December 06, 2009
Santas I Have Been

1984. Junior year at high school. Someone (I don't recall who) had brought a Santa suit on the last day of school before winter break.

"Anybody wanna be Santa?"

"Sure, I'll do it." I put on the costume. Now, keep in mind that at the time, I was in pretty good shape: I was a varsity swimmer, skinny as a rail, and all my weight was lean muscle. I slipped into the suit and turned into the skinniest, whitest Santa you've ever seen walking with a city swagger at a mostly non-white, inner city high school. (Yes, people, even Buffalo has an inner city, complete with drug gangs and guns in the schools and all that.) I didn't bother with the beard, if there was one.

I decided to play it up. Over half of the kids had skipped school that day, so there really wasn't much going on in any of the classes. The teachers were taking it easy, the kids were taking it easy, and I was feeling... playful. Frisky.

Keep in mind, at school I was a straight-laced, perfectionist, up-tight white boy. I had a sense of humor, but I tended to be... guarded around the girls. They'd never want anything to do with me anyway, I figured. (Well, except for the fact that several kept hitting on me, and I was too wound up to do anything about it.) But, now, here I was in this Santa suit, with none of the classroom pressure I normally put upon myself, and I was free! Free to be a different guy.

I didn't play Santa. I played a guy playing Santa. I played a guy who didn't mind being forward -- inappropriately forward, in fact -- who was playing Santa. And everyone else played along.

"Hello, little girl, want to sit on Santa's lap?" I asked all the pretty girls, esp. the seniors and other "unattainables." And they did. All smiles, and some giggles, these girls I never would have approached as myself gladly sat down and entertained lecherous banter with my jolly ol' elf.

Looking back... for all that I was a smart kid, why did I never, ever see the lesson in all this? Those "unattainable" girls weren't unattainable. They liked me! I was a likeable enough guy; all I had to do was engage.

At the end of that school year, some of those girls signed my yearbook saying that they would always remember me as their lecherous Santa (or words to that effect). The one time I let my guard down and allowed myself to be playful was the me they would remember.

A lesson I don't think I ever really took to heart.

2006. Married man, father of two young boys. (Nolan was an infant.)

I was president of the community association board of directors. The community center was going to have a tree lighting ceremony, and I figured they'd ask me if I wanted to light it. Imagine my surprise when they said that *Santa* was going to lead the lighting ceremonies. And then, further surprise, they asked if *I* would be Santa.

Since the fire department would be giving Santa a ride to the event, I went a couple of days early to meet with the guys at the fire station, and to try on the suit. The suit was a good suit, but imagine my dismay when I discovered that, well, I didn't need any padding to fill out the suit. It fit me perfectly. Bah, humbug.

Instead of my brown steel-toed boots, the firemen leant me a pair of black fire fighter boots and the ensemble looked quite convincing. Hands down, the coolest part of the gig was getting to ride in the fire truck, sirens a wailin', en route to the event. If you ever get the chance, I highly recommend it.

At the time, Alex was four years old. Old enough to enjoy the all the trappings of Christmas. Paulette brought the kids to the event (there were games and activities for the kids; it was a big party, of which the tree-lighting was just one part.) Let me tell you, one of the most surreal experiences of my life was sitting there in Santa's chair, talking to the kids as they came up one at a time to tell Santa that they were being good and what they wanted for Christmas... and watching my own children look at me and completely not recognize me. Eventually, Alex came up to sit on Santa's lap.

"Hellooo, Alex! And are you being a good little boy this year?" I had on my Santa voice. Having spent years in radio, my "on" voice is very different from my normal conversation voice. But still....

"Yes," he said, in that matter-of-fact way he had. No sign of recognition at all. Or was there?

"Are you being a good big brother?" I asked.


"And what would you like for Christmas?"

"A Spiderman!" I didn't even know he knew who Spiderman was. We didn't watch tv at home except for DVDs of the Wiggles and Walking With Dinosaurs and the like. But anyway...

