Tag Archives: Christmas

Links: Free college for all, crap jobs, math, etc.

1. What college would cost taxpayers if it were free for students. I’m starting to think lately that maybe no one should expect to profit from teaching people or healing people.

2. School of Rock actors, plus 10 years.

3. One explanation for middle-class decline: Even crap jobs paid better 50 years ago.

4. “Would math exist without us?,” continued.

5. How some people follow the Bible literally, but selectively.

6. “Surprising benefits” of smog: A parody and/or a display of rhetorical exercise?

7. SNL’s “I wish it was Christmas today” (aka “Christmas time is here”).

8. “A Comprehensive History of the ‘Cups’ Phenomenon.”

9. Sesame Street clips of the ’70s.

10. Scraps by Emily Dickinson.

11. “The Poem as ‘Thing‘”

12. From Brain Pickings: A list of the best psychology and philosophy books of ’13.

13. Andrew Sullivan says Fox News is anti-Christian.

Wisdom of the unknown, or Why doesn’t Santa bring me a Lexus?

2013_12_01_mh (8)_cropReading the previous post  a day later, I realize that I’m being intense about — I’m taking very seriously — my desire to remove magic from my life. It’s not real, so why deal with it?

But as I was emailing a friend this morning, I thought of another angle here: why is there no Santa for adults? I mean, why shouldn’t there be? And I’m not saying that there should be some group of humans who go around fulfilling adults’ wishes, leaving us new cars in our driveways (I always wonder when I see those holiday car ads  where a new Lexus, or whatever, is wrapped in a bow: who the fuck gets a NEW LUXURY CAR for Christmas? Maybe they’re not new cars — maybe they’re, per the patois, “gently used.” I guess this could happen somewhere, but not in my ZIP code.), although that actually would be pretty cool.

But it’s an interesting, if daydreamy, question to ask: Why isn’t there magic? I know some people like to describe certain things — like winning the lottery, or recovering from a serious illness — as “miraculous,” which is very similar to magic. But, as the saying goes, the Lord works in mysterious ways. But why be so mysterious, Lord? Why shouldn’t I walk outside tomorrow morning or, OK, Christmas morning (it’d be acceptable for me if God, like Santa, delivered miracles only once a year), and find a new hundred-thousand-dollar car in my driveway? Or what if God actually solved real problems, like curing addiction or preventing poverty or ending child abuse?

This brings us to the problem of evil, for which of course, there are no good answers. And one could also argue that if God, or Santa, really did things for us, we’d get lazy or something. On the other hand, we’re such dependent creatures, anyway. I mean, we can’t go more than a few minutes without needing some oxygen from the world — why should being so dependent on oxygen be well and good, but being hooked on nicotine be unhealthy?

I’m not trying to be entirely facetious here, either (a little facetious, but not entirely so). I’ve long thought that certain things are our birthright as humans: oxygen, for one, but also water and food. Of course, in a world of lots of people and limited resources, not everyone would agree that having clean water and healthy food should be human rights. We humans were born here, in a world where there exist the things we need to survive, and yet, we find ourselves at times having to face challenges to our survival, such as threats (lions, tigers, bears, the Marburg virus, etc.) and competition (from other humans).

So we learn — as individuals, and as a species — ways to live in the world, ways to get what we need, and even what we want. The things we learn, we call rules, ideas, laws of science, etc., and we feel that this knowledge can tell us how to act, so that we can be not merely passive, not helpless (even if we sometimes still are powerless, as when there’s an earthquake or a tornado, and even if what we do makes things worse — global warming, endocrine-disrupting chemicals, etc.). We who live in cultures that give science and rationality the authority to determine what’s real don’t accept any explanation that requires God (or magic, or Santa, or ghosts, etc.). Relying on science discourages us from burning witches and following leaders who do what their dreams command, but it also gives us a worldview in which some things are easily knowable (for instance, acceleration due to gravity) and other things (such as why moms and dogs die) completely unknowable.

So I know why Santa won’t bring me a Lexus — science says there is no Santa, and there has to be a set of physical (and paperwork) steps for a Lexus to come to me and be my own. It’s not impossible that humans would conspire to bring about my Lexus (hint, hint?), but there’s no evidence for God or Santa there. If God and Santa work completely through the acts of others (of people or of nature), well, then we could subtract God and Santa and still have the same people and nature, without losing anything but the empty ideas of “God” and “Santa.”

