Santa’s Not in the Chimney, the Elf’s Not on the Shelf

Our young kids don’t believe Santa is real. They’re not aware that The Polar Express exists. And they’ve never once spotted an Elf on our Shelves.

Does that make their parents roughly as bah-humbuggy as Scrooge, Harry and Marv, and mean ol’ Mr. Potter combined? Have we perhaps even, like a certain bright green mean one, stolen Christmas from our little Whos?

Every Santa-themed movie ever made would reply with a resounding: UM, YES. Here’s the thing, though. Our kids — despite our Grinchiest efforts! — have somehow, miraculously, managed to maintain their glistening sense of Christmas wonder.

They experience a careening level of joy when we go on our Christmas light drives. They are overjoyed to watch (from the window) as I turn on the Christmas lights, and they are overjoyed to watch (from a different window) as I turn them off before bedtime. They are legit thrilled to open their advent calendar door each morning, despite it merely revealing a tiny picture. I mean, who gets excited to see a 1-inch picture of a sled? What kind of innocence allows for that kind of simple wonder?

So I hope you won’t report us to the proper authorities for depriving our kids of a belief in Santa, or a belief in motion-capture Tom Hanks at the North Pole, or a belief that Elves engage in rampant Shelf-based mischief while we sleep.

As a kid I wasn’t taught that Santa was real, or that he would really visit our house. Nonetheless, I had a radiant sense of wonder at Christmastime. I didn’t need to imagine that a plump, red-suited fellow would smuggle gifts into our living room via chimney to feel that December was the most magical month of the year. Heck, our parents gave us gifts! And it wasn’t even our birthday! How cool is that? Plus, my mom did every single sweet, beautiful, creative thing in her power to make Christmas special for us. Santa Claus would have just been redundant.

So now that I’m a parent, why have I bypassed the Santa-is-real mythology? Well, here are my three main reasons. And keep in mind, I’m only speaking for myself. I’m no Ebenezer Scrooge, trying to keep you from celebrating Christmas with your family however you want to celebrate.

First, I’d rather not give my kids an illusion and then relieve them of that illusion when they’re older. The world will disillusion them enough without any of that coming from their mom and me. I’ve heard some people talk about how devastating it was for them to learn Santa wasn’t real. (Not everyone has this experience, of course; but some people do, which is enough for me.)

As a friend said on Twitter, teaching kids Santa is real “does nothing but make kids doubt what parents teach them while misattributing the kindness of gifts to some fake, detached figure.”

Which brings me to my second reason. I don’t tell my kids their Christmas presents were brought by Santa because I want them, in all areas of life, to convey gratitude to the appropriate source.

I wouldn’t want my kids to thank the Dinner Fairy for their dinner, rather than their mom who lovingly made their dinner with her two hands. Similarly, I don’t want them to thank the Christmas Fairy (i.e Kris Kringle) for their Christmas gifts, rather than their parents or their grandparents or neighbors or whoever lovingly picked out those gifts. Learning to say thank you to the right person is a building block of growing up. (And besides, their mom deserves ample credit for picking out fantastic gifts!)

My third reason, the third sacred cow I’ll tip over, is that I just never really thought the Santa Claus mythology was all that interesting. To me, the worst part of most Christmas movies is the part that literalizes every single detail of the Santa story. The actual logistics of Father Christmas fathering Christmas each year strikes me as just… not that compelling of a yarn.

Santa can be quite a fun idea if it’s a mystery just out of reach. An elusive figure that you never quite see directly; only the evidence of his exploits.

But Santa as a specific person with a specific crew of reindeer and a specific flight path around the world? It strains credibility (of course), but also just strains to be narratively compelling.

Now that I’ve scorched a few bridges (maybe including the one that goes “over the river” and takes you “through the woods to Grandmother’s house” on Christmas Day), let me add a caveat of sorts.

As far as raising kids go, curiosity is everything. Joy is everything. Wonder is everything.

If your kids derive joy and wonder from the Santa mythology, and if you have devised a viable escape route for when they get older, by all means enjoy those years of joy and wonder! I’m all for it. Anything that widens a child’s eyes with mystery and curiosity can be a beautiful thing.

But as for me, my Shelves will remain Elf-less. My chimney will remain Santa-less.

And I will happily watch Mr. Hanks go anywhere on earth, via any whimsical mode of transportation, other than the North Pole via The Polar Express.

Sorry, Tom. It’s just not my thing. But Merry Christmas to you and your lovely wife Rita.

