Joanie – This commentary was put together on Veteran’s Day. I got sidetracked by pneumonia (again), so it’s late getting to you. Rather than change the text, you might want to point out the delay to your readership. Thanks.
It happens to all of us, sooner or later. We’re out and about, taking care of business. Halloween is over and Indian Summer, what there was of it, is but a fading memory. Except in California, of course, where summer goes on forever, by rule of law.
Thanksgiving is nearly a month away, but we haven’t given much thought to its preparation. After all, we’ve got three weeks or so to get our ducks in a row. Then we hear it. Could be we’re in a supermarket or a department store. Maybe we’re waiting in a dentist’s office to get our teeth cleaned in advance of the fast approaching Olympic eating season. Wherever we are, you can rest assured we’re bombarded by the cacophony of ubiquitous white noise otherwise known as elevator music that assails us everywhere we go. Only this time it’s different. Hovering above the din of human activity, we pause to digest something familiar, evocative of simpler times, childhood memories and dreams misplaced.
We’ve just heard our first Christmas carol of the season.
It comes earlier each year. In the olden golden days when I was a boy, we didn’t see so much as one Christmas decoration or hear a single note of Christmas music before Thanksgiving. Even then, it took a week or so for retail merchants to ramp up for the December crush of consumers. No longer.
In its most extreme expression, Christmas decorations along with mechanical Santas and synthetic snow have gone up in retail outlets as early as Labor Day weekend. Thankfully, that level of vulgarity has dwindled to a minimum since the wild and wooly 1980s. Come on, now. It’s hard to get in the Christmas spirit when it’s still 105° out there.
But the unwritten rule of Thanksgiving Day being the kickoff to the Christmas season is a thing of the past, all the same. The holiday promotional campaign tends to drift onto our radar screens right about now – in the nether world between Halloween and Thanksgiving. And for the lack of a more definitive benchmark of years gone by, I have always marked its onset by the hearing of the first Christmas song of the season.
That happened today. At Borders Books.
When people ask me what I do for a living, rather than respond with something like . . . “Well, I’m an underemployed bum, whose high-tech career went to India never to return,” I counter with a more measured response. “I kill time.” And when I think about it, that’s most of what I do. I’m a professional time killer. Piece of cake, right? Not really. In order to proceed in such a unique endeavor, it must be done with a certain amount of finesse, creativity and flair. And when you’re in the business of killing time, there are two places that are ideally suited for the pastime – libraries and bookstores. You can linger for hours in both, undisturbed.
Today, it was the bookstore. I tried the library in the morning, only to discover it was closed. Then it occurred to me. Aha! It’s Veteran’s Day. It slipped completely under the radar out here in the Golden State. Between the marathon Obama victory parties, still in progress, and the liberal media still popping champagne corks, I guess the public information channels forgot to cover it this year. No matter. I haven’t had Veteran’s Day off since I’ve been one, and today was no different. Being a professional time-killer is a full-time job. There is no respite in its pursuit.
So, in the absence of the three public libraries in the immediate vicinity, I opted for the bookstores. Fortunately, we have two primo stores right here in the neighborhood. Barnes & Noble rented a huge outlet in the Montclair Plaza, and Borders Books has a stand-alone store immediately adjacent to the shopping center itself. Both are excellent if you find yourself all dressed up with no place to go.
I originally planned to kill the afternoon at Barnes & Noble. It has the novelty of being new, having opened a year or so ago. But driving into the mall parking lot, I was filled with an overwhelming sense of world-weariness. Ethan Allen, Circuit City, Macy’s, all gone, out of business. Boarded up, graffiti-riddled, windows smashed in by roaming bands of late-night thugs, these once-thriving retail establishments carried with them all the ambiance of cattle skulls bleached white in the desert.
The mall itself was no better. Somehow, with ⅓ of the floor space disgustingly available, and the remaining vendors posting advertisements exclusively in Espanól, I wasn’t exactly filled with the holiday spirit. Watching the local undocumented guest workers gaze longingly at the baubles, bangles and beads they couldn’t afford if they cleaned a thousand toilets a day just made me depressed. But then, that’s a consequence of life in the global village. If the wage slaves aren’t paid sufficient compensation to buy the cheap, Chinese junk we sell in our stores, then the whole roulette wheel of global commerce comes up 00. House spin. The chatter among window shoppers was a smattering of Spanish, Arabic, Farsi and various Oriental dialects. And as they gazed into the brightly lit holiday windows, the lament was the same – “We can’t get there from here.” Funny how some sentiments remain the same in any language.
So, I opted for Borders. It had the advantage of a respectably vibrant clientelé, along with a sufficiently cozy, intimate atmosphere. That I could not hear my footsteps echo for lack of other patrons made this destination all the more appealing. And a Seattle’s Best Coffee outlet never hurt on a day that passes for fall in California.
