Friday, December 20, 2013

The Birth of Santa Claus and Elfin Coital Cotillions

Manny worked toy assembly for almost 100 years, but was still lacking the seniority needed to request a transfer.  Most of his confederates had been promoted without benefit of seniority to the plusher jobs of sorting, wrapping and loading.  But Manny suffered what in his mind could only be discrimination.
Like every other elf, he had started off working in a southern plant cataloging names and GPS coordinates, sometimes working with the women in the paint shops, once he spent three shifts in the mine with a jackhammer.  The work excited him, but the North Pole promotion was all he ever wanted.
The day he received notice to report to headquarters was the greatest day of his life, or so he thought until he arrived at vast complex of workshops.  All through school, during his apprenticeship and journeyman stints, he was considered the best of the best.  Never once was there a bad grade or a disparaging remark on one of his performance evaluations, so he had come to think of himself as a super-performer with above average intelligence, and remarkably diverse abilities.  The problem was that everyone who made the trip north was of like ability, intellect and talent.  Manny became one of ten thousand other elfin workers with no way to set himself apart from the others; the once “big fish” was now only a non-descript guppy in an ocean of other guppies.  
Disappointment breeds dissatisfaction which in turn breeds despair.  Manny quickly lost his innate elfin humor and instinctive smile.  His work never suffered from the depression that ate at his diminutive heart, and drained the life from his soul.  The last century of monotonous averages had drained him of the ability to enjoy even the great Feast of the Sleigh.  His participation in the social and sexual cotillions had become more of a labor than the festive relief and generational procreative events that they were intended to be.  His last three concubines had failed to conceive during the week-long coital dances.  This added to his deepening sense of insignificance and futility.
The only times that Manny felt any of his old self begin to stir was when he secretly binged on cookies and fudge and laced his cocoa with Irish whiskey.  Unfortunately what started as an emotional crutch became a habit and then an addiction.  His secret diet began to take effect on his body; first his face became puffy often reddened with hypertensive blush, then his weight blossomed adding inches upon inches to his once tiny elfin waist line.  As his addiction worsened, he became more and more isolated from the other workers, taking breaks hidden in corners where the smell of the sugar rich snacks and alcohol laden drink would not be noticed.  The more recluse and rotund Manny became, the more his personal hygiene suffered.  He allowed his hair to grow long and without the regimen of perms and dyes, his locks became wavy tresses of unkempt gray.  He retired his razor and shaving mug letting his facial hair grow as disheveled as the hair on his head.  The once proud elf had morphed into an arctic derelict.  
It was during the midsummer coital cotillion that Manny wandered near the genetics lab where they modified young reindeer to fly and luminesce their noses, nearly blind drunk, he never saw the normal size humans approach from his right.  The abduction was swift and violent; Manny would never have had a chance to resist even if he was able.
The lights of the hospital examination room blinded the middle-aged elf.  A sea of strange humans was busily measuring his height, weight, girth and body fat index while Manny laid helplessly strapped to a gurney.  Someone started an IV through a port in the top of his left hand.  He watched as the clear liquid snaked its way through the clear tubes and entered his veins.  A unexpected transformation instantly overcame the hapless elf.  His ordinarily clouded thoughts reached a clarity that he had never known in the past.  He was then flooded with infinite memories and experiences of lives he never lived; he reeled with the sudden revelations of talents and accomplishments never known before that instant.  His body shuttered and then relaxed. The human attendants released the restraints and helped Manny to sit upright.  The strange tall people that were once his captors, were now his saviors.
The tallest of the female humans stepped forward and took his right hand.  “You will never again drink alcohol, but the effects will take some time to work out of your system.  Are you feeling, okay?”
Her words were not the language of the North Pole, but he understood her perfectly.  What came as no surprise was that he could answer her in that same foreign tongue.  “I feel fine, although I do have the shakes pretty bad.  If you don’t mind me asking, where am I and why did you bring me here?”
“We have been waiting a long time for the change to take place.  You have much to learn in the next six months, so we had better get started.”