Of course, I’ll grant that it can be fun to mislead children — I am a teacher, after all. But instead of asserting that people should have unjustifiable faith in the particular idea that magic, including Santa, and our humanly defined God, are real, we can instead know that there is an unknown, wherein we can be humble about, and even hopeful in, what we do not know. To assert knowledge about the limits of the possible is perhaps as faulty as asserting knowledge about the physically impossible. I don’t have to ask God to change the physical world for my betterment, and also, I don’t have to think that such change is impossible. Whether Santa brings me a Lexus, or my wife does, I still would have a Lexus. (I don’t have a Lexus.) Also, what’s more beautiful than having a Lexus is, of course, realizing that I don’t need to have a Lexus at all, that having a Lexus doesn’t make me smarter or write more goodly.

I often find a refuge in the unknown, in thinking that I don’t need to know the answers. I take as existing what seems to exist, and I generally feel pretty good in my own existence without postulating divine, magical beings. I can make and find my own meanings, without needing to get those meanings from, or ground them in, some unknowable supernatural entity.

So who am I to complain about the concept of Santa? In some ways, it’s pretty wonderful to be a child and to believe that some dude you don’t even have to thank is gonna bring you some pretty terrific loud-and-shiny stuff. Just because adults don’t get to believe that doesn’t mean that adults really know the world, either. (It’s actually kinda interesting to consider how adults made up such a as simple entity as Santa. It’s as if someone took human capabilities — generosity, material wealth, sleigh-driving — and just magnified or distorted those — giving gifts to all houses in a night, driving a flying sleigh — to create some kind of magnified super-person — a superhero, as it were. I sometimes wonder why we humans have such small-bore imaginations: instead of coming up with beings who are us, but a little bit more, why not imagine heroes who are unlike us, beings whose realms are beyond comprehension. Even when we try to describe God as being all-powerful and all-creating, we end up in logical cul-de-sacs such as this one. If instead we just say, “there are things beyond comprehension,” we at least allow ourselves to be wise in our silence.)

Disenchanting Santa

An Illinois winter

An Illinois winter

As I was writing the previous post, it started becoming this post, and it seemed best to separate them. But this post does build on the idea of outgrowing the belief in magic that fiction may require.

As I’ve grown up, I don’t really feel a need to believe in magic — I don’t often feel enchanted, and I don’t feel like the loss of magic is a bad thing. I read something this week that said children pass through a developmental stage of thinking magically, and I’ve been pondering this idea as I’ve been thinking about Christmas and how much the stories around Christmas (the Biblical story of Jesus’s birth, but also the stories of Santa, Frosty, the Grinch, etc.) require magic. I don’t know, I guess, why we need to believe in magic. I don’t want to disillusion the children I know — perhaps I’m a little bitter about having been disillusioned about the holiday years ago.

In my memory, there’s this connection: The Christmas Eve I was 9, as I was carrying the garbage to our farm’s burn barrel (I was trying to be good so that I deserved our family’s holiday celebration), I got the idea that I should ask for a Bible for Christmas. Somehow I was going to become A Good Person by asking for a Bible and living by it (whatever that actually meant, I’m not sure, and I probably wasn’t sure at the time. My family wasn’t particularly religious, and maybe I just had an impulse toward purity or self-control or something. I was 9 — what did I know?). I somehow made this into a test of the Divine: my last-minute request would be fulfilled, if Santa, and by extension, God, were real enough to read my mind, as they must be able to, if indeed they are Santa and God. But I didn’t get a Bible. Unwrapped under the tree the next day — the first Christmas in the apartment we had moved into after my parents’ divorce — were a baseball bat and helmet that I recognized as having come from a store’s going-out-of-business sale months earlier. I knew right away that these things couldn’t have come from Santa, but I questioned my mother about this later that day (even then, I was intense — obsessive — enough to need an answer. I have never been one to privately hold a doubt that could be shared publicly.) My poor mother, who was trying to do the best she could that first Christmas, on a reduced income and without parenting help, admitted that she was the source of the gifts from Santa.

I believe she also said that Santa may not be an actually existing person, but that I could think of Santa as the spirit of generosity. It’s a nice thought as far as it goes, but it’s hard to be satisfied with an abstraction substituted for a being of simple magic.

And I don’t even know why I have held onto this story for, well, 30 years now. Was I really that devastated — I mean, was this the single biggest moment of disillusionment in my life? I admit that I’ve led a pretty lucky life, if finding out about Santa is my biggest let-down. Am I trotting out this story as an explanation for why I still don’t feel I can trust in magic or, for that matter, God? I seldom find that such facile tales can be a complete explanation.

And yet, just now as I write this, I’m realizing what I couldn’t have understood at age 9 — that maybe finding out that Santa wasn’t real only months after finding out that my stable family life wasn’t real, either, was just a bit too much for me to take.

I have never really thought about this in this way before. My parents’ divorce was amicable, was relatively easy, and there was never any abuse or loud fighting — there was no need to be upset. Yet maybe I was upset but couldn’t quite admit it.

