Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Big Fat Liar

A friend sent me a dozen photos of various fake Santas tolerating a raft of screaming, squirming, terrified children reaching piteously for their parents. Why do kids cry at the sight of that man in red? When I was little I didn't want to find out: I clung to my dad's leg and never let go.

My dad, who had been mad that very morning because I poured maple syrup into his snowblower, stood grimly in line, promising Santa Claus. Then came the very unconvincing bait-and-switch.

The tipoffs were glaring: I knew well that Santa only comes once a year, in the night, while you sleep, and only if you're asleep. Now, suddenly, Mr. Secretive is hanging out in the middle of the mall surrounded by blinking lights and paparazzi while three stone-faced clerks, serious as mafiosi, collect payoffs from the adults? Dad tried to coax me into the red stranger's outstretched, gloved hands as I realized I didn't know what happened to all those kids who were in front of me in line. I scanned the room. They were gone.

It's a trap!

I didn't think for one second that this impostor was Santa. That cheap suit, his saggy false beard that smelled of pastrami—flying reindeer couldn't have convinced me he was for real. In my hometown, Santa Clops was double-parked on seedy downtown Central Avenue, his "workshop" a crooked plywood house on two wheels, with a trailer hitch for a front porch. This itinerant hustler was obviously ready for a quick getaway. Slick Nick.

"Don't talk to strangers. They might snatch you," warned everyone from my mom to my teachers up until now. Well, no one could be stranger than this guy: obviously in a disguise, no verifiable address, and he wouldn't fit down my chimney if I tamped him with a ball bat.

This was my parents' second attempt. Just two months ago, after a short lifetime of being told it was dangerous to accept candy from strangers, they dressed me up as a bunny—the world's most irresistible prey—and tossed me outside into the dark Halloween night with instructions to go door-to-door extorting candy using vague threats. What "trick?" Was I, yellow bunny-boy, really going to instill dread among the witches, zombies, and French maids?

Still, the strangers gave me lots of candy, and having just read Hansel and Gretel I figured they were only fattening me up for next year.

Kids are highly sensitive. They are aware of ghosts when you aren't. They have friends you call imaginary only because you can't see them. Of course these kids scream when handed to Scam Santa. It's the random clueless happy kid that you want to pull aside and groom for a future on the city council.

I'm grown now, tall and strong enough. One of these days I'll get up the courage to face that fat liar. "Okay, Whoever-You-Are Claus," I'll say meanacingly, "come clean—what did you do with all those children?"

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Domino Effect

My Christmas shopping felt different this year, hectic but detached. It's nothing like that year where moms were beating each other up to get a Cabbage Patch doll, or the Great Crush of 2000 when everyone battled to get a Playstation, fighting as if it was over an oil-rich country.

I was hit by the domino effect. It would be rude to tell you which store, but they specialize in curiously unpopular things at a discount—things that seemed like a good idea at the time, but didn't sell. Things like avocado-colored bowls, pink area rugs and two-foot-tall wine glasses.

They had a row of creepy-looking dolls, perfect for giving that special child on your list who has nightmares. The dolls were baby-sized and wore baby clothes, but had oddly adult expressions—unsmiling, unfeeling, uncomfortable, much as if you locked a midget in the freezer.

Right next to them was a lunchbox-sized tin full of dominoes. I thought it would be really funny to tip over the whole box with my finger. Get it? But the domino box didn't fall over. It was heavy and oddly stable, as if it were magnetized to the shelf. It just kept sliding around as I pushed it. Thanks to my determination to complete the sight gag, it finally toppled over, but twisted a little first and bumped a row of—I didn't get a good look at what they were, because the first one fell forward off the shelf right at my face, and in lunging to save it I knocked it too far backwards, and it tipped the rest of them down, one by one in a row, and then they all slid off the shelf, one by one. I used to be a pretty good juggler, so I kept up with the raining boxes for a few seconds, but then they spilled over the side into the scary dead midget dolls, who then lunged at me like a single-file army of zombie babies.

