This essay appears in I Will Take the Answer, Graywolf Press, 2020.
Even in the most interior room of the house I can’t avoid the warbling Christmas music coming through the walls, the windows, and the skylight. It tinkles jauntily from the speakers in the neighbor’s yard. It’s so constant that even when I can’t exactly hear it—after eleven at night, or from New Year’s to the following Thanksgiving—I can’t be fully sure it’s gone. By repetition, these unfaithful versions, played too quickly and without human voice, become the norm for me, just a given, always present, a dubious gift that’s there until the season has gone and folded itself up again.
Here in Tucson, Arizona, in the snowless world, to decorate for Christmas is to make a statement about displacement. Because so many of us are transplants from colder elsewheres, our decorations are also shrines to home. In this city it’s easy to forget what time it is, what day it is. A month might go by without a cloud sighting. We call this weather.
To be clear, my neighbors’ two yards together constitute a spectacular, startling display—104 inflatable Christmas decorations with not one duplicate among them. Their cheer is maximal. On December evenings I watch cars drive by our cul-de-sac and slow, then brake, then stop, then back up. I watch the faces of the drivers fill with surprise, amusement, and even a bit of awe. I watch them illuminated by, say, one neighbor’s giant inflatable Santa throwing an inflatable bowling ball down an inflatable lane toward three inflatable penguin pins. I watch them watch the other neighbor’s giant inflatable dachshund wrapped in a bow and carrying inflatable presents, to be delivered, evidently and inefficiently, by several smaller inflatable dachshunds. I watch the kids’ mouths in the back seat go o o o o o.
I’ve spent some time out front of their houses going o o o myself. I can see the neighbors inside with their blinds open and the lights barely on, watching me watch the show.
Considering the Spectacular
My two neighbors are both of grandparent age, and it’s hard not to read a little desperation in their displays, as if by overstuffing their yards with festivity they might make their houses Christmas itself, and their grandchildren would come to them and stay as long as they might like, being offered sweets on plates and becoming filled with love until they lift off into the air like released balloons.
Watching the neighbors’ installation is a pleasure I cannot recommend to you enough. To their credit, these neighbors are timely in erecting their shared spectacular. Every year, they put up their comprehensive kits the day after Thanksgiving. If he has the day off, Mike, another neighbor across the street who once tried to sell me a sword, blasts seventies AM gold with the doors open and drinks can after can of beer and peers at the whole production darkly from inside his house. It is important that someone keep an eye on the spectacle as they arrange and stake the inflatables and wire everything together into the dedicated outlets.
The neighbors’ competing displays are about not being humbled by time. There is a perverse and stubborn quality to them: once you’ve had them up one year, you feel the need to continue erecting them against the world. It’s a refusal of our snowless circumstance too.
Through our displays we are also saying no to taste and restraint, and yes to erections and spectacle. We are saying no to self-control and decorum, and yes to demonstration. These are the ways in which, we say, we are not bound. The longer I live in this neighborhood, the more I’m starting to get it.
Considering the Restoration Spectacular
One of the most memorable features of English theater toward the end of the seventeenth century was the Restoration spectacular, or machine play, in which the focus was on special effects and visual impact, not individuals’ performances. These plays featured mechanically moving waves, flying actors rigged by wire, movable and quickly changeable scenery, elaborate stage costumes, simulated fire, thunder, and elevators, just to name a few. Movement was the feature. The productions would often be incredibly expensive, that fact itself a draw to theatergoers looking for something beyond the everyday.
If this is reminiscent of the past few decades of popular film, with its increased reliance on computer-generated imagery and special effects and epic sweep, it’s no surprise: we still desire something beyond the everyday; we’re still hungry for spectacle, the sort we would rarely encounter otherwise in our lives (or on our relatively small rectangles of screen).
The Pleasures of Home Ownership
To own a house is to understand my capacity to mock a neighbor. Three years ago, I mocked these Christmas neighbors publicly by moving to the front yard the four female mannequin bottoms that usually sit out by my pool. I wrapped them in pink lights and stationed them at the curb. Sadly, my display’s effect was lost in the dark: the viewer couldn’t tell what the lights were wrapped around. They were just a clump of illuminated crotches, a vaguely Christmassy amoeba floating off the ground. My gesture was both too arch and too indistinct. Plus, I like my mannequins and feared they might be stolen by sexed-up youths, horny for Christmas. I took them down after a couple of nervous nights.
Also, mockery is easy. I understood it all too well when I was deep inside it.
I tried again the next year. I found a broken, white-lighted, three-legged reindeer at Goodwill and put it in the yard, staking it so it would stay upright. I had the thought to assemble a flock of other broken Christmas animals that could gather on their sides, blinking and clicking and trying to rear and make ineffectual gestures at flight in response to the tour de force next door. My wife was not in favor of this idea. She called it cynical. But one on its own is fine, she said, cheerfully. In the dark you can’t tell it’s broken.
This is one of the problems with the dark.
It’s hard for me not to love a machine. What’s not to love about a thing you can take apart and figure out? Well, that’s theoretical, since the machines we’re most impressed by now are increasingly digital (computers, cars, computer-controlled cars), and their complexity resists all but the most tenacious tinkerer’s desire for knowledge. It’s sad to know that we are in an age of opacity. Yet we can still know, if we’re willing to take apart assembly code and if we can read machine language, if we have the proper diagnostic tools.
We also live in an age of engineering wonders. (Perhaps we have always lived in an age of engineering wonders.)
