Dec 26, 2012

The Year Without A Santa Claus

Ho ho ho.
Since I was 16 years old, I was the family Santa Claus.  I'm the oldest cousin of this generation on my Mom's side of the family, and I have four younger cousins on that side, so playing Santa has been a full-time job.  I'm not sure how it got started - if I volunteered or someone volunteered me, but I took to it well and it became my default responsibility every year there was a kid in my family who still believed.

I missed two years.  When I was 20, I had to work the part-time overnight security job that I had while I was in college.  I watched Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer alone in a stock broker's office, and my boss let me go home early, Bob Cratchit style, but not early enough to trek from downtown New York City to Long Island, where my family was, to don the red suit and the white beard.

So I went back to Brooklyn and spent Christmas Eve with Rachel, my first serious girlfriend.  It was our first holiday together after six months of dating.  My parents and my sister wouldn't be home from my aunt's until very late, as was tradition.  Rachel and I did some fantastic 'no one will be home for awhile' lovemaking in my room, then she fell asleep on my shoulder while I watched It's A Wonderful Life on the couch, waiting for my family to return home.

It was a great Christmas.

The other year I skipped playing Santa was the year before, when I was 19 and miserable.  It was because of a girl - a girl I had gotten to know better over the previous summer, a girl who was sweet and beautiful, who was coveted by my peers.  We hung out at a concert together and flirted all day.  She put ice cream on my nose.  A few weeks later, we were making out on the hood of my car in front of her house.  It was the same summer my parents were separating.  I was losing my hair.  Literally.  You could have sewed a baseball cap onto my head that summer and I would have been fine with it.

So this girl was a win, a big one.  It wasn't just her looks.  Her presence eased my pain, made me feel like a bigger man, made me forget all my problems.  By the end of that summer, she had ended it, ended things before they had a chance to pick up steam.  By Christmas, things had become awkward between us and I was down in the dumps.  I passed on playing Santa, and my sister's boyfriend was there to step in.

It was a shitty Christmas.

The girl that I'm talking about is the same girl who was with me when I walked into my house on Staten Island after Sandy happened, after the storm took all my stuff away and turned my life upside down.  I took a deep breath and unlocked the front door.  She walked in with me, into the mud-covered upper level of my home.  The basement was still inaccessible, dirty brown water lingering in the staircase leading down there.  This girl looked around at the carnage and noted how well I was handling this, seeing my house destroyed from the inside for the first time.  I didn't tell her until much later that night that my reaction was the result of my heart having already been crushed a few weeks earlier, and so what I walked into was numbing and dumbfounding, but not that depressing.  Comparatively speaking, it was just another punch to the gut.

I hadn't maintained much of a relationship with this woman over time, since that year my misery over losing her prevented me from being Santa.  We hadn't seen each other in a long time.  Of all the people who have entered my life since those teenage years, she was the one with me when I walked into my destroyed house.  She was the one who took me in, who reached out when I broadcast to the social networking world that my house was underwater.  It's crazy.  Life is crazy.

This is why I loved the show LOST.  Yes, it was elaborate, even difficult at times.  It was a deep show - it made you think - so naturally I gravitated towards it.  Ultimately, LOST wasn't about time travel or scientific experiments or a mysterious island.  It was about relationships, about the people that jump into and out of your life, about the wheel always turning.  It was about love and death and fate and destiny.  In a lot of ways, my life is like LOST, and maybe your life is too.

In LOST, there were a lot of love stories, and they were all complex.  Love is complicated, it rarely takes a straight line.  Love is a struggle, it's unpredictable, sometimes tragic.  Often times, love just happens whether you want it to or not, even if the timing isn't right.  It's what you do with it once it happens that matters most.  You either make it work or you don't.  You either embrace it or you reject it.  Love is complex, but love is still a choice.

What I had with this girl when I was 19 wasn't love, it was infatuation.  But it wounded me, it ruined my 19th Christmas.  But then Rachel came along six months later and my next seven Christmases were great.  I forgot about the other girl even though she was still sweet and beautiful.  I forgot about misery.

Santa, age 16.
This Christmas was the third time I didn't play Santa Claus.  My sister had a baby the day before Christmas Eve.  My house was destroyed by a hurricane in October.  My heart was let down by love once more - somehow love became a curse rather than a blessing, and at a time where I needed as many blessings as I could muster up, a curse was unwelcome.

My little cousins are 10 now.  I explained to my aunt that this was a good opportunity to ease the boys out of the whole Santa experience, out of me showing up in the middle of the night in a red suit handing out gifts.  Santa could still exist for them, he just wasn't showing up in person to deliver the goods.  I stopped believing in Santa around the same age, and this was how my sister and I were eased out, as well.   My Dad's friend John Lorenzo would come to my grandparents' house every Christmas Eve and play Santa.  We were well fooled for many years, and then one year Santa Lorenzo didn't show and we just got presents under the tree and an excuse that Santa was extra busy.  The next year, we knew Santa was some dude in a suit with fake whiskers and we took it well.

But during my tenure, portraying Santa hasn't just been for the kids - my whole family genuinely enjoys it, has enjoyed it since I was a kid myself - putting the youngsters to sleep, sneaking into a room and stuffing a pillow into my shirt, my aunt painting my eyebrows white.  The photo ops, the inside jokes, seeing their somewhat reserved nephew/son/brother/cousin whooping it up and ho ho ho'ing once a year.  It's a lot of fun, it embodies the spirit of Christmas.

And of course I enjoy it too.  I'm not super close with my cousins, but it makes me feel good to know that they'll grow up knowing that I was Santa, that I played that important role during all their formative Christmases, that I was their John Lorenzo.  It's special being Santa.