Of course, I was a weird kid at that age — I started reading “1984” the next year, because the next year was THE 1984, and I must’ve heard about Orwell’s book in the news or from a teacher or something, and wanted to prove that I could read such an adult book. (I didn’t read more than about a hundred pages, which is probably for the best — I didn’t need to find out about rat-torture when I was 10.) But with the divorce, and the move, and the new school, new friends, and then new world-without-Santa that year, I was probably under a lot of what I would now call stress and then didn’t know what to call it at all.

And again, I hesitate to pinpoint one moment in my past, one story, as determinative, mostly because to do so is bullshit. (One of my high school students, having recently read my blog piece about the Grinch, said she liked the Grinch’s backstory that’s in the Jim Carrey movie but not in the Seuss original. I generally find “backstory” worthless — let’s not oversimplify every character’s  action to a simple cause-and-effect from a childhood trauma.) There are many reasons — or no reasons at all — why a person is who he is and does what he does: biology, genetics, social influences, unconscious learning, etc.

But for some reason, I have been thinking a lot lately about this finding-out-about-Santa moment, and the part of who I am that I have access to is my past, and this past (faulty though I know memory to be) is something I can and do re-evaluate and continue to learn from over time. I don’t tell the story above to be maudlin, though I acknowledge that it may strike some readers that way. I guess I want to explain to myself why I’m not keen on Santa or on “Christmas magic,” and maybe this explanation above does hold insight.

Most of the year, of course, I don’t think too much about magic. I dismiss magic or Divine Will — these are not useful explanations. When others tell ghost stories, I remind myself that identifying something as a ghost is merely a subjective jump-to-conclusion after some unverifiable experience. I prefer evidence and reason and even non-answers (open questions) to bullshit answers.

Maybe my lack of faith is connected to my lack of desire to read fiction. Maybe not. Most of the time, I don’t value either faith or fiction. And even an explanation about my past is itself just a story, perhaps useful and perhaps not. But I feel a need to summarize at this point in the post — or, rather, I feel a need to reach out to some higher truth, some insight that feels right. Maybe none is forthcoming now. Perhaps later.

Bizzy! Bizzy! Bizzy!: Metaphysical Implications of “Frosty the Snowman”

“Frosty the Snowman” cartoon was broadcast on CBS last night. Though I’ve watched this cartoon many times before, I watched it last night partly to experience that holiday tradition, and partly because I wanted to see Prof. Hinkle say the line — “Busy! Busy! Busy!” (though it sounds more like “Bizzy! Bizzy! Bizzy!”) — that is one of the many cultural references in the two-person culture that my wife and I have semi-consciously created for ourselves. I didn’t remember that the full line was “I’ve got to get busy writing — busy, busy, busy!” (or however one punctuates a three-word repetition — which, digression: I saw a t-shirt message — “Let’s eat grandma. Let’s eat, grandma. Punctuation saves lives.” — in a catalog yesterday whose message resonated for ol’ English teacher me). So, while Hinkle is doing punishment writing for Santa, and I will not be, I may introduce the longer quotation into my home-culture.

But here’s the other thing about that show: it’s narratively absurd, and this never bothered me as a kid, but I think that’s because I was more a believer in the whole of Christmas magic than I tend to be now. Now, I’ve long had some trouble with the part where little beskirted Karen (her cold knees!), the titular suscitated snowman, and a problem-solving, communicative magician’s rabbit get on a refrigerated rail car headed north (I noticed last night that the reefer car is the only car between the engine and the caboose, which inefficiency could explain why the ticket agent tried to charge the trio $3000.04 for a ticket to the north pole, which, also inefficiently, routed through Saskatchewan, Hudson Bay, Nome, and the Yukon, which map-path drawing started to give me a headache). I’ve also wondered how far north they got before they decided to jump off the train because Karen was, if memory serves (I somehow skipped this moment last night), getting cold in the reefer car, a pragmatic gesture that throws the other absurdities into relief.

So, they’re in a forest where numerous animals are somehow decorating for Christmas and awaiting Santa’s arrival. It didn’t used to bother me that the animals were apparently practicing Christians — what denomination? — or maybe they’re secularly celebrating, but the rabbit, under Frosty’s direction, seeks out the woodland creatures, explains that the little girl needs them to build a fire so she can warm up, and so the woodland creatures pile sticks and rub two together until they get a fire going. So far so good, although last night I wondered why, if the animals had mastered communication and fire-production, why they hadn’t moved into bungalows in the city. Are they perhaps hippie animals who have renounced industrial society, and this works for them (as opposed to human hippies) because these critters haven’t evolved out of their all-weather hides and ability to survive on bark?

