Thursday, December 27, 2007

Too Many Santas

When did Santa Claus become ubiquitous?

I know from watching old holiday movies like Miracle on 34th Street that he has been a department-store regular for years, and I understand that he must maintain some sort of intelligence network, given his ability to know when you are sleeping, etc. But this year it seemed like we couldn’t go anywhere without running into him. He made an appearance at our town’s Christmas parade in early December, and A.J. waited in line afterward to sit in his lap and make his Christmas wish. A week later, Santa was back--this time at the neighborhood kids’ Christmas party. Again, A.J. stood in line for another lap session. It was not long after this that I spotted a sign advertising a Santa appearance at the local Walgreen’s. When Santa starts showing up at the pharmacy counter, you know things have gone too far. I imagined a long line snaking through the dental hygiene aisle and past the shelves of Theraflu, leading finally to a beleagured man in red sitting near the rotating display of non-prescription glasses, handing out bottles of Xanax.

When we were getting ready for our annual weekend stayover in downtown Chicago, a friend asked me if we were gong to see Santa at Macy’s. I had to laugh. We’d had more than enough Santa by then.

But on Christmas Eve, just after the sun had gone down and we had put out a bunch of luminaria in front of the house, we saw an enormous full moon rising. It was a nearly perfectly clear night, and one thin tendril of cloud was scudding across the moon as it hung just over the eastern horizon. We told A.J. to keep an eye out for Santa’s sleigh in the sky and we all agreed that it would be wonderful to see him and his reindeer in mid-flight, backlit by the big yellow disk.

A.J. did keep scanning the skies, but made no sightings. And maybe I’m just projecting here, but I think he was happy to be merely looking for Santa and, for once, not seeing him.

Monday, December 17, 2007


All around our town, the pickups and SUVs have sprouted snowplows for the winter . After big snowstorms, you see a lot of stocking-capped men driving around, shovels up, in an almost priapic display of self-sufficiency. We had our second big storm of the season over the weekend, and already the endlessly salted streets are looking as bleached as old bones. I went out after lunch today to get a few Christmas gifts, and the sun was so low that it looked like it was getting ready to set by mid-afternoon. The snow is piled up in mounds in front of our house and we have some truly impressive icicles hanging off our ice-dammed gutters. We are in full winter siege mode here, and it’s not even really winter yet.

On Sunday morning, right after the latest of the big snows, I got out my skis and was able to ski from the front door to the river about a mile away. I went out onto the pier to get a view down the river, where just a few days before I had seen a wild swan swimming. There was no swan this time, but all down the banks of the river the tree branches, coated in ice, were silvery in the sun. When I turned around to head home, one of the men in the snowplow trucks was making his way toward the pier. He pulled up alongside me and rolled down his window. “I saw you go out on the pier,” he said, “and I thought you were going to jump in the river.” We both laughed, and I didn’t bother trying to explain about looking for the swan. But I skied home in the path his truck had made in the street, where he had scraped away the deep powder and left a slick, packed layer of snow and ice. It was the fastest and best skiing I had found that morning. Mr. Plow comes through again.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

At the Library

I spent part of my day yesterday working in the public library in the next town over. I do this every once in a while when I need to get out of my office at home and I don’t feel like overspending for over-roasted coffee at the local coffee house. The library is a good one, with a strong collection and plenty of welcoming places to sit and work. But something about spending my working day in a public library always unsettles me. At midday the crowd in the library consists almost entirely of women, small children and the elderly folks who prowl the periodical shelves. It’s like being the only able-bodied male left in a town where all the other men have gone off to war. You feel as if you have to explain yourself, account for your presence there.

A little while back, Michael Gorra wrote this tribute to the New England town library in the excellent online journal The Smart Set. I’m late in linking to it, but it’s still worth a read. Gorra is mostly interested in small-town libraries as relics of a Yankee past, and touches only briefly on the actual utility of these places for their patrons. I wonder what he would make of our library, with its multimedia “teen zone,” its sprawling DVD collection, its rows and rows of computer work stations. It’s amazing and it’s free and Gorra is right when he describes town libraries as remarkably “open and generous places.” But that doesn’t mean I can make myself feel like I belong there.