Monday, December 30, 2013

Featured at BlogHer today!

My post, "Why I Will Never Invite Cinderella to My Daughter's Birthday Party," is being featured over at BlogHer today!  Please go join the conversation there; it's bound to be interesting.

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Friday, December 27, 2013

Cleaning Out Closets, and Zaletti

Every once in a while, I get on a cleaning jag. Like the one that led me to throw out my books, only a little less drastic.

I think, in some respects, it's reactionary behavior: I am actively resisting becoming my mother.

You see, my mother has lived in the same house since she was two years old. Her two brothers moved out, got married, and eventually sold the place to her and to my father. It was easy. And my mother tends to travel by the path of least resistance.

While the house has undergone renovations over the years, parts of it still live in the 1950s, or 60s, or 70s. Though my mother is not exactly a hoarder, she comes close: things have accumulated in the attic, and since my father's death almost 11 years ago, they've also accumulated in every room of the three bedroom house. You can barely walk into the room where I slept for the first 17 years of my life; piles of clothes form an obstacle course to the furniture. In the back room over the garage, a thin film of dust covers almost everything. I fear that some day it will become my responsibility to clean out this house, and in the meantime, I try to keep my own accumulation at bay.

I was hoping to get up to her attic during the break to throw away old dresses I discovered at Thanksgiving (things I wore before I hit double digits) while I was looking for old books, but the timing hasn't seemed to work out. And I need the space to do this on my terms, without my mother looking on and fretting about it. I know that throwing things away is difficult for her, in this house where she has spent her entire life.

The problem with a house full of this stuff that one has gathered through the decades is that at some point, you begin to store things in a haphazard way that makes it virtually impossible to access both the things you want to use and the things you want to get rid of. The only way to clean out is to make things even more chaotic, to empty everything out of the space and look at it, and start over, storing things in ways that make sense.  It's a daunting task, even if the rewards involve finding the gems we'd forgotten we had.  You have to be fully prepared for this kind of deep cleaning.  It's not something to be undertaken lightly.

My yoga teacher says that we are like mini-versions of this problem.  We hold on to so much baggage--not all of it excess--but when it all becomes jumbled together, we become cluttered, too.  Which is the point of a meditative yoga practice.  To take out all the clutter, put it all under a microscope, and without judging ourselves, get rid of what we don't need. But also to know that in the process, things will get messy.  You don't reach bliss without slogging through a little mud.

If you've read this blog for at least a year, you know that I don't make New Year's resolutions, because I think it's too arbitrary; I think that if we really want to make change, we need to be ready, and a new calendar doesn't necessarily mean we're ready for large-scale renovation.  But even if I don't decide to do anything drastic, I do find myself cleaning out a little at this time of year.  Maybe it's my way of trying to start with a cleaner slate.

Are you ready to clean out a closet or two?  Or do you need some time to prepare for the clutter and chaos that cleaning will entail?

These were an experiment this year, a sort of clean-out-your-closet cookie. I'm not sure they'll become one of my staples, but I'm grateful for the impetus to make space.

1 c. currants
1/4 c. dark rum
1 c. + 2 T. stone ground cornmeal
1 1/4 c. flour
1/2 t. salt1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
4 egg yolks
1/2 c. sugar
6 T. unsalted butter, melted and cooled
zest of 2 lemon
1/2 c. confectioner's sugar
1 t. - 1 T. lemon juice

Preheat the oven to 350F.  Soak the currants in the rum for at least 15 minutes, until plump.

Whisk together the flour, cornmeal, baking soda, salt and baking powder in medium bowl and set aside.

Using a stand mixer, beat the egg yolks and sugar together until the mixture becomes pale yellow.  Add the butter and lemon zest, beating until smooth.  Gradually add the dry ingredients and mix until well combined.  The dough should be firm; if it's too dry, add some of the rum from the currants, and if it's too wet, add a little flour.

