What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.
Have Yourself a Scary Sinterklaas
Amber and I wait outside Upstate Films. Around us dart children in winter coats they will outgrow by the end of the night, each more suited to the runway than playground. Two toddlers race behind me, treating me as though I were no more consequential than a garbage can. Their parents, talking of trips to Aruba and houses in the Hamptons, treat their children as free-range. When one child shoves me for existing in space he would rather occupy, his mother sneers at me for making a joke about it. She does not suggest that maybe her child ought not push between strangers' legs as he runs deeper into an alley. Nothing worse than physical contact with the lower classes is likely to happen today.
Chris comes ten minutes after, waylaid by the impossible traffic of the Sinterklaas Festival, third only to every event at the adjoining Dutchess County Fairgrounds, themselves supplanted by the eponymous fair in August; one is well advised to seek alternate routes in there is even a whiff that someone in Rhinebeck has a party planned. Indeed, the state affixes metal signs on major roadways for the Dutchess County Fair and otherwise resorts to an orange-lit marquee telling drivers on what days they should avoid the town if they know what is good for them, this being one.
Rhinebeck is the only town in a hundred miles with both the means and motivation to throw a Teutonic Christmas festival that shuts down a major thoroughfare, all so they can parade with thirty-foot terror puppets for an hour on a December evening. It is a town of where two famous actors recreationally own a candy shop and it is considered gauche to mention this fact and certainly to whisper their names. It is the sort of picturesque town destroyed by monsters in movies to show middle class audiences that there is a real threat; set in New York City or Chicago, monsters are the price of doing business, which is why their citizens are tiny cannon-fodder instead of characters with close-ups, lines, and names.
Children and those caring for them have magic shows on the street and puppet workshops, plays and music filling every building where two hundred, bundled people won't break the fire code. The elderly collaborate to be the backbone of the festival, some spending their whole year getting donations from local businesses, planning events to pay for committees to gather funds to get supplies to have parties to fund the festival. We in the middle, child-free, wander the periphery, permitted but not strictly welcome without suspicion.
Or, rather, we could wander the periphery. I have in years prior, nibbling cookies at bake sales and sitting through basement choral concerts in effete hopes of finding a direction.
This year, we head directly to Susan and David's apartment, which they have offered us as a place to warm up and have tea as needed. Short of compelling activities prior to the parade, I am parched for hot drink and additional company.
On the door is a note to please enter, welcoming me if Susan's brightening eyes at the sight of me through the door didn't.
Within, in addition to crackers, nuts, hummus, and cheeses -- a more generous spread than I had cause to suspect -- mulled cider and wine simmer, filling the house with delicious vapors, sweet and spicy. I wish it were socially acceptable to curl up under a grandmother-knitted afghan and thaw into a friend's sofa, listening to Christmas carols, when a room is so immediately cozy.
Aside from David and Susan, the other guests are professors all, or merely professorial. Chris falls into quick conversation with a couple, though I only occasionally intrude because I choose to believe their dialogue needs my intercession based on mild eavesdropping.
I mention my tenure at the Pine Bush UFO Fair, but I know enough (too late) to be slightly embarrassed at my eccentric knowledge and fanbase.
This leads to my slurring the title, so Susan asks, "YOFO? You only fly once?"
I titter at her joke until I realize the other person in this conversation is just as perplexed, so I clarify, feeling doubly abashed.
I do not catch names, though the German professor across from me seems too young to be such a serious scholar and I therefore find him intriguing, imagining his travels to this point. He talks of a student, a native German, who makes up terms to try to trip him up and assert linguistic dominance.
"I used to date a semi-pro martial artist," I tell him, "and she mentioned that new and cocky students would challenge the teachers to fights. They call it Master Baiting. I'm not sure what that would be in German."
He gives an almost shy smile. "I am so glad there is a term for it."
The apartment empties that we might see the parade. On my way out, bundling again, I ask if we are going to come back to their apartment, and Susan seems maybe startled that I have asked. I point out that I brought my bag and don't want to carry it around if I don't have to. David says they will leave the door open so we can return if we need.
The moment that Susan is out, we lose her. Amber, Chris, and I cleave close to the apartment, standing next to a visible tree a hundred feet away from the front door, near where the parade will end.
I wander to take pictures of a firetruck wrapped in Christmas lights. One of the firefighters comes out to ask me exactly what I am doing. I point of the obviousness of the act - the camera in my hands, the lights on the truck - and he suggests I beat it. It is only when I am walking away that I understand that he thought I might be photographing children, despite turning my lens only on the inanimate and glowing. Unless a child stood stock still on top of the truck after wrapping herself in lights, I wouldn't have noticed her.
When I return, Amber admits to hunger leading to a headache, itself leading to grumpiness.
"Do you want me to go get you a bagel sandwich?" I ask.
"No, it's fine. We'll get them after."
"And have you grumpy through the entire parade? Impossible."
"It's fine, really."
"That sounds good," says Chris, having maybe not heard the entirety of the conversation over the crowd but having caught enough keywords. "Can you get me one too and I'll pay you back?"
Amber declines again, after which I make her clarify that she would like a bacon and egg, no cheese. Then I run through the parade route backward.
The benefit, I find, to running to acquire bagel sandwiches minutes before a parade is intent to begin (fifteen minutes late, as I expected) is that no one is in the middle of the road and it provides a clear shot.