Last year, I got divorced, but by Christmas, things were looking up.  It was because of a girl, a connection.  It was barely a glimmer of a girl, but it was there.  It was a feeling.  A feeling that things would get better for me.  It carried me through the holidays, it grew into something great rather quickly - and I embraced it.

But there is no one to embrace this year, and no feeling attached to it - not any good ones, at least.  Taking the year off wasn't just about my own plight - this has been one fucked up year here in America.  I think of those poor families in Newtown, about all the recent tragedies in our country, the senseless violence, and it makes a lot of things, Santa portrayals included, seem meaningless.  One would argue that we need Santa more than ever nowadays, but I can only play that role for the people in my own world.

In my own world, Christmas typically means holiday music and cartoons, good wine and food, and playing Santa.  This year was, of course, not typical.  On Christmas Eve, the day after my godson was born, I got up and ran 7 miles, Depeche Mode's Songs of Faith and Devotion pumping through my ear buds.  It's one of the sexiest, sultriest albums ever recorded by someone not named Prince.  It's a soundtrack for Scorpios, filled with songs about lust and hard truths about love and longing.  It's dark and it swings, and damn if it wasn't great to sprint along to for an hour.  If any of my male readers blew it this Christmas - gave their lady an underwhelming gift or (god forbid) no gift at all - I can save you, it's not too late.  Light some candles, put this album on, carry her into the bedroom, lay her down softly and pleasure her from the opening screech of "I Feel You" until the final notes of "Higher Love" have faded.  You're welcome.

On Christmas Eve, I saw my sister for the first time since she had given birth.  She had a hard labor, but she and the baby were okay.  She was a trooper.  Then I held my little nephew for the first time, this tiny little miracle, and as expected, he helped to heal my broken heart just a little bit, helped even more than the run did.

It was there in the hospital that I confirmed to my aunt that Santa was on vacation this year.  I don't think anyone was surprised, and the baby's presence softened the blow.  But I'm not retiring, I'm just taking the year off.  Later that night, I reminded my family that next Christmas we would likely all be together, this new baby would be celebrating his first birthday and his first holiday season, that the Christmas traditions that we all know and love would return in full force, Santa included.  That I've got another 8-9 years of St. Nicholas impersonations on the calendar now, a new kid to spoil and to fool and to have fun with.

Today, Christmas Day, was subdued.  It was just my parents and I in the morning - my mother and I made pignolati from my late Nana's recipe.  Italians always equate food and recipes with legacy, and my Nana has been gone for a long time now.  It was nice to be part of that tradition, a role my sister usually takes in the kitchen alongside Mom, but she was a little preoccupied this year.  Then Mom made macaroni and meatballs, we baked my sister's famously delicious pepperoni bread and we brought it all to the maternity room.  It was as ghetto a Christmas dinner as us Italians will allow, but just as food is a tradition on this day, so is family.  We drank wine and celebrated Baby's First Christmas around a makeshift table.  It was a perfectly awesome shitty Christmas in spite of Santa's absence.

When I think of those two first Christmases I wasn't Santa, it gives me hope for the future.  The first Christmas sucked, the next one was great.  There was no love in my life and then there was.  It makes me think that not only will Santa be back next year, but so will I.  Thanks to generous grants from MusiCares, the Broadcasters Foundation of America, and my employers at Clear Channel, I have been able to replace everything essential that drowned in the flood.  Thanks to my generous boss Elvis Duran, my dog and I are living in a nice building in a great neighborhood until the restoration is complete, until this nightmare is over.  I will come back from this part of my life stronger and I will have enviable options when I do.

Within three weeks, I will have confirmed my participation in next year's NYC Marathon.  I'll finish that race strong in November, then I'll look to carry a girl into the bedroom and put that Depeche Mode album on.  Six weeks after that, I'll put on a Santa suit for my little godson.  I'll hand him toys, I'll hug my family, maybe I'll even kiss someone special under the mistletoe.

Christmas is over.  It goes by in a flash, and so does life.  All you can do is count your blessings, find your joy, and find your muse.  For me, finding my joy and my muse have always been intertwined.  It's a romantic notion, of course.  It's all that's missing, the only thing missing in my life that truly matters.  I have a great family, I have my health and a great job.  I have music to compose and more of these cathartic self-effacing therapeutic stories to write.  I have friendships to strengthen, debts to pay for all the help I've been afforded.  I have some hard habits to break.

I can wait on love, I've been made to wait before.  Sometimes waiting means reaping the greatest rewards.  But I'm in a hurry too.  I ain't no spring chicken.  I held this little baby in my arms and realized what a gift he is.  I sat in the hospital and listened to my brother-in-law tell me what I already knew - that the experience bonds you to your wife even more than before, that your heart fills for the woman who is about to bear your child, for her agony and for her sacrifice.  I listened to him with mixed emotions - the passionate man in me listened hopefully even if the heartbroken man felt empty, cheated.

But sharing that passion, sharing that gift is not just up to me, I learned that many Christmases ago, and I just re-learned it a few short months ago.  It's like LOST, it's like Christmas - sometimes history repeats itself, you just have to learn enough to make sure it's a good history, not a bad one.  I only need to live up to my end of love's bargain - looking for it, yearning for it, trusting it, keeping it close, making it work.  Recognizing it, recognizing its importance.  Being a good man.  I know I have that in me, the rest is up to fate.  Or maybe it's up to Santa Claus.

Merry Christmas to y'all, and to y'all a good night.....

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