Book Review: Hometown Alaska

During my youth I often indulged in daydreams about moving to some lovely little town in the middle of nowhere, filled with odd-personalities, tough characters and unending opportunities to indulge in wilderness exploration while building survival skills. These little fantasies of mine were always filled with a rich social life woven from solid relationships with good, trustworthy people.

What can I say? I was young.

Amazingly enough, Heather Lende accomplished my youthful fantasies. I honestly had to check the book a few times, just to make sure I hadn’t accidentally picked up a novel by mistake – a novel that just happened to perfectly reflect those wistful somedays that filled my head back when my back didn’t creak and my muscles didn’t ache after yet-another-day of to-many-hours hunched over a desk.

Side note: getting old is a dreadful experience.

There’s nothing fictional about If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name; everything in the book is 100% biographical. Ms. Lende achieved the very thing I’d resigned myself to accepting as impossible. She lives in the Alaskan wilderness, raises children in a small town, and has learned to rely on sort of basic life-skills most Americans have lost to industry and urbanization. Even the quirky personalities of her neighbors are described in lovely detail:

There’s an artist who lives with his wife, a weaver, in a fanciful cabin overlooking Rainbow Glacier. He keeps a dead temple pit viper in a big jar filled with vodka and takes sips of the “snake juice” every now and then to ward off illness. He’ll offer you some if you stop by.

I was amazed.

I couldn’t put the book down.

Here’s what happened: She and her husband moved to Haines, Alaska and built a home – both literally and figuratively. Eventually, Ms. Lende’s husband acquired a local business and established a career as an entrepreneur, while she pursued a career as the obituary writer for the local newspaper. While this sounds like an odd career, she describes it beautifully:

Being an obituary writer means I think a lot about loss, but more about love. Writing the obituaries of so many people I’ve known makes me acutely aware of death, but in a good way, the way Emily Dickinson meant when she wrote, “That it will never come again / Is what makes life so sweet.” My job helps me appreciate cookouts on clear summer evenings down on the beach, where friends lounge on driftwood seats and we eat salmon and salads by the fire while our children play a game of baseball that lasts until the sun finally sets behind the mountains, close to eleven o’clock…Most of all, though, writing about the dead helps me celebrate the living—my neighbors, friends, husband, and five children—and this place, which some would say is on the edge of nowhere, but for me is the center of everywhere

Throughout the book, Ms. Lende’s deep understanding and knowledge of this tiny little town comes through in colorful detail.

Being both small and remote, it’s the kind of place where teenagers are almost required to complain about a lack of adventure and activity. Yet, this book is filled with events that range from amazingly exciting to terribly sad. There is nothing easy about life in Haines, Alaska; but there’s a lot to be gained from living there.

(sigh)

I am so very envious.

If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name: News from Small-Town Alaska by Heather Lende

Holiday Book Review: Life of Santa

This has got to be one of the best holiday season biographies I’ve ever read. Actually, it may be the only holiday-season biography I’ve ever read, since most biographies do not frame their life experiences within the context of a single holiday.

Sal Lizard is a man who spends a significant portion of his life, rear round, playing scheduled and impromptu Santa Clause performances and he is considered one of the best Santa Clause performers in the United States. His body shape and beard are real. The he actually looks so similar to Santa Clause in his regular everyday life that he frequently walks into large toys stores, to take a look around and to familiarize himself with the names and titles of anything new to the toy market, and children will start running up to him with a toy in hand, excitedly informing him that “THIS is want I want this year!”

This biography is filled with stories and anecdotes that include his introduction to the world of Santa Clause performance, many experiences interacting with people while in character and the way playing Santa Claus changed his perspective on life and the way he behaves day-to-day.

An excellent illustration of the way being Santa Claus changed his everyday life was the story of the young single mother who was to poor to buy her child a Christmas gift or a Christmas tree. She’d simply resigned herself to working through the holiday season (she was a food service worker) and not participating in the celebration. There would be no Christmas. Sal decides to help her out directly (he finds gifts for her daughter – mostly used but in excellent condition) and works with some friends to secretly deliver a tree to her front door. While those gestures are wonderful, the funny part is the fact that things just worked out that he knew this woman through his work and he changed jobs immediately after delivering the tree. So, from the woman’s perspective, this kind stranger who just happened to look exactly like Santa Clause hands her a bag full of gifts, delivers a tree to her door (in a locked building) while she is at work, and then vanishes off the face of the earth. When the woman called the company Sal had been working for, to thank him for his generosity, his former employers played along and told her the truth: He left and never came back. (shrug) Can’t tell you where he went, he was only here a few weeks.

