“St. Cynic’s Joy to the World” was published (Boise Weekly) December 19, 1996.
St. Cynic’s Joy to the World
My kid, age seven and aging every day, took an analytical look at our wood stove the other day and asked me how the heck Santa was going to get through there. Some would argue that by age seven, children should be introduced to some of the colder, harsher truths.
But not that cold, harsh truth. Not yet. I have no problem with my little girl being jaded about a lot of things. Strangers, for instance. Particularly the kind who offer candy or rides. And if she turns cynical over what she might see advertised as the most scrump-dilly-itious breakfast cereal ever assembled with chocolate and Gummy Worm technology—or the most magical, miracle, talking, walking, flying, urinating Power Barbie Ninja Transformer a citizen her age can own without a seven-day waiting period—I’m okay with that, too. The first time some drug-pushing, David Koresh-ish, snake-charming, Gap-Rebock salesman hits on her, I would prefer her as cynical as any Yankee expatriate who ever hunkered over a table in a Paris bistro.
But let’s hold off on this S-A-N-T-A thing, what d’you say? Go along with me on this for a while longer, or I’ll tell your wife I saw you at Humpin’ Hannah’s Lady’s Night after bowling last week.
* * *
You won’t find this on the adorable holiday form letter you get every year from that Cincinnati couple you and your wife shared a booth with during the Chubby Checkers Revue show in Reno 18 years ago, but Christmas is, among other things, the cynic season. I’m a cynic, you see, and a damn good one, if I do say so myself. There are no licenses for cynics, no certificates or black belts. But if there were, I’d have them all. I don’t believe anything anyone tells me, and only half of what I see.
Like other true disbelievers, I feel the unique power of Christmas-related cynicism set in as soon as the Thanksgiving table is cleared. When that first bale of holiday advertising shows up in the daily paper, the spirit moves through me like dried prunes in a bulimia ward. But I’m not one of your Scrooge-come-latelies who don their grouchy apparel only in December. I’m year-’round crusty, Bub.
I’m impartially skeptical with Baptists, Buddhists and New Agers. Conservatives make me go gack, but so do overly-earnest liberals. I smirk when free-marketers invoke the memory of Adam Smith, but I smirk when Commies invoke the memory of Karl Marx, too. I think most modern art is a pretentious farce, yet I think most traditional art is just plain pretentious. My eyes roll with equal force when men are too macho or when women are too feminist. My goose-bumps kick in whenever I’m around a zealot of any stripe, yet I scorn moderation. I’m even cynical about other cynics.
So why didn’t William Bennett ask for my two bits when he was putting together this new scheme of his?
* * *
I should explain. Bill Bennett and Sam Nunn recently announced that they intend to investigate why Americans have become so cynical. Nunn is the retiring senator from Georgia and is widely regarded as a leading authority on matters of national defense. He’s the kind of guy who memorized the rules of parliamentary procedure by the eighth grade, and he has less personality than green tea. Therefore, he is considered one of the brightest prospects in the Democratic Party.
Bennett, more of a rancid butter-type guy, was Ronald Reagan’s Education Secretary. He also wrote a best-selling book in which he explains the meaning of famous fairy tales to us dummies, and since then has done nothing but bitch about President Clinton and rap music lyrics. Therefore, he’s considered one of the brightest prospects in the Republican Party.
The two of them want to know why, as Bennett put it, “ … the citizen’s of the world’s wealthiest, most envied, most powerful country are so cynical, so distressed, so angry, so ticked off about so many things.” With a $950,000 grant, Nunn and Bennett have assembled a prime-rib panel of educators, businessmen, politicians and clergy to look into the matter, and as far as I can tell, there’s not a cynic in the bunch.
I wish they’d asked me first. For a few bucks an hour and gas money, I’d have told them anything they need to know about American cynicism. For starts, I would have pointed out to the well-intentioned Misters Bennett and Nunn that to get to the truth of this matter, they must first pull their heads out their bipartisan fannies and get their definitions straight. Bennett equates being cynical with being angry. No, no, noooo! Being pissed and being cynical are two different beasts, Brother Bill.
Cynical is when you sing “Your Cheatin’ Heart” at the top of your lungs throughout every teevee commercial hawking health insurance. Angry is when you’ve had a heart attack and you’re denied reimbursement on a $20,000 hospital bill because of a pre-existing athlete’s foot condition.
Cynical is waiting until a political candidate is through explaining how he feels your pain, and when he’s done–-during the pregnant pause at the end of his most impassioned point—you belch like Godzilla after wolfing down a Taco Bell franchise. Angry is when the biggest liar wins.
Cynical is scratching yourself like a monkey when listening to a televangelist preach about the glorious love of God. Angry is when the same televangelist sponsors an initiative to make homosexuals even more outcast than they already are.
