Sunday, December 23, 2018
I've told this story before, but it deserves retelling
Santa Claus is real. I know, because I was Santa Claus once -- and no, I don't mean just putting on the costume and ringing a bell for the Salvation Army or handing out presents at a kids' party, o sitting in a chair in a store listening to kids tell their Christmas wishes. I mean the real thing. No, not the 4th-century bishop of Myra, who was famously generous to children, or the north European "Old Man Christmas", whose attributes and image owe so much to Odin, nor Clement Moore's "Jolly Old Elf", nor the Thomas Nast illustrations that refined his image. No, the concept that comes closest is Francis Church's explanation in his famous editorial, "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus" -- written sincerely, although Church himself was a cynic and an Atheist. Church had been a correspondent who covered the Civil War; as such, he must have seen some of the strange things that happen in war for which there is no easy "mechanical" explanation. He'd seen, and he knew; spirits -- energy beings -- are real.
Santa Claus is a spirit -- the spirit of Christmas (and Hannukah, and Solstice, and Bodhi Day, and Ganesha's Birthday, and all the rest). He/She/It/They is the accreted spirit of kindness, generosity, joy, love, fellow-feeling, and delight in the happiness of children, which has collected over the centuries and millennia, attached to this time of the solar year. The mystic-scholarly Buddhist monks of Tibet might call it a "tulpa" -- a thought-form or energy-being which has absorbed enough psychic energy from humans to become visible, or more. The ancient Greek and Roman mystics called the process of creating a tulpa "theogenesis", or "god-making" -- and they didn't do it often. My old psychic-study group back in Chicago did it once; we created Randy the Alley-God, the lesser god of recycling, which is a story in itself. And Randy worked. To the best of my knowledge, he's still there.
And so, of course, is Santa Claus.
The way Santa Claus works is by "benign possession". Think: if an evil spirit can possess a person, then so can a good one. All you have to do is be willing, ready and agreeable to welcome the spirit in. Once housed, though you might not feel it right away, the spirit will guide you along its natural path. And that's what happened to me.
This was back in the early '90s, when I was still living in California, going to celebrations with the local Pagan crowd -- which included the family of Paul Zimmer. I had a spare drum -- a chased metal dunbek -- which I'd planned to give to his son Ian, but hadn't gotten around to it yet. On the day before Christmas I'd been to a local Solstice party, for which I wore a pant-suit in the seasonal colors -- red and forest-green, with touches of white. When I got home and finished dinner I was ready to sit back and watch TV, fueled on eggnog, when it suddenly occurred to me that I hadn't given away the last of my cards and presents: there was still that drum for Ian. Well, it was after dark but not too late for driving, so I grabbed up the drum, hurried out to the car, and started driving up to the Berkeley hills and Greyhaven, the Zinmers' house.
That's when the snow started falling. It was a light fall: few flakes, big and soft, drifting down lazily, not enough to make driving dangerous -- just enough to make it a bit hard to see. I made half a dozen wrong turns on the way, and finally spent another quarter-hour finding a parking-space, and then another walking all the way back to Greyhaven. When I got there and knocked on the door, it was exactly midnight.
The door opened, and there stood Ian. I handed him the drum, saying, "Merry Christmas".
Ian gawked for a moment and then asked: "Are you Santa Claus?"
"Huh?" I replied.
"Think," he said. "Who else shows up at midnight on Christmas Eve, wearing the Christmas colors, giving gifts?"
I thought that over, then wondered how the weather had conspired to put me on his doorstep at precisely midnight, and how I'd been suddenly inspired to go out driving after dark to deliver a present, and I had to agree. "Yes," I said, handing him the drum, "I guess I am."
So of course he invited me in, and I sat around the lovely decorated tree with the family, eating the ritual foods -- cookies and milk -- and we sang carols, and Paul Zimmer gave me a sprig off the tree, which I tucked into my headband, and it was well after 1AM when the party broke up. When I came out, the snow had stopped falling; there was just a fluffy dusting on the streets and houses and lawns. Maybe it was the sprig of the Christmas tree, but I had no trouble driving home or finding a parking-space. I poured myself a last cup of eggnog, tuned the radio to a music station, and went to sleep to the sound of Christmas carols. I never slept better in my life.
