Author Archives: Tom Lang

CLAUSWEB

Merry Christmas, Everybody From Tom Lang and Mrs. Claus!

I WAS BORN TO RUN A FORTUNE 500 company. At age seven I owned, operated and franchised a chain of successful drive-through lemonade stands. In middle school I reengineered the cafeteria food lines to maximize playground time. As high school treasurer, I funneled “donations” through the principal’s office to soften his views on independent study.
I went on to earn my MBA from a prestigious business school in the Midwest. For my master thesis I evaluated the efficiency of my own school’s business department. As a result of my recommendations, four professors were denied tenure, two assistants were urged to “pursue other opportunities” and my advisor, an old friend of the family, was stripped of his pension.
Upon finishing my Workaholic in Residence Program at the local branch of the Foreclosure Bank of North America, I graduated at the top of my class. Recruiters fought over me as if I were a blue chip athlete. I chose a small-cap, high growth company with rapid multiple product introductions. Within months, with my solution-oriented instincts for problem solving, I became an invaluable member of the senior management team. However, after the first leg of my oxygen-depleting career arc, I found myself curiously unfulfilled.
I set a goal to get back on track. I hired a Chinese Feng Sui master to re-energize my office. Mr. Woo built a moat around my desk and filled it with exotic Asian goldfish. He hung crystals from my ceiling and replaced my phone ringer with a ceremonial gong. I reread the
#1 bestseller, “Rationalizations Seven Successful CEOs Use to Convince Themselves They’re Doing Something Worthwhile With Their Lives.” I even refused to work more than 12 hours on Sundays.
Nothing helped. Was it me? Was it my job? Headhunters contacted me constantly, but I turned down lucrative offers every day. Then, one night, at 2 a.m., I turned in early. While flossing my teeth, checking my voice mail and balancing my check book, the business section fell off my lap onto the floor. I leaned out of bed and a block of letters from the page expanded in front of me:

IMMEDIATE OPENING!!!!!! Efficiency Expert at the North Pole Serious Inquiries Only

The North Pole! Now, that sounded interesting. I emailed my resume from the laptop I kept on the nightstand next to my bed. I nodded to sleep and tiptoed into dreams. I skied across the white frosting of a gigantic birthday cake with lit candles the size of pine trees. I laughed and giggled until a horn went off in the wilderness. I stomped my feet and yelled for it to stop. I woke up to the sound of my computer telling me I had a message. I reached over, turned on the light and checked my messages.
Would like to schedule an interview tomorrow night. Is
midnight okay? My driver will pick you up. Dress warm.
Ho-ho-ho
S.C.

To the amazement of the cleaning crew, I left work by eleven that night. I rushed home and changed into my blue wool power suit; assertive but friendly. I opened my laptop and reviewed my list of compensation requirements—short term and long term bonus potential, transportation allowance, 401 k, stock options, first dollar medical and dental.
My computer scheduling program beeped. There was a thud at the door. It was midnight. I put the laptop in my briefcase, grabbed my coffee cup and stepped onto the porch of my condo. On the sidewalk stood eight reindeer and a shiny, red sleigh, glowing like a hot coal.
“Wow, reindeer,” I said, icicles racing down my extremities.
“You think?”
“Excuse me?” I said, looking around for the source of the voice. The reindeer in front of the pack turned to me.
“I said, ‘You think?’ What part of that didn’t you understand, lady?”
I dropped my briefcase, coffee spilled over my shoes. “Talking reindeer.”
“We’ve got a smart one here, fellas.”
The other reindeer chuckled and stomped their hooves into the ground.
“You must be here to pick me up?” I said foolishly. “No, lady, we were just in the neighborhood looking for our cousin Rudy and we thought you might be roasting him over an open fire.”
The reindeer laughed, stomped and nudged each other with their antlers. They mumbled parts of the joke: “…just in the neighborhood…open fire…might be roasting…”
I checked my watch, straightened my suit, trying to act businesslike in front of eight talking reindeer. I reached my hand out to the head reindeer.
“Hi, I’m—“
“Bob.”
“Sorry?”
“Name’s Bob, ma’am. You have a problem with that?” “No…uh…Bob is a lovely name…for a talking
reindeer.”
“Bob is a lovely name for a talking, flying reindeer, lady. Let’s go.”
I stepped up into the sleigh and grabbed hold of the reins, a feeling of wonder sizzling my skin. The reindeer shuffled their hooves and lifted off, the momentum plastering me to the seat. We rose above the trees, the houses and the high rise office buildings. We flew north, above a quilt of clouds, the stars blinding me as if they were flashbulbs. Bob told stories while the reindeer joked and sang. I held on, the wind biting my face, spinning my hair into steel wool.
As we began our descent, the greens and reds of the Northern Lights danced in my head like a cartoon. We landed in the middle of the light show, on a snowed-in runway with a barely visible sign that read:

WELCOME TO THE NORTH POLE

SNOW FELL AROUND ME LIKE FEATHERS from a celestial pillow fight. I stepped out of the sleigh, took a breath and composed myself. Shoulders back, briefcase in hand, I trudged through the snow and opened the door to the complex. A voice yelled:
“You Better Watch Out!”
An avalanche of clutter buried me in darkness, a bike pedal stuck in my ribs, a basketball flattening my ear. Somewhere out there a talking doll repeated, “I’m Patty and I’m not afraid to say ‘no’.”
I heard someone digging me out of my tomb. A colander of light flowed through the spokes of a wheel pressed to my face. I looked up into a wall of red.
“Are you okay?”
“You’re Santa Claus!” I yelled, as if he were an amnesia patient.
He nodded and helped me up. We were standing in a warehouse the size of a cruise ship. With the inventory system of my grandfather’s garage, dolls, skis, clothes and games were stacked to the ceiling.
“Be right with you,” Santa said, one hand full of crumbled papers, the other searching through the debris.
“Um, you lose something?”
“Not yet. Just can’t find it right now,” he said, looking up and shaking the papers at me. “Checking a list, you know.”
Santa began excavating a corner, tossing packages and toys behind him like a dog digging a hole. He looked at me and shrugged. He walked over to a pair of rocking horses and sat on one, motioning for me to sit on the other.
“Things are a little disorganized right now,” Santa said with a flip of his chubby hand and a nervous “Ho-ho-ho.”
I rocked a few times, assembling my thoughts.
“This is your fulfillment center, I take it?”
“What’s that?”
“This is where you fill your orders for gifts, right, Mr. Claus?”
“Uh, right.”
“What type of database do you use?” I asked, rocking back and forth on my horsy.
“Database?”
“Database. How do you keep track? I mean, some years I get some pretty weird stuff, as if my list was crossed with somebody else’s.”
“Well, yeah, that happens once in a while,” Santa said defensively.
“How do you control your inventory?”
“I check the list twice,” he said with pride.
“That doesn’t do much good if you’re checking the wrong list, now does it?”
“Well…”
Santa looked around the room, down at the papers in his hand.
“I’d like you to come in for a month or so and work out some of the glitches we’ve developed.”
“A month or so?” I said, stopping my rocker. “I think you’re underestimating the extent of your glitches, Mr. Claus.”
“Nah, this is different than other businesses you deal with.”
That’s what they all say, I thought, as I reached for my laptop. Santa and I worked for an hour or two before he tired and went to bed. I stayed up and created spreadsheets and made to-do lists. Halfway through my personal brainstorming I eyed a pair of nearby rollerblades and couldn’t resist the urge to lace them up. I skated around and around the warehouse floor until I collapsed, exhausted, in a heap of teddy bears, the images of reindeer dancing in my head.

“BAAAAATTER UP!”
The chatter of vowels jerked me awake. Funny looking children were jumping around me with frying pans in their hands. They tossed pancakes from one to another, singing gibberish about batter and syrup.