And to you too, if you’re reading this! Celebrate the holidays however you see fit.

May your home be filled with comfort and joy, from the shelves to the chimney.

It’ll Change Your Life, I Swear

 “You gotta hear this one song. It’ll change your life, I swear.”

~ Natalie Portman, handing Zach Braff her headphones

For those of us who ardently believe in the immense power of music, hearing this line uttered on the big screen in 2004 was a moment.

A real kick in the, um, shins.

Because beyond friendship, family, and nature, there might be nothing on earth that shapes the contours of a human soul more than music. For me, it is the most potent art form. So much so that it has painted every vista I’ve discovered, and even blazed (or altered) the paths that have escorted me to those vistas.

Music has changed my life.

Every chapter of my story is built around the music I loved during that moment in time. And when I think of the defining moments that have comprised my 30s and early 40s, one band has delineated the trajectory of my personal saga more than any other.

That band is Caspian. An instrumental/art/hard rock 5-piece (formerly a 6-piece) from Beverly, Massachusetts. A band of brothers. Intrepid pioneers of a potent genre of music that has, perhaps to its ultimate benefit, never hit the mainstream.

A group of guys otherwise known, to me and quite a few others, as *clears throat portentously* the greatest band on planet Earth.

I discovered Caspian in 2009 when a random guy who I randomly (and briefly) worked with at a college newspaper near the Flatiron foothills in Boulder, Colorado not-so-randomly burned a few discs for me. One of which was The Four Trees by Caspian.

As soon as I laid ears on that album, I realized I had found something I’d long been looking for. Ever since I discovered music on my own, beyond the borrowed tastes that were pressed upon me by my high school friends or my youth pastor or my older brothers, I had been on a quest. From the age of 17 onward, I did everything I could to seek out and orchestrate a score for my life that was all my own.

But it wasn’t until I was 29 ½ and found Caspian’s early catalogue that I truly possessed the material to create the backbone of my motion picture soundtrack.

Caspian is well-loved (by its fans), but not well-known. It tends to be classified under the “post-rock” banner, a niche genre. And even for the nicheans themselves, the label itself has grown stale.

I mean, it’s dramatic instrumental rock. No vocals. But sometimes, there are vocals. And sometimes, it’s not rock. So what even is it? All I can say is: You know it when you hear it. Or more accurately: You feel it.

Having said that, Caspian has long since outgrown their prior classification. They started out as the most promising post-rock band since Mogwai, quickly evolved into the best post-rock band in the genre (in my admiration-addled view), and then just kept evolving way out beyond the property line of the genre’s backyard, into an expansive open range. Out into mountains and meadows of their own making.

After the stunning opening salvo of You Are the Conductor and The Four Trees, in 2009 they crafted their magnum opus, Tertia. All 3 albums contained blistering rock overlaid with aching beauty. Moments that twist your heart into knots, and moments that melt your face off your skull.

Caspian then released one of the most buoyant spring/summer albums ever (Waking Season), followed by one of the most mournful fall/winter albums ever (Dust and Disquiet), the latter of which represented the long, dark shadow of a tragic loss. The echo of an abyss, reverberating under a dark field.

Then, after a sabbatical of sorts, they reinvented the wheel with On Circles. Its 8 songs were entirely distinct from each other and from everything else they had ever written. One of them was the most layered and profound track that Caspian ever recorded, a song that is even more rewarding on its 50th listen. “Division Blues” quickly became my haunting anthem for this divisive, blues-inducing era.

To support their newest album, Caspian kicked off a truly epic North American tour, supported by some of their favorite bands. And then Covid decimated it with impunity, banishing Caspian and everyone else to a year and a half of shuttered tour dates, ravaged budgets, and forced hibernation.

The setback was brutal and the loss, to Caspian and to every other working-class musical artist, was incalculable.

But you can’t keep a good band down. And Caspian reemerged in late 2021 and 2022 to shred eardrums and make up for lost time. I saw them play 2 nights in Boston, 1 night in Detroit, and once had tickets to see them in Philadelphia but was myself decimated with impunity (and horrific timing) by Covid.

I have driven a long way, and would drive even longer, to see these guys on stage. These guys being, namely, Phil and Cal (the OG founding members, electrifying guitarists, and among the true-bluest and least ego-driven human beings I know), Jonny “Thrashburn” (a gentleman, a scholar, an artisan, and a badass guitarist), Jani (a masterful photographer and soft-spoken stick of dynamite rocking the monster bass riffs), and Justin (a musical craftsman and Renaissance man who pummels the skins with great ferocity). Former band members Chris, Joe, and Erin each live with the band in spirit too, expanding their mythology and making them somehow feel like an 8-piece.

