Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Santa institution

I don’t remember much about the person of Santa Claus when I was a little kid.  I’m sure I sat on the Big Man’s lap in downtown Rike’s department store toy department once or twice, but my aging brain can’t conjure up any real details.  
I seem to recall a slight feel of dread about the Old Boy, though.  I mean, the guy had the secret power to assess what kind of kid I was: good or bad.  That’s heavy, you know?  I was raised to be a good Catholic boy and trust me, I know all about guilt.  I thought I was doing okay, but what did I know?  What ended up under the Christmas tree with my name on it would be the true assessment of my kid behavior.  
One memory remains, I think, from my earliest of days.  I was in my crib looking out through the side rail slats through the darkened bedroom into the night-lit hallway.  It was the night before Christmas and could swear I heard real jingle bells out in the living room.  
Did I really?  I doubt it.  I have concluded since that many of my earliest memories are really combinations of things that might have happened and subsequent recurring dreams that have now melded together into a new kid reality.  
I write about this today because of grandson Noah’s loss of his belief in Santa Claus.  He’s ten years old, and reality and disbelief have caught up with him.  He asked us last year about Santa Claus being real, and in a flash of insecurity, I deferred the response to Grammy.   
‘Well,’ she said, ‘do you get presents from Santa Claus?’  
‘Yes,’ he responded.
‘Then there’s a Santa Claus.’  
I don’t think he was convinced, but he didn’t ask again.  This year his ten year-old brain made its own conclusion and he confirmed it with his mother just the other day.  For him, one more vestige of childhood has been lost.
Santa Claus always was a big deal at my house growing up.  Mom and Dad ended up having seven kids, for pete’s sake.  And then there was the dark December evening when I was six or seven or something when I distinctly remember seeing Santa looking in the corner of our front picture window checking on us.  We went nuts!  I mean, I really saw Santa!  I couldn’t wait to tell my dad about the excitement, but he had stepped out of the house briefly to run over to the local party supply for a six pack or something.  When he got back, he seemed pretty excited about the sighting too. 
It was years later that I learned that my very own father had a great red suit of his own and was, in fact, Santa Claus in the flesh.  When we buried him in 1999, Mom celebrated the fact that he had played Santa for lots of kids for over fifty years.  Fifty years!  I’ve always loved my dad, but knowing he personally spread the idea of Christmas giving to so many young people deepened my respect for the man.  Such a guy. 
As we kids got older, some of us were able to participate in Dad’s own personal Santa institution.  I remember one wet Christmas Eve driving him around in the rain, stopping by three or four homes where he made his grand front-door entrance and passed out gifts and toys to his friends, their kids, and their grandkids.  I waited patiently in the car while he worked his seasonal magic.  On other occasions, my youngest sister, Susie, accompanied him to parties in her cute little red Santa’s Helper outfit and assisted with excited kids while Santa did his thing. 
And then last night, one more Santa story that brings my dad’s Santa legacy full circle.  Cindy and I went to a local funeral home to visit a former colleague who has just lost his mother.  Steve was a good friend when we both began teaching in the early 70s.  We camped together a few times and drank a few late night beers playing cards on more than one occasion.  Cindy, in fact, dated Steve for a time back in the old days when we all were younger and some of us single.  Steve has since moved on to Oregon and made a family.  It was good to see him again. 
I recognized one of the women in his family group.  I knew she was a former student, but I couldn’t remember her name.  When Cindy and I didn’t recognize Steve in the viewing room, I went up to this girl and asked if Steve had made it in from Portland.  ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘let me show you.’  
I told her I was an old teacher friend and when I mentioned my name, her mouth fell open.  She put down what she was carrying and gave me the biggest hug.  She was, indeed, Denise, a former student who had ended up marrying Steve’s brother thirty years ago.  Before we left, we laughed at a few Mr. Schaefer stories she remembered from her junior high days when I was a rookie teacher and faculty advisor to drama club.  Trust me, I didn’t know much what I was doing way back then, but we all seemed to have a pretty good time and from the sound of things, at least one important lesson was learned.  
Denise finished with a Christmas story she remembered I told all those years ago.  Somewhere along the line, I was talking about Santa.  I know we did at least one Christmas play in drama club.  Maybe it was during a rehearsal for Dust of the Road.   In any case, I made a point to the group about the spirit of giving that is manifested in the institution of Santa Claus.  However I said it, Denise took it to heart.  She said she always remembered it and, in fact, made the same point to her own children.  My thoughts had become part of her own family’s tradition.
My simple remark born of my father’s work at being Santa Claus continues to ripple through at least one family touched by a young teacher a couple generations ago.  I can’t think a better testimony to the institution of Santa Claus than that.  
Her story is one beautiful Christmas gift I got early this year.  
Today’s elder idea:  I stopped believing in Santa Claus when I was six.  Mother took me to see him in a department store and he asked for my autograph. 
Shirley Temple Black
Child star of Miracle on 34th Street
Image:  We all bought Dad Santa statues back in the day to celebrate one of the real joys of his life.  Since Dad was a fisherman, too, this Santa was always special for me.  It’s now part of my collection. 

