For decades my grandfather Kirst worked at the Niagara Mohawk coal plant in WNY. It was a backbreaking job that was accentuated and/or offset by his wicked sense of humor and love for the written word. One year when I was 6 or 7, he and my grandmother decided to play a joke on me – one that they had probably been anticipating for years. They just had to wait until I was old enough to understand. So, finally, in that moment of my glimmering consciousness, they wrapped up a gloriously shiny chunk and placed it under the tree – a behaviorist coal in your stocking moral come to late winter’s life. The whole family breathlessly waited as I opened it up, expecting me to jokingly howl in protest. I surely hadn’t been bad enough to deserve this as a gift!!
Unfortunately, they hadn’t realized the extent of my grade school angst. “It’s coal, Brian, it’s coal!” they chanted as I sat, bewildered, staring at it. I could tell my grandparents and everyone who witnessed the unveiling were disappointed. They thought the joke had failed. It hadn’t. I knew what it was. I was just lost, as I always seemed to be, endlessly in my head. Was there a hint of reality in this bit of humor? Did everyone, deep down, really believe that I was a bad kid? Even then, I could multiply my darkest thoughts without much effort, so I sat there adding up all the small betrayals and petty lies I had conjured over the past twelve months. Perhaps, I really was only worthy of inky stone at holiday gatherings – and here it was, an instance of truth behind the laughter shining into life. Of course, other gifts were soon dispersed and those thoughts were quickly put behind me.
But on these first few days of freezing seasonal temps here in Chicago, the memory of this evening comes rollicking back and I wish I could tell my grandfather (and all those there long lost) that their game then was strictly on point. But as with any other youthful sport I attempted, I was eternally bound for the sidelines – the minutiae of analysis, my propensity to view both sides of the coin fully, already doing me in.
Until the next time, SWEET love and pink GRUE, Big Gay Horror Fan
The locker room never quite felt like a safe place as a gay kid. Of course, it definitely wasn’t a haven for my buddy Jim one day, but not for any reason having to do with queerness. We were in fourth grade and our metabolism burning was done for the afternoon, but good old Jim was still hot under the collar. We were changing back into our heavy winter sweaters and getting ready to head back to class when the subject of Santa came up. Jim insisted that he existed. He had met the elves and Claus’ effervescent wife at a holiday village somewhere and was convinced they all were the real deal. The others in my class thought this was ludicrous and a fiery debate ensued. Jim held his ground. The others held theirs while I, meanwhile, found my consciousness woken just a bit.
I had never given much thought to whether Santa existed or not. Ever the greedy minx, I was happy as long as there were presents under the tree. But this exchange opened a mental portal and when my mother did indeed inform me that Santa was a widely embraced fiction soon after this sweaty debate, I took it with a shrugging nonchalance. Hell, it made more sense that she and my dad would get me the soundtrack to New York, New York that year than some golly floating dude with a beard.
Others took that revelation with a sense of horror. My buddy Jared recently divulged that unexpected discovery blew his whole world apart. It opened a cavalcade of distress. For if there was no Santa then there was no floating reindeer or Easter Bunny or Tooth Fairy or leprechauns…in other words, no magic.
I contemplated this discussion often this holiday season. As I walked through department stores overwhelmed with displays of traditional character strewn red and white, it did seem like a somewhat unconscionable thing for parents to do…building up the big red one only to pull the rug out at some vaguely determined Logan’s Run style execution date. Of course, I reasoned there was the obvious theory that the joy found pre-betrayal outweighs the heartache experienced post. I even imagined that investing a child in the falsehood could be a preventative notion. Little Charlie or Diane or Aubrey is not going to be the one to let the entire second grade class know that their wintery dreams are an exorbitantly fluffy falsehood. Calls of outrage will not be made by angered colleagues with crying daughters and sons! It must be the easier choice, as well. Fighting the common tide is always the roughest way to go and seasonal advertisements rage with a domineering effectiveness the moment that Halloween ends every year.
As for myself, I can only think of positives. Learning Santa and his ilk were untruths probably opened up my mind to question many of the blanket statements provided by authority figures. It allowed me to doubt and explore issues of religion and politics. It gave me the tools to make up my own mind. I probably wouldn’t be the proud agnostic that I am today without that wintery invention being thrust on me for years. I like to imagine that it brought about a similar inquisitiveness for others like my friend Jared, as well. Coming out of the dark…emerging from the cobwebbed corners of the locker room – whatever that may signify to you – is always a bit traumatic, but is almost always a very, very good thing.