I had just settled in with my Seattle’s Best decaf mocha latté, fully expecting to pass an uneventful afternoon with Robert McCammon’s book, Swan Song, an epic saga of the end of the world, and the struggle for dominance that follows in its wake. It’s dated, with an original publication date of 1987. And it certainly doesn’t hold a candle to Stephen King’s The Stand, to which it bears a striking resemblance. But it seemed appropriate when I picked it up last week in the wake of what happened on November 4.
Then I heard it. The melodic strains of the first Christmas carol of 2008.
It matters what the song is. I’ve never been a fan of Jingle Bell Rock, truth be told. And for a card-carrying member of the vast right wing conspiracy, Mannheim Steamroller has always left me cold. I know, I know. Rush Limbaugh will personally repossess my Golden EIB Mike lapel pin and cancel my lifetime pass to the Limbaugh Institute for Advanced Conservative Studies. Still, I’m not a fan of holiday music of that sort. No. You can keep all this newfangled, contemporary, new age holiday faire. Give me traditional Christmas music every time. And so it was today.
What coursed through the sound system at Borders Books was Linda Eder’s version of Silent Night. If ever there was a rendition that could bring tears to your eyes and a chill to your spine, this is it. Hearing it was like being washed clean as an overture to a six-week run at the end of the year when we take a break from our grim, ruthless struggle to claw our way to the top no matter what, and for a short season, we are actually kind to each another.
It’s an imperfect practice, I’ll admit. There have been so many boom years leading up to this one, that the Christmas season often morphs into just another event in the Day Planner, something we have to get through in the midst of closing the big sale before the close of the year. We have to make sure little Janie wins the holiday queen competition at the local middle school (even if she has to step over dead bodies to do it), and everybody, but everybody has to get the most expensive gadget, lest they think poorly of us. And we have to prepare for the frantic holiday travel season – either to hit the road, or dust off the convertible sofa – to gather with family most of us never see the rest of the year, and never give a second thought to between visits.
Ah, but there are moments . . . Some of us, in the midst of the holiday hysteria, get what it was all about.
- 12 “And this will be a sign unto you: Ye shall find a Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: 14 “Glory be to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” – Luke 2:12-14
Happily, and hopefully, some of us get the message. Indeed, a lot of us get it. For six weeks at the end of the year, we are civil, considerate, kind and thoughtful. We find it easier to tolerate the intolerable, simpler to extend a gracious hand, effortless to render under Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s. We put into practice what Abraham Lincoln so aptly referred to as “the better angels of our nature.” For a short time, we put on Christ. Only for a season, it’s true. But better a season than not at all.
Linda Eder’s version of Silent Night conjured up all of that this afternoon. The Bible tells us Jesus wept. So did I today.
This season figures to be like the ones preceding it. Let’s face it, the perfect storm of wealth redistribution hasn’t broken on our shores. Not yet, at least. We’re standing firm at only 6% unemployment and most of our wallets are full, along with our bellies. But the people I see as I go wandering through my days, busy going nowhere, doing nothing and killing time, have a wariness to them that hasn’t been there in recent memory. They huddle closer, are more pensive, more cautious than in past years. They’ve cast their lot with a charismatic unknown quantity who will soon occupy the White House, and they know not what will come in his wake.
People are worried, concerned, uncertain. The dark, empty business outlets near the local mall bear silent testimony to what may be on the horizon. But even Rome was not destroyed in a day. The Stock Market may have crashed on October 29, 1929. But the nation did not wake up on October 30 to find a third of its workforce unemployed and people starving in the street. That took time.
All the same, Herbert Hoover’s response over the following two years was to raise taxes (as a budget balancing measure, an article of faith in his administration) and choke off international trade with the passage of the Smoot-Hawley tariff law. It only made a bad situation worse. Franklin Roosevelt threw money at the problem. That did little to alleviate the suffering of the populace and nothing to end the Depression. WWII accomplished that.
Barack Obama has proposed differing versions of the same thing. Raising taxes on the wealthy will certainly do nothing to assist lower income earners. As many issues as I have with Ayn Rand, I believe Atlas Shrugged is prescient in its account of what would happen if the innovation so desperately needed from our highest achievers is strangled in the cradle by confiscatory taxes and punitive government regulation. In that, Rand was right on the money. (No pun intended).
But we stand on the precipice of an unprecedented secularization of America. We witness a nation that is tired, scared, broke; a country unsure of itself and uncertain about the future. We attempt to build solidarity in the midst of an avalanche zone. We are a nation of followers. We want to be told what to do. In every revolution, there is one man on a white horse, one man with a vision. And we are a nation who, when we are hurt, tired and scared, will follow anyone who offers a way out, provided he is charismatic enough, speaks to us in comforting generalities, and assuages our pain. A generation ago, we blazed a trail and tamed a continent. Now we want to be provided for and taken care of.