As in the seventeenth-century for the Restoration spectacular, we still thrill at technology’s ability to simulate. For instance, every Christmas season, La Encantada, the fancy open-air mall in the Tucson foothills, advertises its artificial snowstorms. Since we get only a dusting of actual snow in the valley about once every four years, it is quite a draw.
Those who go to see the spectacle are advised not to let the artificial snow settle on their tongues, since the flakes are in fact soap.
On Figures of Speech
It’s marvelous! we say. It’s spectacular! we say. It’s awesome! we say. Yet we are not ground to silence by our awe. We do not mean we marvel at the marvelous. Nor do we mean it is a marvel. I am not sure marveling is in our emotional repertoire any longer, though I wish it were. If we marveled more, it would mean being humble in the face of the unknowable or vast.
What is the bandwidth of our awe? Has it increased or diminished as we’ve aged, as our age has swallowed every marvel available to it?
I think here of cyberpunk literature like, most famously, William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Countercultural at the time, it made dystopian predictions (the experience of being nearly always online, ubiquitous and embedded technology, information as currency, the rise of multinational corporations, and so on) most of which are now familiar enough in America so as to be uncontroversial. I wave my smartphone at McDonald’s to make a payment, and the interaction just slips by.
Plus, thanks to the 1980s mainstreaming of awesome, the word shook off its connection to awe some time ago. Are we so inundated by spectacle that we have forgotten how to let one overtake us?
Perhaps my neighbors, in their quest for excess, mean in part to remind us of these capacities.
Tucson is not a front-porch city. No one slumps on stoops and remarks on the patterns of the neighborhood. We do not chat up passersby. Instead, the backyard is our glory. That’s where the pool and grill and all the livable outdoor space and shade are, and that’s where we sit behind our walls so as not to be seen with our tops off or doing whatever else we do in private. That’s what makes these Christmas displays so shocking: here, we think, is a public show made for all of us.
In my in-laws’ neighborhood in Minnesota, no one has a pool, and in the winter no one is outside, except to move snow from the road to the yard or the yard to the road, and inside it is somewhat warm and dull, and in this embrace of dullness the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog occupies a prominent place: Come here, it beckons, and imagine paradise. Like my own parents, my wife’s folks line their home with catalogs for the winter: dispatches from Lands’ End overflow baskets in the living room; L.L.Beans cover the distressed coffee table. Everywhere there are old copies of Consumer Reports that assess products’ fitness and reliability. Perhaps it is a practical choice: if their furnace were to quit, as it did a couple of years ago in the middle of the winter, they could stay warm by burning catalogs for weeks until help arrived. That is, if they could bear to part with such abundance.
The Migration of an Apostrophe
Lands’ End: What a name! The end of lands! Imagine what might be delivered to us by UPS or USPS from these frontiers! Can you guess it might come in monogrammed flannel? How many of us can even imagine the end of lands, the edge of the known world, where we might encounter dark spaces on the map?
As it turns out, Lands’ End evolved from a yachting gear company, and was named after Land’s End, an English landmark, the southwesternmost point of England, a geographic spectacle. The placement of the apostrophe was a typographical error in their early promotional material. The apostrophe got stuck and never moved again.
Lands’ End was bought in 2002 by Sears.
As I click through citation-links to read the business news reporting the purchasing and later (2014) spinning off of Lands’ End by Sears, I realize the URLs have changed, and where there once was land there is now just emptiness and water.
I’d like to clarify, because it’s important: I happened on the catalog. It did not come addressed to me. To have received a Hammacher Schlemmer catalog in the mail means you’ve lost your way, that the countercultural tendencies you once prized are no more, or are at the least very badly attenuated. But to stumble on a copy on your in-laws’ coffee table as you vainly search for a whiff of the neighbors’ unsecured Wi-Fi to check your email while drinking is perfectly acceptable and speaks nothing of your slippage. So, bored and more than a little cold, I leafed through it. This was a year ago.
It claims it is “America’s Longest Running Catalog . . . Guaranteeing the Best, the Only, and the Unexpected since 1848.” I don’t know what other catalog would supersede its claim to longevity. Wuss-ass Sears has only done its thing since 1888. How long have you or your family done anything? When I first saw the claim, I misunderstood: I thought it was a catalog serving marathoners.
The Hammacher Schlemmer catalog is a monument in itself and to itself, a monument to monuments. The contents are spectacle enough for most of us: the Drifting Adult Trike, the Hands Free Hair Rejuvenator, the 1959 Corvette Billiards Table, the Authentic Baseball Glove Leather Chair, the Human Bowling Ball, the Gotham Golfcart, the Bike Snowboard, and so forth. You may buy a theremin made by Moog, a belt buckle made from a nine iron, or a Live Video Feed Surveillance Clock, so as to keep tabs on your thieving relations when they visit for the holidays. Otherwise your catalogs will just keep disappearing, and where will you be when the cold comes?
I see your eyes widening, your heart quickening, as if you’ve just been caffeinated. I feel that way too.
