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Greeting Card Emergency: Unhappy Holidays

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In a year that saw record foreclosures, tanking markets and soaring unemployment, it's hard to find a holiday card that quite expresses the vicissitudes of the year. Don't worry. Greeting card emergency solver David Dickerson is back to solve your holiday card dilemmas.


As 2009 grinds to a slightly despondent halt, we enter the season of holiday greeting cards. But what is there to say at the end of the year that felt like a depression in so many ways? As we emerge from the plummeting markets, major insolvencies and double-digit unemployment, it may be time to rethink that usually sunny season's greetings. Never fear, joining us in a minute is David Dickerson, formerly of Hallmark now a freelance greeting card emergency solver.

And we want to hear from you. We've got an email challenge going. If you've got ideas for cards that evoke both the season and the mood, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: You can also join the conversation at our Web site. That's at, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

David Dickerson joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you back.

Mr. DAVID DICKERSON (Author, "House of Cards"): It's great to be here, Conan. Neal, sorry.

CONAN: And I understand that - that's all right - in the spirit of the season, you've been thinking about exactly this problem, so happy better New Year.

Mr. DICKERSON: Exactly. Exactly. Particularly - and this is a request I get a lot. I - people will write in and say, you know, I need this - because this is something that the greeting card companies, because they plan really, really far in advance, don't actually have a lot of ability to be able to address. And in general, you know, a wall of really depressing cards wouldn't be that pleasant to be around, anyway.

So in general, this is the sort of thing you really have to deal with on a case-by-case basis with people, you know? And so that's what I was actually working on. Would you like me to give you one that I thought of on the way over here?

CONAN: Sure. Absolutely.

Mr. DICKERSON: I was starting to think of the different kinds of ways in which people are having bad Christmases. And a kind of a general bad Christmas I thought would be to start kind of light. If you want to share, you know, someone you know is having, like, you know, a divorce, I don't know, money problems, whatever it is, to just have - you get an old picture of Santa looking at a list. And, you know, his, you know, naughty-nice list or whatever.

CONAN: Right.


CONAN: Like a Thomas Nast Santa.

Mr. DICKERSON: Yes - and looking disturbed. And you can just add a thought balloon where he says, uh, oh, there's a shortage of nice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DICKERSON: And on the inside, it says, you know, a bad Christmas, at least you're not alone.

CONAN: Yeah. Well, we got this suggestion. We put out this as an email challenge, and Tracy(ph) in Virginia Beach wrote us to say, thought it would be fun to do a Christmas card that looks like an album cover titled "Tough Times Singers Sing the Songs of the Season," featuring "I Saw Mommy Mugging Santa Claus," "The Twelve Debts of Christmas," "Do You Owe What I Owe" - I like that one...


CONAN: ..."I'll Be Homeless at Christmas," "Jingle Bells Hocked" and "Have a Jolly, Jolly Pink Slip," but my husband said it was too negative.

Mr. DICKERSON: Oh, that's beautiful, though. Actually, what makes that work is it's not too negative precisely because these are all jokes. You're saying this kind of negative things in the context of what are essentially simple puns. It's funny, that's a time-tested formula for a good greeting-card-style humor. I was just working on today a bunch of cards for Jews who like Christmas.


Mr. DICKERSON: I was doing a very similar kind of thing with, like, songs for Jews who like Christmas. And it's always nice when you can get a cover like that because then you get 10 jokes for the price of one. It's very, very nice.

CONAN: Well, Tracy is going to want 10 percent when you steal that idea.

Mr. DICKERSON: Sure thing. That reminds me of another one. I was thinking of when - well, I was actually asked this at a live show I did once for a reading for my book. And one that I came up with was simply a more earnest one that said - on the outside, there are two things you ought to know: One, Christmas joy is optional, and two, I'm always here for you.


Mr. DICKERSON: Because I think you need to address the fact that people feel a lot of pressure, you know, to be happy. And, you know, there's nothing more lonely than, you know, being alone in a group full of people who are all going to go on famously...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DICKERSON: ...and the same goes true for, like, having a bad time when everything is jingling and shining.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. DICKERSON: And so to be able to address that and say, look, you can opt out and I at least will not judge you, I think, is a helpful thing to say and a kind of hard thing, again, to find at your local card store.

