Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, a stone’s throw from Chain Bridge, were stirrings of not quite joy.

I must have been about the sage age of 10 when our family gathered to sing carols ‘round the tinsel-shimmering tree bought at the Optimist Club lot, bedecked with ornaments purchased at Kann’s Department Store.

Butterflies tickled my belly as I anticipated my first electric guitar from National Pawnbrokers and a trendy madras shirt from Virginia Square’s Herbert’s Youth Fashions.

What I got, however, was a lesson that the season of joy doesn’t come without rules.

As the five family vocalists sat cross-legged on the floor to belt out the solemn hymns, I was hit with a brainstorm. To display my brilliance, I “edited” some lyrics. “We three kings of orient are; tried to smoke a rubber cigar.”

Which prompted my almost-as-brilliant brother to add his own improvement: “While shepherds washed their socks by night.”

Then I “adjusted” the hymn “Gloria in Excelcis Deo” to ask, instead of “Shepherds, why this Jubilee?, my own “Shepherds, basically, what’s the scoop?”
Without missing a beat, my sister chimed in, “Who, what, when, where, why and how?”

Dad and Mom, we quickly perceived, were not amused. My mother, who was conserving her energy for the drive to sing in the midnight service at St. George’s Episcopal Church, wagged her finger and scolded. My father lectured us on our lack of maturity and sense of proper timing.
We had to stifle our giggles. But the reprimand stung.

In retrospect a half-century later, I’d like to concede their point. The holidays are a time to cut loose — but only to a point. Some rules I’ve grown to respect since ignoring them as kids: Arrive for the extended family dinner on time. Don’t bad-mouth your neighbors for starting their Christmas decorating before Thanksgiving — it’s a free country.

Debating whether blue lights on white fluffy plastic Christmas tree branches reflect good taste is snobby. And when the whole clan sits down on Christmas Day to open the packaged loot beckoning under the tree, have whoever plays Santa pass them out one at a time. That gives others a chance to witness the recipient’s pleasure at unwrapping a well-targeted gift. The alternative is chaos and shouted thank-you’s that go unheard.
So it came to pass that on that Arlington Christmas I learned that love blossoms better with some rules.

Decades later, when I was singing around the tree with my own young family, my daughters lapsed into a chorus of “Jingle bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg.”

My wife and I let it pass. Yes, Virginia, during both those memorable Christmases, there was still plenty of comfort and joy.

***

Some tea-leaf readings from the Dec.15 County Board meeting’s affectionate send-off to five-year member John Vihstadt.

Before a full audience of purple-shirted Vihstadt fans, Chairman Katie Cristol praised the defeated independent as “an extraordinary listener.” Christian Dorsey said the detail stickler “encouraged me to be my best self.” Erik Gutshall thanked the record-setting “nice guy” for teaching him “how to work a room and get a laugh out of a crowd.”

Libby Garvey called Vihstadt “the real deal” who “puts community first.” She praised him again for helping cancel spending on big projects like the streetcar. And she vouched that his “third way” is the future in our divided politics.

Vihstadt himself said, “You have to know when to hold ‘em, when to fold ‘em, and when to show ‘em” as he jokingly lived up to his reputation by pointing out a missing period in the board’s legislative platform. “I want to make sure there is written documentation of all this high praise from colleagues,” he added. “I’m not sure it will come in handy in the future, but we’ll see.”