Hence Barack Obama, a candidate who would have been incomprehensible if we had a remnant of a nation that understood life is hard, bad things often happen, and the way out may be long, painful and difficult. We once were a nation of faith, but that too seems to have gone on hiatus. Too bad, too. Faith in God is a fundamental requirement in these looming times of trouble if, as William Faulkner so eloquently remarked, “Man will not only endure, he will prevail.”
And so, we embark upon what might conceivably be the last Christmas season of its kind. Not because we lack the resources to make it a prosperous one, but that we can only surmise what the effects will be – both legislative and cultural – of the incoming administration that will soon ascend the heights of power.
For one thing, our wealth may be sufficiently redistributed in the coming years to render the type of Christmas celebration we’ve become used to all but impossible. That may be not altogether a bad thing. A little hardship often enhances appreciation for our largesse if and when it ever returns. But Americans are noted for being among the most generous people on the face of the planet. And if we are to continue in this practice presupposes that we will have the wherewithal to be generous with. This ability may be rendered academic if the policy of “each according to his ability to each according to his need” is put into full effect in the coming years.
The assault on religious expression – which has always been aimed at the heart of the Judeo-Christian foundation upon which the nation was built – could easily switch from the public sphere to the private arena. Long before Barack Obama appeared on the scene, one of our local pastors established a network of home churches. He did this on two accounts. He wanted to emulate the early Christian church which – up until the time of the Roman emperor Constantine – met in people’s homes. The second, less widely circulated reason for this network was that the time could come when we will be forced into the kind of clandestine worship of exactly the sort that may come about. And such observations have nothing to do with current political trends. They are right out of the Bible.
The radicalization of the judicial system could easily reach unprecedented levels. The globalization of the court system could easily occur under the auspices of what Yahoo! News describes as America’s first global president. You think the First, Second, Fourth and Fifth Amendments eroded under the conservative usurper, George W. Bush? Just wait. You ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.
On the positive side, church attendance is up since the economic collapse began this fall. Our own congregation at the foot of the local mountain, consisting of the local super achievers, has swelled to bursting most Sundays. The leadership has taken to reading the comment cards included in the church bulletin, and has concluded that certain excretory substances do, in fact, flow uphill. Hard times have come to the foot of the mountain. And the badge of business ownership does not preclude said owner from the winds of economic hardship that have come home to roost.
To their credit, the people have opened their wallets in the wake of unprecedented uncertainty. Would that they open their hearts as well. To the credit of the church leadership, the ensuing messages have become more mature, more substantive, more sober-minded. It could be the shift from our traditional happy-faced hamster dance to messages on the development of character, substance and faith marks a sea change more significant than the one about to occur in Washington.
Who knows? Maybe such developments mark the onset of a third great awakening. Perhaps we’ll come to the realization that hard times are part of life. We may come to appreciate the hard truth that throwing money at our economic woes only hastens the reckoning with financial as well as spiritual bankruptcy. Maybe then, we’ll realize that depressions with a “d” – as opposed to recessions with an “r” – are part of the hard edge of life in a free society. They are tangible events, with definable features. And then perhaps we’ll understand that the only way “out” is “through”.
It could be some of us will realize that in order to be free we must be active in the protection of the institutions that provide that freedom. Lincoln once said – “As a nation of free men, we will live forever, or die by suicide.” Maybe, just maybe, from the ashes of a once great nation, there will emerge a leader worthy of the legacy of its rich history. A leader who realizes that struggle, sacrifice and discipline are required – not just of the leadership of a nation, but of the citizenry as a whole – for a free nation to endure. And that subverting our birthright to a president who will take care of us and make us feel good is a betrayal of the inheritance we all share, and a return to a childlike dependence such a nation can ill-afford.
I plan to enjoy the Christmas season, as I always manage to do. This year, my season will be more threadbare than most, for many reasons. I’m irrelevant, obsolete, antiquated and without value. Other than that, everything is fine. There comes a time when the older generation realizes it has passed its prime. That time has finally come. We are being pushed off the stage, like it or not. And high time, too.
Still, that does not mean I cannot enjoy the season. I plan to indulge in as many culinary delights as come my way. I wouldn’t miss walking the local neighborhood, renowned for its spectacular Christmas lights for anything. Who knows, it might even not be too late to get Nutcracker tickets. I might even be civil to people I would never give the time of day to during the rest of the year. And then, there’s curling up with a good book at Borders Books listening to Linda Eder’s rendition of Silent Night. That’s definitely high on the agenda.
After all, it always makes me smile.
- 6 “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ” – I Peter 1:6-7.