Monday, December 11, 2006

Deck the Halls with Boughs of Hollywood

I finally accomplished writing a column two weeks in row. This should appear in the Globe December 13th.

Driving down the street the other night I saw one of those inflatable snowmen in someone’s yard. These things are all over the country this time of year. However, the image in front of me was one which made it clear I was in southwestern Kansas. The snowman was bent so low to the ground he looked like he was tossing his icicles all over the grass. Inflatable snowmen are not tougher than the December Kansas wind. It’s good to be home.
As a young man I spent one Christmas season living in Santa Monica, California. Even with the name Santa in my mailing address the Christmas spirit was hard to muster. I worked in a mall, the repository of all that is tacky and sentimental for any holiday season, yet I still didn’t feel like the geese were getting fat. (It didn’t help that instead of hearing Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole’s mellifluous tones for some reason a pair of street performers were constantly dancing to Eddie Murphy’s “Party All the Time” in front of the bookstore which employed me.) Living six blocks from the beach is great in June and July, but after Thanksgiving the only tide I want to be concerned with is one of the Yule variety.
The Midwesterner out of Kansas feeling was brought home with stark realism one afternoon in mid-December. I had driven into Hollywood to do some Christmas shopping. (Tacky touristy items have an allure as stocking stuffers.) I came out of a store and looked to my left and saw Santa Claus ringing a bell standing next to a black pot. That’s not odd. The problem was he was wearing short pants! They were red with white fur trim, but Santa was wearing short pants! That is like Perry Como singing “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” That’s like Currier and Ives painting a picture of the Arabian Desert complete with camels and Bedouins. That’s like Rudolph having rhinoplasty which rivals Michael Jackson’s. That is like Santa Claus wearing short pants! Oh, sorry that’s what started this whole thing. I lost track. See how completely wrong it is?
Bermuda Santa wasn’t all. Soon after that shock I heard the convivial ringing of sleigh bells. Ahh, this is more like it. I looked onto Hollywood Boulevard and saw a pair of exhausted donkeys with bits of wood tied to their heads as antlers. While pathetic, I could live with it. You’d think in the very heart of make-believe and special effects someone could have come up something better than chair legs haphazardly attached to hooved critters to create fake reindeer. What made me want to hop the next sleigh to Kansas happened next. The donkeys were pulling a wagon with a dozen or so little kids sitting in it, southern California’s version of a hayrack ride, I guess. These little ones were not all bundled up singing Jingle Bells at the top of their lungs. Nope, they were riding along in silence. I noticed one little boy with a glint in his eyes. Maybe this guy had visions of sugar plums dancing in his head. Maybe he was dreaming of the Red Ryder BB gun he hoped Santa would deliver. Maybe a Lionel train set was steaming around the Christmas tree in his imagination. Then again, maybe not. I looked behind me to see what had his attention. He was staring at a window display, not a Macy’s window display from “Miracle on 34th Street.” Nope, it was a window display from “Sleazy on Hollywood and Vine.” It was the Frederick’s of Hollywood holiday panorama of unmentionables. I don’t remember anything else about the wagon. I was distracted for a while.
Growing up in a part of the world where Christmas is cold and even occasionally white allows me to buy into the images used in most all media versions of the holiday. What if I had grown up in southern California? All my memories would be of Santa in short pants and underwear mannequins. That would be sad. A kid I knew out there was eighteen years old and had never seen snow fall from the sky. She had seen it in movies and on television, but she had to take other people’s word for it. Snow falling from the sky is as mythical to a Santa Monica High School student as intellectual lyrics in a rap song is to anyone over forty. A southern California kid dreaming of a white Christmas is as likely as Snoop Dogg alluding to Jean-Paul Sartre’s seminal work “Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology” in his most recent release, “Kickin’ it with Kierkegaard.”

Christopher Pyle wishes everyone a wonderful holiday season, and points out the Grinch is pure existential myth. One Christmas he pushes the huge sack of Whoville Christmas trappings up the mountain only to find the next Christmas he must push it up the mountain again.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Sometimes we just need the Snickers to work

“Make the Snickers work” was scrawled on a piece of paper posted next to the candy machine in the lounge at work. The pain and suffering expressed by those four simple words was palpable. Novelists spend years of their lives trying to convey such emotion. They use thousands of words crafted, edited, and re-written with painstaking care in order to give the reader a sense of human longing, desire for the unattainable, striving for perfection. Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, even Danielle Steele, come up short compared to this anonymous author’s reaching out to powers greater than himself to make life worth living. Maybe I am overstating things just a bit. Dante was successful a couple of times.
When the candy machine keeps your sixty cents and does not dispense the chocolate confection there is a sense of loss and frustration, and you see the struggle against the powers that be as something fruitless, or at least candy bar-less. Your will to continue is called into question. You are a poorer individual, at least sixty cents poorer. The reason you forced yourself out of your chair, trudged up two flights of stairs and poked through a fistful of loose change is taken from you. The goal is now unreachable because all you have left is pennies. The coin return of life just springs back into place without the friendly clink of coins dropping into the tray for retrieval.
The metaphor illustrated by this experience is downright stark. The act of rising up from your chair represents the energy exerted to pull yourself up from the simple and mundane and move towards something greater than oneself, something of nougat sweetness. Trudging up the stairs is emblematic of man’s continual climb towards perfection, something akin to the Eight-Fold Path described by the Enlightened One, also known as Buddha. (Have you seen pictures of Buddha? It appears that dude had access to a whole bunch of candy machines.) The loose change symbolizes the cultural and economic tokens of achievement which are tools to an end, but should not be the goal in and of themselves. Picking through the coins is like pulling the greater achievements out from amongst the lesser ones, the quarters from the pennies, so to speak. Then our “Everyman” takes those great achievements (the coins) and uses them in trade (deposits them into the slot and pushes button 22) in order to reach his ultimate goal (the Snickers bar). He stands there waiting for the corkscrew shaped holder of his heart’s desire to rotate and gently drop it a mere six inches. Then all he needs is the energy to push aside the door and grasp what he has been working for his entire life. But no, the mechanism is still, the Snickers bar does not move. The goal is visible through the Plexiglas. It hangs there, mocking him, so close yet unattainable.
Now some people would not do what our friend did. A person of lesser character would grab hold of the machine and shake it in a craven attempt to aggressively take what was being kept from him. Others might pound on the glass protesting loudly the unfair and heartless treatment he was receiving like those earliest humans calling out to the moon as if it was a caring deity. The basest among us might have taken the nearest blunt object and burst through the boundary of glass and greedily grabbed not only the Snickers bar but also the mini chocolate donuts, the spicy barbeque chips…all the treasures in the machine without a single thought towards others. Others who, at this very moment, might be sitting in their office chairs dreaming of the time when their break will come and they can use their coins to purchase a little slice of heaven simply known as Funyuns.
Our hero did not care about his own achievements and dreams. He performed a selfless act. The call to powers greater than himself (the Candy Machine Guy) was not demanding repayment of his own lost coins. Nay, he used his energy to make a plea that the unsympathetic machine of life be repaired so others following in his footsteps would not suffer the ignoble pain of such horrible loss. This person did not place himself above others. He did not let his loss scar him and cause him to behave is a way which was beneath him. He simply and artfully wrote the words “Make the Snickers work” and left them for others to see. A sign of the danger one must face whenever one places too much worth upon a single goal.
Then again maybe he just hit button number eleven, got a bag of Skittles, and went back to work.