The explanation that followed answered questions asked by children the world over.  Manny became Santa #4,258,165 with the responsibility for the villages of the Pyrenees Basque Country.  The impossible task of delivering toys to the children of the world was never left to one supernatural Santa Claus with a supercharged sleigh and bottomless sack, but to an army of elfin mutants driving genetically altered reindeer.  Merry Christmas, and I bet you never knew where baby elves came from.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

My adolescent encounter with the REAL Santa Claus

Last month, I recycled that fowl story of how my little burb in the mountains shot and killed Tom Gobbles, our beloved town turkey in celebration of Thanksgiving.  Well, it’s December, which means it is Christmastime, so if you would indulge me, I would like to recycle my real-life childhood story of when I met Santa Claus.  Before your imaginations run wild, he was not the rotund, pink-cheeked icon of Norman Rockwell and Coca-Cola fame; I am talking about the real honest-to-goodness, flesh-and-blood Santa dude.

I grew up in a not-so-well-off family.  My father was a career military intelligence officer who suffered (and eventually died) from a rare form of adult onset Muscular Dystrophy.  Translation: Our family lived on an enlisted man’s Air Force salary.  Because my parents thought it would be fun, they procreated and procreated until we had to buy a mismatched chair to seat all seven of us at the enameled dinette table with both extensions pulled.  We were certainly not the Rockefellers.  Hell, we weren’t the Rockefellers’ immigrant lawn care guy’s family.  We were a tad on the poor side.

Back in the days when I was still trying to figure out how a fat magical elf got down the chimney that did not exist on our 1200 square foot house.  (Yeah, I know, all those kids in such a vast and expansive space.  No matter how well-developed your imagination is, you still wouldn’t know the half of it.)  Okay, back to Christmas.  When that mythical criminal would break and enter into our house in the dead of the night, he would leave under the tree one real present for each of the Kent kids, plus a variety of gift wrapped packages of the ever so popular underwear and socks.  We did get to have our Christmas stockings “hung with care,” but on the headboards of our beds (no fireplace, no mantel), which surprisingly would be full of walnuts, apples, and an orange each and every year.  I doubt Charles Dickens could have written a grander Christmas than the one had in the Kent mansion.

As the herd of Kent clan grew and matured, the idea of a single Christmas present never diminished in importance or necessity.  I remember when I first got married and witnessed my wife buy dozens of gifts for her daughters; I thought that was like the oddest thing in the world, not to mention that it was my money buying all that stuff.  And to top that, none of it had come from W. T. Grants or F. W. Woolworths; she bought all of that crap from the mall.  But this story has nothing to do with me as a married man; it is about me as an awkward boy barely into his teenaged years.

Part of this may surprise you, but I was the consummate geek in those days.  I was into books, writing, science and knowledge of every mundane field I could find.  I did participate in the requisite male adolescent sports of baseball and football, I hunted and fished (we supplemented our groceries with subsistence meats), and had a moderate, albeit nerdish, social life, but most of my time was spent in the basement in my “lab.”  This was no ordinary child’s chemistry set type lab; I worked from college text books, scientific journals, used professional glassware; I had three fire stations for etnas and Bunsen burners, a cache of over 200 chemical compounds, four microscopes, medical quality dissection tools and all of the necessary safety equipment.  I had pilfered much of the stuff from an uncle who worked in some industrial laboratory and a cousin who was studying pharmacology, plus I saved every dime made on paper routes, mowing lawns, shoveling snow, and bagging groceries to buy from our Hobby Lobby store, and occasionally from an assortment mail-order distributors that could no longer exist in this new age of terrorism and meth labs.

In the February before I turned 14, my father died from his lifelong illness, and life around the Kent house got a little more difficult.  We had moved across town to a larger home before he died; Mom benefited from his widow’s pension and some modest life insurance.  But as I was fourteen, my older brothers were 18 and 20.  They weren’t around much between jobs and girls, so I became the de facto male head of the household and left to deal with my mother’s worsening depression.

As we neared this first fatherless Christmas, I began my search for my single gift that would be both affordable to Mom and utile to me.  Earlier I mentioned the Hobby Lobby where I bought test-tubes, beakers, microscope slides and the like; the proprietor had long ago shared with me a catalog from a scientific supply house.  Among the harder to acquire and obscure instruments and gadgetry, featured on the back cover was a chemical resistant laboratory table complete with a pegboard backstop with hangers designed to hold my precious vials, crucibles, condensers, burets and thistle tubes.  That professional quality table would be the perfect addition to my growing laboratory.  That was to be my Christmas.

