Monday, January 17, 2011

Truths, Realties, and Double Santa Claus Theories

My son, previously dubbed Lord Running Boy (LRB), is now a 6-year old first grader. His teacher asked to speak with Lord Wife and me after school about his behavior one day this past week, an oft-recurring theme this year, and she started off like this:
"Well...there's an incident I need to bring to your attention, and the timing might not be, kind of another shock for you. It's hard to, well, I'm not sure what your belief systems are at home, but..."
Our attention? "Another shock" and "belief systems" along with Mrs. L's ginger, reluctant tone shoved us onto the parental Def-Con 4 footing, a place from whence the mind rushes to worst-case scenarios. Did he start a fight? Is a window broken, or a taboo? Did he tell his classmates America is running out of gasoline and their parents are going to starve? (Some of our household commentary, lacking context, might be embroidered by an eavesdropping child.) I was thinking property damage could be involved, resigned myself to his suspension or a lawsuit and hoped one wouldn't last too long or the other cost too much.

His teacher, a professional and compassionate woman with young children of her own, explained that our boy disrupted the class by suddenly climbing up onto his group desk and proclaiming to a room chock-full of 26 kindergartners and first graders, 
"Everybody! I have an important announcement...Santa Claus is not real. Santa Claus is your mom and your dad!"
As she described it, a pregnant pause was followed by one child's plaintive denial and went from there on to general uproar. We could easily picture frowns of doubt and consternation rippling across the room, little faces shooting red, pairs of fists starting to clench. She said one boy's body tensed so rigidly for so long she was afraid he would pass out. There was crying and staring blankly into space. In response to these defenses, our son maintained his position and emphasized it: "No. Research has been done. There is evidence. Santa Claus is DEAD!" 

About this time, Mrs. L switched into damage control mode, casting LRB's conspiracy theories into doubt by parsing, as the philosopher Kierkegaard might call it, her monstrous paradox through a public school's handy diversity filters and addressing her charges: 
"Class, LRB may think Santa isn't real, but every family believes differently, and what's most important is what your own family believes."
Order was eventually restored by moral relativism and insinuating our son is a crackpot, so have a merry Wiccan/Kundalini/Bacchus Chanukah. Peace out, and fair enough. But she went on to tell us that later in the library, by the aquatic-themed books, two girls she sees as class leaders apparently berated LRB for his outburst. While she didn't hear what was said, after it was said he retreated to cry inconsolably behind a further bookshelf. I had been wondering whether to come clean with her or not, and here was my cue. It wasn't about our belief systems, or our mostly futile attempts to raise something more than a Wanting Machine brainwashed by commercials for labor-arbitraged plastic toys screwed over transistors. No, we had done our level best to preserve the Santa mythos, and he figured it out all on his own.

The previous night I'd read him a bedtime story, "A Grumpy Santa Claus." After we finished, he leveled his gaze at me and said with an air of gravity, "Uhh, know I know that Santa's fake, right?" I did know, and had observed his first seeds of doubt and the detective case he opened last Christmas with a rhetorical question: "I can't understand it. Why would Santa forget my Star Wars Lego ship after Grandma wrote it down on the letter?" (Answer: both Lord Wife and I have small businesses and families, with the obligations they entail. By the time we got to Toys R Us, they were sold out.) From there he soon progressed to time-honored logistical doubts. How, after all, is it possible to visit every house, fit down a chimney, or gain access to the disadvantaged families who live in locked condos and apartment buildings? Santa's sleigh must be rocket-powered, reindeer could never fly fast enough. And what are elves, anyway? They look more like dwarves than magic people, and not very productive ones.

I confirmed his assertion, but coolly asked how came to such a radical conclusion. As if addressing a simpleton he said, "Dad, I saw you and Mom wrapping presents on Christmas Eve." Sometimes a Teaching Moment is subtle, and sometimes it beats you on the head like a five-pound salami. I explained that while Santa isn't "real," it's not that simple, either. First, a long time ago in Amsterdam there was a real man named Santa Claus who became famous for giving presents and candy to children, especially to poor children, and who really wore a red coat. Next, his idea, of giving gifts to kids on Christmas, especially to those who were poor and good, was so powerful people wanted to keep it going. So he remains real in a sense, and taking on the role of Santa is fun. Lord Running Boy sought final clarification: "Yeah, but he died, right?" 