Aside from excess, the catalog’s central theme is products identified as being the World’s Largest (Jigsaw Puzzle, Scrabble Game, Write On Map Mural, Toe Tap Piano); World’s Brightest (Watch, Flashlight, Vanity Mirror); World’s Lightest (Carry On, Suitcase, Luggage Set, 1,875-Watt Hair Dryer, Impervious Luggage); World’s Thinnest (Calendar Watch); World’s Smallest (Automatic Umbrella); World’s Longest (Zoom Binoculars); World’s Most Detailed (Globe); World’s Fastest (Amphibious Car); World’s Only (Counterbalanced Turntable); World’s Most Secret (Locations); World’s First (3D Printing Pen, 3D Printing Pen Stand, Flying Bicycle); World’s Softest (Flannel Sheet Set); World’s Best Tabletop Christmas Tree (Prelit Fraser Fir, Prelit Noble Fir, Prelit Douglas Fir, Prelit Concolor Fir). This is not even to get into the things not labeled World’s Best but simply Best (Bug Vacuum, Talking Scale, Interdental Cleaner, Gel Infused Cooling Pillow, Freestanding Heated Towel Rack, Double Belgian Waffle Maker): monument after monument.
I ask a Hammacher Schlemmer representative what percentage of catalog subscribers end up ordering an item. They won’t release that information “because we are a private company,” the representative tells me. Well, how many subscribers do you have? Same answer. I find this opacity both strange and compelling, as if they know the importance of a mystery. It’s like touching a monument’s slick, black wall and trying to see through it but seeing only my own searching expression.
Ryan Bradley writes in the Los Angeles Times about his fascination with the catalog, “The first issue arrives in late October. I read it cover to cover. I do not buy anything from it.” For most of us, one imagines, this is true. Sometimes it is enough to marvel at the marvels. That is what they are for, after all. The catalog itself is the publication. It’s an exhibition: you’re here to see and to imagine, not necessarily to buy. The catalog is the spectacular. If you are on the mailing list, you receive news of the world and of its many marvels regularly. Reading it, you begin to feel that by browsing or owning a copy of the catalog you demonstrate your discerning taste: you yourself are special, the world’s only, the world’s best.
Plus, I think you must be in on the joke. Bradley asked the CEO of Hammacher Schlemmer whether anyone had ever purchased the $30,000 hammock. The answer was, quite obviously, no. Unlike me, at least he got an answer.
One wonders, then, if their more outlandish items even exist.
I don’t need to tell you how our culture prizes size, speed, confidence, and incomparability. The catalog is a labyrinth of these values. The superlatives make it difficult to read straight through. I had to stop to catch my breath before returning.
Among the many glories in the catalog, I spied a huge Rudolph. It did not claim to be the World’s Biggest; it was simply “nearly two stories tall.” In the photograph children cavorted below it. That’s a big Rudolph, I said to myself. What kind of idiot would buy something like that?
I thought about it for a year, and when my neighbors started erecting their spectaculars, I found myself still thinking about big reindeer.
So I looked online for options, as you do. In my search, I found other large inflatable Christmas decorations (I googled “huge Rudolph,” “large Rudolph,” “really big inflatable Rudolph,” “yard irritation,” and “Christmas lawn colossus”), but everything I found was terrible, like a Giant Inflatable Color Changing Christmas Tree that looked like oversized alien genitalia. In my browse I also found: a crappy fourteen-foot Santa train; a crappy Santa’s reindeer stable; a half-assed (not literally) nine-foot Santa dog; a terrifying psychedelic snowman head; a ten-foot animated moose (what the moose has to do with the Christmas iconography I do not know, perhaps a vague sense of northernness, an orientation toward ultima Thule?) with an ugly plastic sweater that did not cover its prominent ass or stupid eyes; a vaguely satanic eleven-foot inflatable non-Rudolph reindeer; a giant Christmas bear with an insipid face; and a whole lot of stoned, pathetic inflatable elves that I could imagine staring listlessly into their virtual neighbors’ yard in hopes of being fed inflatable Doritos.
While I would purchase and attempt to eat inflatable Doritos or an inflatable dessert, I wanted none of these impostors. What I wanted was what had buried itself in my memory from that catalog. That is how consumer culture works, I know. It takes a year to register the punch.
So I traipsed to the website, where I was immediately distracted by the Only Outdoor Heated Cat Shelter, adorned with a negative review noting that “the hindquarters of our cat did not fit in.” Another was titled “Still Waiting for Cat to Enter.” Another (there are, in fairness, only a few negative reviews; the positive ones are not nearly as fun) explains: “My cat will not go near this house. If you are having a hard time finding a Cat House it might be because Cat’s [sic] do not like a house.”
I would like you to know that I did not order this item, in part on account of my cats’ irritability and their oversized hindquarters.
What I did order was my Rudolph. Then I kept browsing, transfixed by this American netherworld.
By the time I got to the last couple of reviews of the Cat Shelter, I was drinking port by the Christmas tree. It was ten o’clock.
My family had all been in bed for two hours. I found the white lights of the tree soothing, gauzy, suffusing me with our shared light, or perhaps it was the port or the view I imagined I would soon have of my Rudolph out the window that affected me this way. The tinkling of “Good King Wenceslas” from the neighbors’ house was lovely and only a little demonic.
Of the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, Pliny the Elder writes:
But that which is by far the most worthy of our admiration, is the colossal statue of the Sun, which stood formerly at Rhodes, and was the work of Chares the Lindian, a pupil of the above-named Lysippus; no less than seventy cubits in height. This statue, fifty-six years after it was erected, was thrown down by an earthquake.
Well, when one looks for errors in antiquity, Pliny is a great place to start: “India . . . produces the dragon, which is perpetually at war with the elephant,” “Æthiopia produces . . . horses with wings, and armed with horns, which are called pegasi,” etc. Like my brother, he has an opinion on everything, has heard about whatever you’re looking for, and presents it as unassailable fact. His fabulist descriptions have persisted for almost two thousand years: unlike my brother’s, Pliny’s mansplaining is historical. Though I suppose I can’t predict how useful my brother may be to the future’s desire for knowledge, so I should not yet count his contributions out.