The single present tradition defeated the necessity of secrecy, surprise, and Santa myths, so I had shared my idea with Mom months in advance so that she could budget and timely order this rare find.  When the time arrived, I accompanied Mom down to Hobby Lobby to place the special order.  The proprietor had us wait so that he could call the distributor and be sure there were no price changes or similar problems.  There was one big problem; my catalog was out-of-date, and my coveted laboratory table was no longer available.  Apparently it had been discontinued due to the shrinking population of at-home laboratories and bookish geeks like me.  My meticulously researched and carefully selected present wasn’t manufactured anymore, and given the late date, I was hopelessly uncertain as to how to go about choosing something else.

Mom immediately started discussing alternatives of which there were none in my mind.  Eventually she posited the idea that we “make our own” lab table.  This was in the days before Home Depot and Lowe's, so we headed out to the Fair Grounds Plaza and the Channel Lumber Store.  We checked in every department, but found no kits, no plans, and no pre-fabs, nothing that, even with my ample imagination, and modest skill with power tools, could suffice for a suitable laboratory workspace.

Dejected and defeated, we started back across town with empty hopes of discovering some way to salvage the holiday for me.  Mom took an alternate route back to the house; she drove down Levis Drive a/k/a Holbien Hill, through my middle school’s parking lot, and winding out through the neighborhood onto Mill Street where she spontaneously pulled into French’s Lumber, our local contractor’s supply.  This was not a large store, nor was it really “public friendly,” but Mom jumped out of the car and I shuffled along to listen to the expected discouraging words of hopeless dreams. 

Inside, the leather-aproned clerk was attentive if not friendly, but he had no more workable ideas or ingenious solutions than the nicer people out on the highway.  There was simply nothing to buy, nothing to build, nothing to hope for, or dream about. 

And that’s when I met him.

He was tall and clean shaven, with a small round Budweiser belly.  He was dirty with dried sweat, his clothes soiled from saw dust, and from the smell of things, he apparently was estranged from his can of Right Guard.  This was not the kind of stranger that children would clamor to sit on his lap and squeal their insatiable wishes to, but then again, he really was Santa Claus.

See, he had been listening to our frustrated conversation with the store attendant and stepped in to interrupt.  It seems that the persona that Santa had adopted on that December afternoon was that of a hygiene-challenged contractor engaged in the construction of the new Vo-Tech high school out in Burlington Township.  In his unique and magical tradition of making Christmas happen for everyone, everywhere on Earth, my Santa claimed that “his company” had recently finished building the science department at the new school and that he had just enough materials left over to make one very special lab table. 

He had me sketch a facsimile of what the obsolete catalog showed as the exemplar table, and then he skillfully added the new features of a built-in light fixture and grounded electrical outlet; he increased the dimensions of the table top and the pegboard storage area, and finally inquired about the price the supply company had been asking for the now defunct table.  He agreed to build my table for half the cost of the catalog price.

My point is simple, as you muddle through this season, and all of the seasons that follow, don't be afraid to show a random act of kindness.  Sometimes the simplest favor can result in a life-changing feat.  That Christmas was never intended to be a merry holiday; Dad had gone home to Heaven, Mom was an emotional mess, my older brothers were orbiting the family nucleus in ever expanding apogees, my face was beginning to erupt in the blemishes that would plague the rest  of my teen years, and my little brother and sister were more orphaned than you would logically expect.  No one expected a grand holiday, but the Spirit of Christmas arrived and changed everything.  As Francis Church said in 1897 as part of his iconic editorial addressed to the eight-year-old daughter of Dr. Philip O'Hanlon:

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.  He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.  Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus.” 

You see Santa exists in me, and in you, and in everyone; not only in the weeks before the Winter Solstice, but he is alive every day of the year.  The mythical, magical Santa is that ethereal feeling that drives charity, goodwill and generosity.  If you feel his magical spirit start to invade your psyche, and you are even tempted to touch someone’s life with what might seem to be the most insignificant favor, yield to him, because for that moment, you become Santa Claus.  Besides you never know when your simple deed might make some old writer and editor look back on his youth with nostalgia for the day he met you in French’s Lumber.