I could try to describe what their music sounds like, or what it sparks in my soul, but I’m not sure that words are the best implements for such a task. Even though I’ve strung together over 1,000 of them here, it feels like I have 10,000 more left unstrung.

But to understand Caspian, as with all great music, you simply have to listen. (After all, as the maxim goes, writing about music is like dancing about architecture.) Even though over 90% of Caspian’s songs have no lyrics, I’m not sure any band’s music has ever spoken to me so clearly.

Caspian is the band, above all others, that has shaped my life. Their music makes me want to be creative. It makes me feel alive. It makes me want to be a better human being.

It makes me want to headbang so hard that I briefly ascend to another plane of consciousness.

And on some level, Caspian’s music just… makes me.

There is Something Wrong With Me

This lyric has flitted around in the back of my head, haunting me since the first time I heard it 20 years ago.

It’s from “Radio Cure,” a Wilco song off their tectonic, melancholic Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album. When I first heard Jeff Tweedy sing the line, I was mesmerized by its ominous declaration. But at that point, I couldn’t yet relate to the messy guts of its darkness.

Now I think I get it. I understand why a person would be convinced there is something wrong with him.

A caveat first, though: I don’t feel this way right now. Not today, not last week, not for the past 2 months. Not even a tiny bit. I feel as put-together as I have felt for a long while. I feel energetic, lucid, confident, and I am enjoying every facet of my life, even the mundane parts.

But that’s just the thing. That clear feeling is exactly why I’m mystified.

Because this crystal-clear, sunshine-infused version of me is only accessible to me for half of each year. Usually in the fall (it started in early October this year). And usually in the spring and early summer. The rest of the year, I struggle and I fade and I start to go dark — especially when the world itself goes dark in mid-December and January. Which always makes me think to myself, just as Jeff Tweedy achingly crooned:

There is…


wrong with me.

I don’t know what this ebb and flow is. I’m not a licensed therapist, and I don’t really have the money to pay one to try and find out. I didn’t fully experience the wild swings, or at least put any words to it, until 3 or 4 years ago. I remember some downer periods during my road-tripping 20s and my settling-down early 30s, but I always assumed they were experientially derived — like when I endured romantic setbacks or felt lonely out on the open road. I knew there were some depressive genes in my family, but I adamantly insisted (and hoped against hope) that they would never touch me.

Then the swings became more pronounced. The funked-up periods started lasting for a month or 2 (or 3) at a time.

And then I hit rock bottom in April 2021. A potent cocktail of mind-throttling anxiety and heart-flattening depression laid waste to my best laid plans and my buoyant personality. I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t eat much. My body started to collapse in on itself. Work felt overwhelming, even as I desperately needed the distraction it provided from my slow-motion mental breakdown. I even had a hard time connecting with my kids, despite that being my single greatest joy in life.

I later used this blog to document that saga, in which I struggled mightily before finding profound relief with an SSRI prescription that gave me the serotonin my body so desperately lacked. That added serotonin has made everything better. In fact, for a while I thought it was my perfect silver bullet.

But it has not negated all the ups and downs. What it did quite effectively was raise my baseline so that I’m functional, and not quite flattened, even during my low points.

And that’s not nothing. But it’s not everything either.

So here I am on the cusp of the holiday season, and I know where my mind usually drifts in these darker December days.

This is the time of year when sickly-sweet, happiness-insistent holiday songs pummel us from every radio station and retail-store speaker. When the sun sets at an insultingly early time, making post-work nature recharging an impossibility. When the cold starts to creep into my bones (even though I know, deep down, that I prefer wide-awake-hyper-alert-cold to the wipe-me-out-wear-me-down-hot of summer).

I still feel wonderful right now, but I also feel wary of what’s ahead. And I will do anything in my mental, physical, and spiritual power to keep myself on the up and up. Rather than being down… or even down and out.

But if I’m honest, I have to admit that there is a strong likelihood that at some point later in December or in January I will find myself mumbling that Wilco line to myself once again.

I desperately want to be wrong about this prediction. I badly want to stave off the ruthless predations of melancholy when it hunts me down again. I want this winter to be different. I need it to be different.

I intend to take good care of myself. I am willing to increase my (currently quite minimal) SSRI dosage to give me a boost when needed. My wife just bought me a light therapy lamp that I plan to use as soon as the light in my soul starts to dim. And I will spend as much time outside as possible, as usual, to keep my mind afloat.

