserved seats, so figured we’d arrive right before the show started. Well, the line was long, and the doors weren’t open. And yes, it was very chilly outside. The nearly full moon, shrouded by a gray veil of thin clouds in the eastern sky, backlit campus trees in the distance.
We picked up our tickets at will call, and there were some people already loudly and indignantly demanding refunds from the will call guy. Maybe they’d already stood out in the cold for an hour and had had it. We decided to wander to the back of the very long line. Once there, we learned through the rumor mill that there was a problem with the sound system, and “the artist” refused to let anybody in the building until the problem was solved.
“Probably a contract thing,” said a chatty guy in front of us. Another woman told of people upset enough with the situation to loudly demand refunds, so they could leave. The line moved ahead incrementally as some of those people left.
So frustration was palpable in the frigid air. It was cold, the show was already supposed to have started. And there was no indication if or when the doors would open. More grapevine info filtered through from chatty guy ahead of us.
“Apparently the sound man who works here is sick, and they’re trying to find somebody to replace him,” he said.
Then, at around about 8 p.m., the doors suddenly opened and the cold concert-goers, gladly moved into the heated theater. An opening act played folk guitar and played nicely enough, while making sure to thank the crowd for hanging in.
“I’ve had a blast opening for Shawn Colvin,” she said, “And tonight, I gained even more respect for her. She just wants to put on a good show for you.”
When Shawn Colvin came out, the 57-year-old petite redhead, who’s put out some beautiful folk music in her career that spans from the 80s, looked like she was doing everything she could to keep a lid on her crankiness.
She thanked the crowd, but declined to give details of the delay, saying only, “We came here prepared…” i.e., somebody else wasn’t. The crowd got it.
She plays a plugged in acoustic guitar with artistic surety. She’s a pro that needs conditions just so in order to perform to her own high standards. When she had problems getting her guitar in tune between songs, she looked like it was all she could do to hold it together. Her face said, “I don’t need this right now.”
“I swear too much,” she declared to the audience, as if talking herself out of firing off a few curse words over the difficulties of the evening. “I wish I could blame it on the altitude,” she added as she tuned, giving the crowd a chance for a little laugh. The Sacramento concert site sits not much above sea level.
She tried to turn the angle of a small tuner clamped onto the top of her guitar near the tuning pegs, and it came off in her hand. Veering away from more frustration, she explained that attached,  it wouldn’t turn far enough so she could read it. She told of her show the night before in Napa when she was tuning a string with difficulty, checking the tuner, when a guy in the front row said, “You’re sharp.”
“I threw the (Ipod mini-sized) unit at him,” she said, getting a laugh. “And I’m sorry I did, because I lost a $50 tuner.”
I.e., she wasn’t sorry in the least about throwing something at the guy she thought was out of line.
Once she did massage the strings into tune, she played. Her rhythm and deep bass notes lent rich contrast to the high notes her smooth moving left hand made. Which is just another way of saying Shawn Colvin is a pretty good guitar player! All this was topped by her personal songs, sung in her high, clear, emotive voice. Put together it was quite simply, artistry to behold.
She’d managed to melt away the earlier frustrations. She didn’t care if the crowd had to wait out in the cold until the sound system was up to snuff. It was her reputation on the line as a performer, her name on the tickets. And when her guitar was out of tune and making it difficult to get in tune, she joked about it to ease the tension. But underneath all her actions was her steely resolve to play and sing her songs as well as she knew how.
And that night, even though it hardly came easily, she did. And the audience was rewarded with the soulful power of her art, which no one can deny, is really something special.
And while frustration had visited the audience and Shawn Colvin early in the evening, in the end, everybody’s patience showed it to the door. And at the end, to a standing ovation, Shawn Colvin thanked the crowd for hanging in there for the late to start show. She came back on stage to play three encore tunes. She thanked the happy crowd again, to another standing O. Nobody was thinking about the cold wait in the line, just then. It was nothing but warm and fuzzy.
And as for those who stomped off after insisting they get their tickets refunded because of the delay in the cold?
Well, their loss for having a hissy fit over the delay. They just plain missed a great show.


Mark Eric Larson has written two books of essays, "The NERVE...of Some People's Kids," and "Don't Force it, Get a Bigger Hammer. To read, visit: