A Lightning-Struck Christmas Tree

After I joined the campus ministry and moved into a five-bedroom Victorian in downtown San Jose with 11 brothers in 1992, my first Christmas away from my family was very special. Being brothers of one spirit, we were too poor to buy a Christmas tree. (That didn’t prevent them from charging $500 USD in long distance phone calls and fighting over who owed what on the 20-page bill each month.) Besides, no one had any Christmas decorations to put on a tree. One brother, a graphic artist, found a creative solution to our dilemma.

This brother drove up to the Santa Cruz Mountains above Silicon Valley to look for a Christmas tree. There are several Christmas tree farms that will let you cut down a tree, but I think you need to bring your own ax or saw to cut with. He went up there with nothing but a prayer. Several hours later he drove back with a tree tied to the top of his station wagon.  He found it on the ground next to a  90-foot-tall tree struck by lightning in a recent storm that was missing its tree top.

Using a borrowed hack saw to cut off the charred stump and setting up an old cast-iron pot as a tree stand, he positioned the seven-foot-tall tree in the living room (the ceiling was ten-foot-tall). It was the ugliest Christmas tree I ever saw. The brothers and sisters had serious doubts about it being a Christmas tree. The wide boughs could each hold enough snow to wallop someone below if they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As for Christmas decorations, he emptied out the kitchen of all the pots and silverware that we weren’t using to hang on the tree with yarn and clear tape. Weird as it looked with pots, forks, knives and spoons hanging upside down from the branches like metallic icicles, it looked like a real Christmas tree and became the centerpiece of our white elephant holiday party. Everyone who saw it praised God for the miracle it was.

Since everything we could cook or eat with was hanging on the tree, we didn’t have a single argument over extra dirty dishes in the sink between Thanksgiving Day and New Year’s Day.

Post-Halloween Discounted Holiday M&M’s

Harvest Holiday M&M's CandiesBetween Halloween and Thanksgiving Day, I’m on the lookout for discounted bags of milk chocolate Harvest Holiday M&M’s candies at the local CVS store. I never pay full price for holiday-themed M&M’s because the bags are smaller and more expensive than regular M&M’s. The best price I got last year was before Thanksgiving Day with six bags at $0.42 USD each for 90% off. I’m getting off to a good start this year.

The day after Halloween I stopped off at the CVS store nearest to my home (there are at least five stores in a three-mile radius). Not surprisingly, the discount was 50% off and I picked up two bags for the price of one. I came into the same store the following week to find the discount at 75% off. A sudden drop in the discount wasn’t expected for another week. With each bag at a buck each, I bought out the entire stock of milk-chocolate M&M’s (six bags). Unless I find some bags at 90% somewhere else, this is probably my haul until after Christmas.

After I told my friend about the holiday M&M’s, he wanted to get his own haul of discounted M&M’s candies. We went to the CVS store where I got the 90% discount last year. The discount was still 50% two weeks after Halloween (should have been 75%). The milk chocolate M&M’s were long gone. My friend picked up two bags of the white chocolate “candy corn” M&M’s, and a bag of real candy corn. A strange combination.

Despite the Christmas-themed candies hitting the shelves after Halloween, I didn’t see any Christmas M&M’s that shouldn’t be available until after Thanksgiving Day. Unlike last year, I hope the Christmas M&M’s will last beyond mid-December and get restocked before Christmas Day. I can’t get discounted bags of M&M’s if they’re not available after the holiday.

One of the problems I noticed last season (Halloween 2013 to Easter Day 2014) was CVS stocking the next holiday-themed M&M’s after the last candy holiday. Valentine M&M’s after Christmas Day, Easter M&M’s after Valentine’s Day. By the time the actual holiday comes around, the holiday-themed M&M’s are long gone. I hope that’s not the case this season, as I buy M&M’s only after the holidays.

A Very Loud Fourth of July in Silicon Valley

Explosion Day @ Penny ArcadeDuring the nine years that I lived in my Silicon Valley studio apartment, most Fourth of July fireworks celebrations were quiet affairs. With the fireworks celebration at the Children’s Discovery Museum being a few miles away, I normally heard the air cannons thumping the earth and a distant boom in the sky. Not this year. Seemed like everyone got multiple boxes of Satan’s Orgasm and blew the neighborhood to Kingdom Come. Fireworks exploded loud enough to set off car alarms and rattle my windows. One idiot lost both hands from lighting a “mortar-type” firework.

