“Writing Twitter’s” December Hot Topic of 2019 is pantsing versus plotting—writing by the seat of your pants as opposed to outlining the story before beginning to write. If you saw the first draft of this post, you’d know I’m a pantser, which, given what I’m telling about myself, is ironic. It doesn’t matter either way, though. Life (and wife) throws plot twists into your carefully laid plans, and cohesive meaning can be found in chaos (as it was found in the first draft of this post).
I’m a congenital planner, even when I don’t want to be. For instance, one year my dad tricked me into hosting a family reunion. Reluctantly, I set the trend for all future family reunions, building a structured framework for casual group fun. I was told I should go into event planning. And maybe I should. I’ll even joyously plan things that don’t end up happening. Just mention offhand a place you might like to visit someday and I’ll draw up an itinerary within days, because in my mind I’m already on the road, guiding you to the barbecue shack that BB King once ate at. “It’s only twenty miles off the interstate!”
So intentionally orchestrating treasured memories is a no-brainer. After all, I have templates to work from, past events that I can simply recreate. Like getting that first Christmas tree when my family moved to Colorado from Nebraska. I was eight. My Uncle Dave managed a dairy and the land it owned for pasturing cows, nestled against the foothills of the Rockies. I can’t say I remember the tree itself, but the day finding it plays like a movie montage. Family piling into the bed of Uncle Dave’s pickup to search for the perfect tree. My cousins and me sliding down a path Dave plowed into a steep hillside. Frozen fingers burning against ceramic mugs of hot chocolate freshly simmered by Aunt Betty.
Twenty years later, in the rolling hills outside Augusta, Michigan, a horse-drawn wagon wound its way amongst snow-draped Scotch pines and Douglas firs. It dropped me and my girlfriend, Julie, off in a section where she hunted down the perfect specimen for me to dispatch. We sipped hot cider by a wood-burning stove in the little wooden shack where we paid, then jammed the tree through the trunk, past the folded down back seats, and between the front seats of a two-door Honda Civic. In our one bedroom apartment we decorated our first tree as a couple, and Julie thought, “What a lovely surprise that was.”
No, it wasn’t. Not for me. We hadn’t just stumbled upon it.
I resolved that we’d do that every year, but again, life doesn’t always cooperate. The next holiday was spent around my parents’ artificial tree. Then Julie and I moved to Florida, where there is a plethora of pine forests populated by weird spiders and scorpions, but a dearth of fir-covered snowy hills. Once we made our final move to Colorado, we chose the sprawling suburbs for our children. Uncle Dave had retired, and the convenience of numerous tree lots for a couple with toddlers, then rambunctious kids who hated long road trips prevailed year after year until the kids became jaded teens and we abandoned trees and a seasonal spirit entirely.
This year, during one of the newscasts I direct in a control room more colorfully lit than my living room, I actually paid attention to a story. The U.S. Forest Service was selling permits to cut your own Christmas tree. Immediately after the news I jumped on the computer to research it. It was a wondrously onerous process. The $20 fee had to be rendered in person to the Forest Service outpost. That’s twenty miles into the high country. There, you had to choose a specific date at a site even further up in the mountains. There was a list of specific rules, too, that necessitated a carefully planned scouting trip.
For me, simple.
The complication was my wife, Julie. She’s often skeptical of the grand plans that I try to involve her in. Probably because, in my efforts to “sell” her on things, I will shade some details. An expenditure of $100 gets rounded down to $80; a three hour drive becomes “maybe two hours.” And, hey, there’s a basis of truth! I left out the taxes, fees, or incidentals in the cost, and factored the time based on my ability to marathon distances at great speed (I once got Julie from a late morning breakfast in Buffalo, NY to Battle Creek, MI via the southern route around Lake Erie just in time for her to direct a 6 p.m. newscast. I shouldn’t be proud of that. She was mad, but she was the one who wanted to linger in Buffalo, and I knew…figured…hoped I could get it done.)
This pitch, however, would be an honest deal. $20 was $20, and my scouting mission timed the trip at an hour and a half, using the alternate, scenic route I would use to get there. We could go home more directly and quickly, as my wife preferred.
With a wary eye, she gave the nod. I filled our sons in on the details, stressing the family adventure aspect, and gave them a few weeks to consider it. Our oldest is nineteen, and though he thought it sounded like fun, ultimately decided the demands of college, a girlfriend, and an aversion to sitting in the back seat made him beg off. Our younger boy seemed to have a twinkle in his eye, but in his trademark dry delivery, declined the invitation. “I’ll be miserable, and that’ll make you two miserable, and then whole day will be miserable.”
Still compelled by my compulsion to “sell” to get others on board to share the adventure, I said, “You could choose to let yourself have fun.”
“Dad. I’m fifteen. I’ve already decided to be miserable.”
So we were down to two, the ones who cut down that Michigan tree all those years ago. This new memory had potential.
On our road trips, backseat driving and snide snapbacks from the driver are a given. They’re never that intense, but that day they were absent, even with the tension of sunlight on windshield smudges temporarily blinding us both through winding canyons. And the closer we got to the trail parking lot, the less the unbidden revving of the engine mattered. We were greeted by Smokey the Bear posing for pictures with tree hunters, and late afternoon sun warming snow-packed trails through fir groves.
We found a few contenders within the quarter mile radius Julie was willing to tromp. One had a good shape, but was too short. Another, fuller but way too tall. That third one was really a clump of trees. Just as we agreed to turn back and make do with #1, she saw it. Our tree, isolated on a ridge, no tracks in the snow leading up to it, bathed in a ray of sunlight with a choir of angels singing “this is the one.”
Slightly taller than my wife but a lot easier to cut down and carry, it fit in our Rogue with the back seats folded down. We took a few minutes to rub out the windshield smudges, and Julie surprised me by letting me take a different winding route home. There, she started the Christmas playlist and we got to work. Our sons even helped string lights before they suddenly remembered previous engagements and backed slowly into their dark rooms. My wife’s elegant style couldn’t cover up the large gap that’s turned toward the corner. The trunk can be seen all the way to the top, which is starless for a lack of a central, sturdy apex. This would have been the last tree left in a lot.
For us, perfect.
I turned off the lamps and overhead lights to test the glow—you have to test the glow—and summoned the boys for their approval.
“Hey, I like that,” Nineteen said.
Fifteen mumbled, “That’s a pretty nice tree.”
I took a soft kiss from Julie who said, “That was a lot easier than I thought it would be.”
Michael and Julie write separately, but when they write together they are...M.J. Ortmeier!