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After the Golden Age by Alvin Schwartz
Giving a glimpse into the formative years of comics and beyond.

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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 12/20/2004
Vol. 2, #152

Maybe I radiate in some unsuspected way. After all, there are many types of radiation we know little about and which, as they combine in certain individuals, tend to attract specific types of events. Maybe that's why some people always seem to be lucky, and others always wind up holding the dirty end of the stick. I'm not sure, but I can't otherwise explain some of the strange people I seem to attract as I've revealed in this column on a number of previous occasions. If you're a newcomer, check out the earlier columns and you'll find them.

In any case, very true to form, and not infrequently around Christmas, there was a knock at my front door at a time when I wasn't expecting anyone. Normally, Kay and I just hunker down and stay out of the way until the holiday inanities are well out of the way. So when I heard that soft little knock yesterday, I looked out the window and noted that there was no car in the driveway, and accessing our secluded bungalow without a car suggests an unduly long hike or an arrival made possible by rather unconventional means.

To that extent, I was prepared for the unusual when I went to open the door and saw a tall woman wrapped in a long dark cloak, her burnished black and slightly graying hair breaking out in chaotic strands from her hood as she removed it and introduced herself as Mary.

I opened wider, inviting her in and asking at the same time, out of deference to the season and my anticipation of the unusual, "Mary? You mean, that Mary?"

"Oh, no-no." Then she paused, smiled and added: "But I was named after her, of course."

"Of course, " I said, helping her slip out of her cloak. "But on an important mission just the same?" I was hanging the coat in the foyer closet as I looked back and noticed her dark red dress with its green sash, as though she'd stepped off a Christmas tree, a vibrant animated oversized ornament. With beautiful green eyes too.

"Actually, I'm doing this on my own. No mission, but, a problem. You see, I work for him. For Kris Kringle, I mean." She spoke hurriedly, trying to get it all out before I might stop her. "I know you've met him here before, and so, I thought, considering your background, you might be a good one to talk to."

"About what problem?" I asked abruptly.

"Well, you might say it's an image problem. We've all decided that the boss, Kris, I mean, has been developing an image problem. And maybe you, "

I led her into the kitchen, seated her at the big round table and offered her a coffee, while asking: "Yes, why me?"

"That whole idea, the notion of having an image', you created it, didn't you?"

"No, not me. But my boss did. Sometime in the early fifties when he started The Institute for Motivational Research. That was in New York, at Croton-on-Hudson. The man was Ernst Dichter. And some years later, he hired me as his Research Director. But the ‘image' idea took off like a shot. A stroke of genius or a lucky shot in the dark. Suddenly, everybody had to have an image to be somebody. You see, it was a crazy idea, " I was talking very fast now, letting out some of my long pent up feelings about advertising and mass beliefs and cultish notions. ", that somebody, anybody, who has an actual presence needs an image or, a mask, by which he or she had to be known. So..."

"Wait," she said. "I thought you were the one. I didn't know Dichter dreamed it up himself. But, surely, after you were there, you must have been involved in, well, straightening out bad images."

"Oh, was I! Up to my ears," I admitted, even though I always thought the whole notion ridiculous. The image getting to be more real than what it represented. But, yes, I was an image fixer. That's what advertising and marketing are all about, frankly, image fixing. And predicting the future, like, way back then, I told Reliance Electric to prepare for a completely wireless world. Only, it didn't happen as soon as I thought. Only just now, we see it beginning to happen. Cell phones, radio frequency identification moving into products and households in a massive way." I broke off my train of wistful reminiscences. "So---?"

She leaned toward me. "Tell me, don't you think Santa has changed?"

"I can't really say. I don't pay much attwention to Christmas these days. Just a dreary, rush, rush, pell-mell holiday. Not even Christmas anymore but, well, kind of a mish-mash, a Chrismekkah, if you like. And Santa himself, well, really an ubiquitous nobody."

"A hard statement, but true. He really has a bad image. A nebbich, as you Jews would say."

A thought struck me. "Tell me, Mary. What about you? Are you a, Christian?"

"Actually no. All of us, and we've been growing--are projections--but projections become real. Did you know that every idea once created takes on a life of its own and has its effects on many levels of reality?

"So what does all this do to you?" I asked, more curious about my visitor than her so-called boss. "If you're not a real person or a spirit-- I mean, what's your role in all this?":

"Those of us who work for Kris, well, no, we're essentially thoughts. Projections. You see, all thoughts are energy projections that tend to go on in endless ways according to the energy shifts they're captured by. Sometimes, we lose shape and proportion as our basic structures face new challenges. Since Kris has shrunk down to such a nebbich, as you Jewish folks might say, well, a lot of us are beginning to float off in various other directions. We're fading into other forms, indecisive forms. So you can see, if we like our present identities, we need to do something about Kris's image. And that's why I'm here."

I smiled. "To consult the expert, is that it?"

"Well, aren't you?"

"All right, I'll tell you what I think and what I remember. When I was a kid, my mother took me to see Santa who was holding court way back then at Macy's department store in Herald Square, New York. I remember being dumped on Santa's lap in order to tell this special old man what I wanted for Christmas and how good a boy I had been. I not only knew I hadn't been, but I believed he'd know that. This fluffy red-coated old man was no kindly old geezer when I was sitting on his lap. He scared the hell out of me. He was almost like God. I couldn't stand it. I burst into tears and my mother had to take me away. That happened to a lot of kids. Because you see, Santa had stature then. He had a really powerful image. So he was very important. Not like today, when he's nothing more than part of a Christmas wrapping. You know why? Television. The kids see him endlessly on television until he just gets pared down to nothing but some decoration for the whole commercial Christmas blitz. In effect, he's become a nobody."

Mary watched me for a while, nodding silently. "I guess you're right, " she said. "It's the TV. The kids get to know him and see a thousand different Santas before they see their first live one. That's the problem. So what do you suggest?"

"Ah, " I said. "Now comes the hard part. But I do have an idea. Nothing you can do with Santa anymore. He's on his way to the scrap heap. What you need, along with the fading Santa image is a brand new one, more appropriate to our time. A woman! This is the era of the woman, the era when this nurturing, caring side of ourselves comes into her own. You start slowly, making her part of Santa's cortege at first, until sghe starts operating on her own, and takes over as the strong image of Christmas."

"Oh dear, you mean like, Hillary Clinton?"

"Never," I said with a shudder. "No, not Hillary. What Christmas needs is, a Mary."

"Me?"

"Think about it," I said. "When I was doing this stuff I was rarely wrong. It's got to me you, Mary. It's your time."

Her eyes brightened for a moment, and then we talked some more, but I could tell I'd gotten to her and her mind remained entirely fixed on my proposal. And a little while after that, she left.

Keep your eyes open, my friends. I really think that maybe even by next year, there'll be a new Christmas personality taking over from the old Santa. And frankly, don't you think your kid would be more comfortable explaining his Christmas desires to a nurturing mother figure than the old bearded worn out, overplayed patriarch that used to do the job?

--Alvin

<< 12/13/2004 | 12/20/2004 | 12/27/2004 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.


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