My friend watched all this without expression. "Man," she said finally, in the eerie quiet that followed, "those are good dominoes."

I ended up buying the dominoes. I figured if I could harness their power, I could rule the world. For half price.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Holiday on Ice

One thing I do to get in the mood for Christmas is to visit my friend's import store in the Old Market of Omaha, a district full of restored old warehouses, originally built for customers who bought flour by the sack and nails by the barrel as they prepared for their trek across 1200 miles of prairie, hard dry ground thin as an old man's head. Now each building is filled with quirky shops. Not one Burger King. (Last summer a Jimmy John's crept up to the border like a cockroach but we'll get that burned down in no time.)

I like to shop there at night, on a Monday or Tuesday, because it's quieter then. But this week it was beyond peaceful. It was eerie.

"It's December, and I just had my two slowest days in memory," my friend said with a shrug. There had been a sales party the night before, for which she had bought a case of wine. She had 21 bottles left over. "Want some?"

"Heck yeah!" It's fun to drink wine and shop. We discussed the pall that is hanging over the city. Just a week ago a dissatisfied teenager stole his dad's illegal rifle and shot eight people dead from the top of the escalator in a busy shopping mall. He may turn out to be the Grinch, stealing not just lives but the entire good cheer of the season. It is definitely a holiday on ice.

We gossiped until well past closing time, when a forecast ice storm began living up to its reputation. As I walked the short trip to my car, ice-rain rapped my head in fat, gluey drops. I didn't notice until I got home that they had frozen to my hair like little jewels. I felt like Bo Derek.

I crawled into bed and gazed out the window, which was a surprisingly bright gray-green.

I live on a busy street. As I awoke this morning it was unusually quiet thanks to the ice and snow. We were to have a poetry and prose reading event at the bar I own, so I checked in with the artists. They wanted to go ahead with the event, ice or not, Grinch or not. So on we'll go. I think we need the reading, the writing, the listening, the singing—we need to connect with real people, not hide at home typing virtual conversations. The TV isn't going to cut it right now. We need real live life.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Connected

I just got off the phone with my internet provider's technician. She troubleshooted (troubleshot?) with me for twenty minutes, and although it was never proven, she decided I needed a new modem because mine was—holy cow!—five years old. She said it as if I were trying to stuff a cassette tape into my DVD player. Apparently, in Computerville, my modem is Methuselah. Never mind that the modem worked fine just last week. Never mind that I just added a wireless router, which I'm quite certain aliens are already trying to hack from the comfort of their home planet. The router can't be the problem because—ta daaa—my internet provider doesn't sell routers.

This fiasco was softened by the fact that the tech person had a wonderful, soothing voice. Sometimes I didn't hear what she was saying because I was so enjoying not the words but the sound of them. After I hung up I came to my senses.

I poked around my records. It turns out my modem is only a couple of years old, which the equivalent of my age in Peopleville, and although I'm not blazingly fast, I still work all right. And after shutting things down and starting them back up in various combinations, the internet is back at my disposal.

So I called Internet Provider back to cancel that shiny new modem, and this time I got someone who sounded just like Scooby Doo. "Ruh-roh! Rats rincompatible rit your rinternet corrrrrection!" My mind drifted again as I realized Scooby Doo sounds just like Astro from The Jetsons. And they both sound like Tom Brokaw.

I decided I'm lucky that I have the problems I have. Some people's problems go beyond modem compatibility issues. And I suppose dogs are lucky to be talking at all, speech impediment or not. And Mr. Brokaw seems to be getting by just fine as he is.

As I'm literally counting my blessings, eight innocent holiday shoppers were shot dead in a mall less than a mile from my house, randomly picked off by a nineteen-year-old kid who had lost his job at McDonald's. Male, female, young, old—most didn't even know they were being fired upon, because that doesn't happen in the mall in Omaha.

I've lost my speaking voice thanks to a cold. And my e-mail is down again, maybe thanks to my Stone Age modem.

Right now, I can live with that.