Drain the currants and stir them into the dough, reserving the rum for another use.

Divide the dough into two balls. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the dough into two 2" square logs about 10 inches long.  Cut each log into 1/2" thick slices, and gently press each cookie into a diamond shape.

Place the cookies on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake until golden, about 15-20 minutes.  Remove the cookies and transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Sire together confectioners' sugar and lemon juice (1 t. at a time) until you have a thin (but not runny) glaze.  Drizzle glaze over the cooled cookies and allow it to solidify before storing.
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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Adventures at ShopRite, Mattering, and Vegetarian Pot Pie

I'm a Friday night grocery shopper.  After the dinner has been eaten, the dishes are washed, the kids are clean and in bed, I head out into the darkness to scavenge what's left at the store.  I like Friday nights for two reasons: first, I buy supplies to cook during the weekend so we have leftovers to eat during the week, and second, it's really a much saner time to shop than, say, Saturday morning.  And because it's a little less crowded, I tend to see--and occasionally even talk with--the same staff each week, who are stocking shelves and bins with bananas and onions and juice.

Except that last week, it was the day before a snowstorm.  I'd prepared myself for a crowd, but never had I seen anything like this.  You'd think we were preparing for the nuclear holocaust, the way the lines to check out snaked through the aisles, to the back of the store.  Over the PA system, Sue, one of the managers, periodically apologized for the wait, and reassured people that all cashiers were working, and that they'd try to get us all out as soon as possible.

Knowing that it was fruitless to speed my way to the checkout, I loitered a little longer than usual, talking with Steve in produce about his solution to prevent squirrels from eating bird food (Tabasco sauce.  "Do you know how much the good stuff costs?" he demanded, indignant), making small talk with people in the deli section who were needlessly criticizing the speed of the guys behind the counter, and looked over my list, adding a few things I'd forgotten.

One of the things on my list was sidra, Spanish hard cider that my father used to get for Christmas from a bodega in Union City, along with assorted bricks of turrĂ³n.  I'd found it in ShopRite for two years running, much to my surprise, since New Jersey grocery stores don't sell liquor.  This year, it was nowhere to be found in the imported foods section, or at least, not that I could tell, among the cans of Goya beans and Maria cookies and guava paste.  I wrinkled my nose and pursed my lips.  Maybe someone had gotten wise to the alcohol content?

A bit farther down the aisle, someone was unloading a cart with new things from the back.  I figured I'd take a chance and ask, feeling a little badly, given that they were clearly swamped.

"Say it for me again?" he asked, kindly, when I told him what I was looking for.  I repeated the word, and explained: "It's basically like sparkling cider.  My father used to get it every year around this time; it's ... " (I feel somehow silly saying this) "... it's part of my heritage."

"Let me find out," he said.  "You go on and shop; I'll find you."

You'll find me? I thought, dubious.  It was bedlam; I decided I'd never see him again. 

A few minutes later, he did actually find me, shaking his head as he made his way around the other shopping carts.  "I don't think we have what you're looking for," he said.  "Did you check the ciders?"

"Yes," I assured him.  "But this is ... well ... ever so slightly alcoholic."

"Huh," he sniffed.  "And you got it here?"  I nodded.  "Someone wasn't doing their job."

"You're probably right," I agreed.  "Hey, thanks for looking."

I finished my shopping, and headed to the checkout, where the lines were now only halfway to the back of the store.

I didn't think much more about it, until I went back to the store this week, enjoying the relative quiet, reclaiming my shopping night.  He appeared out of nowhere, and it took me a minute to place him.  He, however, knew exactly who I was.

"Did you ever find your cider?" he asked.

I was flabbergasted.  "No, I didn't," I confessed.

He nodded.  "I found out that ours is imported from Spain.  Not exactly the same, but for a buck ninety-nine, worth a try, maybe?"

I laughed.  "Yes, worth a try.  Hey ..."  I faltered.  "Thanks for remembering."