When It Arrived
I was doubtful my colossus would be as big as I imagined. It showed up flattened in a box the size of a diaper mega-pack from Target. No way could that hold my promised monument. Surely I had proved myself a fool. Still, my wife could hear my glee-squeals from the front yard as I released it from confinement and its size became apparent. Yes, this was the thing at last. I plugged it in and watched it rise and lo! it rose, and lo! it was humming and shining and it was every bit as large as I had imagined it; this is to say that it was good and the world felt to me very slightly improved.
Get close enough to a thing and it becomes impossible to keep the whole in sight, to retain whatever belief you had before about perspective. It’s magic that stays magic.
The neighbors were highly entertained when at last the moment arrived and my monument went up, slowly erecting itself in the Tucson afternoon, joining their displays. The neighbor’s wife and the grandchildren could not stop laughing when they saw my Rudolph towering among the palms. The kids took selfies under his moving head. They staked out the yard to wait for the patriarch’s return. When he exited his huge truck I could hear the laughter from all the way in the back of the house.
My Rudolph is now by far the largest Christmas decoration on my block. Also: in my neighborhood. Also, quite possibly: in Tucson, Arizona. I have never seen a larger Rudolph in person in my life, though I am sure some exist in the parades my grandmother used to watch on the black-and-white television on holiday mornings.
Fifteen feet tall and motor powered, erect, huge, a monument to or against something, above the roofline of the midcentury ranch house in the front yard, between the rosemary and the ocotillo, the palms and the agave, he stands as long as I will have him, usually from the day after Thanksgiving until the weekend after the New Year begins.
His body, tethered by eight cables dug into the ground so as to resist the wind, supports an oversized, rotating head.
Seen from my neighbors’ perspective, my Rudolph might be perceived to be shaking his head slowly in disapproval at their displays. Or perhaps everywhere they see approval: my participation in their ritual, the shrieks of unidentified children from a street over, even the way their tea leaves dry in their cups—yeses are all around us all the time.
Archilochus, poet from the seventh century BCE, tells us that “a fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
They’re Our Cathedrals
I do love a monument, a colossus, an edifice: the Pictured Rocks, the Humongous Fungus, the Mystery Spot, the last Big Boy before the Mackinac Bridge, the competing Biggest Balls of Twine, the Biggest Crucifix, the World’s Largest Pecan, the World’s Largest Catsup Bottle, the World’s Largest Ball of Paint, Sea Shell City’s Man-Killing Giant Clam. I am drawn to them, to the way they loom, to the obsessions they feed. I could navigate this country by their light.
Compare to the ubiquitous and spectacular cathedrals throughout Europe: also popular and well lit. They, too, mean to inspire our awe. In America, even if we know that what we most admire will not be particularly old, it can be wild and odd and large, its very existence a question we mean to answer by stopping and tweeting “WTF The Thing?” Or, “Big Ass Navel Orange: WTF.” If we cannot have the unicursal labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral, we can have a lower-back tattoo of it for others to contemplate as our shirt rides up.
Like any monument, this is not just a metaphor but a fact. As I sit in Starbucks number 19,981 (the number itself an edifice), I see a woman with that labyrinth tattooed across her lower back, her shirt having in fact ridden up. I’m gaping surreptitiously and hopefully not too obviously (while it is possible I am a creep [I admit I am creeping here a bit, even if in service of my art], I would prefer not to be labeled one). I wonder at her choice. Does she know that the origins of this glyph, the labyrinth itself, are in the systems of the body: circulatory, digestive, reproductive? To have it tattooed right on her body—and on the lower back, with its flirt/reveal—must be either ignorance or blissful knowingness. Either way: American.
My Rudolph, my menagerie of one, cost $399.95 plus tax and shipping: an improbable and indefensible amount to spend on an ornament. Is the nervousness I feel admitting to this number shame or pride or some mixture of the two? My electric bills since I purchased my Rudolph have so far run about thirty dollars more per month. Powering him—keeping him lit and inflated, holding his sentry post until I shut him off and he pitches forward and deflates into the cactus—costs less than a dollar a day. For a dollar a day, I know, I could be feeding starving children, as the mailings I get remind me. The juxtaposition does not ride comfortably.
I do not mean zoo. A zoo is theoretically historical or scientific, a display for the education of the public. A menagerie is a display of wealth, of aristocracy. Louis XIV constructed two menageries: one at Versailles and one at Vincennes, where lions and bears and bulls were brought out to fight for the royals’ pleasure. I am not aristocratic, and what little wealth I have I try to wear lightly if at all. Having said that, my display displays something, I am sure: my relative privilege, my generosity, my pleasure at making the big gesture, my settling into my role as neighborhood foil, my lifelong pleasure at pageantry, my civic participation, my folly.
One night, while rereading Pliny’s account of the Colossus, I realize my Rudolph has broken free from one of his moorings and is listing strongly to starboard. Is it odd to call him he, sexless and buoyant and empty as he is? Still, he is definitely meant to represent a he, the he from the story-song, even without the component parts of sex reminding us of his animal nature. Perhaps it is more untoward to call him my than to call him him. He is mine only by trick of fate or circumstance, my having seen him in the catalog and having made the commitment to order him to my door.
