On the Abyss of Insanity
“Look what we got!” my third grader cried up to me.
“What fresh Christmas hell is this?” I muttered.
OK, perhaps not the most festive response.
But two strands of lights that had been operating perfectly an hour before now hung dead around my shoulders like a holly, jolly noose. And for the second year in a row, I had worn shorts while climbing onto a roof in the subtropics to hang Christmas lights. So the back of my thighs, where I keep my brain, were sizzling like a Cheesy Burger.
I gazed fifteen feet down. Spotting The Thing in her hands, I stifled a gasp and descended. “That’s wonderful! But I’m pretty sure that’s broken and we’ll have to take it back.”
She eyed me. “It’s not broken. It’s magic.”
“The real ones are magic. That’s a counterfeit Chinese version. If you play with it, it will poison you.”
A look of triumph crossed her face. “You’re not supposed to touch it! If you do…” her voice trailed off with a shudder.
“Whoa! Who told you that?”
“My friend Savannah.”
“Savannah is poison too. Stay away from her.”
I coaxed the package from my daughter and strode into the house. I cornered She Who Controls the Universe in the kitchen. “What were you thinking?”
“I thought it would make a neat, little tradition.”
I held the Elf on the Shelf in front of her face. “There is nothing neat or little about this. It’s the invention of a desperate woman who had way too much time on her hands and who was so parentally challenged, she couldn’t even master the complications of Timeout to keep her kids in line.”
Because calculating one minute for every year of a child’s age is apparently Super High Advanced Sunshine Math for some parents – paradoxically, usually the math geniuses who break out the fractions after they hit Two in the Official Three Count of Toddler Doom.
“And you know this how?” she challenged.
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I thought we’d successfully sidestepped this madness. My youngest is now in third grade, which makes her eligible for marriage in Appalachia, Africa and four-fifths of Asia.
But not apparently old enough to figure out a cheap doll with a plastic head isn’t cruising around the house by himself each night.
Plus, other than the fact that carrots can still make her weep, Grace is already remarkably well behaved.
If you’re not familiar with Elf on the Shelf, he’s Santa’s NSA, who spies on your family and reports back if your kid misbehaves or you cheat on your taxes – keeping everyone on the straight and narrow before Christmas. You can never, ever touch your Elf or it will lose its magic. Each night, he reports back to Santa, then flitters back to find a new roosting spot. And your kids have to ferret him out first thing in the morning – before they eat their Cheerios one by one, brush out their hair strand by strand, argue about their clothes piece by piece and still get to school before the late buzzer.
Parents swear The Elf gets their kids to behave better. Here’s what they leave out: At 10 p.m., when you have just settled down for a long winter’s nap, it makes parents behave worse.
I’m in that nebulous state of strange body twitches that lurks between wakefulness and slumber when she tap-tap-taps on my shoulder. “Did you move The Elf?”
“Huh!” Startled, I lunge upward. “I moved it last night. It’s your turn.”
“Nuh-uh,” she says. “It’s your turn.” She throws in a loving shove. “Get up before you fall asleep again.”
I growl, throw off the covers and stagger into the living room.
After five minutes of wandering in the dark, I stagger back in. “Where the hell is The Elf?”
The bed shudders.
“And stop laughing at me.”
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Random thought: If this were a Doctor Who Christmas special, all of the Elves on the Shelves would come to life at midnight and try to kill everyone while they slept.
But real life is never that convenient.
In fact, it’s really not enough to move The Elf. In the age of Martha Stewart and Pinterest, one must stage The Elf, requiring the same time commitment as adopting a herd of wild dingoes.
Facebook is filled with them: Holiday-Intoxicated Mamas proving their superiority by staging elaborate, Steven Spielberg-esque dramas and posting them to hammer home all our Elfing shortcomings.
Yet if The Elves are brought in to improve the kids’ behavior, why do the hypocritical, long-lashed beasts all raise hell while the kids sleep?
One mom posts a photo of her gift-wrapped toilet, with ribbons trailing off all the bathroom fixtures. Her Elf smiles slyly next to a destroyed ball of tape on the toilet seat. “Mischievous little guy!” she posts.
Another Elf flings a five-pound bag of flour across the kitchen floor while baking cookies. “Whee!” his mama posts.
Then there’s the Elf who threw all the Christmas tree ornaments on the living room floor and toilet-papered the evergreen. “Tee! Hee!” she posts.
Wouldn’t we all be happier if these women just got part-time jobs in the local slaughter house or on an oil rig out in the Gulf?
Have we all lost our minds?
We grumble, of course.
Then we join the fray.
And while loath to admit it, we come to secretly enjoy it.
For the holidays remind us that embracing parenthood is to voluntarily teeter on the abyss of insanity.
All the Elving, the baking, the decking of the halls, the shopping and gift-wrapping, the mad rush to squish yourself into the last seats at religious services – all of it, like your daughter’s and son’s fleeting childhood, is so terribly temporary.
And magically, the insanity surrenders to that sweet moment of hushed stillness when the taper sparks the menorah to life. Or you sink into a living room chair, heave an exhausted sigh and the peace of the sparkling evergreen seeps into your soul.
In the wee hours of Christmas Eve, you know the shrieks of joy and beaming smiles are just a eyelash blink away.
And you wish you could hold them tight forever.
By Chris Barrett, Publisher