CONAN: You mentioned that, obviously, the greeting cards companies - you used to work at Hallmark - are working way ahead. I mean, they can't have these short lead times. Are people in Kansas City now working on Easter cards or, you know, spring training cards or something?

Mr. DICKERSON: Yes. Well, if they're still working the same way they were 15 years ago, yes, of course. It's been a while since I worked there. But - and I can't help but think that surely there have been technological advances that have sped things up a little. But it is surprising how far ahead you do have to work. And that reminds me of another thing, by the way, I came up with recently some regional Christmas cards.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

Mr. DICKERSON: Because again, this is something that a large card company can't always address because they're trying to sell cards everywhere and kind of blanket the nation and the world. And I thought of at least two, one for just for New Yorkers that says on the outside: I got you a card instead of a present. And on the inside it says: I'm not cheap, I just know you don't have room.

(Soundbite of laughter)


CONAN: A former New Yorker I can�

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DICKERSON: Yes. Exactly. Yes.

CONAN: ...didn't...

Mr. DICKERSON: That was as easy for me to come up with as looking around my apartment.

CONAN: There you go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DICKERSON: And the other one was for the Southwest. I grew up in Tucson. And I actually wrote this for my dad a couple years ago. And it just - it's called "The Four Seasons of the Desert." And it shows a suaro(ph) cactus, one with the arms...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DICKERSON: ...that says: spring - and it shows a suaro cactus. Summer, same suaro cactus. Fall, same suaro cactus. Winter, same suaro cactus draped in a few Christmas lights.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DICKERSON: And on the inside it says: Feliz Navidad, partner.

CONAN: That's good. I like that.

Mr. DICKERSON: Yeah. But again, you couldn't find that probably in your average store.

CONAN: We got this from Ruth(ph) and it might be just directed to her friends on the Daily Kos, a cover photo of Joe Lieberman looking stern, inside: the Grinch who stole Hanukkah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DICKERSON: I try not to be political.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DICKERSON: But that's very funny.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Here's one from Janet(ph) in Eagle, Idaho. We thought we had a great tag line for our card last year. On the front it said: Many things have lost value this year. And inside it said: But our friends continue to appreciate. And we had trouble...

Mr. DICKERSON: Oh, nice.

CONAN: That's nice. I like the pun on appreciate.

Mr. DICKERSON: That's very nice. You know, that reminded me of one that I was thinking of. I hadn't phrased it perfectly yet, but it was something like, on the outside it was going to say: At a time like this, all those Christmas specials with the message that it's not about toys really are true. And on the inside it says: And you can watch these for free online without any commercials for stuff you can't afford.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Very nice. Very nice. A little irony with your greeting.

Mr. DICKERSON: Of course. But it makes the pain go down.

CONAN: Now, let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. David Dickerson is our guest. He wrote about his career writing cards in "House of Cards: Love, Faith and other Social Expressions." And, of course, he's contributed to This American Life. And, well, he is a greeting card emergency solver. Let's get Jackie(ph) on the line. Jackie, with us from Detroit.

JACKIE (Caller): Hey. Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Jackie.

Mr. DICKERSON: Hi, there.

JACKIE: I actually made my own this year. I have a Shar Pei bulldog named Butch, who's quite chubby, quite fat, and she's lounging on the couch with a Wall Street Journal opened in front of her. And it says: Go ahead, take your time, catch up on your reading.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DICKERSON: That's really nice.

JACKIE: And, you know, that's really indicative of the Detroit area, so...

CONAN: Indeed. Yes.

Mr. DICKERSON: Oh, I'm sure. I'm sure.

CONAN: Plenty of people have time on their hands.

(Soundbite of laughter)


JACKIE: Yeah, that's true.

Mr. DICKERSON: Come to think of it, that's - there's actually a nice element there, like one - speaking of using a bunch of jokes all at once. Things you could do with your spare time.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DICKERSON: Just a list, like a top 10 list of things you could do, since you don't have a job. You know, write that symphony, you know, clean the gutters.