The same cannot be said of the return journey. No one wants to let me out of the crowd that I might flee before I can be mowed under by puppets and dancers. I hear them too close and know my ability to move freely will be further hampered the moment the parade decides it has rightful ownership of these roads. The police, currently overlooking my jostling to my destination, might decide I should just stay in one place and not nourish my wife.
Then I find the intersection of Route 9 and East Market Street. There is no better exit if I am to reach my friends before being stamped under the wicker heels of a white elephant. I excuse myself through the crowd, arresting offense with an enormous, apologetic grin and, likely, being within a Pantone shade or two of the people between whom I am squeezing.
I run through the empty middle of the road, bag gripped in one hand, the music of the parade catching up to me.
People look at my run as though I might be the harbinger of Christmas tidings instead breakfast sandwiches.
Amber expresses both skepticism and relief that I have returned with food.
"I didn't think you would make it back and I didn't want to be a bother."
I hold her shoulders. "If the choice is between being headachy and miserable or sending me to interrupt a parade, always be a bother."
We munch on our sandwiches and are satisfied well before the first parade group comes to us. I go about taking pictures of the best of them, avoiding the admonishment of the woman acting as marshal to keep children from the road, earning that of a mother who shoves me aside because "there are children behind you!" thus instilling in them an important lesson about inconvenience and mild assault.
The parade could have started its march in the last week of October for how needlessly spooky the puppets and costumed paraders are. I try to imagine this through childlike eyes, the snarling bears, the skeletal elephants, the prancing Christmas demons menacing anyone under four feet tall; this is not a parade for the faint of heart, one that would make sense outside the forgiving cloak of evening. What lasting memories do these shivering kids form, what hazy dreams follow them into sleep of a rectangle of alpacas and the yeti-fur-edged skirts of jolly dancers?
I wish I could have seen this as a child. The trauma alone would have justified the cold. I wouldn't have shut up about it for a week.
I no longer tolerate irony about the holiday season. I do not insist upon Santa-worship -- Jesus don't want me for a sunbeam -- but I cannot stomach those who see cheerfulness and unity and think themselves clever to roll their eyes like fifteen-year-olds confronted with their parents kissing.
American society has decided that Christmas starts before the first bread roll meets one's tongue on Thanksgiving. This is indeed when I change one of the presets on my car radio to a station that exclusively plays covers of the standards, which I listen to just enough to affirm it is still there. However, the Sinterklaas parade is the beginning of my personal Christmas season. After this point, I am ready to begin buying presents for my family, however long I have kept them in digital shopping carts.
I am a Pagan, though a lapsing one, and though Christmas still has the vestiges of Jesus about it (as well it should), it heavily skews toward being a secular holiday -- if that is not too egregious a contraction -- but my soul glows in the presence of feasts, festivals, and traditions. For the latter, those I have built myself or at Amber's side have a stronger resonance than those foisted on me. My holiday season involves trying to watch as many television specials from my childhood as I can manage to pirate from the internet. We go to Adam's Fairacre Farms every year to pick out a tree, even though there are closer lots, even though the trees we pick out are technically no different, because they seem somehow better and fresher there. Our tradition needs Amber opening her presents on Christmas Eve while I take pictures of her reactions. I try to manifest other traditions, but they do not last long, reliant on people who have the autonomy to contradict or leave.
When the holidays roll around, the darkness begins its slow roll back to the light. Our ancestors understood that this was a time to make the most of close quarters, that the world was better when we got together and made ourselves a little fatter and drunker off eggnog. We allow so few things to be special and, beneath the rampant commercialism (because capitalism is a cancer that will metastasize over any previously healthy organ), this solid month leading up to a familial festival, to presents and ham and carols and fairy lights, still can be. When the material world parts a little and lets through the light of companionship, when we are allowed to believe in candlelit miracles, I don't understand resisting. I do not care if one is a Jew, Hindu, or what have you. The season, though it chooses a supposed Christian holiday as its focal point, is otherwise defuse goodwill, eager to envelop. We are the descendants of tribes who found family and friends around the roaring fires meant to keep the dark and cold at bay. These glowing cinders burned into our DNA. For a little while in December, strangers look you in the eye and wish you well, seeming to mean it. (I don't mean, of course, those who believe that their Merry Christmas is a cudgel; it is apparent human nature that someone will seize upon the beautiful to make ugly for an agenda.)
The parade dissipates to the parking lot across from us. We retreat to Susan and David's empty apartment, feeling awkward to be here without them.
"We should go through their bedroom drawers," I suggest.
Amber informs me that we will sit in their living room instead, like civilized people who want to be invited back.
Instead, we munch on the snacks and wait. They seem surprised that I was sincere about returning.
We spend maybe another forty-five minutes with them, having tea and chatting. Susan's shoulders are sore from the day and David massages them lightly. She leans into him.
Before ten, Susan pronounces that she is tired and we take our leave.
Chris parked in the same distant lot as us, so we walk with him through the night, discussing the preceding parade, Susan and David, the holidays.
So much of our lives now passed hollowly. We need nights like tonight to recontextualize. Briefly, as the air tastes of snowy pines and peppermint, the sensation instead is of fullness, connection.
Soon in Xenology: Apocalypse. Imbalance. Meaning.