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David Sedaris was right. Except for one thing.

David Sedaris wrote the final word on Christmas. Santaland Diaries. An essay, rife with snarky cynicism of the season. And sarcasm directed at Sedaris’ own sad-sack persona. Words drawn from his tenure as an elf working at the heels of a department-store Santa Claus.

There was just one thing missing.

As 2018 – a disaster of a year by all measurements – slinks off the calendar, tens of thousands of rental Santa Clauses have now returned to their regular lives. Me among them. Yes, I spent two hours as Santa at Record Archive one Saturday.

Like any adult, I would have preferred to play Krampus, the Central European goat demon who punishes bad children. And, in some versions of the story, eats them. But Dick Storms wanted to be Krampus, and he’s co-owner of Record Archive, so he got to be Krampus. Very few of us are ever in position to choose our own mythologies.

Santa’s throne was in the Archive’s Backroom Lounge. I sat in front of a Christmas tree as a college vocal group meandered through the huge store, singing a cappella versions of Christmas carols. The two young daughters of the Archive’s other co-owner, Alayna Alderman, were dressed as elves and luring other kids into sitting still for a few moments to get candy canes painted on their faces. The whole scene was short just a few Christmas images – say, orphans eating bowls of gruel – from having snow spontaneously fall from the ceiling.

I looked like a convincing Santa. It was my long beard, which is real, that got me the gig. Otherwise, Santa costumes are over-engineered to compensate for any operator shortcomings, the better to preserve the fantasy. Rented suits come with a slight odor of disinfectant, for which I am grateful. Or perhaps it is mothballs. Opting out of the fake beard may have been a mistake, because it hooks onto the white wig, keeping both in place. Without that strap, over the course of two hours I could feel my wig slowly slipping down the back of my head, taking my pointy cap with it. One of my co-workers came to the rescue when the white ball at the tip of the cap got stuck in the throne.

Santa’s suit is a heavy fabric, calling for suspenders to hold up his pants. He also straps on prodigious padding, much bigger than the vests worn by members of a SWAT team. Sitting under the hot Christmas lights for two hours, a holiday icon can cook to medium-well done. It’s a ridiculous get-up. Santa does not dress like a deliveryman who arrives at a house expecting to be greeted by a middle-aged woman wearing lingerie and smoking a cigarette.       

The Backroom Lounge quickly filled with celebration. The vocal group did “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” or one of those relentless chestnuts, as customers sat at the bar examining the Taylor Swift albums in colored vinyl they’d just purchased for teenage daughters. If you haven’t been in a record store for a couple of years, it is true, everyone’s buying vinyl again.

And the kids came to Santa. Some were just months old, this was their first Santa. I had to make it a good one or their Christmases would be subliminally poisoned for the rest of their lives. The parents propped up the kid on my lap and took pictures. I didn’t drop one, and only one or two cried. Some were shy, and had to be coaxed by their parents. Some bounded up the two steps to my throne, hope-filled eyes shining like Ralphie in A Christmas Story asking Santa for a Red Ryder BB gun. Some had lists. Some kids seemed to freeze under the pressure and couldn’t name anything they wanted. Most limited it to one or two requests. I understood some of it. Lipstick and glitter eyeliner, OK. Some of the stuff, I had no idea what they were asking for. Toys driven by movie marketing, computer games with components generated from last year’s fighter aircraft. Doesn’t anyone want wagons anymore? My standard answer quickly became, “Of course, we have one of those in the warehouse.” I handed the kid a candy cane and called for the next one.

Midway through my shift, Alayna slipped me a plastic cup. Red wine. I was grateful. I don’t think any Santa gives a damn if he can’t pass a pee test.

As the shift wore on, the parents became emboldened and started to come up to my throne as well, to get their photo taken as they sat on Santa’s lap. I’m sure that 250-pound biker was showing his Santa photo all around town. And the candy cane I gave him.

Then I spotted Krampus making his way through the crowd, toward my throne, bleating like a goat. My shift was almost done. Just another 10 minutes, while Krampus and I posed together for photos. Then I walked to the break room. Pulled off my Santa suit and accessories, threw them in my Santa bag. And went back out, now unrecognized, to sit at the end of the bar and finish my plastic cup of wine.

Sedaris. I’d said he’d left out one thing, didn’t I?

I sat at the end of the bar, thinking about that one thing. It was one of the last kids who came to see Santa. I’d guess she was 8 or 9 years old.

I asked, “What do you want for Christmas?”

She looked shyly at the floor. “I want my family to be together.”

I stammered, as if I hadn’t heard correctly. “You want, uh…”

She looked right at me. “I want my family to be together.”

I assumed her parents had split up, were perhaps divorced. I wasn’t prepared for this.

“Your family loves you,” I said. “Sometimes it takes time for this stuff to work out. You’ll see. It’ll be OK.” I said a couple of other things as well. None of it was adequate. But she nodded. I handed her a candy cane, and watched her walk away.

Now, sitting at the bar, thinking of what should have been said, Santa’s eyes got a little weepy. He didn’t have anything in the warehouse for that kid.

