SEARCHING FOR SANTA

When you’re a kid, Santa is easy to spot: He’s the guy in the red suit who gives you presents. When you’re a grownup, nobody gives you anything and Christmastime is basically a month-long reminder of just how little disposable income you have.  So, Mr. Claus can be hard to find.

But the thing about Santa Claus is, you never can tell who he’ll be or where or when he’ll show up. For instance, the last time I saw him was on a frigid state highway.

It was the morning of The Big Snow and rush hour traffic was stopped heading up an overpass on SPID. Unfortunately, I was in my classic, 2002, 4-banger pickup that’s lighter in the rear end than a vegetarian’s dog.

When traffic finally started moving, I shifted into first and eased off the clutch. My truck bucked and then started slewing wildly from side to side as the rear tires spun out in the slushy ice. My heart rate quintupled as I desperately tried several more times, hoping to get over toward the guardrail where I thought some fresh snow might provide traction, but I couldn’t move an inch. Palms sweating, honking traffic backing up behind me, I gave up and realized I was helpless.

Just then there was a tapping on my window. I rolled it down and beheld a smiling, recruiting-poster-of-a-guy with a UNITED STATES NAVY sweatshirt on.

“A little slick out here, huh?” he asked.

I nodded.

“You mind if I give you a push?”

“That would be great!”

He walked around to the back of my truck, dropped his shoulder against it, and hit it like a linebacker punishing a blocking sled. I jammed it into first, popped the clutch, and shot toward the traction of the fresh snow which grabbed my tires and slung me on my way.

As he drove by in his Jeep, I waved at Santa and mouthed, “Thank you”. He smiled and waved back. For a long time afterward, the tattered remnants of my heart glowed with a peace and Christmas spirit I hadn’t known in a long time.

Two thoughts occurred to me. The first was how lucky we are to be a military town. Thanks to NASCCAD, some of the finest people to ever walk the planet live among us. They are truly America’s best, and we’re blessed to have them in our midst.

I also realized that at a time when you can’t pick up a magazine or newspaper without reading about how bitterly divided Americans are, he helped me not caring about the color of my skin, or if I was a Democrat or Republican, pro or anti-Tax Reform, a Trumper or a Never Trumper, for or against Repeal and Replace, or The Wall or any of the rest of the flotsam and jetsam that push us apart from each other. He helped me for the same reason the Cajun Navy and J.J. Watt helped the people of Houston: Because I was a fellow human being in trouble. That’s what Santa Claus does.

While we’re sailing along leading our daily lives, it’s easy to forget how vulnerable all of us are. That our differences, as profound as they are, don’t separate us from each other at the level of our humanity. And that at any moment, we might need help from someone – or be able to help someone – regardless of their race, sex, politics, religion, or any of the rest of it. That’s the place to look for Santa Claus.

When angels announced to the shepherds the birth of our last hope, they proclaimed, “…and on earth peace, good will toward men.” Our fallen world seems no more disposed toward peace than it was 2000 years ago. But, if world peace is ultimately manifested by good will toward men, then that means we, as individuals, can help it along. We can help it along by resisting the Jerry Springerization of our society and treating each other as we would want to be treated. So, stop searching for Santa Claus; you are Santa Claus.

Have a Merry Christmas.

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What’s Up With Merry?

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Why does this holiday season have its own, exclusive adjective? No one ever says they had a Merry 4th of July, Halloween, or Thanksgiving. Why does the word disappear the rest of the year?

We all know what it is to be merry. It’s that feeling that shoves our worries out of the way and allows us to be at peace for a change. But why do we only use the word this time of year? Maybe the answer has something to do with a dumb thing I did when I was 13.

It was the holiday season in 1973. My cash strapped parents gave me $25 and set me loose in our local department store to buy presents for them and my 3 siblings. At first, I pretended to shop for things I thought each might actually enjoy. But then I made a beeline for the $25 train set I’d told everyone I wanted.

It took about 2 seconds to convince myself that it would really be a gift for the whole family. I’d set it up to chug around the tree and let everyone take a turn running it. The fact that I’d play with it in my room the rest of the year was not, of course, a factor.

