Wednesday, December 21, 2011


     San Antonio, Texas -- In the holiday lead-up that is again dressing the nation, in a time of poor economy and worries about not only the American future but the world's, yet another perspective emerges. I am here for a moment with grandchildren -- actually it is always just a "moment" since kids change minute by minute -- and concerned for them, for anyone's young, as you must be, too.

My own Christmases were modest, but there were enough simple presents from two hardworking parents to leave my brother and I awestruck. Never was there a failure to communicate with Santa Claus, and these days when expenses for an elderly dad hit, we who can pay are grateful to help balance the sacrifices made. That we are able to
do so reflects a general American tradition that each succeeding generation will do a bit better. Ever since the Great Depression, that forward movement has built a middle class.

Now in San Antonio, I wonder if my grandchildren will be able to assist their parents if ever in need, or if the parents will have to provide for their young even when they are old, if the money does not run out as the middle class runs for its life.

This Texas city is more a mix than most in the state -- many residents include military and business professionals from other areas -- and so the political persuasion is less Texas conservative and more combined conservative/liberal, a fine point and counterpoint that can bring real and efficient compromise. My guess is that growing children in San Antonio are immersed in political dialogue that includes varied points of view. At  least I hope so.

Such mix is elsewhere in America as well, save the nation's much-ruling capital, where the Capitol and the White House seem to act as hardheads unwilling to stop shouting political rhetoric so they can hear the people instead of special interests. Meanwhile, my grandkids in San Antonio or the two in New York or your offspring or your friends' or neighbors'  very young, or teens or young adults - all hoping for a Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanza or whatever joy the holidays bring - are left as unwilling bystanders in the grossly irresponsible political deadlock over basic human needs, over disappearing jobs, over an unfocused, obscenely costly war, over what the future should be for America, and surely the world.

The holidays will come to San Antonio, to the many in America one way or another this year, but what will they be like in 2025 or so? Holidays, yes, but. ...?

Ah, what a present it would be if common sense for the common purpose were to appear under the national tree. 

Sunday, December 11, 2011


   I am certain that if you had asked my grandfather or anyone beyond 50 in the Spring Valley, N.Y., of 1956 if community life were more tight knit when they were young, the answer would have been “yes.” And some 55 years later, if you query now-older me, I’d have to give the same reply. Such is nostalgia and the sometimes convenient forgetfulness that happens as we look through rose-colored glasses.
Yet, as with all potential black and white situations, there is a gray area or two or three. In time, certain standards may well disappear, or traditions or quality of living. We may seize upon those to prove our argument that the old days were better despite evidence that always there have been problems, bad situations, difficulties. But, ah, the gray. 
I have an example in mind. When I pass through my hometown village these days, the Spring Valley landscape has changed so very dramatically. A long downtown decline was brought on by failure -- here and elsewhere in the nation -- to meet the challenges of suburban sprawl, including the competition posed by shopping centers.  Today in the Valley, expensive urban renewal is bringing some hope, though it is an incomplete approach that remakes the mistake of the 1960s-on. Then, downtowns should have been rebuilt by integrating them into new housing for all income levels so as to create walkable, desirable places in which to live and shop in a mixed economy. Today, while urban renewal brings affordable housing, a very good thing, no community can thrive just on government help. It must stand on its own at some point. So, there must also be non-subsidized homes and retail shops and businesses. That will have to come to Spring Valley if the village is to truly be “renewed.” 
In 1956, when Gary Onderdonk III, then about 13, followed his Christmas season route of flipping telephone pole switches to turn on brightly colored lights, the Spring Valley economy was enough to support duplicates of hardware stores, bakeries, luncheonettes, stationeries, druggists, clothing stores and whatever else long marked American downtowns. 
Garry’s father, Garry Jr., was a local electrician who installed the lights and kept the strings stored in his home. His own father, Garry Sr., was the head of the local draft board and was well-respected and, yes, feared. At one time, the Onderdonk forebears owned much of what would become Spring Valley as well as land in Piermont and Nyack.
The fact that Garry's grandson walked the downtown -- about 7 blocks from Maple Avenue to Route 59 -- as an early teen and flipped switches on perhaps 50 poles assured the 1956 community that it was still close-knit, that although post-war suburban growth was about to explode and break many ties to heritage,  tradition continued. The lamplighter yet walked his route.
Even my grandfather and his over-50 friends would have admitted that, though they saw change they did not like. And now, in 2011, this writer, 69, also concedes that while Garry no longer walks the Spring Valley downtown, that while he isn’t there in just about any town you choose in America, the great changes to neighborhood society wrought by the Consumer Age, the Electronics Age, the Digital Age and the “Special Interest Age” that now disenfranchises the ordinary citizen are still not enough to make life simply white and black, good and not so good. There remains the gray.   
In the Nyack, N.Y., area, including another old and small village with a downtown that also has undergone serious change, is a fellow I know well, joined by others who choose to live where there are old buildings, where there is history, where you walk to the library, to a memorial park, where neighbors are recognized in a mixed economic community. He and others are the lamplighters of today for they wish to keep old community tradition while also embracing great change. They may use LED lights, not incandescents, but they are mixing with the old and reinvesting. There is balance, without which no community can fully thrive. 

Monday, December 5, 2011


     In my part of the believing and non-believing world, in this economy, in this doubt of government, corporations and people, the local paper recently ran a story about a teacher telling her second graders there was no Santa Claus. Hullabaloo ensued.
Yet the rapid and firm push children get into adulthood today already unceremoniously strips them of belief in cartoon characters, super heroes, magic fairies and -- sometimes -- all that seems possible. Maybe that’s why we end up with little faith in government or anything else.
I don’t know enough about the teacher’s words, their context -- perhaps no one does except the students. We weren’t there, and I will not judge her. The report is that when the 7 year olds said they knew about Santa’s North Pole, the teacher responded that the bearded fellow did not exist and that Christmas presents were bought by their parents. Media coverage then exploded, the teacher is said to have issued an apology and the community asked to move on, into the holiday spirit. Yes.
In Virginia O’Hanlon’s 1897, it was her friends who told the 8 year old that Santa Claus was a myth, to which New York Sun Editor Francis Pharcellus Church responded in his now famous and oft-republished editorial, “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus.” 
He wrote: “Your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except (what) they see ...  All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little ... How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. ...”
The sum of Church’s editorial argument was that  “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist. ...” 
Second grade, in my parts and yours, is a fleeting moment of moving molecules, emotions and whatever is brewing in the individual soul. Its oh, so temporary dwellers have a brief second in which to recognize that all is possible, that good exists, that there is, as Editor Church put it, an "eternal light with which childhood fills the world. ...”
Can you see him now, can you see Santa?