Presenting the 2011 Christmas card

Christmas Card 2011 preview

Autofry and I hope you 'ring' in a merry 2012.

Continuing a proud tradition of homemade Christmas cards, I’m happy to present this year’s edition. On a positive note, the card was sent out to be received around the holidays… instead of mid-January, like last year.

As always, I started the card season with some great ideas, but I had to whittle them down to a concept that I could execute without investing in a Santa suit or driving deep into the Sierra Nevada in search for snow (but look for those in future years).

This year’s card plays up my desire to absurdly celebrate the season. While I didn’t want to mock the over-commercialized aspect of the holidays, I wanted to put a unique mark on the holiday. To accomplish this, I turned back to an old joke that a friend and I made several years ago.

In the early days of going to karaoke at The Maltese, my friend Ari and I would infrequently joke about the name of the bar’s fryer — Autofry. Because the name is so prominent on the otherwise unassuming metal box, the fryer became anthropomorphized as a benevolent provider of tasty, albeit slightly unhealthy treats.

We haven’t joked about it for years, but I thought about how silly it would be if Autofry and I posed for the holiday photo, much like a couple might.

With that basic idea in mind, I made a quick stop to Target for a Santa hat and a ribbon. As I continue to fashion my own cards, money has become a concern because I don’t want to break the bank making them. Thankfully, the materials for this year’s card cost about $8 — plus the onion rings.

While I was getting everything in order on the night of the shoot, I thought it needed a little something extra, and I was also hungry. I asked for an order of onion rings.

The rings turned out to a secretly smart move when it came to devising the caption for this year’s card. Because of that food product, it made sense that Autofry and I would hope that people would joyfully ‘ring’ in the new year.

I again used Costco’s photo service to print the cards (50 cards and envelopes for about $15 is still a heckuva deal). I also used one of their templates — although they can sometimes be a little underwhelming, I liked seeing my offering within the window sill frame.

Thanks for a Maltese staff for helping to letting me slip into the kitchen for about a minute. Also, kudos to Marcus for taking the actual photo.

‘All I want for Christmas is two less chins’ and other holiday thoughts

Christmas is just hours away. By this time tomorrow, all the presents will have been opened and most families will have concluded their holiday suppers.

As the holiday season reaches its annual peak, I pause and reflect on how this year’s festivities have gone thus far. In most ways, this season has hit the usual high notes and, sadly, some of the same lows. Part of the magic of the season to me is finding new, yet sincere and relatively low-key ways to celebrate.

Low notes include the fact that the Christmas shopping season appeared to begin earlier than ever this year. I thought I saw some holly and wreaths just a few days after we scarfed down hot dogs on the Fourth of July.

I’m kidding — the first Christmas shopping display was probably after Mother’s Day back in May.

A low note that I constantly try to avoid is the trite insincerity of some elements of the holiday. Because everything is so familiar, the desire to create something new or unique can lead me, and others, down some darker paths.

For example, I create an original Christmas card each year for my friends and family. I do it so I can add a personal touch and my patented brand of humor. However, some of my concepts are better left on the drawing board because they don’t ring true.

One year, I had the grand idea to poke fun at the holiday’s consumerism. My concept was to dress up in a gaudy, Cosby-style Christmas sweater and to go to a dining room arrangement at the local IKEA. While the dining room is geared to be an ideal, my posing among the price tags would expose the façade for what it was.

Or something. When I explained my concept to my mother, she asked why I would do that. I said that I thought it would be funny and that was probably all that was needed. After receiving that feedback, I went in a different direction.

When trying to break the mold, sincerity is essential. During the past week, I heard several dozen novelty Christmas songs. Most of them were fun (especially the Bob Rivers’ track “There’s a Santa Who Looks a Lot Like Elvis” set to “It’s Beginning to Look at Lot Like Christmas”), but many seemed dated or hokey.

That brings me to my latest idea — giving a modern take to a Christmas classic song, shifting from the innocence of youth to the side effects of an obese America. That song is, of course, “All I want for Christmas is two less chins.”