Amidst the usual early morning hubbub and laughter of our Christmas morning, I handed mom my present for the whole family. When she unwrapped it, an immediate, stunned silence fell upon them all. Their heads snapped toward me and they stared at me as if I’d just handed my mother an empty box, which was exactly what I’d done.

Obviously, I wouldn’t have survived an attempt to set the trains up around the tree. But later that day, I snuck them into my room and had a good time playing with them by myself. However, even in the depths of my kiddie selfishness, I was aware that I’d done something wrong.

Over the next 40 years, I came to realize that we feel merry when we turn the spotlight away from ourselves and focus completely on others and what would make them happy. When we do that it forces us to see – beyond all the clichés – that those relationships really do matter far more than our daily struggles, worries, and ambitions. And then, almost magically, peace descends upon us.

Have a Merry Christmas and 2015.

Merry Christmas, Albert Einstein

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Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.
– Albert Einstein, 1940

As the skydiving school’s plane climbed toward the setting sun, I nervously checked my 16 year old brother’s antique, rented parachute and groaned, “Do you realize that when this plane lands, we’re not going to be on it?” We both turned a whiter shade of pale, and I wondered again what I’d tell my parents if anything happened to him.

Almost 20, I’d fallen for a girl like a safe out of a 5 story window. Desperate to regain control and stop thinking about her , I figured plummeting from 5,000 feet just might do it.

A mile up, I shuffled slowly to the open cargo door. Staring down into grinning death, my fingers dug into the doorframe like a bulldog’s teeth into a T-bone. Our “instructor” yelled something unintelligible in my ear, scowled, grabbed the back of my pants, and hurled me out of the plane.

Spread-eagled, screaming, and accelerating toward sure annihilation, I consoled myself with the thought that at least I’d stopped thinking about her… which, of course, amounted to thinking about her. (Thirty-two years of marriage later, and I still can’t get her off my mind.) Just then, the static line popped my chute open, and with a savage jolt I was jerked back among the living.

My brother and I whooped to each other as we swirled happily back to earth; right up until we realized we were headed for a hard landing on the asphalt runway. We both yanked on our steering cords, which our “instructor” had neglected to mention causes you to fall much faster, and crashed into the weeds. My brother badly sprained his ankle, but we’d survived. All in all, yet another convincing demonstration of the reliability of Newton’s gravitational equations.

In high school, we tested those equations by dropping balls off tables and rolling them down inclined planes. We learned that just as they predicted the motion of the balls, they could also predict the orbits of the planets around the sun. It all made for an orderly, predictable universe that left no room for parting the Red Sea or walking on water. My scanty science education left me with that signature gift of the Enlightenment: disbelief in the possibility of miracles.

But several years ago I learned that my Newtonian universe had become a quaint anachronism. Trying to find equations that accurately describe everything from the Big Bang to the behavior of subatomic particles, many eminent physicists now conclude that our universe has not three, but ten spatial dimensions, and that there are many, perhaps even an infinite number of, parallel universes. Also, in order to make their equations work, 96% of the universe must consist of dark matter and energy, which no one has even detected yet. (For a good summary of the science, watch The Elegant Universe at PBS.com)

My belief in the universe as an elaborate clockwork was blown to bits. And with all those dimensions, universes, and quantities of dark matter and energy out there, about which we know virtually nothing, there is no way science could plausibly deny the possibility of miracles. And for me, Enlightenment cynicism gave way to the possibility of faith.

Weirdly enough though, there have been several recent bestsellers questioning the existence of God and the intelligence of those who believe in miracles. Christopher Hitchens, the deceased author of one such book and a certifiably brilliant guy, in an attempt to explain Mother Theresa’s long dark night of the soul, wrote, ”Now it might seem glib of me to say that this is all rather unsurprising, and that it is the inevitable result of a dogma that asks people to believe impossible things and then makes them feel abject and guilty when their innate reason rebels.” Impossible things? It’s hard to imagine how someone so well informed could roll out that old Newtonian canard. But he can -if he chooses- ignore the scientific progress of the last 30 years; he can take his leap of faith, and I’ll take mine.

Face it, Einstein was usually right. So, next Thursday give your heart a little rest: Have a Merry Christmas.