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Sunday, December 25, 2005

WITHOUT ANY FEAR

Remember how weird every little thing seemed in the months after September 11, 2001? How people were afraid to attend any event that involved more than twenty other people? How people stayed home for Christmas rather than fly across country? Remember what that was like? I do because I was one of those people.

Like so many others that morning, I watched the World Trade Center come crashing down live on television and then I got in my car and went to work. The scene on TV seemed so bizarre that my instincts took hold and told me to latch onto anything resembling normal, established reality. For once, the 101 served an emotion other than frustration. I called my mom ostensibly to "make sure she was OK," a ludicrous pretense considering she was in Newton, Massachusetts, recently rated THE safest place to live in the United States. More accurately, I called because I needed to hear my mommy's voice. I remember I asked her, and I can not believe I said this but I know that I did, "Why do they hate Americans so much?" In the months and years ahead I would learn, just how unaware I had been to ask such a naîve innocent question. I would come to think of myself as a sucker, as in "Sucka!"

Usually, Cindy and I spend the holidays in either the South or New England. But not that year. Looking back, I know it was irrational. Hell, at the time I knew it was irrational. I understood that I was more likely to die in the Earthquake of Earthquakes that is way past due here in Southern California than I was to die in a fiery terrorist-induced plane crash. But knowing that gave me no more comfort than the seat cushions they rent out to the nose-bleed crowd at the Hollywood Bowl. The recognition of my own irrationality made the thought of boarding a plane that holiday season no less terrifying. Logic was useless to me. It was like I caught a phobia bug, a six-month fear-of-flying. I figured it would pass.

It did as did the fear of attending large events, the fear of the mail, and the fear of vaguely swarthy types in ill-fitting suits who seem unaccustomed to American social conventions. But in the middle of it all fell Christmas and along with it, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Holiday Light Festival. Each year, the LADWP lines a mile of Crystal Springs Boulevard (one of the two narrow main roads that wind through the massive Griffith Park) with a light display that tries mightily to pay tribute to all things Los Angeles. There's a little City Hall and a little Hollywood Sign and a little LAX and a little Surfrider Beach and a little Santa Monica Pier. If there's a symbol that the rest of the world associates with Los Angeles, then it's duly represented here in red, green, blue and white lights. I'm surprised they don't have a little overpriced 2-bed 2-bath fixer and a little group of day laborers standing on a little street corner.

A few observations RE: the LADWP HLF...

• Rather than block off the road to make it a fully pedestrian affair, the roadway remains open so that if you want you can drive through the festival. That's right, it's a drive-thru. If you're among the minority that chooses to walk (as my friends and I did in 2001), the holiday cheer is mixed with a hefty dose of carbon monoxide fumes. The lights illuminate the bluish-white exhaust as it rises to about chin level and then dissolves like soap bubbles do after they pop. By the time you reach the large canopy of white lights and loud music indicating the end of the route, the joy is somewhat nauseating and requires a couple of Excedrin to bang it back.

• The year that California had its big energy crisis, the Holiday Light Festival wasn't scaled back by a single tungsten filament.

• We saw Rob Morrow driving through with his family. He didn't look particularly joyful.

So in lieu of Christmas in Georgia or New Year's in Maine, Cindy and I and friends Chris and Nick set out along the hard, dusty sandy path that ran alongside the road through the Holiday Light Festival on December 23, 2001. Alongside our Los Angeles brethren, we apparently were "doing our part" by going about our normal lives.Though unusually subdued, people seemed happy enough just to be participating.

I, however, did not feel as though I was participating. I felt more like a camera in the service of an extended dolly shot, indifferently recording the scene with all its happy clichés (the lights, the Santas, the carols) and dirty clichés (the dust/exhaust clouds, the bickering couples, the abusive parents). Like Laverne DeFazio's milk-and-Pepsi combination, the mixing of the absurd fantasy and harsh reality grossed me out and made me more and more tense the deeper into the park we walked. I remember actually thinking that at any moment a bomb could go off or I would hear gunshots or someone in the crowd would start to scream for some unseen reason causing a sweep of fear and panic and a stampede that could only end horribly. "4 DIE IN FESTIVAL STAMPEDE" THE L.A. Times headline would scream. But I trudged on not offering much other than the occasional acknowledgment that I recognized the odd incandescent representation of a well-known Los Angeles landmark all the while thinking, "OK, we're almost done. We're almost done. Where's that damn white canopy?"

And then, like a finish line, there it was, way up ahead but within eyesight. The canopy is a good 30 feet long and made of extra bright lights, all white, that light up everything beneath it so much that not only could you read under it, you could perform surgery. From where we were, the music was indiscernible but sent hollow echos bouncing off the trail-filled hills of the park, no doubt confusing the coyotes and deer that live there. For some reason, though, I didn't feel relieved to see the end up ahead. It seemed even more ominous than the rest of the trek. Was the canopy the likely target of some yet to be named evil-doer? Terrorist attacks often seem to have some element of "just when they thought it was safe, they were mercilessly gunned down" or "in the middle of the family celebration, the suicide bomber detonated his backpack" or "the school bus had just returned from a day-long field trip when the explosion occurred." Is that just coincidence or do the terrorists plan it that way as sort of an extra "up yours, infidels!" on their way out?

Each step made things eerier and eerier. Then the topper: I could make out what song was playing over the speakers. It was John Lennon's Happy Christmas (War Is Over), one that as a rule I only tolerate when escape is impossible. Don't get me wrong—I love the Lennon of myth, his timeless irreverence, the semi-informed cynicism, the unrelenting skepticism, the vicious sarcasm, the refusal to take anyone's shit lest he turn to shit himself. But this song is just too much, too harsh.

Almost all the lyrics, on paper anyway, are hopeful and benign.
So this is Christmas
And what have you done
Another year over
And a new one just begun
Ans so this is Christmas
I hope you have fun
The near and the dear one
The old and the young
But Lennon's anger bites through the good cheer like a starving, abused Doberman. "Merry Christmas, you sap," is how I've always heard it. And hearing Lennon's piercing rasp mocking us from above in the already tense circumstance of the Holiday Light Festival reminded me of the phone call I made to my mother on September 11th. I wanted to embrace the words at face value, to really believe that there was hope, for the weak and the strong and the rich and the poor, but Lennon's voice was loudly and clearly saying, "Sucka!"
A very merry Christmas
And a happy New Year
Let's hope it's a good one
Without any fear
And so this is Christmas
For weak and for strong
For rich and the poor ones
The world is so wrong
It was mocking us for indulging in our insipid diversion, the lights designed to momentarily distract us from the horrible fact of a world crumbling around us the same way jingling car keys distract an infant from the fact that it's sitting in its own waste.

We made it to the end of the path and for that I was grateful. I needed a drink, bad. Cindy and I said goodnight to Chris and Nick and got in our car and headed home. Things were pretty quiet as we wound our way out of the park. Back on the 5, I opened with, "Sweetie?"

"Yes, dear."

"I don't think we need to do this again, do we?"

"Nope."

"Good."



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