This, every Writing Boots reader will agree, is a Christmas story—as told by Norene McIntosh to her daughter—my newest dearest oldest friend Sharon McIntosh.
It is perfect.
A version of this piece appeared on Writing Boots in 2011, under the headline, "Finding my way back to the lost train wreck." Every word is true. —ed.
One late afternoon when my neighbors Kirk Morris and Glen Canterbury and I, maybe eight years old, were wandering through the forest near our houses, and came upon a disaster scene.
Much of it was unidentifiable, it had been there so long.
But there was broken glass, big pieces of wood, a woman's black-muddy shoe.
When we found the rusty steam locomotive's smokestack, Kirk, Glen and I knew what had happened.
A train had crashed. No one had found it. And then the forest had grown up around it.
We walked out of the woods solemnly and never said a word to anyone about it.
It wasn't until I was an adult that I thought of it again and realized the inherent preposterousness of a lost train wreck.
Which was far too late to stop believing in it.
That's the sort of thing that writers remember—and must remember to render.
Bruce Brown died last Sunday. The director of "The Endless Summer," Brown also made the less famous but motorcyclist-beloved "On Any Sunday." Actor and motorcycle-racer Steve McQueen paid for the production—and starred in film's most beautiful sequence.
Materialism gets a bad rap during the holidays. It's "shallow," is the charge, which presumably comes from people who are spiritually robust and intellectually fired up 24/7.
Hey: Many of us feel empty three hours a day, three days a week, three weeks a year or three years a decade. Or, as my favorite English professor told us one day in his Capote-esque southern drawl, "Let's face it. A lot of the time, life is dull."
It's during those times that material things come in handy. Whether I wake up on top of the world or lie in bed trying to remember what it looks like up there, it is good to know that today, for sure:
• I can drink black coffee (on particularly rough mornings, I can pick out my favorite cup with a picture of my old springer spaniel Slim on it).
• I can eat three times. (You have to be pretty morose not to enjoy swallowing food.)
• I can read The New York Times.
• I can read The New York Times in my old leather chair.
• I can drink wine or beer or whiskey or gin.
• I have a motorcycle to ride.
• I can watch Monday Night Football. Even if I don't care about the teams, I can hope they're wearing their "throwback" uniforms, which take me back to sixth grade.
• I have my dad's old watch to wind,
and hundreds of other familiar objects—happy photos, warm refrigerator notes, beloved books and a million other keepsakes from happy times—to run my tired eyes over.
No matter how empty a day begins, my bucket is full of these things—these things that represent spiritual ideas, can help me access useful memories, may give my brain sufficient pleasure to get me thinking aloud again.
And the reason we seem so "materialistic" over the holidays is that this is the time we return to stage the original play that we've been adding acts to all these years, willy-nilly.
And material things are often the props we use, often in clumsy desperation, to try to remember the theme.
My writer mother died almost 30 years ago at Thanksgiving,
My writer dad almost 10, around New Year's.
When they died, I comforted the people who tried to comfort me in the old way—
By assuring them my parents would live on through the people who knew them.
What I could not have known
Was that they would live on through people who didn't know them.
In my travels I meet a lot of people—lively, warm, writer people—
And my parents show up all the time at these palavers.
I quote Dad in a hotel bar—"an empty cab pulled up, and Wolf Blitzer got out"—
And he gets a bigger laugh than he ever did in life.
Women who my mom would have loved
Read what I've written about her and whisper,
"I think I'd really get along with your mom."
You already do, my friends.
And it's an astonishing pleasure for me.
In the immediate wake of the election last year, my oldest and dearest friend told me my fear and loathing was an overreaction. He and his family were visiting me in a week, and before they came I sent him this open letter to warn him that our visit wasn't going to be much fun if he was going to spend it trying to get me to turn my frown upside down.
In a way that I thought was unanswerable, I told him:
It seems to me that none of us knows what is going to happen next, and thus each of us should worry and watch and err on the side of caution. I will not spend the next three months, let alone the next four years, in unwarranted hysterics.
But after years of solid poisonous talk out of Donald Trump, watching him paint our country (and also the rest of the world while we’re at it) as a filthy, crime-ridden wasteland that can only be rehabilitated by the most draconian means, I’m-a give it a few months before giving him the benefit of the doubt.
Both Hillary Clinton and President Obama said last week we should root for Trump to succeed, Clinton even going so far as urging us to keep “an open mind, and a chance to lead.” I wouldn’t do that for any supplier, business partner or employee who had insulted me or my friends and decency itself the way Trump did during his campaign, and you wouldn’t either. But as an exercise of extreme civic goodwill, I’ll wait and see what Trump says next, and I’ll watch with an open mind how he leads. I am a very hopeful person as you know, and not inclined to go around saying the sky is falling every time a cloud rolls in.