Saturday, December 18, 2010


Heavens but life’s been hard lately.  It seems every December turns out this way.
First, this is the most difficult change of seasons humanity in this part of the world has to deal with:  the transition from warm and colorful autumn into the gray, dark, and cold of winter.  Add to that the trauma to two huge national holidays, and you get more demand on a family than there ever should be.  
And that doesn’t even count any spiritual work a soul might want to undertake as the calendar cycles back to Advent and the beginning of the church year.  You know, a little meditation on the beauty of birth and the presence of evil in the world.  Some thoughts on sacrifice, giving, respect for all creatures on this planet.  Stuff like that.  Very little time for the spiritual when house decorations and gift buying dominate consideration.  With aging, it gets a little better, but not much.
December.  Two different great seasonal albums.  The first for me -- the one that got me into new age music over 30 years ago -- is George Winston’s December.  The warm, rich, grounded solo piano music written and performed for the holiday season lit me up when I first heard it years ago.  I loved it so much that since, I’ve bought lots more new age ambient music, including Windham Hill’s entire Winter Solstice collection.  Great new contemporary Christmas music.
And then their’s Kenny Loggins December, an album I bought digitally on the recommendation of a friend.  Good indeed.  I’ve always loved Loggin’s tenor voice.  Works beautifully on a Christmas album. 
December 10 was Emily Dickinson’s birthday -- her 180th.  A couple of buddies, also writing group compatriots serving in Emily’s Boys, had a lunch in her honor that day.  We talked a bit how we don’t really see her as our mother, though we make mom jokes now and then.  It’s more that we appreciate what she has written and how she delivers it.  She touches us.  We know something more about what it means to be human because of what we have read in her verses and letters.  
Garrison Keillor did an Emily Dickinson segment on the 11 December 2010 issue of Prairie Home Companion.  It is positively great.  To listen to the 20 minute segment, see:   Hit the Segment 2 link and you’ll be whisked back to that Saturday evening in the Bronx when Keillor is joined by Sue Scott and poet Billy Collins for some reverie and, of course, some humor.  You owe it to yourself to take the time even if you have only a smidgen of interest in Emily.  
Don’t you just want to hear a little bit more about the reclusive, passionate Belle of Amherst?  Good listen. 
I’m sure I’ve alluded to a book I’m trying to write on these pages more than once.  It’s one about Emily Dickinson’s first posthumous editor, Mabel Loomis Todd.  That Mrs. Todd ushered the first three editions of Emily’s poetry into the public forum is well known and well covered in literary history.  
What I hope to do in my writing is to focus on another aspect of her life that has been only alluded to in multiple biographical treatments since she died in 1932:  Her establishing, along with her husband David Peck Todd, of a rustic summer camp on the 300+ acre picturesque Hog Island in Muscongus Bay, Maine.  
Mabel and David found the island while sailing the Maine coast almost twenty years after first publication of Emily’s work and just over ten years after the death of Emily's brother Austin, with whom Mabel had a long-term affair.  The affair was, indeed, pretty scandalous for a small college town in central Massachusetts and the Todd and Dickinson families were both changed forever by it.  But that, as they say, is another story, one that has been well documented.  
Since I’ve had a hard time updating you on my book’s progress here in The Back Porch, I up and started another blog for the specific purpose of focusing on the Hog Island book.  Feel free to cruise over there for a look.  See:
Winter solstice this year marks Cindy and my 18th wedding anniversary.  We both feel amazingly blessed to be loved by the other.  I’m a lucky guy.  
This year to celebrate, Cindy has bought us tickets to hear Mannheim Steamroller at Dayton’s Schuster Center.  Very nice indeed.  I get to buy dinner.  
Thoughts, too, this time of year of the Paul Winter Consort annual Winter Solstice concert at St. John the Divine in New York City.  Some selections this time around, I’m sure, will be from their new Grammy nominated album, Miho:  Journey to the Mountain.  For more on the new album, see
I had thoughts of attending this year’s concert ourselves, which would have been a different winter solstice anniversary for us.  Back when we were first seeing each other -- must have been Christmas 1991 -- Cindy Lou and I trekked to the Big Apple for our first Winter Solstice experience.  Even though Cindy’s car was broken into on the Harlem sidestreet where we parked, the concert was amazing.  We look forward to getting back for an encore one of these years.  The show, by the way, is always aired on NPR.  Look for local or internet listings.    
It’s a hoot having winter solstice as a wedding anniversary.  I feel somehow more deeply aligned with the physical universe at this turning point in our planet’s orbit.  The darkest day of the year.  The day before the sun heads back our way.  Powerful stuff.  I like it.  
One final December thought:  A whole bunch of family saw The Nutcracker performed by the Cincinnati Ballet a couple night’s ago.  One of the toy soldiers was grandson Noah’s cousin, Maddy. 
Such a performance!  I’ve seen the ballet a few times before, but not like this.  The set must have cost tens of thousands of dollars.  So well done!  A real holiday treat.  Special thanks to Frisch’s restaurants, too, who has been the sole corporate sponsor since the Nutcracker run began in Cincinnati decades ago.  
Kind of makes me want to stop in for a Big Boy sandwich. 
Today’s elder idea: A solstice thought from a Paul Winter email re: tickets for this year’s program:
In remembering the solstice, we align with the rhythm of the year, and resonate with the optimism that the light will overcome the dark. 
Happy holidays, everybody. 