CONAN: Become a regular listener to TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. DICKERSON: That would be lovely. Exactly. And educate yourself that way.

CONAN: (Unintelligible) free now.


CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Jackie.

JACKIE: Oh, my pleasure, Neal. Have a good day.

CONAN: Bye-bye. There was a piece actually in the Wall Street Journal - it's funny she mentioned it - about your former colleagues at Hallmark. And they do apparently have a line now of difficult times cards.

Mr. DICKERSON: Oh, good.

CONAN: And there's a quote from a man named Mark Andrews, a product manager for Hallmark, who puts it: It was time to put on our economy hats.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DICKERSON: Sounds right.

CONAN: But there was another company, apparently the rival American Greetings Corporation. And they said: We have found consumers want to share warm optimistic hopeful messages during the holiday season and they don't have a difficult times rack.

Mr. DICKERSON: That's interesting. And that is the tough call. I mean, you're right. I'd be dying to see, you know, who does better this year, because that's a gamble, right, on what people want. My suspicion is that people will want to send the sort of - you know, they feel the pinch but want to express the joy.

CONAN: Hmm. Well, it also - doesn't it seem possible that this year you may get the season's greetings from your pal's the Smiths, you know, a box of those, and maybe just a few of these other ones?

Mr. DICKERSON: Right. Oh, absolutely. Exactly. And that's probably as it should be, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DICKERSON: If you just sent a whole bunch of cards that all say, you know: Merry Christmas, but, you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DICKERSON: ...eventually you'd start feeling like, maybe we shouldn't be just - maybe we should just cancel this year and just go straight to Festivus or something.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Lets' get to April(ph) on the line. April, with us from Muskegon in Michigan.

APRIL (Caller): Hi, thank you. I just received a great Christmas card from a friend. It was a sample that they send out for you to select your cards and on the opposite side it said: Money is tight, times are hard. Here's your sample Christmas card.


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DICKERSON: Nice. Very, very nice. Actually - yeah. Oh, that's lovely. And...

APRIL: Great uses of the freebies.

Mr. DICKERSON: Yes. That was - and it was a paper card then?

APRIL: Yeah. It was just the one - the front of it. You couldn't open it up...


APRIL: ...because it was a sample.

Mr. DICKERSON: Oh, okay. Oh, that's funny. Oh, that's wonderful.

APRIL: To pick out which ones you wanted to order.

CONAN: Ah, yes. Well - yeah. Yeah. The people who own the card stores may be sending all of those out this year.

Mr. DICKERSON: That's actually what I was - I was also thinking today that particularly in a time that sort of calls back to the Depression, which was also around the time that greeting cards first became really, really big, right, in 1920, you know, the �20s and �30s, that there's a way in which to call that back. I want to do a card of some sort that says something like, you know: A human being touched this, thought of you and was happy.


Mr. DICKERSON: You know, because the idea of this kind of the way you can share, you know, or something that says, you know, I held this the same way you're holding this now. And together, we can feel the warmth. Something like that, that shows this kind of shared physical connection that we so often miss would probably be really, really valuable at a time like this.

CONAN: April, thanks very much for the call.

APRIL: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking about...


CONAN: ...greetings cards appropriate for the mood of the season with David Dickerson. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Andrew(ph) in Wichita emails: Just a thought, wishing you a merry Christmas and an economic Easter. I think Andrew may need to work on that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DICKERSON: Actually, I was also - wanted to point out that, of course, it's not just economic hard times. Like, you know, it's just possible that you might have been discovered committing infidelity.

CONAN: Who knows? Text messages, maybe (unintelligible)

Mr. DICKERSON: Feeling irresponsible. And it occurred to me that I know a person or two who might be having an awkward Christmas. You know, not one that's crucially unhappy for financial reasons, although, maybe lose an account here and there. But because...

CONAN: Do you think it's cheap to fix those windows in an Escalade?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DICKERSON: You know, you're just sort of forced to, you know, show a photo of the family and maybe not everyone's happy. And I remember - so I thought of one that I think kind of works that says on the outside: Life doesn't happen on schedule. But on the inside: luckily holidays always do.

