One thing I've forgotten about long drives is that they allow one to see how people across socioeconomic strata choose to decorate their yards. I say "choose" because this is -- unfortunately, at times -- a free country. And the word that best follows choose, in this case, is "badly." I suppose it's possible that a gang of psychotic unemployed interior decorators could be roaming the countryside, slinging plastic animals and wind-driven spinning tin contraptions into the yards of perfectly tasteful people, and then threatening to kill sweet Aunt Alma in Dubuque if even a single pink flamingo is taken down.
This possibility, friends, is more comforting than the alternative. The alternative is that grown adults willingly place a panoply of colorful plasticized garbage into their own yards, and they don't mind that people will see it.
In fact, I think they want people to see it.
I find that my mind is dulled to the occurrence of such yard schlock. I only began to take notice when I was startled out of my blindness by a horrific sight. In a yard smaller than my bedroom I saw a herd of plastic deer engaged in what appeared to be a rugby scrum, or perhaps a prison-yard rape, being overseen by the Virgin Mary, Santa, and an elite Gestapo corps of hostile-looking elves and wise men.
"Oh my," exclaimed the wife. A visible tremor shook her body. We debated briefly whether this was indeed a Christmas display unrestrained by taste, or instead some sort of radical statement against the commercialization of the Advent season. We concluded that the latter wasn't possible, because anybody who would inflict such a sight on his neighbors is most assuredly going to Hell.
Our sensibilities thus stirred, we each of us began to notice the myriad offenses against taste, and a reasonable home decoration budget, that littered the roadsides.
"Hmm, a glowing green Santa."
"Yes, and it looks like he's about to be beaten down by that crowd of imposter Santas congregating by the sled."
"I didn't see a sled."
"The littlest one, tucked over beside the El Camino up on cinder blocks."
"Thank you, Lord, that my husband can't fix cars."
"Doesn't look like hers can either."
We passed plastic Santas and concrete angels, little glowing baby Jesuses, more wise men than have ever truly lived (many more, according to my wife), and enough reindeer to make even PETA consider culling. As our trip lengthened, my faith in democracy diminished. But I began to think that perhaps all of these people are not afflicted with unchangeable bad taste; perhaps they simply don't know any better. After all, I know people who watched "Beverly Hills: 90210" and collected all of Duran Duran's albums, yet turned out to be relatively upstanding citizens.
What these benighted yard yokels need, in other words, is a Sand in the Gears Guide to Yard Adornment. As with all of my public service guides, please feel free to distribute widely:
1. Statues of well-known individuals. First, understand that idol worship is a sin, and that you will likely burn in Hell for having that five foot tall Virgin Mary in your yard. If that is the route you choose, however, you should at least accept that no religion recognizes the simultaneous existence of more than one Virgin Mary, and that this reality creates some obligation on you to limit yourself to one Virgin Mary as well.
I know, I know, Deke's Yard Emporium was having a two-for-one sale on all shapes and sizes of Virgin Marys, but decency requires you to keep one in your root cellar until such time as a gang of marauding Protestant teens steals the one in your yard.
The same rule applies to Santas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeers, and Frosty the Snowmen. Notice the difficulty in pluralizing these names. That is because they are meant to be singular, both in my writing, and in your yard.
2. Year-round Christmas adornment. If this applies to you, then you might as well start wearing jogging pants to work and letting that ear hair grow, because you have most definitely joined that class of people defined centuries ago by Gibbon as Loseratis Perpetuanatis, which in common parlance can be translated as: "losers who just don't care anymore."
Look, you aren't fooling anyone by not turning on those 11,000 light bulbs afflicting your house like leprosy. You may pretend, because it's June, that they aren't really there, but the rest of us see them plainly. If you have so many lights that you can't possibly take them all down at the end of the holiday season, this is not an indication that you should leave them up. It is an indication that you have too many lights. Because of people like you, poor Bangladeshi children don't have the lumens they need to read I, Rigoberta Menchu.
And what goes for the perpetually enlightened goes double for those of you with faux icicles dangling from your house. Basically, you have transformed your home into a doily. Now, if it looks dumb even during a cold winter's night, when its dull taupe glow evokes the frosting used by cameramen to make Cybill Shepherd look less old in the latter days of Moonlighting, then you must understand how ridiculous it looks hanging from your house in the summer. Show some self-respect, for God's sake.