The feeling of Christmas lasted beyond New Year's, which is why nowadays I include Twelfth Night on my holiday cards. I noticed that when the feeling was gone, it was noticeably gone -- and the weird coincidences stopped happening. Like any sensible Pagan, I started making making plans and lookiing forward to Imbolc, the late-winter festival, which is a fun celebration too, but has a very different feeling from Yule-Solstice-Christmas.
So yes, Virginia -- and everybody else -- there really is a Santa Claus. And you can be him, if you try.
Saturday, December 8, 2018
A couple years ago I posted here an obituary -- "Death of a Railroading Man" -- for my old Chicago buddy, Dave Van Pelt the Fifth. He was always very particular about that "the Fifth". Then a couple weeks ago another of my old Chicago buddies, Chris Madsen, found -- completely by accident -- a documentary on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NlxwALxfBuc) about the 75th Street Chicago B&O railroad switching yard where Dave worked for most of his life. There are plenty of shots of the trains coming in and going out on various rail-lines, and how their direction changes with a throw of the switches in the "tower". The tower, shown in the opening shot, was simply a house-shaped two-story wooden building that contained the manual gears and switches for the entire switch-yard. 75th Street Yard was the last -- and the biggest -- of the all-mechanical railroad switching yards in the country, if not in the world. There are several shots showing the solid rods and gears spreading out from the tower to all the tracks in the yard -- hundreds of yards of them. The yard was a gigantic clockwork, with its drive-spring contained in that building, which was Dave's domain.
There are also plenty of scenes of the inside of the tower, and Dave throwing the main switches by hand, himself. It was startling to see Dave again, doing what he loved best, almost dancing amid the big manual switches that controlled the whole yard. He looked a bit different from the last time I'd seen him in life; his beard was shorter, his beer-belly was smaller, and he'd cut his beautiful mane of long black hair. Still, the sight brought back memories. I'd visited that tower many a time, bringing Dave his lunch, watching him work. On a couple of occasions he let me throw a switch or two -- if I could; those switches were heavy. And we'd watch the trains roll by, big and heavy as dinosaurs, moving as smoothly as swans on water, almost within touching distance of the tower's windows. That's where I was inspired to write my song, "The Grain Train". The regular train to General Mills was an economic lesson in itself: "Every train a hundred cars, Every car a hundred tons, Every ton a hundred sacks, Every sack ten thousand grains -- And that's what cities get from trains". And there's the constant sound of the trains rolling, ringing and clattering over the joints in the steel rails. There's no other sound quite like it. Fond memories, indeed! And did I mention that Dave was my lover, for a few years, way back then?
Looking back, I wonder: what if I'd stayed in Chicago -- never went out to California, never linked up with Off Centaur, never got into the Sci-Fi convention scene. Well, I would never have made all those albums, would never have met C.J. Cherryh and never have published my first Sci-Fi story, or novel, would never have met so many of my now-solid friends, including Rasty. My old band, back in Chicago, wasn't making it in the local folkmusic scene. The old union, the IWW, was surviving well but not growing much. I'd made one professional writing sale, a short story in a pulp crime magazine, which folded soon afterward. I would have had a very different life, and career. But still I sometimes wonder...
David's tower was built in 1894, deliberately over-engineered, meant to last for a century -- which it did. The B&O railroad retired Dave and tore down the tower in 1997. For my part, I think that was a crime against science. Seeing how it worked, I realize now that the entire 75th Street Switch-yard was a computer. Complete with its daily trains, that yard was the biggest mechanical computer ever built. The Babbage Society would have been happy to buy the gears and switches in that tower, and a good length of the tracks they controlled, just to keep in a technology museum. So much of technological history was contained in that small plain building!
At least, Dave always kept the blueprints -- for the entire yard -- in a cabinet in that tower. I'm sure he didn't let the B&O railroad just throw those away! I hope those wound up with the Babbage Society, at least, and aren't just moldering in the B&O company archives somewhere.
But for now, that documentary is a fine and fitting memorial to Dave and his domain. Watch it, and think long about what you're seeing.