Put the heat up on the griddle
Put the batter in the middle
And flip those babies in the air
I sat up. Wait a minute, I said to myself, looking at the bells on their pointy shoes and their goofy little hats. It’s the elves!
“Hey, what’s going on here?” I said.
They turned to me and froze, flipped pancakes flopping on top of their heads. The elves bounced over and introduced themselves. There was Flapjack and Griddlecake and Blintz and Chapatty and Crepe and Pfannekuchen and the Stack Brothers—One, Two and Three.
While they fed me breakfast (Swedish, German and apple pancakes) they told me their story. Raised in an orphanage run by a mean, black-balled short order cook, they were fed only pancakes. One morning, during a grease fire in the kitchen, they escaped, and with the aid of Elf-Self-Help, a temporary elf employment agency, they found work at the North Pole. They took on batter related names, became gourmet flapjack chefs and constantly sang the classic ode to the pancake, “Batter Up.”
I passed on a strawberry waffle and a blueberry blintz, my urge to work overcoming my hunger.
“What time do you boys have to be at work?”
“Whenever,” they shrugged.
“What are you working on today?”
“Whatever.”
“Hmmm,” I said as I prepared for my nine o’clock with Santa.

SANTA WAS LATE AND HIS OFFICE WAS A mess, stacked high with papers. I picked up a letter from the top of the pile and read it:

Dear Santa,
I’m not happy. You used to be nice but you don’t give me the stuff I ask for anymore. Take me off your list and give my name to the Easter Bunny.
Georgia
Age 6
I read twenty more letters in the stack, all of them with the same complaints. Santa walked in, yawning and rubbing sleep from his eyes. I waved the letters at him.
“What happened to their gifts?”
“I don’t know,” he said, running his hands through his hair. “It happens once in a while.”
“Define ‘once in a while,’” I said, sweeping my hands over the reams of letters.
“Well…”
“Listen, Mr. Claus, it’s only February and we have time to straighten things up around here. However, before I do anything, I need to ask your office manager a few questions.”
“Office manager?”

I SENT AN EMAIL TO MY OFFICE INFORMING them I was working off-site for a while. Then I began my evaluation of the work flow at the North Pole.
I sat down with the elves and had them describe their jobs to me. I asked them what their major complaints were and how we could resolve those issues. Although they mentioned shortage of raw materials, frantic, last minute production and various safety hazards in the workshop, they said they never viewed them as problems because that was the way it had always been. Bob and his crew felt the same way. Sure, there were flight delays and extended holding patterns, Bob said, but that was the price of doing business on Christmas Eve. Job satisfaction was rated high by all.
By the end of February a project scope was in place with timelines and milestones to help ease the December crunch. By March, with the elves pulling all-nighters with me, we had a complete stock inventory. In April the database was up and running, listing the gift receivers by region, age and gift request history. During May Bob and his herd and me and my stopwatch began our monthly practice runs, testing new routes and timing our deliveries.
Santa was impressed and pleased with the reorganization, but he showed little interest in learning about the business side of his operation. Not much of a head for it, he would say as he “Ho-ho-hoed” through the complex. However, I insisted upon giving him monthly slide presentations, weekly status reports and sitting him down for a daily dinner meeting where I reviewed the day’s events.
I eliminated 52 rework loops by June. Everyone had a copy of “From List to Delivery,” a 750 page manual I threw together for reference points. There were T-shirts and posters on the walls that proclaimed our motto:

RIGHT LIST RIGHT GIFT RIGHT PERSON RIGHT TIME

On Christmas Eve I gathered Santa and the elves in the living room. I wore the red dress and black boots the elves made for me.
“I want to thank everyone for all the hard work you put in to make the new changes—“
There was a bang on the window. Bob glared at us through the window.
“Hey! Excuse me!” he yelled.
I ran to the door and opened it wide. The eight reindeer tromped into the living room, knocking over furniture with their rumps, poking the elves into the air with their antlers.
“Hey! Watch it, Bobby!” Flapjack said, rubbing his bottom.
“Welcome,” I said when the commotion died down. “Nice to be invited, ma’am.”
“Now, Bob, the Delivery Team Meeting isn’t for ten minutes,” I said, pointing to my watch. “You would know that if you’d read today’s memos.”
“Must have missed that one, ma’am. I could just kick myself.”
“Save your strength, Bob. Let me kick you.”
The other reindeer laughed and butted antlers. I thanked everyone again, then handed out gifts—red nose warmers to the reindeer and real maple syrup to the elves. After our final checklist we were ready to hit the sleigh.
“Okay, you know the drill, let’s go!”
With the precision of an Indy 500 pit crew, the elves funneled the sleigh with gifts and strapped harnesses on the reindeer. Santa jumped in the driver’s seat and grabbed the reins. I sat beside him, my laptop loaded with the list database with corresponding maps in one hand, a cup of hot chocolate with marshmallows in the other. I turned to Santa.
“Ready, Mr. Claus.”
“Ready,” Santa said. “On Bob.”
The reindeer pulled hard, jerking the sleigh forward like a railroad car. We lifted off, circled around the complex and headed south, the wind at our backs. Bob and Santa bantered back and forth, telling stories of Christmas past. We stopped at small houses and large houses, at hospitals and orphanages, wherever there were children who needed toys.
I kept an eye on the time as I checked the list twice. I fed the crew Reindeer Power Enhancement Bars when their energy levels dipped. I was all business and this was my watch. When we hit Haines, Alaska, one of our last stops, a heat surged through me. The snow covered rooftops and the Christmas trees in the windows made me clap my hands and hug myself in delight. It was Christmas Eve night and I was riding along in Santa’s sleigh!
“Ho-ho-ho, Merry Christmas,” Santa said as we landed on the air strip back at the Pole.
“Merry Christmas to you, Mr. Claus,” I said, checking my watch and making one last entry in my computer.
We sat silently in the sleigh, toasted by the glow of giving, watching the falling snow cleanse the night. I looked over at Santa and for the first time, I thought—he’s kind of cute.

“ARE YOU SEEING ANYONE?”
“Sort of.”
“I thought so. You don’t call for almost a year. A year! I have to call your office to find out you’ve quit your high paying, high profile job and moved to Northern Poland.”
“No, mother, not Northern—“
“So, what does he do?”
“He works with underprivileged children and—“ “There’s no money in that.”
“It’s non-profit, mother.”
“There is plenty of money in non-profit, dear. A CEO can make a bundle—bonus, compensation, padded expense accounts. You just have to keep it quiet.”
“Please, mother—“
“I’ll plan on you two coming for Christmas this year.” “That’s not a good time for us, Mother.”
“You owe me that much, don’t you think, for all I’ve done for you?”
“Well, okay, but we can only stay for a second.”

I NEVER CONSIDERED THE CHANCE OF romance in any work environment, let alone the North Pole. After our first Christmas success, Santa wanted to take a few weeks off, but I insisted we get back to work bright and early on December 26th. There was much to do and I stressed to Santa that he had much to learn about running a successful company.
As we continued to work together, I felt the heat of proximity. Something was melting at the North Pole and it wasn’t from global warming. Whether it was his beard tickling my arm as I handed him a graph or when I would squeeze by his soft, round belly on my way to the printer, there was the tingle of love at the North Pole.
I denied the feelings at first. He was my boss, for goodness sake. How many articles in women’s magazines had I read about this very peril? Then there was the age issue. I didn’t know how old Santa was, but he was at least as old as my mother.
I could tell Santa had similar feelings for me. I caught him staring at me while I prepared spreadsheets and work tasks. He would look away, turn redder than usual, and give a self-conscious “Ho-ho-ho.”
We took walks out in the snow while I taught him about process mapping, reengineering and rework loops. One day I slipped on the ice and he caught me and held me tight.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes, thank you, Mr. Claus,” I said, resting my head on his chest.
“Call me Santa,” he said.
We stood there, the wind frisking us, Santa’s heart pounding in my ear. Goodness radiated from somewhere deep inside his girth, a spot I had never found within myself. Where I came from people gave in order to control others, their apparent generosity really a chit to be cashed in at an opportune time. But Santa had a purity of heart that flowed into me like a blood transfusion.
We married a few months later during a blizzard in front of the workshop. Bob, who became an ordained minister through a number he found in the back of Reindeer Journal, performed the ceremony. The reindeer sang and danced while the elves threw dollar pancakes.
We didn’t have time for a honeymoon, I told Santa, but maybe next year. There was too much to be done. My proactive production plan was a week behind schedule, the number of flight delays was unacceptable and the stopover time ratio made me toss and turn all night.
The next year, during the first week of December, right on schedule, we had a baby boy, Sammy. Sandy came along a year later. I told Santa it was time for me to take one step back from the business and for him to take one step forward. With confidence in my system, I stayed home with the kids on Christmas Eve.
And life was good.
For his fourth birthday Santa gave Sammy a miniature chimney with real soot. At five, he gave our son a sleigh cycle with voice activated stuffed reindeer. By six, Sammy was putting on weight and “Ho-ho-hoing” around the house.
As a child, Sandy rode on her daddy’s shoulders while Santa went about preparing for Christmas. “List” was one of the first words she learned after “Mama,” “Dada,” and “Bob.” The elves workshop was my own little day care center for her. Sandy loved sitting with Flapjack at his workbench, laughing and clapping, eating hotcakes and singing along to “Batter Up.”
Yes, life was good.