Selling, buying and lighting fireworks are illegal in most parts of Santa Clara County. A wise precaution since California is officially in a severe drought and most lawns are various shades of brown. A wayward firecracker could easily set off a grass fire. My friend and I recently tried to get on to the 280 from Meridian Avenue when a fire truck blocked the ramp. As we drove around the fire truck, we saw that the fire started at the base of the embankment, as if a passenger flicked away cigarette, to blacken the dried grass and send plums of white smoke into the air. Fortunately, this stretch of embankment wasn’t large enough to snarl the rest of the freeway.

If you really wanted to get some fireworks, you drove down to Gilroy to get the “safe and sane” fireworks that are nothing but the pale whimper of the fireworks I lit as a child in the 1970’s and the early 1980’s. If you wanted some serious fireworks, you drove down to Mexico City to buy firecrackers by the bricks, bottle rockets by the grocery bags, and cherry bombs by the fistfuls. Some of my friends did that several times in the 1980’s. I’m not even sure if that can still be done today in post-9/11 America.

While going to college in the 1990’s, I visited my parents for Fourth of July in Sacramento. The ubiquitous firework stands of my childhood are still legal there. We bought a small box of fireworks that contained my favorite fireworks: the Ground Bloom Flowers that looked like spinning roses and shifted colors three times before burning out. Alas, the fireworks stands no longer sell the Ground Bloom Flowers or anything else individually. You must buy an entire box set even if you don’t want the sparklers, snakes and screamers.

As I ran errands over the weekend, I talked with the assistant manager at my bank. She lives in a different part of my neighborhood. Not only did she confirmed that fireworks were unusually loud this year, but people were shooting them off on the street in front of her apartment. Walking through the parking lot for CVS, I spotted the burnt out remains of fireworks. It’s one thing to find an empty dumpster to toss a cherry bomb into for a really loud boom or exploding a few fireworks in the front yard. (Or, God forbid, shooting bottle rockets off the balcony as one idiot did several years ago.) Shooting off fireworks in a public parking lot was something else. It certainly wasn’t quiet.

Target Closed On Easter Day

Target Store LogoOn Easter Day I went over to Target on Coleman Avenue in San Jose. The first thing I noticed that the parking lot was empty, which made for a strange contrast to the full parking lots in the shopping center. Three rows of red shopping carts barricaded the front doors, as if to prevent a gang of shoplifters−or the zombie apocalypse−from crashing through. The same company that required workers to cut short their holiday to open the stores on Thanksgiving Day, and later let hackers stole 40 million credit card numbers, wasn’t open on Easter Day.

A quick Internet search revealed that Target had a 50-50 chance of being open for Easter. What prompted Target to give their employees a day off on a major religious holiday?

I would like to say that Target turned over a new leaf after the disasters with Thanksgiving Day and the data breach, and decided to put employees and customers first over profits. Uh, no. Let’s be real: Target is no Costco (i.e., closes on major holidays, pays their employees a living wage, and provide excellent customer service). Target is very much a Wall Street corporation, where increasing shareholder value at the expense of employees and customers is a paramount priority.

An alternative explanation is that Target as a “corporate person” got religion. With the Hobby Lobby lawsuit at the Supreme Court trying to define the corporate entity as a “person” with free speech rights (i.e., spending unlimited money on political campaigns) and moral consciousness (i.e., denying female employees access to contraception under health insurance policies), some companies will get right with God to become Christians and observe all the religious holidays. I doubt these “born again” companies will be less hypocritical than before.

Anyway, I went over to Safeway to pick up what I needed for this shopping trip.

The Hunt For Discounted Holiday M&M’s Candies

Holiday-themed M&M CandyAfter a major candy holiday—Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween and Christmas—I cruise the local CVS stores to pick up bags of holiday milk M&M’s at a steep discount. The first week discount is 50%, the second week discount is 75%, and, if any bags are still available after two weeks, the final discount is 90%. I scored six bags of Halloween-themed M&M’s for $0.42 USD each a few months ago. That’s the best deal I ever gotten. But the hunt for discounted M&M’s may be coming to an end by the way CVS is stocking holiday candies.

