Category Archives: Holidays

Halloween, Christmas, and other occasions to celebrate

Miracle on 34th Street

It smelled like Christmas. I was out of the office for a rare lunchtime errand, and I had just turned the corner from Madison Avenue onto 34th Street. It hit me like childhood—the scent of pine. I couldn’t believe it as I looked ahead. Wreaths lay piled up on the sidewalk. At least a dozen newly harvested trees were leaning on a makeshift frame along the street. Long disused store windows from B. Altman’s were fully decorated with Christmas scenes. Five minutes later, after my errand, I walked through the scene again. Tourists were snapping photos to paste on Instagram, Snapchat, or Facebook. Clearly the people responsible were getting ready for the holidays extremely early even for money-grubbing New York. Of course, it was all a set for a television shooting. Working in Manhattan is like being on a movie set most of the time.

It isn’t at all unusual to walk through the line of trucks and trailers parked along one of New York’s lesser used cross streets on my way to work. I see set artists working to make a store front look as if a fire had recently broken out there. Famous people lurk inside their trailers until handlers can get them out and away from hoi polloi. We’re all actors here. This isn’t an authentic existence. As I walk through today’s Christmas set, I step past the homeless with their grocery carts full of their worldly possessions. They’re the only ones on this street who aren’t actors.

I’ve been working in Manhattan for six years now. The dizzying extremes of wealth and poverty juxtaposed hard up against one another is disorienting. We would rather live in a fantasy world than help those who are suffering in real time. Yes, there are people who dwell in hells of their own making. I’m not naive. I also know that we create hells for those we don’t like. Those who “underperform” or who don’t value mammon as much as a red-blooded American should. We cast out those who have mental problems and politely ignore them as they rage on the street corner. We do, after all, have to get to work. New York is an experiment in which the virtues and vices of humanity are concentrated and magnified. We then project it onto the silver screen for all to see and covet. But just off the set there are hurting people. They won’t appear on the camera, but they’ll be there after the crew is gone. If we wanted to, amid all these trees and wreaths, we could find a way to help them. We could make this world a better, more authentic place. It’s my Christmas wish that we will.

Of Fancy

Later today—at this time of morning the use of the word “day” feels ironic—I’ll be on a plane heading out of civilization. Well, to be more precise I’ll be flying to a place from which I can drive out of civilization. Airports only serve cities, after all. Until we get individual drone service to remote locations I guess we’re stuck with jets and their inconveniences. I have to admit I’m more nervous than usual about this. I’ve been reading the stories about airline thugs who, like terrorists, beat and drag passengers off the plane. I try to take extra care to choose an undesirable location on the jet—next to the restroom, for example, or really near an engine—so that an airline employee would rather wait for the next flight than to sit here. I remember when flying used to be fun.

One year I’d lingered a little too long with my girlfriend and I had to rush to Logan Airport to catch my flight to Pittsburgh for the holidays. Arriving maybe half an hour before my scheduled flight, like a pre-murderous O. J. Simpson I ran through the concourse with nary a TSA agent in sight. To the what I am now sure was annoyance of the other passengers, I arrived at the gate just as the door was closing. With a sigh they let me board. I tried to ignore the angry stares of those already seated and belted. We all made it to Pittsburgh, however, in time to celebrate with our families. Now flying means adding at least two hours to your travel time so that you can get through security that makes you feel no more secure. I’m frisked and prodded and made to feel guilty for doing nothing more than wanting to get away from civilization for a while. We call it civilization anyway.

The wait in the airport is the hard thing. They’ll offer wifi, but you’ll have to pay for it. I’ve trained myself to read on the bus, but when you’re awaiting the announcement of your flight when you’ll have to line up just like at the Port Authority, it’s difficult to concentrate on your book. You don’t want to be lost in another world when they call your zone. There are, after all, airline employees hovering, seeking empty seats. I remind myself at the end of this ordeal a lack of civilization awaits. This is why we do it, and there’s a reason we call it getting away. Time to end this flight of fancy and head toward an actual flight that will be anything but fancy.

Any Means Necessary

As one of his first acts as governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie cut the Access to the Region’s Core tunnel project. This was before he closed the state-run beaches so that he and his family to have one for themselves without Independence Day crowds bothering him. Liberty means something new these days, I guess. The ARC tunnel project was meant to ease some of the burden on those hapless zombies known as commuters. As a member of this undead class myself, I often think of the relief that never was as we sit, unmoving, just meters away from the Lincoln Tunnel, looking nervously at our watches wondering just how late we’ll be to work this time. Our elected “representative” leaders have no idea about the life of the average person. Having lived sequestered away among the rich and axle-greasers for so long they have forgotten that real wheels need to roll. Their bottom line is at risk.

