Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Smile and mean it this time!

The air is getting cooler, the leaves are turning color and shorts have been packed away in favor of sweaters, sweatshirts and wool socks. All these signs point to one thing:
We need to get our asses in gear and take a Christmas photo.
Ah yes, the holiday photo. An event the Schwem household looks forward to about as much as a roaring case of hemorrhoids or our property tax bill. Each year we vow to get it done early and every year, we blow it off until it’s Christmas Eve and we are stuffing photos of our girls into Federal Express envelopes, thereby ensuring that the pictures actually get there by Christmas.
First, let me point out that the Christmas card photo does not include my wife or me. I’ve never understood families who feel compelled to put EVERYONE in the picture. Christmas photos are supposed to be a chance for people to see how things are GROWING i.e. your kids. They are not meant to showcase things that are RECEDING i.e. your hairline, your abs or your breasts. The only place for parents in a Christmas photo is safely behind the camera.
I have mixed feelings about receiving Christmas photos from our friends. Sure, I love seeing how the kids have grown over the year. And I love the creativity some parents show in selecting the proper environment. Last year one neighbor put all four children in matching Christmas pajamas and posed them leaning on an oversized holiday gift box. Another friend donned Wild West outfits for their children. As cute as these photos are, I look upon them with a sense of envy basically because my kids never seem to photograph that well. If our kids looked that cute in a photo, I’d sell them on eBay.
Personally, I think the worst Christmas photos are from people, usually childless, who send pictures of their pet. I can barely remember my kids’ names. Please don’t ask me to remember a pet and then ooh and aaah over how different the pet looks. How much does a pet change in a year? Growing up, I had a cat who looked exactly the same at age two that he did at 22. Sure, he’d lost all his teeth but cats rarely smile, nobody knew.
During our first year of marriage, before we had kids, Sue and I sent out a Christmas photo of ourselves. We climbed into one of those “ball pits” at a place called “The Discovery Zone.” Basically, it was an indoor playground that charged money so kids could run around and blow off steam. My kids do that every day at home for free, thank you very much. But the founder of the Discovery Zone apparently thought the play experience was enhanced if it came with a 10 dollar price tag.
So off we went one cold November day to the Discovery Zone. We told the manager what we wanted to do, he complied and then we shooed all the other kids out of the ball pit so we could snap some pictures. Since Sue and I were 28 and 31 respectively, and the average age of a Discovery Zone customer is six, we didn’t get a lot of resistance from the other ball pit visitors. They stood outside, sucking their thumbs while we threw some balls in the air and giggled like the two carefree newlyweds we were. The manager himself took the photos. We thanked him, left and went out for cocktails. How many people go directly from the Discovery Zone to a bar?
I think we meant for the pictures to show what a cute and fun couple we were. Many people wrote that in notes following the holidays but I’m sure they were lying. Most of our friends probably received the photo and thought, “these two desperately need some kids. Or at least a pet!”
Growing up, my parents were never much for Christmas photos. They sent them out until my older sister Julie and I were about eight and 10. Then the practice subsided until my mother inexplicably revived it one year without telling us. When we were 15 and 17, we both had dates to the high school Homecoming dance. At 15 my looks resembled a cross between a computer nerd and “Jaws,” the character from the James Bond movie. So pronounced were my braces that they more closely appeared as one large “brace” over my teeth. My wire rim glasses with Coke bottle lenses always seemed to attract the full effect of a camera flashbulb. The tie I chose to wear that night was not a clip-on but it may as well have been.
Julie fared only a little better. Sure, she had ditched her glasses and braces two years earlier and had finally developed some semblance of a breast. Yet she chose to wear a salmon colored, sleeveless dress that unfortunately showed every tan line she had earned the previous summer. My mom snapped some photos and we went to the dance, convinced that only one, if any, would actually be developed.
We were so wrong. I came home from school two weeks later to find 250 copies of said photo on the dining room table, accompanied with a Santa logo and the text, “Merry Christmas from the Schwems” nestled underneath. A more appropriate caption would have been, “Merry Christmas from the Dork Family!” The envelopes were already addressed and sealed. A stamp was the only thing separating Julie and I from embarrassment beyond our wildest dreams.
Oh, how I longed for a match and a can of gasoline.
Unfortunately, I never found either and my mother mailed them out the next day despite our threats to run away and become (choose one) a hooker, a drug dealer, a Hare Krishna or a Democrat.
Since my mother believes in having all her Christmas tasks completed by Halloween (including shopping and gift wrapping) we were blessed with reading notes from friends whose subsequent holiday cards to us included comments about our photo.
“Love Julie’s tennis tan,” read one of the nicer ones.
“Greg’s braces are soooooo shiny,” was one of the not so nice ones.
“We hate you,” was another one. Wait, that was the card Julie and I sent to them.
Now fast forward 25 years. I have kids of my own. I am determined to make the Christmas photo experience as simple as possible. All Sue and I want is one lousy, stinking photo of our kids; a task that would be made all the easier if the kids would cooperate in the least. Yet it never seems to happen.
