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(Dec. 13, 2006)

O, star of wonder
Star of light
Star with royalty beauty bright. . .

          So the 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 various writers.
          Here is how the Cedar Fort 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 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 shock.
          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.
          Merrrrrrrry Christmas, Rip!


          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.
          Here’s why:
          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.)
          (Merrrrrrrry Christmas, Rip!)
          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 regular income.
          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? You betcha.
          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 other people!
          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 Carol 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 at last.
          Why, you might even call me a Christmas Star!

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