Now I see my Rudolph is on his side and nosing into the cactus, vainly attempting to turn his head, which operates through some kind of mechanism I have not yet sussed out. I could cut him open in order to understand it better, but in this case the knowledge gained does not to me seem commensurate with the destruction of the creature. When I go outside to right him, I see a stake has broken. In trying to re-stake him, I break another.
The stakes with which he’s moored are inferior, I complain on the Hammacher Schlemmer feedback form, hoping they will send replacements, hoping they will relay this information to the manufacturer. That is: these are not the world’s best stakes. They break when struck. They should be made of metal or a stronger resin. An email comes the next week with an apology, but notes that the item is now out of stock, and I am stuck. I buy myself some top-notch stakes, which solve the problem, but now my Rudolph is covered in cactus spines.
The following night I hear whistling from my Rudolph. A hole has opened up in one flank.
My Rudolph is not the only one, as much as I’d like to believe he is. I called and asked for a repair patch.
Hammacher Schlemmer prides itself on its unconditional lifetime guarantees, the sorts of things that would impress a dad, my dad, for instance, or yours, and it impressed me even as I wondered about the costs of the policy. Well, they said, just send it back: we’ll send you another.
I was shocked. What I wanted was a fix; what I got was a replacement. They took my information down. They gave me a tracking number and instructions for return and said hey, thanks again for being a customer. They asked me to take a survey and rate the support I received, which I promptly did.
This kind of customer service is rare in a culture of speed and disposability. I remember how amazed I was when I bought an expensive suitcase that the company happily repaired multiple times: this didn’t feel very American, I thought. Where was my accustomed disposability? How can I just take a J.Crew or Banana Republic jacket to the store to get it mended or replaced if it ever tears or gets stained—even if I didn’t buy it from them new?
You may sense a little aspirational class privilege in these opportunities. None of these stores are really all that exclusive or expensive, but they’re a cut above Walmart, which has a less permissive return policy (though when I worked at Walmart, I once accepted as a return a television bought there five years previous because I was feeling generous; I quit before I was fired). Each of these stores feels more than a little colonial. Their items aren’t made in banana republics, but they sure aren’t made here these days.
This kind of customer service also felt representative of our culture of disposability: What I wanted was a patch. What I received was a whole new Rudolph. I felt some cognitive dissonance about this fact.
In my search for more of my Rudolphs, I found he was, unsurprisingly, made in China. You can order him there by the hundred or the thousand.
For a moment I considered cashing out my 401(k) to raise an army.
I boxed him up, being careful to protect my skin from the cactus spines.
It took a week, but he arrived.
He was unboxed and inflated and lit back up, this time a little farther away from the cactus. And lo, again my monument was big and bad and glorious.
In This Way We Are Enlarged and Possibly Engorged
Edifices: They light our way. They rise high. They stand in for I or sometimes we. Usually the I rises above the we, but in the end the we—who can stand under the shadow of the Colossus and feel ourselves embiggened, made more than we are—matters more.
Pliny again, on the Colossus:
Even as it lies, it excites our wonder and admiration. Few men can clasp the thumb in their arms, and its fingers are larger than most statues. Where the limbs are broken asunder, vast caverns are seen yawning in the interior.
Part of what we admire is its inscrutability, its brokenness, the space inside the fragment and what we might imagine in it, the space between the world it was erected in and our world today, our inability to know it fully. We marvel and we are filled with awe. We’re stilled with awe, we and our awe in a bright white room, quiet, imagining. So we are silent and look inside. What have we seen that is too large or beautiful or broken to imagine? Complicated interstate cloverleafs seen from below, weaving, curling streams of cars onto other thoroughfares; even though they are concrete, I find them beautiful when on foot or passing underneath. Impossibly complex tangles of circuitry inside our machines when seen under the microscope (and so made large enough for us for awe), our cells’ interiors, the vast distances between stars. The man-made monolith means more, though: it speaks of the individual, her love for the large, for building something so big the world would wonder at its size. Valley of the Moon, twelve miles away from where I live, a weird and run-down Tucson theme park of the fantastic: the obsession of a lifetime for George Phar Legler, a spiritualist who believed the spirit world was just beyond the one we perceive and who devoted his life to building a place where children and adults could look into the spirit world and experience the sublime. Arcosanti, a futurist community north of Phoenix, designed and built in the philosophy of arcology, a discipline fusing architecture and ecology, built by the recently deceased Paolo Soleri (who also drew sketches of nude models: “attractive ladies under thirty” were invited to pose for him and would receive a copy of the finished sketch as well as, one imagines, a generous invitation to sex with the genius). When we apprehend the vision and the constructed thing, we marvel at its reach—and foolishness. In this are we diminished? Would we prefer to drag the maker down to our level? Instead maybe we should aspire to such a spire and make room in our silence for astonishment and belief.
Pleasure in Outlasting
Tonight my Rudolph stayed up and lit longer than my neighbors’ blow-up golems, and when I ventured outside into the somewhat cold, I was bombarded only by my own lights, and I felt a sense of pride (and then I felt a sense of pride at my sense of pride: Who knew I could feel pride like this? Who knew it could be so easy to feel myself so full?). Here was my Rudolph lighting up the night after their displays had faded. Because my Rudolph is my only decoration and because he does not need to lead with its ostentatious brightness, when he is running next to my neighbors’ zoo, he does not seem bright at all: only big. His name might be Olaf in another life, but in this life he is identifiably Rudolph and all who see him are made glad. Children especially shriek at the sight.