"No problem," he said, grinning.  "Happy Holidays."

"You too," I said, putting the bottle in my cart, waving as I scooted away.

There was so much to unpack in that conversation.  The astonishment I felt at being remembered, especially from a busy night when the store was full of faces and requests.  The kindness of a stranger going out of his way to learn something about a small thing that was important to me, and seeking me out to tell me later.

I was talking with an old friend this weekend, who commented that coming from the place she went to college, mediocrity was considered akin to failure.  If you weren't winning Nobel Prizes, or writing the next Great American Novel, or curing cancer, or steering a Fortune 500 company, your life might as well be over; anything less than exceptional was unacceptable.  She's since come to realize otherwise, and said that she wished she figured it out much earlier, so she could have saved herself from a complete breakdown.

I used to think that way about success, too, at least, as it applied to me, even though I didn't go to school at one of those fancy brand-name places.  And yet, when it comes down to it, our lives are made up of many more ShopRite moments than they are the moments that find us creating the kinds of earthquakes that measure 8.5 on the Richter scale.  The same goes for blogging.  Sure, we get a post that goes viral.  Maybe we get hundreds of comments (not that this has ever happened to me).  But this is how I want to be remembered: not necessarily having published books that hundreds or even thousands of people read, or even building a program that has a legacy for my institution or my field, but mattering to individual human beings, one at a time, like one does in ShopRite.

How do you make people, even the ones you've never met, feel like they matter?

Vegetarian Pot Pie
adapted from Vegetarian Times
This could be a good alternative main dish for the vegetarians at your holiday table.  It's not terribly fancy, but it's hearty, and savory, and just the right kind of warm.  It would pair very well with Spanish sidra.

4 c. vegetable broth
4 c. water
1 small butternut squash, peeled, chopped 
1 lb thin-skinned potatoes, unpeeled, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 large bunch spinach, well washed and coarsely chopped, or 3/4 c. frozen spinach
1 t. salt
1 1/2 c. frozen corn
1 1/2 c. cooked chickpeas
1/4 c. olive oil
1 onion, quartered and thinly sliced
1/3 c. flour
1/2 t. dried rubbed sage
1/2 t. dried thyme
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 c. milk
1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed

Bring the broth, water, squash, potatoes, and salt to a boil in a large pot. Cover, reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the spinach and corn. Cook for three minutes more. Drain the vegetables, reserving the broth. Stir in the chickpeas.

Heat oil in the same pot over medium-high heat. Add the onions and saute for about 7 minutes, or until beginning to brown. Add the flour, herbs, and garlic, and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Slowly pour 4 cups of the reserved broth into the pot. Cook until the roux thickens, 5-7 minutes, stirring constantly. Stir in the milk. Return the vegetables to the pot and mix; season to taste with salt and black pepper. Allow to cool slightly.

Preheat oven to 375.  Pour the filling into a 9x13-inch baking pan.  Gently roll out the puff pastry to the size of the baking dish and place over the filling, pressing around the edges to seal. Score four diagonal lines into the puff pastry, and bake for 45-60 minutes, or until the top of the crust is golden brown. Allow to cool for 10 minutes before serving.
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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Bookshelf, and a Bittersweet Chocolate Tart

When I was younger, my dreams were filled with libraries.  I'd always been a reader, bending over my literary contraband until the light was too dim to read, knowing that I couldn't be caught with a flashlight; but it was libraries and bookstores that really captured my imagination: places where walls of stories and ideas literally surrounded you.  It wasn't until high school, though, that I started to realize I could live in my own library.  After shuttling shopping bags full of reading material back and forth from their house for me, my English teachers had invited me for an overnight visit so that I could come browse for myself.  I remember my astonishment when I realized that an entire room in their home was dedicated to mysteries, another to literary fiction, a nook to children's literature, a corner to miscellany like radios and camping.