“DAD, CAN I DRIVE THE SLEIGH THIS YEAR?” “Not this year, Sammy. Maybe next year.”
“You say that every year.”
“Do I? Well, not this Christmas. Maybe next year.” “Then can we finally go to Hawaii for a vacation?”
“This year is too busy. Maybe next year.”
“I’m going to be 12 next week. All I ask for every Christmas is for you to take me to Hawaii.”
“We don’t give you great gifts?”
“Yeah, everything but what I want.”
“So why don’t you and Bob go? He’d love it.”
“Bob? Dad, I want to go with you. That’s the point.”
“Maybe next year.”
“Let’s talk about this after dinner,” I said.
“Not tonight, dear,” Santa said. “I have to work late at the shop.”
Sammy, head down, poked his food with his fork, staring at his pasta as if it were a pile of worms.

THINGS WERE CHANGING AT THE NORTH Pole. At first I thought it was all for the good. Santa took my advice and became active in the nuts and bolts of the company. He drilled me on basic business theories and subscribed to 25 business magazines, from Business Week to Downsizer to Loopholes Monthly. He read every column in the Wall Street Journal except the editorials.
Driven by his new knowledge, he realized the department store process arc from Halloween to Christmas Day was too small a window of opportunity.
Santa hit the road year round promoting his image on talk shows, at Pro-Mythological golf tournaments and summer camps for future street corner Santas. He sponsored a professional wrestling extravaganza—the Battle of the Department Store Santas.
It all appeared to be working so well. The number of letters from disgruntled children dwindled. Santa was more popular than ever, immortalized in new songs and hit movies, buried in an avalanche of fan mail. He was voted “Sexiest Man Alive” for an unprecedented three years in a row.
But the more time he spent with the world, the less time he spent with his family. Sammy, now in his teens, withdrew, watched his weight and went on weeklong juice fasts. Sandy rebelled, turning her room into a shambles, refusing to use the index system I designed for her closet. She immersed herself in the teachings of obscure pagan religions.
Then the layoffs began.

