Santa is kind of like FedEx

Thing 2 (who’s 7 now) is having doubts and asked me the other day whether Santa Claus is real.

I asked him what he thought, and he said he wasn’t sure but that he didn’t see any way that one man on one sleigh could deliver all those toys to every kid on the planet in just one night.

I said that’s not how it works.

I explained that Santa used to deliver all those toys personally. back in the old days, when the population was a lot smaller, but that he uses a lot of helpers these days.

Santa is kind of like FedEx, I said. One truck couldn’t possibly deliver all those packages to all those homes and businesses in all those countries in one 24-hour period, I said, but a fleet of trucks and planes certainly could.

I said Santa runs the operation. He’s like the CEO. The toys are made by the toy companies, not elves. These days, the elves run the warehouse and oversee distribution.

The toys are delivered first to Santa’s headquarters at the North Pole and then, on Christmas Eve, they’re flown on big cargo planes from the central warehouse to regional distribution centers all over the world and then to local distribution centers, where the toys are placed on trucks and driven to people’s homes.

That’s a lot easier and a lot more efficient than trying to pile all those toys on just one sleigh, I said. The delivery truck drivers drink the milk and cookies and send any leftovers to the North Pole, where Santa shares them with the elves.

Thing 2 thought about it for a moment or two. “I don’t get it,” he said.

That’s OK, I said.

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In this 1927 photo, Santa Claus (left) receives his pilot’s license from William P. MacCracken (seated) and Clarence M. Young of the U.S. Department of Commerce. PHOTO: Library of Congress

Jukeboxes were social media, one quarter at a time

I saw something the other day that I hadn’t seen in years: a jukebox.

I don’t mean one that plays CDs. I mean a real, honest-to-God jukebox that plays 45 rpm records.

We were out in the country, about 30 miles south of Nashville, and we stopped for lunch at this mom-and-pop place by the highway. I knew there was a real jukebox in the room as soon as I walked in and heard Alan Jackson singing “Little Bitty.” I knew because the sound was grungy and a little bleary, like the band had been out partying too late the night before.

Old jukeboxes sound that way because of bad speakers and because of the records themselves. I know guys who swear vinyl sounds better than digital, but I don’t think anyone would defend the 45.

I bought a lot of singles as a kid, and I was a disc jockey back in high school, and I don’t think there was a lot of quality control at the record plant. You’d pull a 45 out of the shuck and it might be warped, or the hole in the middle might be a little off-center, so even new records sounded wobbly.

On top of that, a vinyl record dies a little every time you play it. When the needle rides along the groove, it wears the music away. The music starts to fade. The sound isn’t as crisp. The highs and lows give way to a murky middle.

That’s the sound I heard when we walked in the restaurant.

“Look at this!” I said.

The jukebox had a window, and I wanted the kids to see how it worked, how pressing A-6 makes the mechanical arm slide down a rail until it finds the record you want then grabs it and holds it upright against the turntable. My kids, who’ve grown up with iPods and Pandora, couldn’t have cared less.

We were the only ones there besides the owner, so I played whatever I wanted — the jukebox was stocked mostly with country records, so I played some Brooks & Dunn and Alan Jackson — and I flashed back to high school and the peer pressure that goes along with playing a jukebox.

When you play a song on a jukebox, you’re telling everyone within earshot who you are.

Every song is a statement, and there is nothing worse than pressing the wrong buttons and playing Barry Manilow instead of the Boss.

Pandora and Spotify share your playlists with your friends online. Jukeboxes did that in real life, one quarter at a time.

Photo by Anonymous Account (Flickr)

The Accidental Tourist: A literary guide to business travel, basically

It’s been a couple of decades since my college girlfriend loaned me her copy of The Accidental Tourist, but it’s a book that’s stayed with me — not because of its theme of embracing life and moving outside your comfort zone but because of what it taught me about how to pack a suitcase.

Anne Tyler’s book is about a guy named Macon (William Hurt in the movie), who writes passport-sized travel books for “accidental tourists” — business travelers, mostly, who have to leave home and want to make the trip as painless as possible.

Of course, the point of the book isn’t to give travel advice. Being an accidental tourist is really just a metaphor for Macon, who divorces his wife (Kathleen Turner in the movie) after their son is killed, only to get involved with a free spirit (Geena Davis), who brings him back into the world.

I think that’s what it’s about, anyway. I don’t really remember much about the plot. What I remember, every time I take a business trip, is the travel advice:

  • “Bring only what fits in a carry-on bag. Checking your luggage is asking for trouble.” This is absolutely true. Since I read the novel twentysome years ago, I think I’ve checked luggage only a couple of times, and both times, it got lost.
  • “One suit is plenty…. It should be a medium gray. Gray not only hides the dirt; it’s handy for sudden funerals and other formal events. At the same time, it isn’t too somber for  everyday.” One suit (I go with dark gray), a couple of shirts and a couple of ties, and you’ll be fine. I’m told it’s different for women, that they’re expected to wear something different every day, but I’m a guy, so no one expects anything of me, fashion-wise. One suit is plenty, and only the shoes you’re wearing.  
  • “Always bring a book, as protection against strangers.” I used to bring a book. Now I carry a tablet. Either way, it’s good advice and worth following, even though it works only about 50% of the time. I don’t think I’m a rude traveler. I’ll smile, say excuse me and engage in small talk while we’re getting settled in, usually something like, “Boy, they don’t give us a lot of room, do they?” but then I’m done. I’d rather read. It’s amazing, though, the number of people who don’t notice or deliberately ignore basic social cues such as their seatmate’s refusal to make eye contact or his responding to their questions and comments with a simple, “Uh-huh.”

You might disagree and think I’m a jerk because I don’t want to talk for a couple of hours to the random person wedged into the seat next to mine, and that’s fine, you might be right, but trust me on taking only one carry-on bag.