I pull his plug and he pitches forward, almost as if he bows before me. Then he lists to the left and I need to hold him while he deflates so he does not fall into the agave plant. If he did, he might be pierced and slowly open himself up in ways that would lead to his destruction, and I might have to invoke the lifetime warranty with guilt, knowing that in a way it was my fault. Instead, I hold my Rudolph as the life rushes out of him. It’s hard not to think of what it would be like to have a pet like this, a massive pet like this.
Back inside, my oldest cat mews: Where, she asks, is my attention? I stroke her back in the way she likes. I cannot yet come to terms with what it would be like to have to make that journey with her.
Just because a thing is big does not mean it is invulnerable. Consider the Death Star, the Hindenburg, the Titanic. In fact, the greater the size, the greater the desire to see the thing taken down. Thus in part the sad history of elephants in confinement and in the wild. They have been hunted and imprisoned and executed because of size. Take, for instance, Black Diamond, an elephant who injured his trainer and killed the trainer’s employer in Corsicana, Texas, 1929. He was sentenced to death and shot more than fifty times before he went down on his knees. This is not an isolated story. There is the other famous one, Edison’s electrocution of an elephant, essentially for being unruly, but mostly to win a consumer war and spectacularly illustrate the destructive power of a rival electric technology: alternating current, went the story, kills! Elephants in captivity were routinely abused for years in ways too horrible to enumerate in this space. Edison also electrocuted a series of other animals, mostly dogs.
When my neighbors are gone for a night or a few, typically driving their RV into Mexico or to California, their dog, Honey, barks all night without cease. I can hear her through the skylight as I ponder my footsteps through my home in the somewhat dark, the thirty-nine LED lights on household devices flickering like devotional candles. She’s fed and watered, I’m sure, but sure sounds lonely. It must be tiring, with no one to register her complaints, no customer service line to dial for a replacement family. I’ve tried going out to reassure her that she’s heard, but she takes my presence as an offense and freaks out further. I wonder whether to tell the neighbors about the contours of her experience in their absence.
You can imagine how a person who loves machines might love a giant inflatable Rudolph. You might also imagine how a daughter of a person who loves machines might really flip out for a giant inflatable Rudolph. From the exterior he looks solid. He’s firm to the touch, but inside he’s nothing but forced air. After the cactus tragedy, I moved him to a safer space and staked him with better stakes. His head turns, but when the wind catches it, it appears to bob up and down in excitement or approval. My daughter hugs him with all her might and makes no dent.
One of the ways in which my father demonstrated love was to get the oil changed in my and my brother’s cars when we came home from school and in the years after. He checked the belts. He checked the brakes, topped up the fluids. He asked us: How was it driving? When our cars inevitably broke down, he’d offer financial help to make repairs before things got even worse. This practice also conveyed a subtle assessment of my brother’s and my half-assedness when it came to maintenance: if we had taken care of it like we had been instructed, this implied, there would have been no need for him to perform his love this way.
To what extent is my affection for and maintenance of my Rudolph a proxy for my love for my daughter? How apparent to her is this equation? Perhaps I should explain to her how love can be projected in this way. I press my ear to my Rudolph’s flank and listen for the sound of his heart, which does not, of course, exist. I unzip one of the panels and peek inside just to be sure. It’s empty and bright in there and also loud.
I have the ambition of being completely inside the thing one day and letting its glorious rushing, like Calgon or a Klingon, take me away.
When the light fails in my Rudolph’s nose, I have to get inside to operate. I replace it. It fails again. Some engineering marvel! (They should consider LEDs.) I am willing to perform surgery to aid my animal, but it seems there is a short somewhere. One year they say, sure, we’ll send another. The next year I call back with the same complaint, and they say, sure, they’ll send yet another, tell me to send this one back too, just stuff it back in the box. A year goes by. Repeat. I wondered: How long could this go on? What kind of business model is this anyway?
The reviews online suggest that you can keep doing this as long as you need. One purchaser is on her seventh Rudolph. But timing matters: when I call a week before the holiday to complain about this design flaw, Hammacher Schlemmer tells me they’re sold out. They’re gone until November. For this year you can either tough it out with the busted light, they said, or you can wait until the season begins again and call us back and we’ll replace your Rudolph then, no problemo. Or you could send it back and we could refund it now, they said, pointlessly, because of course I had realized I didn’t want a refund—I wanted my Rudolph.
At this point I knew I had a problem. I had concrete developed feelings for the thing. A sense of kinship. And I’d developed a commitment to the performance. I found that I was becoming someone else, someone a little more civic-minded, someone paying more attention to my neighbors and their treasures—and my own.
They are not forever, even if Hammacher Schlemmer guarantees them. What stays that long? Even Hammacher Schlemmer has occupied this space for only 171 years. Even the Colossus of Rhodes was in ruins by the time Pliny witnessed it.
Plastics will last in ways we have not really accounted for in our reliance on their disposability. Much of the rest of our accumulated human meaning won’t, however. Our books will be pulped, our hard drives erased, the trees in whose trunks we carved our names felled in windstorms, all our collected downloaded music gone when our subscriptions lapse, all the muchness that spreads out before us slowly vanishing. Maybe what will persist is our songs, as performed on a little box in someone’s yard somewhere from Thanksgiving to New Year’s each year. Maybe it will be a recording of the lonely barking of the neighbor’s dog. Maybe it will be the aggregate electronic hum of our collective electromagnetic fields.
