I come from a family that puts eggnog in our coffee and whiskey in our rum.
So when I set out to attempt a few holiday jobs, I felt this ancestral ebullience over Christmas gave me a bit of an edge. I could lug a tree or deliver UPS packages with the best of them, right?
The goal: to experience the holidays through the eyes of those who deliver it to us each year, physically, emotionally, even spiritually.
Welcome to my long slog across the desert.
The mall elf
The first thing you need to know about elves is that our toes curl. We also lie a lot, and lie about how much we lie.
Did I mention that we lie? We don't.
Mostly we work seasonal retail. At the Glendale Galleria Santa exhibit, the tools of my trade are an Elmo puppet, bells that jingle and a feather duster — all designed to pry camera-friendly smiles from stubborn little lips.
No, I don't understand the feather duster either, but when I whack Elmo over the head with it, the parents laugh.
The kids, not so much.
After an hour as Santa's elf, I don't know whom to sympathize with the most, the Santa who smiles no matter what or the Santa photographers who wait-wait-wait for that miserly microsecond when the adorable 14-month-old in the red velvet dress isn't screaming as if bitten by a bat.
All the photog needs is that nano-pause when, disoriented from all the fussing of the tense mom and the over-ripe man in the velvet suit, and me, his goofy, middle-aged elf with the hairy legs, she hesitates, hiccups and quits screaming just long enough — the flutter of an eyelid, the passing of a wee bit of gas — for the photographer to get the impossible shot.
There should be a special Pulitzer for mall Santa photogs, who earn minimum age for maximum effort.
And Santa himself should win the Nobel Prize.
Grunting at the tree lot
By temperament, I am drawn to sad little tree lots that stay open all night, staffed by world-weary types who sit around flaming trash cans telling stories of the road.
South Pasadena has no such tree lots.
Yet, at the corner of Mission and Fremont, there is a fine little forest, full of fat imports from the rainy Northwest.
Sure, after my tree lot shift, I Velcro to everything — fabric, fuzzy kids, passing clouds.
But I also discover the answer to Christmas' great mystery: how a plastic tree pan stays watertight after you pile-drive six massive nails through the bottom of it.
"The heat of the nail seals the plastic," says tree wrangler Andy Dalton, a 35-year veteran.
Dalton tells me he can do about anything with his hands — "I can build a boat, I can build a building" — which makes him so unlike the bozos I usually hang with. When they need a boat or building built, they pick up a phone.
What I'm saying is that these tree men are real lumberjacks — Dalton, Robert Aguilar, Travis Nelson, their boss, Scott "Tahoe Scotty" Sorenson.
Leading up to the holiday, they work 12-hour shifts seven days a week, shouldering corpulent firs that are heavy as hit men.
And when they unbail one off the truck, out jumps a tree frog.
"We wanted to ship the frog back to Oregon, put him on a truck and take him back," Sorenson says. "But he escaped."
I'm pretty sure there's a children's book in there somewhere, about a tree frog that gets lost in the big unforgiving city.
A metaphor for the people who come to L.A., then can't find their way back.
A metaphor for me.
Santa drives a UPS truck
You never see David Sedaris pulling stunts like this. He mines emotional turmoil and family dysfunction for his humor.
Me, I hop a truck.
A week before Christmas, I'm in the land of the lucky and the exceptional (the Westside), working a shift with veteran UPS driver Dave Nieto.
"Never been bitten by a dog," he says of his 28 years with UPS. "Never called in sick."
Go ahead, just try to keep up with the fast-walking, fast-talking Nieto as he darts in and out of shops at the Brentwood Country Mart and the stylish neighborhoods of Santa Monica. Within minutes, it's clear why Nieto urged me to stretch, urged me to chug plenty of water. During this day, he'll deliver 250 packages, log 50 to 60 miles.
"We're industrial athletes," he explains.
I'm more of an industrial water boy. Hey, wait up!
Dave Nieto, the man who puts the Santa in Santa Monica.
Meanwhile, down in Whoville ...
No kidding, the other night in bed I found a plastic gutter clip, the kind you use to hang outdoor lights.
I'm pretty sure I am going slowly insane.
I don't blame Christmas. I blame my editors, my wife, my kids, my idiot beagle Orson Welles.
I blame the lack of quality choices in popular fiction. I blame Mindy Kaling's underwhelming new show.
At this moment, my meltdown is being made worse by a makeup artist from Georgia. With the hands of a sculptor, Sabrina Wilson is applying a rubbery feline snout. Mindy Pedrick follows up with fake lashes. In about an hour, I'm a Who.
"A what?" you're asking.
No, a Who.
Let's move on.
Today, the Whos and actress Betty White are entertaining about 100 schoolkids at the Grinchmas exhibit at Universal. There are 4 inches of man-made snow, a zigzaggy Whoville tree and Miss Betty herself, who I've always insisted is a flash-in-the-pan and will never have a real career in this town.
Time will prove me right on this.
Meanwhile, I am sprawled on the ground making Who-angels to entertain the kids, many of whom have never seen real snow.
"Please make me a snowball, please," says the cutest third-grader you ever saw.
"Who?" I ask.
Then I calmly make her a snowball.
That's what I need, a sermon
With what's left of my fragile psyche, I track down the Rev. Gary Dennis, who is prepping for his 41st Christmas Eve sermon, a folksy man with an eternal holiday twinkle, fetching as candlelight.
"I love the people who come once or twice a year, because it means that if some crisis happens in the next 12 months, they might come back," says Dennis, pastor at La Cañada Presbyterian Church.
"You want people to be engaged by the story, whether it's their first time here or their 50th Christmas Eve sermon," he says of his approach.
Dennis has seen too much good in what religion can do to be discouraged by life's crushing tragedies.
"Life is a full-contact sport, and you need all the resources you can get to get on with it," he says.
"At times, there's a horrific darkness in the world," he says, acknowledging the shooting in Connecticut. "We're not going to let the darkness prevail."
The great chronicler of Christmas Jean Shepherd once noted the same puzzling contrasts.
"Oh, life is like that," the writer observed. "Sometimes, at the height of our revelries, when our joy is at its zenith, when all is most right with the world, the most unthinkable disasters descend upon us."
Mercifully, we'll always have Christmas.
Take it from your tree man.