The Christmas-themed M&M’s were put out after Thanksgiving Day, disappeared by mid-December, and weren’t available before Christmas. In fact, regular bags of M&M’s were on sale for 50% off since mid-December. I don’t buy holiday M&M’s at regular price as the bags are slightly smaller than regular bags by a few ounces, which makes waiting until after the holiday for the discounted prices worthwhile. Alas, I lucked out on getting any Christmas-themed M&M’s last year.

The Valentine’s Day-themed M&M’s were put out after Christmas and disappeared by New Year’s Day. I’ve never seen holiday M&M’s come out this early. I mourned the prospects of being candy-less after Valentine’s Day for the last month. Checking out the local CVS stores over the last few days, a limited quantity of Valentine’s Day-themed M&M’s were available. A slim-to-none chance that I may score some discounted bags after Valentine’s Day.

As for the Easter-themed M&M’s, CVS stocked the shelves a week before Valentine’s Day. Never mind that Valentine’s Day is around the corner and Easter isn’t until April. You could pick up bags of two different holiday M&M’s at full price for a short while. Mind-boggling. I’m expecting the Easter M&M’s to sell out in a few weeks and a limited quantity available before the holiday. The chances of picking up any discounted bags will probably be non-existent.

Since I was near a See’s Candies store the other day, I braved the pre-Valentine’s Day candy traffic to pick up a box of milk chocolate peppermints. This special treat I usually pick up while shopping for Christmas presents. Although I’m ready to cruise the CVS stores after Valentine’s Day and expecting disappointment, I may have to get another box of milk chocolate peppermints since I already ate the box that I just got.

Yes, Virginia, Santa Claus Is Black As Hell

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As a child growing up in the 1970’s, I heard evangelical Christians on the religious TV channels complain about the commercialization of Christmas as mass-market retailers emphasized the importance of giving—and receiving—gifts to the extent that God was often forgotten during the hustle and bustle of the holidays. Unlike the Puritans who actually cancelled Christmas for two decades in the 17th century, these Christians wanted people to slow down, consider the birth of Christ and their relationship with God.

Never mind that Christmas was a Roman pagan festival called Saturnalia that celebrated a weeklong period of lawless, as the courts weren’t open and no crime committed during that time was punishable. Some communities even designated an unfortunate soul to become the “Lord of Misrule,” encouraging that person to indulge in all kinds of pleasure, and then brutally killing that person at the end of the holiday. Which, ironically, is what Black Friday has become these days with all the mayhem over getting the best holiday deal.

Fast forward a generation, evangelical Christians on Fox News are complaining the mass-market retailers are removing Christmas from the holidays by changing “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays” in their greetings. There’s a “war on Christmas” to prevent evangelical Christians from shoving the spirit of Christmas down everyone else’s throat.

Did that make your head spin like the little girl’s in “The Exorcist” movie? Mine did too.

Now it didn’t help that Fox News host, Megyn Kelly, proclaimed that both Santa and Jesus were white and tough luck for anyone who wanted to believe otherwise. Saturday Night Live has a great skit about Santa Claus being black as hell. I wrote a tanka poem about Santa Claus being black from climbing down so many chimneys that his old lady called the cops because he forgot his keys.

Of course, this nonsense had to spill over into the real world. A white teacher told a black student that he couldn’t play Santa. A black Santa was shot in the back with a pellet gun at a toy drive. The famed Macy’s of “Miracle on 34th Street” has a white Santa in front for everyone to see, and a black Santa hidden away in the back, where you need to ask an elf inside the Santaland maze for to find his secret location. Seriously. I even wrote a tanka poem about that.

Did anyone noticed that the controversy of a white Jesus was quietly dropped by the news media? No one wanted to open that particular can of worms. Most evangelical Christians haven’t read the whole bible and memorized only certain scriptures on sin to hurl into someone’s face. That Jesus was a Jewish carpenter might unsettle some folks. Fox News published an article that the race of Jesus is unknown.

As a white Christian who read the bible from cover-to-cover six times, I’m going to have a very Jewish Christmas by seeing “47 Ronin” at the movie theater and eating orange chicken from Panda Express. On that note, happy holidays!