As I try to re-erect my Rudolph after a particularly serious windstorm, my neighbor Robbee comes to lend a hand. (You might be surprised how unwieldy my Rudolph can be even though he weighs little.) As I complain about the cheapness of the plastic anchors, my Rudolph tries again to rise. I am ordering a more hard-core set of stakes for him, I say; I’m done with these. Robbee tells me with a note of approval that yes, we each must maintain our units.
With the installation of my Rudolph, my neighbors have become noticeably warmer to me. Perhaps it was also the birth of my child that signified my commitment to what weak bonds the neighborhoods offer in Arizona, state of walled backyards and thorned flora, concealed handguns and sprawl. I didn’t think I’d miss the way the Midwest teaches you to interact with others, what with our porches and our occasionally bearable weather. Perhaps this is why I have installed my Rudolph: not just for my own pleasure but to signify that I am here, my neighbors, my fellow citizens. I choose to participate. I want to know your names.
Christmas is an opportunity for disappointment for those of us who depend on our families for emotional reassurance during the season and do not receive it. It is an annual opportunity for them to fail us in their way. It would be healthier and in general better not to rely on them, we’re aware, to act for a month as though we are psychologically robust and do not count and recount every slight at night, but by now we know action trails intention. To my brother (who dearly cares about such things), I believe, each holiday season is a reminder of our insufficiency as a family, of our straying from his increasingly specific expectations.
I can predict my Rudolph’s failures even if I cannot predict my own.
And what of the other reindeer? We know their names only for their cruelty and slights, their insufficiency, their collective inability to guide the sleigh through fog. What if they had good reasons not to let poor Rudolph join in any reindeer games? Perhaps they feared his best-known feature and wondered what kind of monster’s nose lit up from within. Was he radioactive? Contagious? Haunted? What if as a beacon he drew other reindeer to him and caused pileups?
There might have been no way to know.
A few weeks ago, I was walking a street away and was accosted by a neighbor who asked me if I had heard of the recent rash of burglaries. I had not, and so she told me some stories. Two houses on that block had been broken into in the last two weeks. No one had yet caught the perpetrators. All they had stolen was guns and cash.
I admit this took me a bit aback. I did not buy my Rudolph as a theft deterrent, but I believe he could act as such. Would you be more or less likely, as a burglar, to break into a house with a fifteen-foot Rudolph glowing out front? Less likely, I believe, just by virtue of wondering what sort of person would buy and proudly display such a huge ornament. It stakes a claim on presence in a neighborhood that I, if I were a burgler—and I have indeed burgled, so I know a little something of what I speak—would steer clear of. And besides, from behind, my Rudolph looks more like a giant dog. When the neighbors have extinguished their displays, its significance is obvious. Like Cerberus, it means to say I guard this street and your ass shall not pass. I hold your lives in hand. I will keep you safe. In this land of guns, safety is no small concern. After my congresswoman was shot in the head at point-blank range, I thought about the safety of myself and those I love. When I heard the break-in stories and then when my own car was broken into—twice within a couple of weeks—I thought hard about our safety. But safety is not the only consideration. Sure, I could barricade myself inside my house and stockpile guns and cash and grumble on the internet. What a way to live that would be. I guess I choose to face out into the street instead. I choose to display a smile, even if it’s a weird one.
In a world where there are increasingly few checks on the unbalanced—in a place without the social safety nets you might find in the cities on the coasts—in a disconnected place, a place built on disconnection—I hope this yard art gesture is enough to say to my neighbors that I care for you. I am part of you. I am participating. I am watching and I am listening.
The Pleasures of Home Ownership
To own a house is to fear the breaching of its walls. To be responsible for a colossus is to fear invasion, to fear its toppling, to fear its becoming a ruin. Of course everything eventually becomes a ruin, but our most important job as humans is to resist ruin.
It is hard not to read my display as a little desperate. What is it a monument for or to? Or must a monument be always in some way dedicated to oneself? It is true that I purchased the thing after the birth of my daughter, so on some level I’m trying to prove something in a parenting kind of way. But I believe I’d been committed to this idea even earlier; I’d already begun my travel to my monument. I’ve always loved the big and foolish and public. I purchased it partly with irony and partly with money. Becoming a parent allowed me to justify some of the impulses that had been latent in me for some time.
At This Time of Year
Spare a thought for the other reindeer, those we mention in passing, as background for our hero. The whole set—Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen (to use the most popular present spellings)—have been with us since 1823 thanks to Clement C. Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” better known to most of us as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” They have served the season and the story well for a very long time. Rudolph himself debuted in 1939 in Robert L. May’s children’s book for Montgomery Ward and has taken pride of place in song and story and stop-motion animated cartoon ever since.
Probably, if you’re like me, you sort of know the others’ names, but only because they bullied Rudolph and got the ass end of his comeuppance.
We will all eventually be washed away and rendered obsolete, background for someone else’s heroism. As such they, and not Rudolph, may be our better analogues. Let’s raise a glass to them.
And spare a thought for Rudolph’s parents, horrified by their son’s mutation (at least, in the stop-motion Christmas special): that nose, so wild and red and lit. What would become of such a creature? To stand out is to be strange and estranged. Should we forgive them for wanting their kid to have a normal life? And what is a normal life, exactly?
Being and Nothingness
Some nights I think about inhabiting my Rudolph, wearing him as if he were a huge suit, like the inflatable sumo suits you can rent for parties and use to slam into your friends. What is the difference between displaying him outside the house and wearing him, I wonder. If I could stride down the street in him, I could be happy. That’s not possible, of course.