My retelling of this story does not do it justice. It actually made me laugh out loud while getting all holiday-season warm and fuzzy inside. Correction, the entire book  achieved those goals. It’s a good-feeling biography that is simply filled with wonderful holiday-season inspired moments that encompass everything from laughter to tears.

If you are looking for a good book to read this holiday season, look no further than Being Santa Claus. It’s simply wonderful!

Quotes from this book can be seen HERE.

Being Santa Claus: What I Learned about the True Meaning of Christmas by Sal Lizard, Jonathan P. Lane

Admiration List: Regina Calcaterra

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Regina Calcaterra went from surviving an abusive mother and the foster care system to a career in law and politics. Her life is detailed in the memoir Etched In Sand, which I highly recommend reading.

This woman is a tough survivor who has made the best out of the absolute worst. She is also an excellent example of the fierce loyalty children have toward siblings – and just how positive that bond can be.

Ms. Calcaterra also regularly acts as the keynote speaker at various events and I would love to have the opportunity to attend one of these speeches.

Innocence is Precious

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To me, the longer a child believes in Santa Claus, the longer they hold on to their innocence, which is a very precious thing.

Being Santa Claus: What I Learned about the True Meaning of Christmas by Sal Lizard, Jonathan P. Lane

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Wishes and Childhood

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Children want and need to believe that wishes can come true; that’s part of the joy of childhood.

Being Santa Claus: What I Learned about the True Meaning of Christmas by Sal Lizard, Jonathan P. Lane

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Adults Love Santa Too

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I’ve never been able to explain the phenomenon of adults loving Santa, but I have a theory that seeing me jogs happy memories. I think a lot of us wish we could be children again, becoming breathless with Christmas excitement and believing with all our hearts that wishes can come true. I know I do! I think every grown-up wants to recapture that sense of wonder, even for a moment. And that’s exactly what Santa Claus allows them to do.

Being Santa Claus: What I Learned about the True Meaning of Christmas by Sal Lizard, Jonathan P. Lane

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Children Are Important

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“Every child is special, every child is important, and every child deserves our respect. No child’s opinions or ideas should ever be stifled or ignored. Because ultimately, as Santa knows, the smallest among us can sometimes make the biggest difference.”

Being Santa Claus: What I Learned about the True Meaning of Christmas by Sal Lizard, Jonathan P. Lane

The Allure of Santa Claus

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“I think that for both children and parents, Santa Claus represents a welcome distraction from the harsher realities of life that many of us have to deal with. Children can tell Santa Claus their hopes and dreams the same way they might wish upon a star. And most parents wouldn’t ever want to dash those dreams or put limits on their children’s innocent optimism. Even in tough economic times—perhaps especially then—Christmas and Santa Claus represent a shining ray of hope. Sure, Santa might not give a child everything he or she wants, and honestly, I don’t think that many children truly expect that. To their little minds, though, it can’t hurt to at least ask, right?”

Being Santa Claus: What I Learned about the True Meaning of Christmas by Sal Lizard, Jonathan P. Lane

Santa’s Lists Have Power!

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“Santa’s lists of naughty and nice may be the stuff of legend, but from what I’ve seen, when Santa Claus is around, nobody wants to take any chances.”

Being Santa Claus: What I Learned about the True Meaning of Christmas by Sal Lizard, Jonathan P. Lane

Acting on Opportunities of Hope

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“If you think about it, there are hundreds of little ways and chances for us to be that shining light of hope for one another, especially during tough times. We can give money, sure, but we can also give our time, love, attention, creativity, or even just a shoulder of support. If we all looked for and acted on these opportunities, even on days that aren’t Christmas, well…imagine the kind of world that would be.”

Being Santa Claus: What I Learned about the True Meaning of Christmas by Sal Lizard, Jonathan P. Lane