by RIP RENSE
A CHRISTMAS STORY
(Dec. 13, 2006)
O, star of wonder
Star of light
Star with royalty beauty bright. . .
Ghost of Christmas Past came to visit me this year. He came through a
porthole in the ethers otherwise known as Google, after I entered my name.
There he showed me “Under
a Christmas Star,” a book published by an apparently Mormon outfit called
Cedar Fort. This was a collection of new Christmas tales by
Here is how the
website touts it:
Under a Christmas Star
is a collection of Christmas stories---not sappy or sentimental ones, not
dark or hard to understand ones, but stories that uplift and inspire---tellable
tales. These are the brightest and most prized Christmas Stories. Most are
true stories about people touched by the light of the Christmas star.
One writer was singled
out for praise in an
Amazon.com review by a teacher who said she was going to read the
stories to her third-graders. That writer, by the way, was. . .
Not since I walked into
the living room at age 11 and saw a gleaming lime-green ten-speed Schwinn
Varsity under (well, beside) the Christmas tree have I had such a Christmas
You see, Cedar Fort
didn’t bother to mention to me that they were publishing my story
that is not dark or hard to understand and uplifts and inspires tellable
(sic) tales, and paying me a whole lot of Christmas nothing for it. Nor
did they mention to me that my story was so compelling that they used it as
the inspiration for the cover illustration of the book: Santa Claus pumping
gas into a taxi cab.
Now, when I say Ghost
of Christmas past, here is what I mean: the story that Cedar Fort---a
Utah-based outfit that publishes religious tracts and Mormon-themed stuff
under Latter Day Saints Books---published without consulting me concerns one
of my oldest, most personal and cherished Christmas memories. And I don’t
have many! Allow me to summarize:
When I was ten, I was
sent on a Greyhound bus to visit my mother on Christmas Eve. My father and
jealous stepmother had fought about it for days, but my father prevailed and
I was dispatched to Newport Beach, California, with a paper-bag suitcase and
a whole lot of ambivalence. I was to call a cab upon arrival, in order to be
taken to the hotel where my mom worked as a cashier.
One problem: the old man
had forgotten to give me cab fare---which I discovered just as the taxi
arrived around 7 p.m.. To make a wonderful story short and less than artful,
here’s the punchline: Santa Claus was at the wheel. Really. His halls were
fully decked. Red suit, black gloves, nylon beard. I didn’t tell him I
didn’t have any money, figuring I could just bolt when I got to the hotel.
In the end, I
confessed, and Santa explained that in all the Yellow Cabs on Xmas Eve
in the area, only one had a Claus, and if you got him, you rode for free.
See? Great story, eh? It sure as hell thrilled me as a kid, let me tell you.
Father Christmas was watching over me that night, if not my father. There is
more to the tale, but I don’t want to get into that here. You can read it in
full detail in my forthcoming novel, which should be available in late
January, if you want.
Or you can read it in the
Cedar Fort book, which I ardently, fervently, and otherwise enthusiastically
hope you. . .do not.
I wrote the story used in
“A Christmas Star” for the L.A. Times in the early 90’s, and they slapped
the cheesey headline on it: “How Santa Spread Cheer Without Eight Tiny
Reindeer.” At the time, I was writing regular essays/columns for what was
called the “Life and Style” section, more affectionately known as “Strife
and Bile” for its pandering to political correctness and touchy-feely
sentimentality. I wrote about a hundred columns for L&S before being offered
a regular gig there---only to have said offer rescinded because, as one
enlightened editor ruled, “we have too many white male columnists here.”
(See 10/11/06 Riposte.)
Well, the Times paid me
for that article, about $350 or $400, I guess, which enabled me to buy a few
extra ginger snaps to go with my eggnog that Yule. But the Times also did
something that would make Santy frown, that would take the rosy red glow
right out of his cheeks, something very, very un-Christmasy---something you
would expect from Scrooge and Marley, Ltd.
Some might call it
extortion. The Times called it “business.”
This noble newspaper
changed its freelance contracts to claim total rights to whatever
it purchased---as opposed to traditional first-publication-only. And if
freelancers didn’t sign such a contract, the Times would not buy their work.
At least they didn’t send
someone to your home to break your knuckles.
At that time, I was what
was termed a “regular contributor” to the Times. This meant I was a
full-time employee without any of regular rights or regular
benefits of full-time regular employees. This is also called
“business.” What’s more, because I was angling for that full-time column
which was later withdrawn due to my gender and race, I cut back all other
freelance work. The Times, at that moment, comprised about 90 percent of my
Then there was the little
complicating fact that I could just barely manage to get up and walk to the
store every day to buy groceries, courtesy of a paralyzing three-year bout
with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. My Times paychecks, after rent, were going to
doctors and supplements. Typing was a workout.
Did I want to sign that
contract? Every bit as much as I would like to congratulate George W. Bush
for a job well done in Iraq.
Did I sign that contract?
Did I think that someday
my Santa-in-the-taxi column might be licensed to a proselytizing Mormon
publisher for profit? And used for the cover illustration?
You betcha I didn’t.
And there are more
presents under this tree:
The “author” of “Under a
Christmas Star” is one Carol Jean Coombs. That’s correct. Author. My
name and story are in this book, but Carol Jean Coombs is on cover as
the author, apparently because she compiled the contents. Gee, I’d sure
like to be considered an “author” for compiling a bunch of stuff written by
You’re welcome, Carol,
baby! Glad to oblige!
Of course, it just
fills me with the Christmas spirit that Carol liked my story enough to
want to compile it. And whew, that compiling is hard author
work! Here’s what
said to a little newspaper: "Getting permission from the copyright
holders was time-consuming and because some of the stories are 20 to 40
years old, a real challenge.” Right! Almost as hard as writing! I wonder how
much of an author challenge it was to secure my column from the fine
people at the L.A. Times.
Yes, of course I looked
into suing. I know that’s just so humbug of me, but gee, it’s the season. So
I spoke with an excellent attorney who specializes in theft of one’s work.
Well, it turns out that I have every bit as strong a case as Saddam Hussein
had in that Iraq courtroom. Even if I wanted to sue, there is the little
matter of the Times extortion---er, contract. And another little matter
called a statute of limitations which gives me three years after publication
to file (it’s been five.) And another little matter called settlement not
covering lawyer fees.
Ho ho ho.
It’s just another example
of legalized crime that defines our world, of course. I mean, you wonder why
criminals bother to break any laws, when you can steal legally. No---no one
here has broken any laws---not the Times, not Cedar Fort, not author
Carol Jean Coombs. Moral and ethical laws are another matter, but anyone who
believes in such things can go fly a reindeer.
Still, I can't help but
say this is all not very. . .Christian.
So there you have it.
My writing has helped enable some Mormons to make some money. Of course,
I do not like or approve of the Church of the Latter Day Saints---I think
their members are painting without a brush, buttoning without a shirt---and
I suspect the Church would not like or approve of me. The closest I’ve ever
come to a Mormon Church was stumbling around on codeine outside the
Tabernacle one morning about 5 o’ clock (long story.)
In the meantime, I hear
that “Under a Christmas Star” is quite popular. A friend in Atlanta told me
that when it was given away as a gift at a recent book club party, there
were “ooo’s and ahhh’s.”
I’m a commercial success
Why, you might even call
me a Christmas Star!
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