Some teacher. What I should have told him is truth is volatile, corrosive, people fight over it and it's a lot like nitroglycerin which when mixed carefully with sawdust stabilizes into dynamite so you can nestle lethal carrots of it under where you want to blow something up and activate it with blasting caps. It can be the most beautiful light-bringing thing or be treated as a terrible crime all at the same time. I should have said it's best to practice with small amounts first, use long fuses and take good cover because reality is a currency we must necessarily agree upon every day, and don't tell this to your class tomorrow because everybody has agreed there should be a Santa and children must believe in him until, as Mrs. L informed us, they're in 3rd grade. When truth disagrees with reality and you choose to set them close together you'll get burned by your own blast and you might even die. Furthermore, feudal aristocracies successfully convinced people the earth was flat for a thousand years, when even the Bible clearly said it's round. So think hard about that one if you're going up against Santa.
Despite his emotional injuries and those he inflicted on his classmates, we don't know that it's not for the best. At least he may have learned early what we learned much later, although to be honest we're proud of this son's ability to pursue and can take being known as the parents of the boy who ruined Christmas in easy stride. The principle I wish to delve more into for myself, and to somehow get all my sons thinking about too, is how simply seeing the truth is the easy part. The bigger trump to be pursued lies in the clever art of conflict resolution, of applying just the right myrrh-scented balm to human wounds and desires.

The next night I sent him back with a message for his classmates, that Santa is still real in some ways, and you get more presents from your parents if you believe in him. We all know how there are lies that draw smiles and truths which draw tears. He imparted the message, and I'm not sure what the right thing was to do, but he had a good day and maybe he's on his way to learning how to skillfully manipulate the credulousness of his classmates without taking too much advantage of them.

Would Martin Luther King Love Him Some Warz?

Today is Martin Luther King Day. Saw this story and was enraged enough to post it. The general counsel for the Department of Defense, Jeh Johnson, speaking at today's Pentagon commemoration of Dr. King, seized the opportunity to enlist his posthumous support (courtesy of Salon):
“I believe that if Dr. King were alive today, he would recognize that we live in a complicated world, and that our nation's military should not and cannot lay down its arms and leave the American people vulnerable to terrorist attack,” he said.

Johnson goes on to argue that American soldiers play the role of the Biblical Good Samaritan cited by King because they "have made the conscious decision to travel a dangerous road and personally stop and administer aid to those who want peace, freedom and a better place in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and in defense of the American people."
Given that Dr. King privately deplored war, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, and publicly gave a speech themed "My Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam" at Manhattan's Riverside Church in 1967, the Pentagon lawyer might just have his tranquilizer dosages set to Bobsled Run.

In that forthright 1967 speech, Dr. King factually defined the United States as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today," and defied it for dropping "thousands of bombs on a poor, weak nation more than 8000 miles from its shores." Some statements he made from that pulpit may well have gotten himself marked for assassination; either way, at a distance of 43 years it rings like prophecy:
"A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."
He went on to call for an immediate cease fire and full US withdrawal from Vietnam. As for Jeh Johnson, David Dayen of FDL put up the full transcript of his remarks, in which he recalls graduating from Morehouse College, getting chummy with MLK III, and traversing the mazes of overt and veiled racism on his way to career success. And, hopefully, not yet all the way to spiritual death.

Dr. King's techniques for persistent and pressing yet non-violent change were but a subset of his far more liberating message, one deeply embedded with a solid understanding of gospel principles. We would do well to review and keep those principles, which easily transcend any creed, uppermost in our minds as we face the challenges of building the church of Earth. In the meantime, give unto the Pentagon that which is the Pentagon's.