On one level, I think the song could be a reflection of where we are today. I don’t think I’m picking on others — I consider myself to be festively plump and would love to be a little thinner.

Asking for this gift from Santa is similar to the young boy’s wish for two front teeth. They are both things that Santa really can’t give, although the boy’s new teeth will eventually emerge. I know, and hopefully others know, that becoming physically fit requires dedicated, personal effort.

There were a couple of flaws to my song concept. One — many people thought I was referring to the family name of “Chin,” and that I wanted to be rid of two such individuals. My quick rebuttal was that anyone who thought that was racist, but it seems like a regrettably easy association to make and I should probably come up with a different take on the song.

Second, I like the phrase and it’s gotten a chuckle from people when I try it out. However, I don’t know if anyone else has used that phrase before. I’m leery to search Google and find that it has already been done, much how like my brilliant idea of the awkwardness of a four-man nude bobsled was already a David Letterman punchline from 1994.

I suppose I can look it up now that I’ve committed my thoughts to digital paper, but I want to savor the possibility that I came up with a slightly novel, mildly amusing twist on an old chestnut.

Trying to come up with something new might amp up the pressure to deliver on an ideal Christmas. While I appreciate adding touches to make Christmas special, people need to be realistic in what they can do.

To paraphrase Otto von Bismarck, Christmas is the art of the possible. The holidays are supposed to be a joyous time of year. If you’re not having fun, maybe you need to change things up.

For me, I’ve got silly Christmas cards and spending time with family. I hope you find whatever makes your holidays merry and bright.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Getting in the holiday spirit

Observing Christmas 2010 is turning out to be like other years. It takes me a while to warm up to the holiday spirit, but I’m fully on board shortly before the big day. While I’m not a fan of starting the season earlier and earlier (especially when Christmas displays start popping up after the Fourth of July), I should probably get in gear sooner.
Case in point — it’s three days before Christmas and I haven’t finished my Christmas cards. Haven’t even started actually. I’ve kicked around some ideas and settled on a concept, but the execution part is still very, very shaky.
One thing I took care of reasonably ahead of time was my holiday lights. For the first time in years, I put up lights around the ol’ homestead.
I could only spring for one string of lights, given the tight budget we all seem to be operating under these days. However, I wanted to make the display special a la our annual Tour of Lights.
Looking to spice things up a bit, I decided to set my light display to music … or something like it. The one downside? The lights don’t blink so there was no way for them to turn on and off to the dulcet tones of “The Nutcracker” or the Trans-Siberian Orchestra or The Yule Logs.
Thankfully, I came up with a solution. It was a particularly timely one, considering that it tied in one of the hottest music instruments of 2010.
Here’s a sample: Merry Christmas!

Talking and taking trains on Turkey Day

For all of my kvetching about “virtual strip searches” and airport security gropings, my Thanksgiving travel plans always included taking the train (and a bus) to the Bay Area to visit family. It’s more of a matter of convenience and comfort rather than a fear of oppressive security or flying. With four Amtrak California buses leaving Chico every day (and the overnight Coast Starlight train), the bus/train is a pretty convenient way to get around.

It seems like a lot of other people between Sacramento and the Bay Area had the same idea — the Capitol Corridor reported carrying 26,449 passengers over the weekend.

On Thanksgiving Thursday, the train was fairly full as it zoomed past slowly moving vehicles on I-80. On board, single travelers really couldn’t hog the tables meant to seat four, but many could still have a pair of seats to themselves.

The Thursday crowd paled in comparison to the people returning home on Sunday. The four-car train I was on was standing-room only. That’s only the second time I’ve experienced that in my recent travels (for intercity travel).

With the train stuffed with people, the conductor gave fair warning to people waiting to board at stations along the line — he said there were no seats, but people could board if they didn’t mind standing. I was able to grab a seat for most of the trip, but I ultimately gave it up for a mother and daughter heading to Chico.

A huge number of passengers got off at Davis as university students returned from their holidays. There was a similar situation for Chico State — there were so many people returning to Chico on the 6:30 p.m. bus from Sacramento that Amtrak added an additional bus. The added bus provided a welcome amount of space after being on the crowded train.