So how about I won’t tell you not to laugh at a wake, and you won’t tell me it’s not wake. Because I think it’s fair to say that neither of us knows exactly what in the fuck this is.
Then he came to town, and after a little sightseeing with our wives and kids, the two of us went out to a bar and argued until closing time, so bitterly that I fantasized repeatedly about breaking a bar stool over his head.
As before, the argument wasn't about whether Trump, who my friend had not voted for, was good or bad for the country. It was about whether or not he was going to be disastrous.
The next day, in the midst of a top-10 all-time hangover, we agreed not to utter a word about Trump for a year, and to use that year's evidence for a less speculative conversation.
Goddamn, this is a lot of evidence to sort through.
I've been hoping to buy another year, to see if North Korea bombs Los Angeles, to see if Trump fires Mueller, to see if that charming little scene in Charlottesville turns into something really popular.
But now I think I'm ready to talk. Trump has done something worse than I actually ever imagined: He has made things worse permanently.
I am still hopeful that we can someday power wash those big signatures off those executive orders like the graffiti they are. I know all the creepy judges Trump is appointing will die someday. The tax grab can get grabbed back. The State Department can get restaffed, and the FBI and the CIA seem like they're hanging tough. And someone who we regard as closer to normal will once again grace the Oval Office, whenever the end of this Administration should mercifully come. (Hey, Christmas is coming up!)
What are the effects of four years of an American president convincing the third of the nation that loves him that their problems are all due to the two thirds of the nation that hates them? Too soon to tell yet, though my television is starting to smell like wet gangrene.
But it was last week when I finally felt I had the answer for my friend, and I allowed myself to hope he'd agree with me.
It was when Trump, in order to please his WWF wrestling crowd base and to distract the rest of us from the Russia probe for the day, moved the capital of Israel. That's when it occurred to me for the first time that America is never going to get its reputation back after this. Because that reputation was based on no American president ever doing things so nakedly out of political self-interest. We took that reputation for granted because other countries took it for granted. No matter who our president was, this nation could be relied upon to maintain some consistent principles and stances in the world.
In our rhetoric, Americans always said that the world turned to us for leadership because we were a "beacon of freedom." But we knew that the world turned to us because we we big—and we were consistent. (Being big was important. Switzerland is also consistent, but nobody gives a shit what Switzerland thinks about the capital of Israel.)
Because we were big and consistent, we were useful arbiters among the smaller, squabbling nations. We were given great benefit of the doubt, and forgiven many ridiculous and repetitive bloody blunders, from Vietnam to Rwanda to the invasion of Iraq. But then Trump moved the capital of Israel to Jerusalem (indulge me the oversimplification; it's in these days) just to make the crowd at the tractor pull cheer, and the whole world knew it.
So now we're a country that's a fair broker in the world depending on who our leader is. Well, that's pretty much like every other country. So much for American exceptionalism. And we're obviously now a country that's capable of electing a nihilistic, sociopathic, semi-educated gangster for a president. But it was only one gangster president!
You can't come back from that—not in our lifetime, anyway. (Ask Dimitri the Goat Fucker.)
Maybe there's an upside here, folks. Lotta people think America never should have been given so much power, and misused the power we had. Those folks should be happy. And for Americans, the pressure's off. Remember when Charles Barkley made a splash by saying, "I'm not a role model. Just because I dunk a basketball doesn't mean I should raise your kids"? That's us now! When those self-righteous, self-important deck chair rearrangers at at the United Nations criticize us, we don't have to deliver 4,000 word speeches. We have only to respond with the Popeye defense: "I yam what I yam." Could be a lot of fun.
But we do have kids, you and I. And thanks to Trump—and all that brought him to the presidency and all that will follow him afterward—those kids are now going to grow up in a nation very, very different from the one you and I grew up in. And it always makes me nervous, trying to raise a kid to cope with a world I'm unfamiliar with myself.
Or am I overreacting, once again?
I once wrote in a graphic designer's birthday card, "It doesn't matter what I write here because you never read the copy anyway." (Which was fine, because she never read it.)
Not that the cheerfully sardonic copy editor Cindy Hutchinson wouldn't have appreciated it, she would have. But it just didn't say, "Christmas."
By the way, if you're looking for a copy editor?
You're looking for Cindy the Copyeditor: firstname.lastname@example.org.