As a misfit adolescent, I found solace in their private library; I imagined my own home, the place where I'd settle one day, a place where shelves of books dominated the walls.  In my teachers' house, I learned to read bookshelves as a window into the intellectual and spiritual lives of book owners.  Later, in graduate school, I would scan the titles on shelves in new places, head cocked sideways, looking for clues, finding myself in their intellectual wanderings, but also finding welcome novelty and difference.  People who lived in houses lined with well-loved books were the people I most wanted to be, the people I wanted to befriend.  The shelves were, in some profound way, metonyms for their owners.

I worked diligently at building my own library.  Over the years, I accumulated books like some people accumulate jewelry: high school literature surveys, college reading assignments, the literary theory of my first graduate school career, the sociology and philosophy and historical texts of my second.  When I returned to New Jersey from Los Angeles, my books took up most of the space in the moving truck.  Some of them were my trophies, but more of them--even the ones that collected dust--were my most reliable friends, the one constant thing in a life of flux.  Like the shelves I read in the homes I visited, my books represented me.

And like me, eventually, they learned to share space.  For a while, my books coexisted uneventfully with my husband's (engineering, science fiction, outdoors, mountain guides) in marriage.  They occupied unequally divided real estate on the shelves, but neither of us seemed to mind.

Then we had children.

It started with a concern for the books: we moved things up out of reach, gave things away, wanting to put our children's toys within their grasp, wanting to avoid telling them not to touch.  Though our bookshelves were still largely bookshelves, with adult books, as my children's toys and books started taking up a little more space, I began to winnow out the things I no longer read, telling myself that they could find kinder  homes elsewhere.  I worried a little bit more about making sure that I didn't hog the available shelf space from my husband, like a thoughtful partner might worry about hogging the marital bed.  Each year, some of my books would find their way to the Friends of the Library Book Sale; I wondered who bought them, where they ended up.  Still, I didn't feel that I'd sacrificed my house of books for my offspring.

When I left my job in June 2011, I brought home the books I'd accumulated in my office.  They'd been the hardest thing to pack; somehow, removing my books from those shelves represented the finality of my decision.  I no longer belonged there.  At home, after I unloaded my mini-library, our quarters felt cramped.  For a while, the books lay stacked on the floor, a representation of something abandoned.  Finally, reluctantly, I found spaces for most of them among the others, stacking them horizontally, in precarious places, as if they never really quite belonged.

Last year, in December and January, after two years of job hunting with no promising leads, I decided that I'd no longer need any of these books: my career was dead, and I was not the intellectual or professional I pretended to be.  I no longer cared about ideas, or words, or language, or anything.  In my sweatpants and fraying sweaters, I ravaged the fortress of paperbacks and hardcovers that had defined me and protected me, purging relentlessly.  Boxes of books made their way to my town library for sale, or for recycling.  On one trip downtown, the head librarian peered into the box and gasped audibly.  "But ... your Nortons," he said.  "Are you sure?"

My Norton Anthologies.  Yes, I was sure.  I was trying, desperately, but carefully, perhaps not even entirely consciously, to erase myself.  The books I kept on our shelves at home were thoughtfully chosen, things that I imagined perhaps my children could use some day, or the stories I loved too much to give away.  At one point, after dropping off the last boxes, I found myself in tears.

Mostly, I stopped reading.

Thankfully, I applied for one more job.

This summer, I started doing fellowship advising in an international programs unit.  My trailer office had a single flimsy metal bookcase, which remained mostly empty, but I brought a few travel books from home, and tentatively shelved them there.  Maybe they would inspire my students to explore the great unknown.  Maybe they would inspire me.

Two months later, through an astounding series of fortunate events, I started another job.  In an office with a large leaded glass window, and wooden overhead built-in bookshelf.