The buses were running an hour late, which I’m sure was an inconvenience for some. I didn’t mind too much because I could sit on one of Sacramento Valley Station’s grand old wooden Southern Pacific benches and read a newspaper.

While the train isn’t always the transportation solution, it’s certainly an option to consider when traveling around Northern California and beyond.

Photo: A westbound Capitol Corridor Amtrak train pulls into Sacramento Valley Station in Sacramento, Calif. on Sat., May 9, 2009.

Quick! We must name the other shopping days of Thanksgiving weekend

The creation of Small Business Saturday on Nov. 27 has made it painfully aware to me that America must name the remaining days of Thanksgiving weekend. It’s no longer enough that we have Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday or the granddaddy Black Friday — all seven days starting this Wednesday must have names.
Although I’m still working on my front-of-the-napkin notes, here’s my initial proposal.
(By the way, why do people always use the back of the napkin? The front works perfectly well.)
Why Not Wednesday? – You’re on the road, trying to get to grandma’s house while avoiding suffering a flat tire or being felt up by security agents. The stress is starting to mount. Some retail therapy is just the palliative. One little cookie, McRib or small appliance won’t hurt much (in the short term). Why not?
Try-to-Forget Thursday – OK, so Wednesday shopping didn’t help that much. You’re now at grandma’s house and remember why you only visit once a year. The blaring volume from the game on the HDTV in the family room rivals that of the screaming kids in the living room trying to re-enact the “Clash of the Titans” in a blanket fort. Shopping to the rescue once more as you sequester yourself in the guest room, hunched over a laptop perched precariously on a toy chest, trying to get good-sounding deals.
Apparently, this is actually becoming a strong online shopping day as many retailers start their Friday sales early on their websites, according to The Record in New Jersey.
Black Friday
Small Business Saturday
Still Shopping Sunday – You’re a marathoner and the race isn’t done. Get your second wind and get back out there. There’s got to be a second cousin out there that needs a knick-knack or commemorative candle that smells like crushed glass.
Cyber Monday
Tired Tuesday – You’ve been shopping non-stop for seven days. Perhaps it’s time to give you and your credit card a break? If you can’t resist, maybe you could buy some organizers or storage units to manage all of the things you bought on your week-long orgy of consumerism.
Of course, all of these named days are gimmicks. Black Friday was popularized by retailers as the busiest shopping day of the year (although it’s usually the days around Christmas). Cyber Monday was conjured up by online retailers to juice their Web sales.
Small Business Saturday is no different. As far as I can tell, it was devised by American Express as a promotion for its OPEN small business services.
Perhaps there is enough room for three big shopping days during the Thanksgiving weekend. Maybe if we work hard enough, we can push it to seven glorious celebrations of shopping.
So those are my ideas for the shopping days of Thanksgiving. What would you call them?

Seasons greetings with the 2009 Christmas card

The 2009 Christmas card.

The 2009 Christmas card.

Another Christmas is upon us. To celebrate 2009, I created a new card for friends and family.

I sent most of the cards on Monday, and I hope they were received by today. If not, I’m sharing the card with everyone here.

From the bottom of my heart, I wish everyone the merriest of Christmases.

Sharing was this year’s theme. Last year, I tried to combine something uniquely Chico with the holidays and came up with the yo-yo card.

I thought about revisiting the Chico themes for 2009, but I didn’t feel I could pull anything off in time.

I still liked the Sierra Nevada Santa idea, but I grew a little reticent. After all, it seemed a little less than wholesome, but it could be pulled off if it was done tastefully. I worried about my ability to do so.

It’s still an idea I may do in future years.

I settled on “spreading a little holiday cheer” because I wanted to do something active beyond the traditional holiday photo. I settled on the tree because I thought it was an unlikely object one would give, but it’s also an icon that embodies the spirit of the season.

So with many, many test shots in my apartment’s small hallway and some Photoshop magic, here is this year’s card. Merry Christmas.