See the difference? Cynical is when you anticipate that people will behave badly. Angry is when they actually do.
* * *
Here’s what Bill Bennett doesn’t understand. Uh … one of the things Bill Bennett doesn’t understand, anyway. Without cynicism, America wouldn’t be America. I swear, without cynicism, America would be Canada.
Trouble comes because we’re so ambivalent about cynicism. We’re encouraged to question authority, to strive for individuality, to follow our hearts and not the herd. Yet we are also expected to toe the line, get with the team, play the game, and above all, think positive. We’re pulled about like a Tickle Me Elmo at a Black Friday sale, and the message is, “Be yourself … but not too much!”
We mythologize the loners, the questioners, the wild men Jeremiah Johnsons who can’t live with conformity, but when one actually shows up, we don’t know what to do with him. Bennett applauds the virtues displayed by Huck Finn, yet he’d put parental warning labels on Mark Twain. (And if there were a Cynics Hall of Fame, Mark Twain would have his own wing.)
We’ve all come to know that truth works only until someone discovers the old letters in the shoebox, hidden in the basement for all these years, and everything we ever thought we knew for sure has turned out to be wearing dirty underwear. FDR had a mistress … the U.S. helped Nazis escape justice … the CIA trafficked in drugs … Martin Luther King had a mistress … the counterculture gurus of the 60s were fakers … the U.S supported vicious dictators by the barrel full … JFK had a mistress … tobacco companies knew all along about the cancer … Dwight D. Eisenhower had a mistress … Nixon was indeed a crook … Bob Dole had a mistress … the Pentagon pays $1000 for toilet seats … J. Edgar Hoover was a mistress … Dow-Corning knew about the dangers of silicone breast implants years ago … Bill Clinton had a mistress … nothing is built to last … the media lies … marriages break up … children change … YAWN!
The only reasonable response a sane person can have is cynicism.
* * *
Ah, but even cynicism isn’t built to last. I work like a beaver to get all the way through to New Year’s without bending over all sentimental and sappy, then something always comes along and pokes little holes in my resolve. And cynicism, please understand, is like a condom: little hole, big hole … it doesn’t matter. From then on, the thing is worthless for anything but decoration.
It’s usually something small. A bit of music can do it—some pure little Noel tune, performed with pure joy. A skeptical fellow knows when the joy is pure, believe me. Fake joy doesn’t infect you like the pure stuff does. If fake joy could turn my heart as light as the sound of a little kid giggling when her parents kiss, I’d spend the entire month of December hanging out at Sears.
Whatever does it, though, the results are the same. The cattiness is out of the bag. This year, it happened at my girl’s first-grade Christmas program. She played a talking bell.
Hey, I’m not the only one. There must have been 80 other parents there, and every last one of them had the same goofy, Bassett hound-begging-for-turkey-scraps grin as me. They were tripping over one another like Mississippi debutantes at an Elvis concert to get up close, falling over folding chairs because their camcorders were obstructing both their vision and their dignity.
And Jeez, most of their kids didn’t even have lines!
I have no idea what the play was about. It wasn’t religious, not in the “Jesus is the reason for the season” sense. Public school, after all. And only the best lip readers could have known what the actors were saying. First-graders don’t excel in the enunciation arts, even when they aren’t standing on a stage in front of 80 camcorder-swinging loved ones. So it certainly wasn’t great theater that brought my holiday disdain to its knees.
It was a joy bullet. Here I am, sitting in my folding chair (had no reason to get up, really, because I hadn’t brought a camcorder with me) in a gymnasium/lunch room/munchkin off-Broadway stage, so brightly lit you could grow bananas there, and the place smells like a garbage can full of cheesy ravioli and soccer shoes, when my kid says her line: “WE ALL WORKED SO HARD GETTING READY THIS YEAR; THAT SOUND YOU ARE MAKING WILL SPOIL IT, I FEAR!”
That’s when it hits me. A joy bullet, right ‘twixt the jaded outlooks. Blammo!
Now, that might seem like a puny thing to you. On the surface, I don’t suppose it can compete with the 70 percent-off sale at Penny’s running for two hours only come midnight. But I’ve found that joy most often comes wrapped in plain, brown paper. And much like the finest chocolates, it doesn’t come in giga-hunks. It comes small and fragile—a little beauty here, a happy kid there—and it can so easily get lost down behind the tree, down under the big-ticket items and the sequentially-blinking lights.
Which brings me back to why I’d prefer to let my daughter keep her Santa habit for a while longer. It’s not a big deal, but she’s just a tad happier now than she will be later. And if you think that’s a bad thing, I’ll hang some mistletoe from a belt loop on the back of my trousers for when I see you next.
December 19, 1996