3. Silhouette cowboys. The first time any of us saw a black tin cut-out of a cowboy, positioned near the corner of someone's garage or barn or home so as to emulate a real cowboy leaning against a wall, we most likely thought, "hmm, that was kind of neat."
But then, for most of us, a little part of the brain kicked in to evoke a thought, which probably went something like this: "but goodness, how tacky to have sitting in one's yard day after day. Surely the novelty must wear out quickly."
Unfortunately, this little part of the brain is inoperative in some people, which is why one cannot take a rural drive in the United States without passing at least one home afflicted by the silhouette cowboy. One need not enter the home to know that inside awaits a host of wooden chachkas of the "country craft show" variety, most incorporating either some dull maroon-painted wood, or dry stalks of wheat, or both.
I have no advice for such people. The best we can do is contain them, perhaps in a little colony isolated from society, and keep them mollified with an abundant supply of "Green Acres" re-runs, Precious Moments figurines, and boxy Oldsmobiles. They are in general a kindly and well-intentioned people, but they are deeply ill, and must be quarantined. This would probably require the closing of most rural roadside "antique" shops, but that is a price that I, for one, am willing to pay.
4. Broken transportation. The rule here is fairly straightforward -- if your neighbors can see your yard, then it is inappropriate to litter it with half-disassembled vehicles and farm equipment. Perhaps your mother didn't teach you to clean up after yourself, or perhaps you have been subject to a string of really bad luck that has left you, through no fault of your own, with seven non-working means of transportation.
The bottom line is that the rest of us don't care. Fix it and park it neatly, or call a tow truck. If you can't afford a tow truck, I'll bet your neighbors would be glad to take up a collection.
This rule, by the way, applies to bicycles, toy trucks, and those ridiculous wagon wheels people like to prop against their mailboxes. Think about it this way: the essence of manhood is the ability to make things, and to fix what is broken. Trust me, I don't like this, but it is what it is. Those of us who can't fix stuff can salvage some bit of manhood by earning the money to get it fixed. But we do so quietly. Placing all your broken, non-functioning equipment in your front yard is the equivalent of putting up a sign that reads "Impotent Male Lives Here." Not the kind of thing you want to advertise, I don't think.
5. Boats. There are lots of reasons to store a boat in one's front yard. Marina fees are too high. The kids and dogs need the back yard. God may send another big flood.
There are also lots of reasons to shoot one's neighbor. His dog barks too much. He ogles your wife. He leaves his stupid boat parked in his yard, such that it takes up a good portion of the view from your living room window. Yes, there are many reasons to shoot one's neighbor, but almost none of them are acceptable.
6. Play equipment. The only thing worse than a neighbor with fifteen different pieces of play junk in his front yard is a neighbor with fifteen different pieces of insanely brightly colored play junk in his front yard. Unfortunately, play junk only seems to be made of plastic, and to come in shades of violent bright red and acid-trip yellow. There are some wooden play contraptions, but people with the good taste to build or buy them also tend to have enough respect for decency to keep them in their back yards.
The owners of bright plastic swings and slides and crawl-through cubes, on the other hand, have no such sensibility. They pack their little brats into the Dodge Caravan, schlep up to Toys "R" Us, and buy whatever appeals to untrained rug rats hopped up on sugar and television (which explains the drug-trip colors). They schlep it back to their homes and sling it out onto their yards for the little beasts to climb on and under and over, and thus buy themselves a few hours of peace, most likely to be spent watching NFL football.
Listen, people. Your neighbors are sick of your plastic yard crap. The very rocks cry out from its offensive presence. Not only is it an eyesore, it is likely the source, with its myriad pools of rainwater, of 90 percent of the mosquito activity in your neighborhood. I am reasonably certain that if you truck it to the curb, your garbage men will cart it off to the landfill. Do us all a favor, be a real environmentalist, and get rid of it.
There. Now you can all go forth and decorate tastefully for the holidays. Maybe put some lights in the trees, a nice wreath on your door, perhaps some elegant electric candles in your windows. Remember, elegance is beautiful, and elegance is simplicity. This can be a lovely time of year, if we will all just show a little freaking restraint.