CONAN: Always do, David. That's good.

Mr. DICKERSON: Wishing you and yours a season with minimal distractions.

CONAN: That's, you know, that'd be exactly appropriate for some people.


CONAN: Anyway, let's talk with Jim. Jim with us from Delton in Michigan.

JIM (Caller): Yeah, hi.

Mr. DICKERSON: Hi, there.

JIM: I came up with a card that's got Santa Claus kind of - he's in the sleigh looking over his shoulder and he's got the Salahis(ph) kind of hanging over each shoulder. And when you open the card up, it says: You're invited to have a very merry Christmas.

CONAN: You're all invited.

Mr. DICKERSON: Oh, nice. Nice. You know, actually you just reminded me of one - another one that I was working on that would just work for sort of general cope, that would actually show someone having just been run over by a sleigh. And, you know, a sleigh, you know, but decked with, you know, jingle bells and all the stuff. And on the inside it said: when you're making your Christmas to-do list, make sure number one is survive.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Jim.

JIM: All right. Thanks.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Tasha(ph) in Little Rock emails: the stockings will be hung, but they won't be filled. The tree will be trimmed but not pulled in. The feast will be spread but not with a ham. For this year we'll be skimming by. But one thing we have they can't take away is the love we feel and the comfort of knowing they will always be near.

Mr. DICKERSON: Oh, nice. Nice. Actually, wow, that's - good work. I was thinking of something similar. I actually went sort of dangerously bitter because I thought of a friend or two of mine who is - who really is undergoing a tough time and doesn't want to deal with the Christmas thing at all.

And I thought sometimes when you want to send a message that's going to resonate, poetry actually helps. Sometimes, you know, the wrong kind of poem can trivialize a problem but the right kind gives something weight. And I wrote this thing I think that might work for some people and might help. It says: the holiday is not our friend. It doesn't know how far you'll bend and if you break, it doesn't make a move to catch your fall. But even when the season's rough, there are songs and light and love and stuff. So take the best and screw the rest and know that you can call.

CONAN: Hmm. And know that you can call. Reaching out again, it's that healing touch.

Mr. DICKERSON: That's the important thing in all. And it seems to me, like, even though this is a tough season for many people, you don't want to spread misery. You want to, you know, like, say, yes it's tough but here's a rope, here's a hand, here's hug.

CONAN: Judy(ph) is with us calling from Kalamazoo.

Mr. DICKERSON: Hi there.

JUDY (Caller): Yeah. Our problem is we've lost - we have friends who've lost a loved one, way too many this year and it's hard to find cards that aren't, you know, have a happy holly jolly Christmas. They're not going to this year.


CONAN: Right. There's going to be an empty space at the table.

JUDY: Yeah.

Mr. DICKERSON: That's - I was actually thinking about that, too, because there's not much you can do when you're facing that kind of aching loss, that really, really obvious gap. But I did think there's something about, like - at a time like that, that brings back mortality and brings back your awareness of every moment. And so something that says, when every memory counts, it's important to have good ones nearby.

JUDY: Oh, I like that.

Mr. DICKERSON: Right. It's something that I think would work with a photo of some kind of like holiday meal or, you know, the things we associate warmly with the holidays.

CONAN: So far, we've worked at Thomas Nast(ph) and Norman Rockwell, so...

Mr. DICKERSON: Exactly.

CONAN: There you go. Judy, thanks and good luck.

JUDY: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it. And David Dickerson, we wish you the best possible Christmas.

Mr. DICKERSON: I've had a delightful time, all things considered.

CONAN: No, that starts in a couple of hours. Anyway...

Mr. DICKERSON: Oh, great. Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: David Dickerson is the author of "House of Cards: Love, Faith and Other Social Expressions." He's a regular contributor to This American Life. If you'd like to see some of his short videos on greeting card emergencies, you can head over to our blog at

Tomorrow, Political Junkie day. Ken Rudin will be back and with a new trivia question, of course. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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