But only time will tell. Mental health is a bruising gauntlet. It’s a battle you fight with your primary sword hand tied behind your back. Depressiveness and seasonal affectiveness are real, and they’re real frustrating to experience year after year.

There is something wrong with me. I don’t quite know what it is, or how it first got its barbed meathooks in me.

So I will dig and I will scrape and I will claw to exhume what is right with me. And what is right in the world.

Because even though it doesn’t always seem like it, the world is enough.

And so am I.

My Top 10 Desert Island Discs

If I was stuck on a desert island, these are the discs I would want to be stuck with.

And yes… Discs! Long live compact discs. I still listen to them every day on the way to work. (Except for the ones that skip on every other track because I’ve listened to them 173 times. Those discs are especially sacred.)

#7 [four-way tie] Sixpence None the Richer ~ This Beautiful Mess (1995)

Reminds me of: High school, maybe 10th grade, when I finally discovered the fringes of Christian Contemporary Music, out beyond the SCCs and the MWSs of that world. This album made me realize it was okay to feel doubt. It validated so much that was latent in my mind and soul as a youth group kid. It marked the beginning of an important chapter in my journey.

Favorite song: “Within a Room Somewhere”

Most underrated song: “I Can’t Explain” (one of the most honest songs ever written for the CCM market)

#7 [four-way tie] Death Cab for Cutie ~ Transatlanticism (2003)

Reminds me of: Solo road-tripping in the fall of 2004, one of the most vivid and adventurous periods of my life. During that trip, I drove all the way from Visalia, CA to Tucson, AZ, an 8-hour jag, to see a Nada Surf concert. But I got there only to learn, Walley-World style, that Nada Surf had canceled due to a family situation. Death Cab was the headliner, and the people in line convinced me I would still love the concert. And boy howdy did I ever.

Favorite song: “Title and Registration”

Most underrated song: “Passenger Seat”

#7 [four-way tie] U2 ~ The Joshua Tree (1987)

Reminds me of: Driving around southwest Ohio in 1998-99, trying to find what I was looking for.

Favorite song: “Where the Streets Have No Name”

Most underrated song: “Mothers of the Disappeared”

#7 [four-way tie] Explosions in the Sky ~ The Earth is Not a Cold, Dead Place (2003)

Reminds me of: Every single time I ever watched Friday Night Lights, the movie or the TV series. And also Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where I discovered the band that launched me into the cosmic wonders of the post-rock stratosphere.

Favorite song: “Your Hand in Mine”

Most underrated song: “The Only Moment We Were Alone”

#6 The Fire Theft ~ S/T (2003)

Reminds me of: The Yosemite area of California in the summer of 2004. It reminds me of my brothers from another mother, Tosh and Rain, for whom I played this album when we drove to the nearest swimming hole on a weekly (and sometimes daily) basis. It was the wildest and most picturesque summer I’ve ever experienced. The days were golden.

Favorite song: “Oceans Apart”

Most underrated song: “Sinatra”

#5 Hammock ~ Mysterium (2017)

Reminds me of: Driving to work in Harrisburg, mostly. 2017 was the best of times (Greyson had just turned 1!), and it was the worst of times (an unimaginably immoral man had just been elected). This album helped me process my vast array of feelings, happy and mad and profoundly grateful and profoundly confused and everything in between.

Favorite song: “This Is Not Enough (Epilogue)”

Most underrated song: “Remember Our Bewildered Son”

#4 Common Children ~ Delicate Fade (1997)

Reminds me of: The final year of high school into the first year of college. Lying on the roof of a car with my best buddy Dave looking at the starry night, sharing romantic heartbreak solidarity (after he had introduced me to this album earlier in the evening).

Favorite song: “Stains of Time

Most underrated songs: “Blue Raft” into “Storm Boy”

#3 Jimmy Eat World ~ Clarity (1999)

Reminds me of: Driving across the Harvey Taylor Bridge to hang out (and get bleary-eyed) with my friends in Harrisburg, back when I made questionable decisions about what to put in my body. I may have gotten faded, but the memories have not. And neither has the wall-to-wall appeal of this album, which is the definition of borderline-perfect. Or you could say: For me this is heaven.