As we say in my Faith and in our tradition, Merry Christmas, but feel free to edit my words to whatever saying might best convey my sincere wishes for joy and happiness, today and every day.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

This is a Christmas like no other I have experienced

Tis the season!

I have been pondering for days what to write for this Christmastime letter and post.  I have a cache of stories some filled with joy and optimism and some filled with loneliness and remorse.  To be honest, each of them have been started and deleted in the past few days.  Nothing felt right as I started to string these letters together in my typical misspelled fashion.  You see this is a Christmas like no other I have experienced and I am not sure exactly what to feel.

Thirty-five years ago, I was still living in my childhood hometown surrounded by family and friends.  The holiday season had morphed from the exciting children’s myth of magical elves, through my adolescent revelations of gift givers and gift giving, solidified itself in my Faith and Salvation, become a burdensome event that had to have both money and time carefully budgeted, and finally evolved into strained and eroded family event at Mom’s where my siblings gathered dragging along unfamiliar love/like/lust relationships that may or may not endure for more than one season.  Christmas had lost some, but not all, of its magic for me.

It was roughly in that timeframe when I met an attractive waitress who worked at the restaurant where I was the master chef.  She was somewhat older than me with two preteen daughters.  She was my guest at Mom’s holiday table that year and had to be introduced and subjected to the Kent family eclectic humor, noise, chaos and occasional disagreements.  In the years following that meal, the waitress and her daughters became my family, the Christmas feasts were at “our” house, and the magic was rediscovered in the girls, their eventual husbands, and finally in the eyes of the grandchildren they bore.

But the magic of the season tends to ebb and flow.  In the interim years where my marital family supplanted my childhood family and I moved away from New Jersey to build a life in Florida, both my older brothers passed as did my Mom (I lost my father in 1969).  The “happily ever after” part of my story wasn’t well-written and as you know, my wife of 32 years and I have split up; the magic I so desperately seek has been displaced once again.
Christmas in all of its permutations has always been an important time for me; yes, I have had some sad ones and some lonely ones, but taken as a whole, it is a favorite time for me.  When my wife left, I purposefully asked her to take all of the Christmas d├ęcor she wanted and to sell the rest.  I figure that if I am starting a new life, either alone or with someone else, the visual icons of the season should not be a reminder of my “Dickens-esque” Christmas pasts, but reflective of my Christmas present and Christmas futures.

So here I am with a decimated financial budget, what I once called family is permanently estranged, I have only a single wreath made by my oldest brother before he died, a tole-painted plaque that my sister made, and a few seasonal CDs that did not take the ride south to Florida.  Am I sad?  Am I lonely?  Am I disappointed or angry?  No, believe it or not, there is a swelling deep in my chest; it is that magical feeling of Christmas still alive and growing.

I have a new life ahead, so there is nothing for me to be sad about.  I have a sister and a niece, a brother and his lovely wife, and wonderful, supportive friends all over the globe, so that I will never be lonely.  I survived 32 years of marriage to a great friend, and although there were and are difficulties that make continuing our marriage impossible, I have no regrets or anger over the outcome.  This is a Christmas like no other I have experienced, but there is still the magic, and come what may, I am going to make the most of it.  I suggest you do too.

Wherever you are in life, take time to feel that magic; the joy, charity, fellowship, and goodwill of this season.  Christmas is a metaphysical mirror, what shines from within is what is reflected back.  Celebrate the spirit and magic with everyone, not just your family and friends, but with those less fortunate than yourself.  It is easy to spread cheer: infect someone with your smile and greeting, drop an extra quarter in every red bucket you pass, buy the coffee for the person behind you in line, pay some family’s layaway balance, be a little extra courteous while driving or shopping, over tip your waitress, or volunteer at a shelter or Ronald McDonald House. 

Granted, it could be just as easy to find all of the reasons to ignore the magic.  Grinches run rampant this time of year: memories of loved ones lost, happy times gone, money issues, health issues, even those underwear clad bell ringers on that stupid commercial.  But to don a grimace, to defeat the joy, and find disdain for the celebratory air of Christmas, that is NOT the face I want to see in my metaphysical mirror; this may be a Christmas like no other I have experienced, but I can still feel the magic.  Tis the season!

Merry Christmas, my friends!