Anyway, this works for a while, and Karen ostensibly warms up, until Hinkle shows up and Frosty has to “bellywhollop” (if I correctly recall the term Jimmy Durante used) with Karen on his shoulders to escape, which leads them to an apparently poorly managed (since it is still stocked, on X-mas eve, with Mr. Poinsett’s flowers, about to be deeply discounted)  greenhouse, wherein Frosty melts. Hinkle has shut the door on them, but he had not barred or even locked the door, so either the greenhouse is so poorly managed that its doors are inescapable, or Frosty and Karen forget to leave. Now, earlier, Karen has explained to the traffic cop that Frosty, being newly animated, is ignorant of worldly ways, and so perhaps she should have been cognizant that she should have opened the door to let Frosty out?  Just now it’s occurring to me that perhaps Karen, in her selfish desire to be warm, could be convicted of snowmanslaughter through willful indifference?

But then, there’s the Santa ex machina who, upon the instructions of the rabbit (because Santa “speaks rabbit,” we are informed), turns up to rescue Frosty, punish Hinkle (by threatening to never bring the professor another gift — a surprisingly unforgiving action, I thought, from a Christian figure), and return little Karen to the roof of some house (even if its her own house, how’s she supposed to get down, I wondered as I watched). This business about Santa being real always feels like a cop-out, since one of the central tenets of Christianity (correct me if I’m wrong) is faith, is believing in things that cannot be directly experienced, that cannot be seen, and so Santa showing up sorta renders faith moot.

Even in the beginning of “Frosty,” the kids make a point about adults not believing in the magic that kids can see (the adults who do see the snowman leading a parade through town seem to faint (or concussively run into other shoppers, or make themselves mute by swallowing their own whistle)), leaving Prof. Hinkle as the one adult who agrees to have seen the magic of Frosty’s animation. Hinkle, however, tells the kids he will admit to seeing nothing, as he wants to keep the hat now that it seems to be the agent of Frosty’s animation. (I keep saying “animation” because, in some sense, Frosty is like Frankenstein’s monster, in that both are mere matter that becomes alive. However, Frosty seems to be composed entirely of rolled snow, unlike the differentiated tissues that were used for Frankenstein’s monster — how about Frosty-stein? (This thought too occurred to me last night as I watched. Maybe this all says more about me than about the show.)) Of course, Hinkle has a problem: if his hat really is magic, and he uses it in his future performances, how will he expect his audience to accept his illusions as mere illusions? The way the townsfolk respond to Frosty, I’d also expect them to react irrationally to any true magic they saw.

There’s the moral issue of ownership of the hat, which ownership is conferred (by Justice Santa) on those who would promote the continued existence of the personality of Frosty (which, combined with the human-like consciousnesses of the animals, seems to imply a vegetarian or vegan morality?), rather than on the fact that Hinkle has not fully abandoned his ownership rights.

But maybe the larger issue is the one of magic vs. faith. The children believe in magic, which the adults (besides Hinkle — who is perhaps a kind of prophet, doomed to repeat his tale of witnessing magic to a hostile, unbelieving public for the rest of his days?) deny, and yet the children indicate no religious understanding of the holiday, and Santa shows up to prove himself real. How are we to understand the implications of these narrative antics?

And where is reality here?  Does the story of “Frosty the Snowman” take place in a world where magic is real, and Santa is real, but only kids can accept magic, no adult believes in magic, so that we could speculate that perhaps adults undergo some sort of “forgetting” procedure? Or are we to understand that the adult world is the real one, and that once our POV character Karen leaves the normalcy of the classroom, with its bossy teacher, dismissal times and inept magician, she imagines or hallucinates the whole thing; Frosty’s animation, the rabbit’s intelligence, and even Santa’s existence are all some kind of break with reality that Karen experiences, perhaps as a result of a head injury sustained in the snow play the kids engage in after leaving the classroom. That Frosty and all were some kind of dream world actually would explain one of the first strangely unreal sightings: the visible rising and even throbbing of the thermometer, which Frosty explains confusedly as causing the rising of the temperature that motivates him toward the north pole. What we can deduce is that one group of the humans in this story, either the adults or the children, is not acknowledging the same reality as the other group of humans. (It could be argued that adults trying to get children to acknowledge and accept the reality that the adults perceive is the purpose of schooling.)

Sure, this is just a goofy cartoon, produced by some poor bastard of a writer who had to turn a three-minute song into a 20-minute cartoon. I’ll also concede that I appreciate fiction that’s not entirely realistic, which fiction I tend to write myself. But any artwork, any human creation (I’d argue), is based upon certain philosophical assumptions and it’s kinda fun to explore these, no?