Favorite song (besides “For Me This Is Heaven”): “Just Watch the Fireworks”

Most underrated song: “Goodbye Sky Harbor”

#2 Caspian ~ Tertia (2009)

Reminds me of: The Fort Collins area of Colorado. The first place (out of 9 places) that my wife and I ever lived, on Avocet Road. It was the staging ground for many wonderful things, including the purchase of my first Caspian disc. A disc, and a band, that legitimately changed my life.

Favorite song: “Sycamore” (this will be obvious to anyone who has heard the album)

Most underrated song: “Ghosts of the Garden City,” specifically the version from Live at the Larcom

#1 Sigur Rós ~ Takk (2005)

Reminds me of: The Yosemite area in California. And it reminds me of my friends Jeevan and Dana, who now live in New Zealand. I was with the 2 of them when I bought the album in Merced (near Yosemite) and then the 3 of us went out for Thai food while I stared ravenously at the cover and eagerly awaited my first listen. It far exceeded my greatest anticipation and has continued to do so for 17 years. A masterpiece to end all masterpieces.

Favorite song: “Glosoli”

Most underrated song: “Gong”

This was absurdly fun to write. Thank you for reading!

Two Little Boys, Two Paths, Two-Fifths of a Century

I met my best friend Dave in kindergarten, when we were wee little guys. But I think it may have even been earlier than that.

Based on the timeline of when my family started attending Bible Baptist Church, it’s likely that little tiny Jeremy met little tiny Dave in Sunday School when we were both 3 years old. If that’s the case, then the two of us have now known each other for… drum roll please…


Four epic, memorable decades of being best buddies.

I mean, who stays friends for 40 years? It happens, sure, but it’s a blue-moon rarity.

Dave and I are those blue moons. And we didn’t just “grow up together.” We experienced every magnificent and mortifying chapter of adolescence, and beyond, at each other’s side. We were best friends through elementary, middle school, high school, and college. We shared in each other’s romantic joys and romantic devastations. And we continued having scattered adventures (and agonies) together well into our 20s.

Among those adventures/agonies is that Dave enlisted in the military, and he was deployed to Iraq. Post-Iraq, and during my road-tripping era, I visited him and his wife in various places they were stationed, including Washington (near Tacoma), California (near Monterey), Arizona (near Tucson), and Georgia (near Augusta).

Not everyone knows this about me, but I really got around back then. So much mileage on the ol’ Corolla.

[Since Dave might read this, I’ll say that my favorite random 20-something adventure with him was at Lake Superior, near Duluth, when he and his wife were traveling in a van with their legendary dog Chewy, and I was working at a canoe outfitter in the Boundary Waters near Canada. I’ll keep the memories private, but what a convergence. What a moment in time. Simply unforgettable.]

In our 30s, when I had moved to Colorado and Dave had moved to Georgia, our friendship was mostly just sporadic phone conversations — some happy and fun, and some sad and brow-furrowing. We lost track of each other entirely for 6 months here and a year there, in the fog of our increasingly complex lives.

But without fail, the moment I called Dave or we ran into each other back in Pennsylvania (while home for a visit), we picked up exactly where we left off.

Our 40 years together have been one long riveting conversation that starts and stops, sometimes for many months, but can never be derailed. No matter how long we’ve paused the conversation, it doesn’t take even one minute to hit play and shift right back into full best-buddy mode.

That is one of the marks of deep, enduring friendship.

There are many, many specific things I could tell you about Dave or the agonies (and adventures) we have shared. But I’ll keep those close to the vest. Partly in honor of Dave himself, who is a fairly private fellow — he chafes at Facebook and doesn’t put himself out there like his extroverted best friend. And partly because you likely don’t have 7-9 hours available right now to read our full unabridged saga.

But I’ll say this: I am deeply grateful that I happened to be born at the right place, at the right time, into the right family, so that I could cross paths with Dave in Sunday School, and later in Mrs. McGill’s kindergarten at Bible Baptist School, so that we could light a spark that would billow into a bonfire-level friendship.

Because here’s the thing: Dave is true blue. There are a lot people in this world who follow the crowd and play angles and craft narratives and run their ego up the flagpole on a daily basis so that everyone can salute.

And then, once in a great while, you’ll find a guy as unassuming and legitimately fascinating as Dave. If this happens, and if you’re lucky enough to become friends with that person, don’t let go.

Because Daves don’t grow on trees.

And if they did grow on trees, know what I’d do?

I would buy those trees, grow an orchard, and then give most of the Daves away (keeping one for myself as a backup in case I lose the real thing), so that others could experience the decades-long bond I was lucky enough to stumble into, and help build.

I’ll be sure to let you know if I find anything.