It wasn’t always this difficult. Our kids are five years apart so Natalie, our oldest, had the entire Christmas card to herself for four years. And because parents take approximately 10,000 photos of their firstborn, we always had plenty to choose from. We always chose a “beach” theme. I used to perform my stand-up act on cruise ships so we usually snapped a good one somewhere in the Caribbean. Our best one, in my opinion, was a shot of two-year-old Natalie, in pigtails and a bathing suit, sitting at a swim up bar, holding a virgin Strawberry Daiquiri. Even though the drink was non-alcoholic, our friends weren’t buying it, as evidenced by the notes they wrote after receiving the photo.
“Raising a drunk, are you?”
“I see she’s taking after her Dad.”
“Did you take this right before she fell off the stool?”
When another child enters the picture, the difficulty of getting a cute shot multiplies exponentially. How do parents with four or five kids do it? If I had that many kids, I’d wait until the youngest was at least 16 before ATTEMTPING a photo.
Plus, I don’t work cruise ships anymore so the Caribbean theme has disappeared. Even worse, Sue has become a fan of an actual “Christmas” shot, meaning one where the girls are dressed in holiday outfits and the background reeks of the holidays. For the past three years, we found the perfect Christmas background at (are you ready?) THE LOCAL MALL! We dress the kids up, hop in the SUV and drive over there, hoping to take the perfect shot in front of the gigantic, fake Christmas tree next to Santa’s chair. We should have plenty of time to do this since most malls begin putting up Christmas decorations around the Fourth of July, Santa appears shortly thereafter and doesn’t leave until 11:45 on Christmas Eve. How do you keep a kid believing in Kris Kringle when a department store Santa is becoming a six-month job? With benefits and a retirement package!
Two years ago we bought outfits from the American Girl doll store. We also bought identical outfits for the dolls, which both girls held for the shot. At least the dolls cooperated. We took approximately 192 shots without getting a single one suitable for a Christmas card. If one child smiled, the other scowled. If one laughed, the other stared at her shoes. If one summoned an adorable grin, the other looked as if she were about to get vaccinated.
The picture process is always a two man operation. While Sue holds the camera, I stand behind her, urging the kids to “look this way” and say “poopy pickles” or some other asinine phrase that I hope will get them laughing. Instead, it merely draws gasps from shoppers and, eventually, a stern look from store security. Santa himself even paused from his duties to turn his snow white beard our way and cross me off the “good” list for the year.
Eventually, we got what we wanted. As we left the mall, I thought, “next year they will be older and this won’t be as difficult.”
That proved to be about as correct as President Bush telling the nation that “we are winning the war in Iraq.”
The next year we returned to a different mall with a different Christmas scene. Sue had noticed a sled, stuffed full of presents, sitting between the men’s department and women’s fragrances. A perfect spot for a Christmas photo, she thought.
Our kids, now three and eight, were again dressed in cute Christmas outfits but without dolls. I was determined to get the photo fast this year and didn’t want the dolls to interfere.
What I failed to realize is that Natalie now seems to enjoy having her picture taken about as much as Sean Penn. Point a camera at her and she instinctively juts out her lower lip or clenches her teeth, revealing a smile about as forced as the one on Hillary Clinton’s face when she stands alongside Bill.
Nevertheless, we sat the kids on the sled and began to snap like we always do. The kids, in turn, did what they always do. They poked at each other, snarled at the camera and, in most “un-ladylike” fashion, spread their legs just wide enough so their underwear was visible in every shot. Finally, we called a brief “time out.”
While we regrouped and, in a matter of weakness, promised the girls ice cream if they could smile, a startling scene unfolded. A woman strode up with five children, all decked out in Christmas attire. The oldest was, perhaps, 10. The youngest looked as if it had just left the delivery room incubator two hours ago.
“Do you mind if we use the sled?” asked the mom. “I just want to take our Christmas card shot.”
“Be my guest,” I replied. Then I turned to Sue and whispered, “this ought to be good.”
No sooner had those words escaped my lips than the woman had completed her task. In the space of approximately eight seconds, the kids knelt down, smiled on command and waited for the flash. Even the newborn smiled!
“Thank you,” Supermom said before collecting her brood and herding them away.
Sue and I stood there with our jaws on the floor. Had we actually just witnessed that? The woman snapped ONE picture. We were recharging the digital camera.
“Did you see that?” I said to Natalie and Amy. “Did you see how easy that is? Why can’t you do that? Now get back on that sled, listen to Mom, smile and LOOK LIKE YOU’RE HAVING FUN!”
Miraculously, the kids complied and we achieved Christmas card 2005.
This year we are considering a “Fall” background, meaning no snow, no fake Christmas packages with colorful bows and no holiday lights. Instead, we want bright colored foliage and the sights of October.
That gives us two months to take the photos, look at the proofs and, if all else fails, Photoshop somebody else’s kids into the picture.