The secretary asked me if I needed help moving from my trailer.  My books, she said.  I shook my head.  I had nothing to move.  I joked about it over the next few weeks as I gradually transitioned to my new light-filled space, but the truth is that I felt a great longing for the books I'd thrown away.  One wall of my boss' office is filled with books, floor to ceiling, and an entire store room in the basement of one of the buildings at our college is filled with boxes of his personal library.  In the faculty master's office, books from across the disciplines dominate the walls, and cover every surface.  In his house across the street, there are three--no, four--entire walls of books.  I mourned for my own lost library, the artefacts of my past lives.  Proof that I existed, intellectually, in another time and space.  But I was relieved, too, to miss that part of myself, when in the darkest months of the past two years, I thought for sure it was dead.


Two weeks ago, I turned 40.  And I posted this request to Facebook: for this milestone birthday, send me the name of your favorite book.  To rebuild my library with friends, and friends of friends.  The names, and in some cases, the books themselves, came tumbling in, with stories about their discovery: the best, most treasured kinds of gifts.

I love my new office, and my new job.  My bookshelf remains mostly empty, but I know that this will change, over time; the ideas and stories will come again, accumulating gradually, as good libraries do, both enlarging and revealing the intellectual and spiritual lives of their owners.  And though the losing and the finding has been bittersweet, though I still have space to fill, in the end, I feel like I'm home.

What's your favorite book?  And what's your story about discovering it?  What does your library say about you?

Bittersweet Chocolate Tart

9 (5- by 2 1/4-inch) chocolate graham crackers
5 T. unsalted butter, melted
1/4 c. sugar

For filling:
1 1/4 c. heavy cream
9 oz. bittersweet chocolate (less than 65% cacao), chopped
2 large eggs
1 t. vanilla extract
1/4 t. salt

For glaze:
2 T. heavy cream
1 3/4 oz. bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 t. light corn syrup
1 T. warm water

Preheat oven to 350F.

In a food processor or blender, process the graham crackers and sugar until the crackers are finely ground.  Add melted butter and process until thoroughly combined.  Press the crust mixture evenly into a 9" tart pan, taking care to create a 3/4" rim.  Bake crust until firm, about 10 minutes. Cool 15 to 20 minutes.

Place the chocolate in a medium sized heatproof bowl.  Bring 1 1/4 c. cream to a boil, then pour over 9 oz. chocolate and let stand 5 minutes. Gently stir until smooth.  In a separate small bowl, whisk together eggs, vanilla, and salt, then stir into melted chocolate.  Pour filling into cooled crust.

Bake until the filling is set around the edges but center is still wobbly, 20 to 25 minutes. (The center will continue to set as the tart cools.) Cool completely in pan on rack, about 1 hour.

To make the glaze, bring 2 T. cream to a boil and remove from heat. Stir in 1 3/4 oz. chocolate until smooth. Stir in corn syrup, then warm water.  It will be fairly runny; don't let this trouble you, since it, too, will harden as it cools.

Pour the glaze over the tart (which should be at room temperature), then tilt and rotate the pan to coat the top of tart evenly. Let stand until glaze is set, about 1 hour.

Garnish with fresh raspberries and freshly made lightly sweetened whipped cream.
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Thursday, December 12, 2013

Why I Will Never Invite Cinderella to My Daughter's Birthday Party

(cross-posted at

My daughter is not a feminist.  She is an almost-three-year-old tornado whose favorite color is blue, but who enjoys dressing in pink and purple tuille and dancing around, proclaiming, "I'm a PRINcess!"

To which I respond, invariably: "You are always a princess, because you're smart, and beautiful, and kind."  (Or some drek-y thing along those lines.)

Because, really, what else can you say that is uncomplicated enough for a well-indoctrinated three year old girl to understand?