Black Friday 2013 (From The Sidelines)

Coming of Black FridayI’m not sure why anyone would go out on Black Friday—or, lately, Thanksgiving Day—to brave the mayhem, riots and crowds for a few door busters that could be bought online. The last time I physically prowled the stores on Black Friday was for the mythical Wii-Beast when the Nintendo Wii first came out in 2007, which I didn’t get then and never got after it became widely available. A few years before that, my father and I arrived at the Wal-Mart in Mountain View to find 16 police cars in the parking lot after a riot broke out over a flat screen TV.

Since I’m still unemployed, I had to make every Black Friday purchase worthwhile.

A big-ticket item I would have gotten if Newegg had it at the right price was an Acer 23″ monitor to replace my eight-year-old Samsung 19″ monitor that recently died and match the Acer 23″ monitor that I already have. My right price was under a hundred bucks with free shipping. Didn’t happen. Newegg had that monitor listed with the suggested retail price of $199.99 USD and sold it for $129.99 USD with free shipping. Alas, $129.99 USD has been the regular price for many months. Even when the price dropped to $119.99, it still wasn’t a Black Friday deal.

An email from OfficeMax arrived the night before Thanksgiving Day. One item that popped out was the Skullcandy earbuds for $4.99 (50% off). I listen to audiobooks on my iPod Touch while walking, working out or waiting for the light rail. A pair of earbuds can last three months before disintegrating from wear and tear. I tried to order four pairs of the black earbuds, but the website limited me to two pairs of any color. So I ordered two pairs each of black and purple. Since I was four cents shy of getting free shipping, I added a canister of Clorox disinfecting wipes for a buck.

I downloaded “The Exorcist: 40th Anniversary Edition” by William Peter Blatty at $1.99 USD for the Amazon Kindle. Despite being a short story writer who published in a dozen horror anthologies over the years, I haven’t read the classic novels that defined the genre. After watching horror movies since I was a toddler in the 1970’s (I’m a big “Creature Feature” fan), and reading almost everything that Stephen King wrote, I knew enough horror tropes to wing it without being widely read. Reaching the next level of writing requires some extensive reading.

My final Black Friday purchase was the “CCNA In 60 Days” program for $70 USD (30% off). This is the first time that the author, Paul Browning, has ever offered a discount for his 60-day program on getting the Cisco Certified Network Associate certification. After building out an equipment rack of Cisco routers and switches, and reading every available study book, I haven’t committed myself to knowing the certification beginning to end between my ears. If everything works out, I’ll take the first exam in January and the second exam in February.

The Great Butterball Turkey Shortage 2013

iStock_000018159844XSmallButterball announced that there will be a shortage of large fresh turkeys for Thanksgiving this year, implying that the national holiday was in jeopardy if the American family couldn’t buy a large fresh turkey the day before. Not quite. Most families buy a frozen turkey and thaw it out in the fridge for a week. The turkey shortage, which affects only Butterball and no other turkey producer, may have come from cutting back on a growth hormone that is banned in China, Europe and Russia.

Butterball exports 10% (~100 million pounds) of their turkeys to the world. (Since Butterball owns 20% of the market, the total market is five billion pounds of turkey each year.) If these countries are refusing to accept any product containing these growth hormones for their citizens, why is Butterball still selling turkeys with this growth hormone to American consumers?

As my late father like to explain every holiday season about cattle ranching in the old days, it took two years to raise and fatten a calf to go to the market. With modern antibiotics and growth hormones, it takes six months to get a calf to the market. I’m not sure how long it takes a turkey to get fattening up for Thanksgiving Day, but I’m sure the process is similar. Without the growth hormones, Butterball might have to allow nature to run its course and let the turkeys have more time to fatten up.

My observation at the grocery stores in Silicon Valley is that the frozen commercial turkeys are on the slim side, in smaller quantities and in fewer varieties than in recent years.

My roommate and I picked up a hormone- and antibiotic-free frozen turkey from Whole Foods, which is about three times more expensive than the hormone- and antibiotic-laden frozen turkeys found at the other stores. I normally wouldn’t pay $45 USD for a turkey under any circumstance, especially if I’m out of work for six weeks. My roommate insisted on having an organic turkey—and paid for the privilege. If an organic turkey is similar to the organic cheeses I have eaten, the turkey should taste better, have nicer texture and give me less gas than a Butterball turkey.