We talked for a bit with the usual patter before I sent him along, but man that was weird. Talking to my own kid and he didn't even realize it.

"The usual patter." Ha! I've been doing Santa for the community holiday events ever since. I'm such an old pro. But, yes, there's a routine.

2009. I've dropped about 35 pounds or so. If anyone were to ask why Santa's looking a little bit thinner this year, I'd simply say that it's been a lean year for all of us. Ho, Ho, Ho. (I needn't have worried. I saw myself in the mirror, and in that get-up... let's just say, even a few belt notches in, this Santa has a long way to go in the weight loss department.)

This year, my children are not in attendance. Otherwise, we go through the usual routine. The difference, this year, is that it's a new events committee, so they set things up differently. I had a Mrs. Claus, for example, and some helpful elves who would lean in and tell me the names of the kids before they came to sit on my lap. Wonderful touches like that.

One boy kept asking if I was the real Santa. At one point, he asked me if I could make kids fly. This was while we were outside, getting ready to light the big community tree outside the community center. Lots of kids and parents were within earshot.

"Can you make kids fly?"

"Well... not since that one incident in Albuquerque."

The parents completely cracked up. It was great. Having played Santa a few times now, I've grown into the role. My Santa is a working guy who loves kids, but has an easy-going sense of humor. I encourage the kids to be good to their siblings and find things they love to do in school, but really, the emphasis is on having fun.

This season hasn't felt very Christmassy so far, and truth be told, I wasn't really looking forward to playing Santa this year. But putting on the suit, hearing the carolers at the party, cracking jokes for the parents and posing for pictures with the neighborhood kids definitely helped.

Today, our family is going to get a tree. It's time to get into the spirit of things.

Ho, ho, ho, everybody. Ho, ho, ho.

Posted by at 12:44 PM in the following Department(s): Tidbits | Comments (0)
 December 10, 2009
Thoughts on "Why Cornell?"

Well, I foolishly posted a comment all-too-quickly on another blogger's site today, and now I'm going to have to babble for a bit to try to clarify what my muddled mind tried to squeeze into a few short sentences.

("Alliteration now is it? Same as my last visit!")

The blogger in question had made a recent post about how his daughter is considering schools in the Northeast, including, among them, my alma mater. Here is the gibberish I posted as a comment:

I’ve been lurking on your site for a bit, but when I saw the picture of my alma mater, I did a double-take. And to hear that your daughter is looking at Cornell… well!

I think I’m going to have to write an entry for my blog about “Why Cornell… (or, any Ivy, for that matter)?” The fact is, wherever your daughter goes, she’s apt to do well because of all that *you* have given her. Even so, by jumping into a school where the student body has a healthy sense of competition and support, she stands to make friends-for-life who will likely encourage her to push beyond her comfort level and better achieve her potential.

It doesn’t hurt that each fresh snowfall on the Cornell campus lends a silent beauty (a blanket of snow is so *quiet* on the gorges and hills) that is unrivaled by any comparable snowfall in Cambridge, New York City, or Philadelphia — Ivy League towns where I’ve also lived. And when the leaves change color? When the summer thunderstorms rage? Awesome.

Now, obviously, weather should not be a primary factor in considering where to attend college -- that was all a reference to the blogger's (and his commenters') remarks about the snow there. That said, all things being equal regarding the colleges that make your short list, it's fair to make it *a* consideration.

Truth be told, yes, the snow and the cold can get a little old by the time you hit February in Ithaca. But the first snowfalls? The fantastic thunder storms? The autumnal foliage? It's every bit as fantastic as one could hope for. The natural beauty of the entire region is wonderful to experience.

And, after graduation, Ithaca is a fantastic town to FLEE! FLEE I SAY!

When I a high school senior, one of my teachers asked where I planned to apply. "Oh, UB," I said (referring to SUNY Buffalo, the local university).

"Where else?"

"Just UB."