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The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: April 15

Today’s coffee is the last of the Mexican Oaxaca. Sigh. First music of the day: The late jazz drummer Paul Motian’s Flux and Change.

1, “White House Opens Door to Big Donors, and Lobbyists Slip in,” is the lead story today. Sounds alarming. Obama, like the Republicans he is running against, is courting big-money donors, many of whom have visited the White House. These guests bring along lobbyist friends. Yet, as the first president to regularly release the White House visitor logs (former Vice President Dick Cheney notoriously ordered his visitor logs destroyed), Obama is not acting like a man who has something to hide. After reading the long story, I didn’t find a smoking gun pointing to rampant influence peddling. In fact, The Times story seems to shoot itself in the foot when it concedes, “it is clear that in some cases the administration came down against the policies being sought by the visitors.” It’s a reality that influential people will always have access to the president, and they like to write big checks. Another reality is, Obama lives in the political machinery that we invented.

2, Rich Chinese tourists are coming to America to buy shoes! On average, they spend $6,000 each on every trip here (visitors from other countries average $4,000) and the Commerce Department says their No. 1 activity is shopping.

3, “The economic downturn that has shaken Europe for the last three years has also swept away the foundations of once-stable lives, leading to an alarming spike in suicide rates,” The Times reports. It is a phenomena that “some European newspapers have started calling ‘suicide by economic crisis.’ ”

4, Lester Breslow died at his Los Angeles home last week. His statistical studies proved that people live longer if they have healthy habits. The Times obituary reports that “a 45-year-old with at least six of the seven healthy habits Dr. Breslow chose as important had a life expectancy 11 years longer than someone with three or fewer.” Those healthy habits? “Do not smoke; drink in moderation; sleep seven to eight hours; exercise at least moderately; eat regular meals; maintain a moderate weight; eat breakfast.” Dr. Breslow was anecdotal evidence of his theory’s truth; he was 97.

5, Your taxes will go up in 2013. Social programs will be cut. It is inevitable.”The tax increases and spending cuts are the result of Washington’s having previously kicked the can down the road, to use a phrase that is popular here,” writes Times Washington bureau chief David Leonhardt. “Rather than pass a plan to cut the deficit, policy makers have put off tough decisions. With the Bush tax cuts, lawmakers deliberately made them temporary, to avoid running afoul of budget rules intended to hold down the deficit.” In short, we’re screwed because our decision makers were afraid to do what we sent them to Washington to do: make tough decisions.

6, Nicholas D. Kristof opens his column with this stunning statement: “For every soldier killed on the battlefield this year, about 25 veterans are dying by their own hands.”

7, In the Book Review, writer David Sedaris is asked what writer, living or dead, he’d like to meet. “I’m horrible at meeting people I admire, but if I could go back in time, I’d love to collect kindling or iron a few shirts for Flannery O’Connor. After I’d finished, she’d offer to pay me, and I’d say, awe-struck, my voice high and quivering, that it was on me.”

8, In Bernie Krause’s The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places, we learn of “spadefoot toads, chorusing together to confuse predators of any individual location,” reviewer Jeremy Denk writes. “When a jet flies overhead, the toads get out of sync. The temporary lack of ensemble proves deadly: soon hawks swoop down on the individual choristers.”

9, On this 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic are a few new books, including Andrew Wilson’s Shadow of the Titanic. “Life after the Titanic was rife with repression, depression, social withdrawal and ‘survivor guilt,'” writes reviewer Holly Morris. “At least 10 who escaped in lifeboats comitted suicide in the ensuing years.”

10, MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow’s book Drift is positively reviewed. Maddow’s basic thesis is, war is now too easy. The citizenry never feels the cost, in either dollars or blood. We should raise taxes to properly pay for our wars, Maddow argues, because “going to war, being at war, should be painful for the entire country, from the start.”

11, The magazine explores 76-year-old Pulitzer Prize winning writer Robert Caro, who has, the story’s headline tells us, “spent 36 years and 3,388 pages telling the story of Lyndon Johnson. He is nowhere near done.” Johnson is an amazing story, often overlooked as president, but consider the era in which he dominated Washington: civil rights, the Vietnam War, the Kennedy assassination.  Next month Caro’s fourth volume on Johnson will be published. “In his years of working on Johnson, Robert Caro has come to know him better – or to understand him better – than Johnson knew or understood himself,” writes Charles McGrath. “He knows Johnson’s good side and his bad: how he became the youngest Senate majority leader in history and how, by whispering one thing in the ears of the Southern senators and another in Northern ears, he got the Civil Rights Act of 1957 through a Congress that had squelched every civil rights bill since 1875; how he fudged his war record and earned himself a medal by doing nothing more than taking a single plane ride; how, while vice president during the Cuban missile crisis, his hawkishness scared the daylights out of President Kennedy and his brother Robert. Caro has learned about Johnson’s rages, his ruthlessness, his lies, his bribes, his insecurities, his wheedling, his groveling, his bluster, his sycophancy, his charm, his kindness, his streak of compassion, his friends, his enemies, his girlfriends, his gofers and bagmen, his table manners, his drinking habits, even his nickname for is penis: not Johnson, but Jumbo.”