The four stages of listening to Christmas music

It can be fun to deck the halls, roast chestnuts or go on sleigh rides, but when it comes to a-wassailing, I find that there are four stages to enjoying or singing Christmas music.
These stages could be circled on the calendar, just like the big day itself:

  1. Pre-Thanksgiving: Like holiday displays, it’s far too early to hear Christmas music in early November. A telling example — hearing tunes as early as the first week of November … at a Panda Express Chinese restaurant.
  2. Post-Thanksgiving: It’s all right to slowly ramp up the music. I hosted “Evening Jazz” during the first really cold night of the year (Dec. 7). It was appropriate to play winter-y tunes, but I stayed away from the more Christmas-themed songs until …
  3. Dec. 11: Two weeks before Christmas, it’s appropriate to crank up those favorite tunes. I played a few during my Friday radio show. It is strangely all right to have two radio stations in a small media market dedicated exclusively to holiday music.
  4. Post-Dec. 25: Enough’s enough. Christmas has come and gone. It’s time to put those albums back on the shelve until next year when we repeat the cycle again.

As Christmas shopping days tick away, check this tip list twice

With Christmas just days away, I’m offering some holiday shopping advice. Thinking of gifts can be pretty stressful, so my list is a slightly humorous take on the tradition. Here’s a sample:

shopping tip #001–while there is _huge_ difference between “The
Clapper” and the clap, neither is a welcome holiday gift.

It started with that one and I was inspired to keep going. I’m dishing these tips every day on my Twitter account, but you can also view all of them on this page.

I hope to have a tip every day up until Christmas, but coming up with them can be tough (especially if I was trying to be funny). If you have any ideas, please share them in the comments.

Google’s holiday WiFi gift – 15 of 47 airports already had free Internet

I love free stuff — lots of people do. That’s probably one big reason why Google’s offer of free WiFi at 47 participating airports during the holidays (through Jan. 15) sounds so nice. But looks can be deceiving.
I didn’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth, but I peeked at the list of airports and was intrigued at what I saw — several airports where I knew they already offered free Internet (including Las Vegas, Sacramento and San Diego).
A couple dozen Google searches revealed that nearly a third of the 47 airports participating in Google’s program had pre-existing free WiFi in place (view the list). Two more airports (Seattle-Tacoma and Burbank) stated they would participate in Google’s program and then continue offering free service after Jan. 15.
Part of this rubbed me the wrong way — could Google claim credit for offering free WiFi at airports where it already existed? Could it also claim that it was offering free WiFi at other airports with free Internet (like at Chico, Calif. and Hancock, Mich.)?
According to, many airports not on Google’s list offer free Internet. Even that list is incomplete (I noticed that Chico and Hancock aren’t listed).
To be fair, someone has to pay for Internet access that is offered for “free” to the end user. According to Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal, the San Jose airport has had free Internet since May 2008. Officials said Google was offsetting the cost of offering the free service during the holidays.
Ultimately, I can be more jolly than Grinch-y about Google’s gift. For a limited time, Google is offering free Internet at more than 30 airports where there currently is a fee (typically about $8/day). Hopefully, more airports will pursue free Internet solutions in the future.
Also, Google will match up to $250,000 worth of donations made over the WiFi networks to three charities.
A list of the airports participating in the Google Free Holiday WiFi is available after the jump.

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Presenting my 2008 Chico Christmas card

As diehard readers know — I’ve been working on a Chico-themed Christmas card for 2008. A lot of people, myself included, wanted me to create the Sierra Nevada Santa. However, logistics and time constraints made that really difficult to do. The good news is that I’m on course to do it next year.

With Sierra Nevada Santa out of the picture (no pun intended), I was scrambling for another idea. At the last minute, inspiration struck me and I went with a toy theme. Chico is home to the National Yo-Yo Museum and that is where I took this year’s card photo. I went to the Bird-in-Hand store and photographed a yo-yo — with a twist.

Here’s the front of the card (click to see the inside):

I wanted to give this to you for Christmas …
I wanted to give this to you for Christmas …

Click more to see the inside of the card.

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