Trump, apparently aware that torture and public transit go together, has nominated Steven Bradbury, the Bush-era policy architect, as his general counsel of the Department of Transportation. Known for his “torture memos” Bradbury has none of the charm of the sometimes macabre other Bradbury who had the courtesy of keeping his frights restricted to fiction. The most disturbing part of all of this is just how little our elected officials care about the people who keep this country going. Populism, still poorly understood, is what happens when people get fed up with business as usual. Easily duped, the average citizen can’t tell an “entertainer” from a genuine leader. The era of “I’m not a doctor but I play one on TV” has grown up and become truth. Doogie Howser where are you when we need you? It might be helpful to have Rex Morgan on hand after a session in the torture chamber.

Government has become a joke. Comic strip presidents gather the assorted nuts and dolts required build up a representative democracy, it seems. I used to tell my wife, back in January when things were bleaker than Poe’s December, that we could expect no less than outrage after outrage from a man whose sole motivation is to get people to look at him. We all knew jerks motivated by that in high school. The difference is that now they’re easily voted into office. Selfish men who will close down public parks so they can take the whole thing for themselves. They have no idea what governing is because they can’t understand that other people have wants and needs as well. Other people are for torturing when you’re bored. Sounds like a visit to October Country may be in order yet.

Liberty and Justice

I confess to being a bit vexed. How are we supposed to celebrate Independence Day under the Trump administration? Since January our government has demonstrated over and over and over again that it’s dearest desire is to pick democracy apart, to its own advantage. Making voting more difficult for those who oppose the Republican Party, gerrymandering to ensure local election victories, cutting their healthcare so that they might, well, just die off. Repeated and loud public protests do not impact them at all. When their own party moderates protest, they claim they’re collaborating with the enemy. The American people have become the enemy of the wealthy and privileged who want this country to resemble a country club, not a nation of liberty and justice for all.

How do we celebrate a country like that? Back in high school, my senior year, I won a state-wide essay contest. I got my picture in the paper and everything. I don’t have a copy of the essay, but I do remember that the topic was Americanism. Yes, the “ism” was part of it. Although I didn’t know Shostakovich at the time, it was my attempt at what he did in his fifth symphony. Looking back, it seems strange that a Pennsylvania statewide committee would select an essay so full of irony from a working class boy who was only too well aware of his own inferiority. Yes, there was irony in that essay, and anger. Carefully hidden. It sounded patriotic. The hundred dollar prize didn’t make a dent in my fall tuition bill.

Nearly four decades have come and gone since then. I’ve watch my nation teeter-totter between humane treatment of those left out by the system and offering kick-backs to those who by no definition need or deserve them. Until November of last year I’d never seen a nation stoop to the absolute abyss of cynicism in the election of Trump. Although President Obama had the grace to say that many people were obviously happy with the results, it was as if my essay—now lost and forgotten by all but one—had come true. Make no mistake about it—I’m a poor boy who grew up among the working class. As a teenager I could see, hear, and taste the hypocrisy. I hoped and dreamed that as I grew up so would my nation. It’s the fourth of July. Normally I would be celebrating Independence Day. This year, however, I’m only wondering what went wrong along the road to liberty and justice for all.

Mothers’ Daze

Washington’s war on women has made this Mother’s Day especially poignant. As hard as it is to believe, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell had mothers. I can’t comprehend any male being anything but grateful and humble in a woman’s presence. Don’t accuse me of idolatry—I know women aren’t perfect. Neither are men. Especially not men. Mother’s Day isn’t an excuse to treat our moms as less-than-special other days of the year. We sometimes forget that life is a gift. And we should always say “thank you” to those who give. Pregnancy isn’t easy on a woman’s body. Indeed, until recent times childbirth was the number one killer of women. At some periods in history female life expectancy was only into the twenties. Giving birth is a self-sacrifice. We would do well to remember that daily.

Social organization outside the home was conveniently male early on, but not necessarily so. Without our mothers none of this would’ve been possible at all. Why do we fail to give back when we’ve been given so much? Yes, our moms are special to us, but women everywhere are mothers, daughters, and sisters to all of the men out there. To be human is to be both female and male. How could we ever forget that? How is it possible to use woman as political bargaining chips as if one person has any kind of right to tell another how to use her body? When we look at mom do we see only a physical body? Do we not see a mind? Emotions? Love? How can we look into the face of all that and claim that men are in any way superior or deserving of more than their share of power and prestige? Mother’s Day should be a revolution.