We don't have TV in my house.  She doesn't watch many movies, and most of the ones she's seen involve Dora or Kai-Lan.  We've dressed her in hand-me-downs since birth, sifting through the piles to find the items of clothing that are most innocuous (no leopard print spandex. thanks).  Still, she has more shoes than Emelda Marcos (well, at least more shoes than I do), a closet full of clothing (of which only three or four outfits are acceptable), and a fondness for Disney.  She has to function on a preschool playground, and princess knowledge is playground currency.  My daughter is savvy; it's not surprising that she picked up and now uses the currency she needs.

Understandably, she was interested to learn that her friend would be having a birthday party at which Cinderella was going to make an appearance.

We arrived at the party, she dressed in a frilly purple number from her dress-up box.  Her friend, dressed in a blue Cinderella ball gown, hugged her fondly and ushered her into the basement.  And for a while, it was a standard happy pre-K party, with a small bouncy house in the basement, and a minature trampoline, and kids running amok.

via flickr Creative Commons
from user BalloonLady
Until Cinderella arrived.

N's friend, who had previously been animated and talkative, stood dumbstruck, her little eyes wide, her mouth hanging open.  Cinderella proceeded to make much of her, then invited the kids to come forward for "makeup" (face painting), informing them that "princesses need makeup."  I restrained myself, thankful that my daughter didn't want any, despite everyone's encouragement.  "It's ok," I reassured her. "You don't have to if you don't want to."

Then, there were lessons in waving in curtseying, and twirling around to "show off your dress" for the girls (yes, seriously), while there were lessons in bowing, showing off your muscles, and a primal yell of "charge!" for the boys.  For the whole group, there was a story about Cinderella going to visit a girls' boarding school, where she was going to choose one lucky girl to be a princess for a day.  And finally, a coronation ceremony, with sequined tiaras for the girls, and full crowns for the boys.

To say that I was grateful to see Cinderella go would be an understatement.  After we paraded upstairs to eat pizza (which my daughter would not eat, because she thinks pizza is "yuck"), and cake (which she also would not eat, because she doesn't like cake, which makes me wonder sometimes if we're really related), and strawberries (which she devoured), we took our leave, too.  And when I asked my daughter what she liked most about the party later, she told me, matter-of-factly, to my relief: "the strawberries."

I will not be inviting Cinderella to my daughter's birthday party.  I'm not anti-Disney; I think that princess play can be fun.  I played my share of "princess" in my youth; usually there were three of us, and the unlucky one with the short straw got to be the wicked witch who lived in the woods, and who was vanquished through our magical powers.

But that's just it.  We weren't playing a princess game in which makeup and dresses and waving and curtseying were important.  We played at a game that involved establishing, and tapping, our own powers, not relying on a fairy godmother and a dress to get us into a ball where we can show up the ugly (and admittedly, unkind) stepsisters.    So when I see things like yesterday's Chronicle of Higher Education article on how women's leadership in academe remains largely unchanged, and yesterday's article in Nature about gender disparities in science, and Monday's NPR commentary on how women's representation on corporate boards remains unchanged, I start to wonder where, as a nation, we are going wrong.


As princesses in the woods of my neighbor's back yard, we were not playing in a male-dominated world.  We were playing in our world, by our rules.  And now, we're not playing there any more.  As adults, we continue to create a world that is not equal.  The same people who are encouraging Cinderella to be our daughters' first idol may not realize that they are perpetuating a culture that places the U.S. 23rd in the Global Gender Gap rankings.  It may surprise those people to learn that the U.S. ranks 60th–below India, China, and Uganda–in terms of political empowerment, and that U.S. women also still struggle with a significant wage gap, making an average of 77 cents to every dollar that men make, that African-American women make an average of 64 cents to a man’s dollar, and that Latina women make 55 cents.

I continue to be frustrated by what I read.  I know one thing for sure, which I've written here before: leaning in isn't enough.  We can and should raise daughters (and sons) who can speak up for themselves, who are willing to make choices, who have high aspirations.  We can't send them mixed messages about what we value, and we have to believe what we tell them, modeling it for them ourselves.  But we also need to change the adult world we're preparing them for, because we can't expect them to change it for us.