"Why just UB?"

"Well..." And here's where I had to admit that, like many at my school, my family just didn't have the cash to pony up for an Ivy League education.

"Allan," she said, in that firm I Know What I'm Talking About voice that all good Social Studies teachers are required to have. "If you're smart enough to get into an Ivy League school, you're smart enough to qualify for scholarships."


She was right, you know. This applies to anyone. The Ivy League schools all enjoy a substantial endowment. The schools themselves will find a way to make absolutely certain that anyone they admit will not be prevented from attending because of financial constraints. Their financial aid offices are expert at extracting every penny the parents can afford... and then STOP. They don't take more than they can afford. If your family can't pay cash for the whole deal, the student can qualify for grants, student loans, and "work study" campus jobs. And Cornell has a program (called the Cornell Tradition) that, for working students, will pay off your loans as you accrue them.

What bothered me about my comment to the blogger's site was that I sent it off hastily, and it reads a bit, er, presumptuous. The line about, " jumping into a school where the student body has a healthy sense of competition and support, she stands to make friends-for-life who will likely encourage her to push beyond her comfort level and better achieve her potential."

That sounds wrong. So, let me explain:

Over the years, I've taken many, many college courses at many different schools. SUNY Buffalo, University of Washington, Cornell, and University of Pennsylvania. Two state schools, and two Ivies. The classes were, on the whole, equally excellent at each school. The faculty? Equally good. Sure, there are a few more "star" academics at the Ivies, but the professors at those state schools are no slouches. And they do have academic stars of their own.

The difference that I noticed was in my classmates. And, again, don't get me wrong: I was surrounded, in each case, by people who were smarter than I. And, who better to learn with and from than people who know more than I do? But, each student body had its own dynamic (for lack of a better word), and the dynamic at Cornell was a little more... more.

They were a little more excited to see how far we could go. The late-night bull sessions were a little more animated; a little more thought provoking. Sure, we talked about sex and drugs and rock and roll, the same as any other college kids. But we also talked about the Bigger Picture more at Cornell than at the state schools. While there wasn't necessarily more intellect, there was more intellectual curiosity. More drive.

I saw what my friends were doing, and being a social creature (as are we all), I tried harder to keep up. And I know that by doing so, my classmates did the same. They worked harder to keep up with me.

Was Cornell a pressure cooker? Only if you made it one. I was a bit of a perfectionist my first year (a hold-over from my high school days), but got over that with time. In the Ferris Bueller's Day Off world, I started off as a Cameron, but ended as a Ferris. Except... the more I relaxed, the better my grades got. Go figure.

And, like most college kids, the good friends I made there did become friends for life. We may only speak to each other a couple times a year, but the bonds are strong. And my friends are successful. They continue to inspire me to better myself and my circumstances.

Of course we all have our problems. Of course my crew and I have had our shares of business failures, career flops, romantic woes and the like. But, by having each other as resources as well as inspiration, it's also been easier to recover from those setbacks. The friends I made during my days at Generation Magazine at UB? A couple went on to become reporters for city newspapers. My friends from the WVBR news department at Cornell? One became a VP at Disney (in charge of, while another is co-hosting Good Morning America on the weekends.

I love them all dearly. But who am I going to go to for career advice if I want to get back into news as a profession? (I'm looking for work, by the way, in case you know of any good job openings in software, project management, or, well, media. I'll post my resume shortly....)

Getting a degree from an Ivy does not guarantee you a job. It does not guarantee you a superior education. It doesn't guarantee you much more than what you bring to the table, yourself. But even after all these years, I still encourage my friends with children to consider that there *is* an advantage to an Ivy League experience. It's subtle, but it's there.

It's slightly better because you make it so. And that makes all the difference in the world.

[Coming up in a future post: Why I hated Cornell, and nobody should ever inflict it upon their kids!]

Posted by at 05:14 PM in the following Department(s): Adventures in Academia | Comments (3)

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