I don’t mean to be combative, but I’ve been pushed into a corner. From my earliest days I’ve felt women were stronger than men. Being raised by a mother on her own can be a revelatory experience. I emerged with nothing but gratitude for the sacrifices one woman had made to be called a mother. If any men have forgotten that lesson, use this Mother’s Day to repent. If you’re alive to read this, or to share it, you have a mother to thank. And tomorrow’s no excuse to forget that and act as if this one day were enough to show gratitude to those who have taught the human race to love. It’s Mother’s Day, but so should every day be.

Independent Bookstore Day

Many modern mini-holidays are centered around things you might buy. I don’t mind that so much in the case of Independent Bookstore Day—of which I wish you a happy one. Quite by accident I found myself in an independent bookstore just last night, not aware I was prematurely celebrating. If anything might save us from the muddle we’re in, it’s books. We live in a society with plentiful distractions, many of them shallow. Books take some effort. They demand your time. They make you take some quiet space to think. Books came along with, and perhaps were the source of, civilization. Today we’re harried and hurried and frantic with an electric source of information and entertainment that never turns off. And we’re seeing the results of that playing out on an international scale. How different it would be if we’d grab a book instead!

The strange thing is that those inclined to action often suppose reading to be an utterly passive activity. The basis for human progress, however, has often been what someone has read. Surprisingly, books can be the source of progress. When we see reactionary elections taking place around the world, leaders who don’t read emerge as the hailed champions of regress. We’re living through that right now. Books can be dangerous. Think about it—you’re being given access, however briefly, to someone else’s mind. The combined power of minds is an impressive thing. If what I’m reading is anything to go by, the hive mind is a source of incredible strength. You want action? Put multiple minds together. There’s a reason that civilization has gone hand-in-hand with literacy.

In the wake of Borders going under, independent bookstores have started to make a comeback. Those of us who work in the publishing industry have to keep an eye on those numbers. A visit to a bookstore is all about discovery. Quite often I’ve walked in with a list in hand. When I exit my list has grown rather than shrunk, and the purchase I’ve made was likely not on the list to begin with. Independent Bookstore Day gives us a chance to think about how very much we do not know. Unlike those who claim power and brag that they don’t read, admitting that we have more to learn is the way toward progress. I may not be the most active man in the world, but I do recommend action in the form of getting to a bookstore. If we each do our part, we can’t help but to make the world a better place.

Happy World Book Day

In times of distress, as well as of joy, I turn to books. Since about November there have been more of the former than the latter, so I’m cheered that today is World Book Day. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has designates World Book Day to promote literacy internationally. If only the White House would pay a little more attention to the UN maybe the world situation would improve. In any case, books are always worth celebrating. At any given time I’ve got three or four book-reading projects going on simultaneously. Well, not literally simultaneously; I have books I read in the morning, different books for the bus ride, and books I read before bed. Often there are others scattered in there as well, such as books that I take with me in case I get unexpectedly delayed somewhere and want something to read. It’s a life full of books. It’s a wonderful life.

I can’t imagine enduring the mental vacuity that must come from not reading. It sounds like torture to me. Yes, I’ve occasionally been caught up in the action-packed episode of travel and adventure (or what passes for adventure for a guy like me). Hours spent with other people in locations not at home when there’s something to do every minute of the day. But then, when the fun’s over, I open a book. I read before bed even when I’m traveling, and since I’m an early riser I read before anyone else is awake. It’s a form of communion. Having access to the intelligent minds of others is a rare privilege that shouldn’t be scorned. World Book Day should be an international holiday.

Books, strictly speaking, didn’t necessarily originate as sacred texts. Very early in the process of writing, however, such holy documents began to appear. Civilization itself grew through the cultivation of writing. Bibles, Qur’ans, Books of Mormon—for all the troubles sacred texts may cause, they’re reminders of the importance of reading. And once reading starts, it’s impossible to stop. Reading is resistance to the Zeitgeist that’s haunting the politics of the day. Had voters been informed, it is absolutely certain, neither Brexit nor Trump would have happened. We need to read, and be seen reading. Ignorance is the final enemy to be defeated. Celebrate World Book Day. Wish people happy World Book Day. And for the sake of civilization itself, get caught reading.