Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Twelve Blogs of Christmas, Day 3

Heart-warming Stories of Holiday Tragedy: News at Eleven

As you’re rushing through your to-do list this holiday season another thing to remember is not to set your house on fire. Where I grew up, in Upstate New York -- or as we liked to call it back then, “Quebec” -- every year, like clockwork, each and every local television station ran a piece wherein the local fire department would demonstrate what happens when a kiln-dried tree is not given sufficient water, is sprayed with highly flammable, aerosolized fake snow, and then wrapped in a shorted-out string of lights. Poof, kids. Poof. “So tell your Daddy to remember to put that cigarette out before putting the star on the top of the tree."

I slept with a fire extinguisher under my pillow every Christmas Eve just hoping to make it ‘til morning without perishing in a blaze of pine-scented flames. I never got any rest. You just can’t sleep with a loaded canister of chemical foam under your pillow.

For years I thought this fiery Christmas tree story was just a “down market” kind of news story. By down market I mean, if you’re covering the local news in Upstate New York, you probably graduated last in your class from journalism correspondence school or you have a second head or you were recently released from a penitentiary and you're just trying to get back on your feet. We had local news anchors with speech impediments and two glass eyes. Upstate New York is just not the kind of place that attracts people at the top of their field, and like I routinely tell folks nowadays, but for the pedophiles we wouldn’t have had any Little League coaches at all when I was growing up. So don’t knock ‘em.

Now I live in an up-market television locale, and yet I still see these same news stories every year, which oddly makes me feel better somehow because it’s one less bumpkinny thing I have to feel self-conscious about. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ruined Christmas parties by asking why there weren’t any cocktail squirrels.) The up-market addition to this flaming Christmas tree story is the news broadcast concerning a fire breaking out and displacing a local family of nine. You’ll see these folks talking about how they have nothing left and perhaps in the background you’ll see the smoldering remains of their home and all their water-soaked possessions. Always there’s a mattress on the lawn but then, it’s quite possible that the mattress was there before the fire even started.

The reason the Seasonal Home Fire story is so great is that it then provides opportunities for follow-up stories about neighbors reaching out in the wake of this tragedy to provide clothing, toys, and chewing tobacco. In other words, it's a great way to finish out the year without having to beat the bushes for actual news. I hate to say it, but I suppose it’s entirely possible that journalists all over America are the ones setting these fires so they can keep busy during the holidays. But really, who can blame them? The last two weeks of the year are called the news hole for a reason.

Now, just to reiterate: I do not think you should put lit candles on your Christmas tree. It's a bad idea just like sticking your sneaker into a moving escalator is a bad idea and licking cane toads is a bad idea. Additionally if you see someone in your yard with a can of gasoline and a boom microphone, get the hell outta the house. But don’t call the fire department, whatever you do. They’re busy doing a dry run of next year’s public service announcements on lighting fireworks in areas of drought and the perils of deep frying turkeys. In other words, they, like everyone else between Dec 20 and Jan 2, are phoning it in at work.