But I could step into my Rudolph if I so chose. He has two zippable access points: one in the neck and one in the belly, just where you might begin your evisceration of an actual reindeer. These zips are not large and I am not small, but still I am confident I could push myself inside him if I needed to, a sort of reverse birthing. I think about possession, what it might be like to take hold of another body, to wear another’s skin, to feel like I fit in. I don’t think it would physically harm me to try to get inside my Rudolph, though the force and sound of all that air in the interior would not be appealing.
Maybe I am inside him already. Maybe in wrapping myself in thinking about him, I wear him like a spirit suit.
What might it be to be so vacant and so large, so tethered and so buoyant?
I would be hobbled, I am sure, inside the suit. It is made to be serviceable by a human, in the case of a bulb going out in the nose, for instance, or in the case of significant tearing. I could almost fit myself in one of his colossal legs and peek out. But who would let me out if I got myself trapped inside? I could call my neighbors’ names, the ones I know, but there is the Christmas music to contend with and the sound of air, and besides it can get somewhat cold down here, so I couldn’t be assured of my rescue.
And what am I to do with my Rudolph when the holiday has passed? I must pack him away, I know, but to do so is a little loneliness, to be so enclosed, boxed in a plastic container for the longer part of the year only to be released again when the earth has moved around the sun again. I know my Rudolph will have no memory of this, the time between when he mattered and when he will again, but still I mourn. What do my neighbors feel when they pack away their displays for the year but a rolling up of what they hold inside? To know that their relevance is gone for another year, that it has lapsed, is no small thing. My relevance will lapse, too, and click into the emptiness of deletion or destruction or even the white noise and nothing of what we imagine death to be, so to venerate my Rudolph is to participate in the air around the cul-de-sac, to feel alive.
If the cul-de-sac is a mini-universe, I am not so ridiculous as to think my Rudolph is the sun, but it is true that if you were to drive west on Seventh Street you would plow directly into him if like a fool or one transfixed you did not swerve or stop. So in that my Rudolph is the promontory around which the cul-de-sac is defined.
Well, this street is not properly a cul-de-sac, since it only seems to curlicue; in fact, after the turn it does go through, in a loop, but that is obvious only to those who turn the corner away from my Rudolph and disappear. Cul-de-sac means “back of the bag” in French. In America it is what court denotes. Vanishing down a research hole, I find that Tucson is the exclusive domain of the stravenue, a ridiculous portmanteau applied to a road that runs “diagonally between and intersects a street and an avenue.”
I propose a term: the faux-de-sac.
It takes some effort to pack Rudolph away for the season. In the matter of a few minutes, as he lolls and sags, I hold and guide him—like a lover, I think to myself, this gentle quality of touching even though there is nothing underneath his skin, no nerves, no electricity to register the pressure of my hand—away from the cactus to the ground. As he rests there slowly expiring, air rushing out in part through the slightly porous canvas of his skin, such as it is, I think how odd that such a large creature can be condensed into a box and packed away. This year my neighbors struck their show promptly, overpromptly even, on the day after Christmas. To my mind you have until the weekend after the year turns over to accomplish this, but no, no dawdling for them. I wonder why but do not learn the answer.
Ennobling the Place
Let’s turn one more time to Pliny:
Within it, too, are to be seen large masses of rock, by the weight of which the artist steadied it while erecting it. It is said that it was twelve years before this statue was completed, and that three hundred talents were expended upon it; a sum raised from the engines of warfare which had been abandoned by King Demetrius, when tired of the long-protracted siege of Rhodes. In the same city there are other colossal statues, one hundred in number; but though smaller than the one already mentioned, wherever erected, they would, any one of them, have ennobled the place.
On Closure, One More Time with Feeling
Another year has passed and I’m already anticipating Christmas. It is August and we are on the verge of buying a new house, this one in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. The foothills have the schools and the silence and the views we want, and they’re not the city.
I find myself more torn than I expected at the thought of leaving this neighborhood that I didn’t really know I lived in until recently—until this moment in this essay, maybe. Is that what my monument means to me?
One thing I’ve come to understand about myself as a result of becoming a parent is that I am far more sentimental than I had previously believed. Probably all my friends and family knew this about me and were too kind to tell me, or assumed I knew. You too. So thanks for that small decorum. I will sob when the penguin dies on the television show. I will be a mess five minutes into the exposition for the superhero movie, when the protagonist’s mother dies in his childhood.
One thing I will miss is my neighbors’ insane expenditure of Christmas energy, and the glee and irony it seems to inspire not just in my family but in everyone it touches, and that number is far greater than I would have guessed. Since we Tucsonans are a private bunch, we have to find our opportunities for community. This makes the rare moments where we are all connected—as if we know each other and understand some aspect of each other’s lives, and so we hold each other, whether in grief or fear or mourning—feel crucially alive. January 8, 2011, when Jared Lee Loughner shot our congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in the head at a Safeway ten miles away, was one such moment.
Tragedy will do that, as you understand: it illuminates our likenesses and minimizes the rest.
From the new house, if we trimmed the gnarly mesquite, we would be able to see the old one in the valley below. Most of the year, I believe, there would not be so much to see, but from Thanksgiving through New Year’s, I’ll think differently.
The foothills being a fancy place, a place of decorum and a dearth of yard ornaments, I wonder what they will think of my monument, because come Christmastime it will sure as hell be going up.