Monday, December 6, 2010


I was raised to care about people.  
First it was tending little sisters and brothers, but by the time I was in the 4th grade, I hung around my classroom after school to see if there was anything I could do.  That’s when I learned how to wash a blackboard such that no chalk residue was left on the slate.  Sometimes it took a couple of buckets of water, but it was a point of pride for me.  Clean boards = good boy. 
I suppose the warm & fuzzies a guy got from hanging around after school weren’t necessarily about caring for teachers.  Surely other needs were being met in those interactions.  Still, I’ve wanted to do my part to help folks for most of my life.
One of the high school clubs I helped run at Carroll High School was Backyard Peace Corps.  Named for the international service operation started by John F. Kennedy, Backyard Peace Corps was focused on local social justice issues and providing service around school.   For a time we were bussed to Ruskin Elementary one afternoon a week to tutor 6th graders.  Some of my group spent more than a few Saturday mornings at the Dakota Street Center hanging out with kids and doing small tasks.  I think we felt like we were making a difference.  It was the 60s, for pete’s sake.
I was mostly concerned with myself during college, but got back into service as an adult.  Served on various Audubon boards for over twenty years, done much at churches I’ve attended, coached a few teams my kids were on, and organized two rehab expeditions to post-Katrina New Orleans.  Walked door-to-door with election information a handful of times, too.
Which brings me to this duty idea.  I’m more comfortable calling it a commission, actually, and when it comes to my mind, it is almost always framed in Christian terms:  the Christian commission to help brothers and sisters, whether they are hungry, or sick, or naked, or homeless, or in prison, or just kids.  Whatever we do for them we do for God, we have been taught.  Works for me.  
Somewhere in that commission is where I find my interest in government, too, I think.  It’s always been my impression that folks who get into government do so to serve the people.  What is best for our fair city?  Our country?  The people who live here?  Isn’t that why people become public servants?  
I’ve been around long enough to have read about governments rife with corruption and witnessed politicians passing laws that benefit those very same few who contributed to their elections.  But in my heart of hearts, I want to feel that those who choose to serve the public in government are basically good people with the public’s good in mind.  
At age 60, I’m not so sure any more.  
In the 2010 election cycle, I heard responsible politicians say that folks like me -- folks who want to be sure all Americans have a shot at decent healthcare -- are communists, socialists, Nazis, unpatriotic, and/or not real Americans.  After the last two years of obstructionist tactics by the Republicans in Congress, I am embarrassed to call John Boehner a fellow southwestern Ohioan.  And now he’s Speaker of the House.  
I suppose I’m too thin-skinned about the name calling.  It’s just that I never put-up with it with my own daughters or in my own classroom.  Everybody was respected in my house and classroom everyday.  I thought that was the America/World we were all working for.  
So here’s the note to self I found myself filing mentally the other day:  
Politics is nasty.  Folks who hate government live in another world from mine.  There are Americans who would rather companies thrive while those neighbors with fewer resources struggle, some failing, to get by with just the basics of housing, education, and healthcare.  Such actions hurt me so much I don’t want to participate in that realm anymore. 
See your duty with the people.  Commit to serve in non-political settings.  Roll up your sleeves for community action outside of government.  
I’m currently making a list of stuff I want to start doing.  One is working on our church crew that feeds homeless families at the St. Vincent Hotel once a month.  
To heck with politics. I’m going to redouble efforts to find people in need.  In so doing, I will act out my own world commission for social justice.  I think I’ll like that better.  Screw elections.  
Today’s elder idea:  Every young American who participates in the Peace Corps will know that he or she is sharing in the great common task of bringing man that decent way of life which is the foundation of freedom and a condition of peace. 
John F. Kennedy 
image:  Snatched from the Church of St. Joseph in Greenwich Village & the Catholic Center at NYU website