What will your first step be?
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Monday, December 2, 2013

On Believing, and Thoughts On Being Santa

Santa Fly-In has become a yearly tradition in my house, I guess, if going four times or so makes it traditional.  While pictures with Santa aren't a priority for us, as Santa visits go, it's not so bad: it's a free event at a local airport, where Santa arrives in a Cessna, and there's still a long line to get a personal audience with him, but while you're waiting, you can walk inside a hot air balloon, or jump in the bouncy house, or sit inside a police helicopter and a small airplane, marveling at the dials and gauges.  And towards dusk, if the weather cooperates, anywhere between five and ten hot air balloons take off from the south field.  So even if the Santa visit itself is a disaster, the event isn't a complete wash.

After we'd watched the helicopters take off this year, and my bouncy-house-loving daughter decided that she would not set foot in the bouncy house today (for reasons she did not care to share with us), we joined the line of Santa-seekers. Especially given her mood, I suspected that my daughter wouldn't want to sit on Santa's lap, and I was right; she said hello to him this year, which was a huge step forward from last year's screaming fit, but couldn't be persuaded to pose for the picture.  We didn't push too hard.  It is, after all, sort of a weird thing to ask, given what we tell our children about safety: "don't talk with strangers, but here, go sit on this man's lap."  I'd rather she not learn that, actually.

My son, on the other hand, was perfectly happy to cozy up to Santa and tell him that he wanted a computer (news to me).  It's been hard to tell what he's thinking about the whole Santa jig this year.  I suspect that he doesn't really believe, but he also doesn't want to not believe.

Recapping the visit as we walked to Michael's later in the weekend to pick up some blank cards, he informed me that the Santas one sees in public aren't "the real Santa."

"They're not?" I asked, curious how he'd play this out.

"No," he said.  And paused.  Then: "But it's still fun."

"What's fun?"  I probed.  "What part of it?"

"You know.  Going to see Santa.  Having him out there.  It's like ..."  He thought for a moment, clearly chewing on his words, "It's hard to explain.  It's like the community is doing some thing nice.  Like, here's Santa, and you can tell him whatever you want, and maybe he'll give it to you."

"I think I understand," I said.  Whether it's the local business improvement district, or the airport, and whatever: creating an opportunity to visit with Santa is like encouraging us to dream.  Even if not everything we want arrives on Christmas morning, the possibility that it could, well ... that's the part that makes us feel good.

I really do get what my son means.  Because last year, unemployed for the second Christmas, losing hope, and longing for someone to help, unreasonable as it might have been to do so, I whispered in Santa's ear, and asked him for a job.

Santa didn't bring me a job for Christmas, but there were other people who played Santa for me in the months to come.  Some of them know who they are, and most likely, some of them don't.  Maybe I helped myself, too, but asking out loud, well ... that was probably the first time I acknowledged I couldn't do it alone.

As I stood waiting for our audience with Santa at the airport this weekend, edging forward in the line, I watched Santa's face, and thought about what it must be like to be Santa, however temporarily.  Sure, there are probably plenty of Santas that take the job grudgingly, and hate the more annoying parents, and the brattier children, but donning that red suit is a powerful thing.  Where actors enjoy the audience's belief for an hour or two, you-as-Santa live on for years.  Not like Tim Allen does in The Santa Clause, but in a way that is more profound and meaningful.  People set aside their disbelief, and in their brief visit with you-as-Santa, grant you magical powers, immortalize you in their memories and in family photo albums.  You become selfless, taking on the identity of something much greater than you could ever hope to be.

As much as I hate Black Friday and the shopping season and the mall during December, I love the kind of believing, and the kind of generosity, that December seems to make possible.  And whether you believe in Santa or not, that kind of hope, and that kind of love, is worth cultivating for at least one month out of the year.  Here's wishing you a December full of light, and possibility.
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