12, Also in the magazine, Mika Brzezinski, co-host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, does a Q&A. I don’t care at all for that show’s moronic patter; Co-host Joe Scarborough sometimes surprises, but generally takes the low Republican road. And the guests are unreliable pundits such as Mark Halperin and, until recently, the demonstrably racist Pat Buchanan. But Brzezenski comes off as the anti-perky morning host. “I proudly own that,” she says of her ornery streak. And I loved this response to a question of growing up as the daughter of Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and how her mother served a high-profile dinner party roadkill meat from a deer she had found dead on the street and butchered herself:  “She absolutely knows who she is, and doesn’t give a damn about what you think. She came here during World War II and starved for a year eating nuts in an orphanage. You don’t waste good meat. And if anyone wants to argue with her on that, I would suggest you don’t do it while she’s holding a chain saw.”

13, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who plays the vice president in the HBO comedy Veep: “We live in a culture now where it’s almost like we are used to being lied to.”

The Critical Mass

Are you ready for an ignorant redneck?

I was talking with the writer David Sedaris Tuesday evening – that’s right, I hang with all the cool kids – and the subject of Hank Williams Jr. came up. “I read the transcript of that interview,” Sedaris said. “Was he drunk?”

If Williams wasn’t, he probably is now. You’re probably familiar with the story. The supremely untalented country performer (His daddy, Hank Sr., and son, Hank III, prove the old adage that talent skips a generation) is best known as the guy who sings the theme song for Monday Night Football. During a Monday morning interview on the morning TV bullshit-news show Fox & Friends, Williams made an incomprehensible comparison of Barack Obama and Adolf Hitler. Host Brian Kilmeade said he didn’t understand the analogy. “I’m glad you don’t brother, because a lot of people do,” Williams roared, the epitome of white trash ignorance. “They’re the enemy. Obama! And Biden! Are you kidding? The Three Stooges.”

We now know two things. One, Williams can’t count. And two, he’s unemployed. We’ll never again hear Williams bellowing: “Are you ready for some football!” ESPN has dropped its association with this extraordinarily unlikeable creature. I doubt even Dancing With the Stars would touch him now.

Like another washed-up musician who comes to mind, Ted Nugent, Williams evidently fancies himself as a conservative political pundit. No one’s buying the records, might as well say something stupid to draw attention to yourself. Williams tried out for the position in 2008, during appearances with Sarah Palin during her run with John McCain, in their attempt to turn this country into something very unfortunate. He crow-barring “Left-wing liberal media” into a song lyric  in a song called “McCain-Palin Tradition,” which he debuted while on tour with the Republican presidential ticket. Gershwin it wasn’t. “The Democrats bankrupted Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac just like one, two, three,” Junior crooned, again showing math isn’t his strong suit, before going for the slanderous talking point that I’m astonished was missed by the Grammy nominations committee: “They don’t have terrorist friends to whom their careers are linked.”

So we’ve been here before, haven’t we, Mr. Williams? He did make a half-hearted attempt to salvage the Monday Night Football situation. First, Williams blamed you. “Some of us have strong opinions and are often misunderstood,” he wrote on his web site. I don’t think there was any misunderstanding. A difference in political viewpoints is not equivalent with the Holocaust and plunging the planet into a world war. 

Then, Williams tried directing attention away from what he’d done by attacking convenient targets, the media and politicians. “Every time the media brings up the tea party it’s painted as racist and extremists – but there’s never a backlash – no outrage to those comparisons… Working class people are hurting – and it doesn’t seem like anybody cares. When both sides are high-fiving it on the ninth hole when everybody else is without a job – it makes a whole lot of us angry. Something has to change. The policies have to change.”

And finally, he wrote, “I am very sorry if it offended anyone. I would like to thank all my supporters. This was not written by some publicist.” That is the classic non-apology apology. He is sorry if he offended anyone. He himself is not sorry. He is not wrong. He wouldn’t want to alienate his base, the racist and extremist Tea Party people who support these kinds of unhinged comments.    

 When the news broke about ESPN’s final decision, a few days after the initial suspension, Williams quickly responded that it was his decision, not the sports network’s, with this note on his web site:

After reading hundreds of e-mails, I have made MY decision. By pulling my opening Oct. 3rd, You (ESPN) stepped on the Toes of The First Amendment Freedom of Speech, so therefore Me, My Song, and All My Rowdy Friends are OUT OF HERE. It’s been a great run.

Apology no longer necessary, he says. Suddenly, it’s a First Amendment issue.

 Back to Sedaris. He was born in Binghamton and raised in North Carolina, but now splits his time living in homes in Paris and just outside of London. Being in Europe, Sedaris said, gives him a unique perspective on what’s going on in this country. He’s shocked by the anger, the uncivil discourse. “America,” Sedaris said, “feels like one overwhelming tidal wave of hatred.”

“But that’s also what it feels like from here,” I replied.

“It looks even worse,” Sedaris said, “from over here.”

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