“LET ME GET THIS STRAIGHT, FAT MAN. You’re shuffling me and the crew out to the back 40 for some kind of spacecraft?”
“Hovercraft, Bob.”
“Oh, hovercraft. Well, excuse me and my big ignorant rump.”
Bob and Santa never argued. I could see and hear them through the window as they stood outside the complex, the falling snow bleaching them into the backdrop.
“Let me ask you this, Santa baby. Have me and my crew ever missed any deliveries?”
“No, of course not.”
“Have we ever been late on our rounds?”
“No.”
“So, everything’s fine. Well, it must be time to send the boys to the sausage factory.”
“Early retirement, Bob.”
“Early retirement. Well, it’s too early to retire. We love our job. And you’re not the only star around here. They write songs about us, too. ‘Here comes Santa and his hovercraft’ is not what I would call a catchy hook.”
“Bob, this move is for technological advancement. I think you’ll see this is best for the company.”
“Best for the company? How many years have we broken our backs hauling your fat butt all over the world? And you’re telling me what’s best for the company doesn’t include us?”
“You’re not looking at the big picture, Bob.”
“Oh, yeah, well I’ve got a big picture for you right here, fat man.”
Bob turned around and wiggled his rump in Santa’s face, then stomped through the snow to the stable. Yes, things were changing at the North Pole.

“WE’RE LIMITING OUR RESOURCE ALLOCATION to strengthen our core business.”
“Wow, cool, Santa.”
I was standing outside the office. I recognized Flapjack’s voice through the door.
“As a valued member of our transition team, we would like to offer you an incentive to relocate.”
“Relocate?”
“Yes.”
“Leave the North Pole?”
“Yes, Flapjack. Next year we will be outsourcing our production to some cost-saving labor markets. We need you to relocate as a consultant.”
“But this is my home, Santa. All my friends are here. I don’t know anybody outside of here.”
“This is a terrific vertical move for you, Flapjack.”
“But I’m happy right here. I don’t want to go.”
“There’s no longer a job for you here. There is a job for you down there.”
The door opened and Flapjack, his head down, shuffled by me. I stepped inside the office. Santa beamed and opened his arms.
“Isn’t this great, honey?” he said. “I do have a knack for this side of the business.”
Santa kissed and hugged me tight, squeezing the breath out of me.
“I owe it all to you, honey.”

ON HIS 18TH BIRTHDAY SAMMY MOVED away from the North Pole. He was now a thin, gaunt young man, withdrawn and sullen. He seldom laughed. He bummed a ride off of Bob, who was more than happy to fly him to Hawaii where Sammy went into retail.
Four months later, Sandy, distraught over the relocation of Flapjack, ran away from home. She joined a cult that neither exchanged gifts nor celebrated holidays. Her sect believed that rodents were reincarnated holymen and Sandy founded The Creatures Are Stirring, a solidarity group for mice. She changed her birthday to February 2, Groundhog Day.
Santa minimized the impact of their departures.
“They’re kids, honey, it’s a phase. Look, I think I’ve figured out a drop shipment system that will cut some fat off our payroll.”
The next few Christmas Eves I spent alone, sitting in my rocking chair, the house smothered in silence. Santa was out in the hovercraft with its Global Positioning System and automatic list checker. How did it come to this, I thought, as my head nodded up and down, in and out of sleep, memory tugging at me like a puppet string. After all my work, how did I end up all alone, with no friends or family, just like I was before I came to the North Pole?
Then, on one more lonely Christmas Eve, with a draft biting my ankles and my rocker creaking a sad tune, Griddlecake ran into the room.
“Mrs. Claus, Flapjack has disappeared.”
I sat up, shook my head, leaned forward.
“I just received a call from the factory down south,” Griddlecake said. “Flapjack didn’t show up for work today, Mrs. Claus. He wouldn’t do that on the busiest day of the year.”
My mind was clearing, my head buzzing, a jar full of bees.
“What are we going to do, Mrs. Claus? He must be in trouble.”
I reached over and hugged Griddlecake. “I’ll go find him and bring him home.”
I stood up, moving with instinct, vision and purpose. I went to the closet and put on my old red dress. It must have shrunk, I thought as I bent over and pulled on my black boots. I made my way across to the reindeer stable and opened the door. A wave of snow surfed in on the wind.
“Bob,” I said, “let’s ride.”

THE SLEIGH WAS RUSTY, THE PAINT FADED. Bob and his crew had grown thick around the middle and the elves had to expand the harness straps to make them fit.
“Where we headed, Mrs. C?” Bob asked, pumped for action.
“South, Bob.” “Let’s do it boys.”
We took off into a headwind and fought our way across the latitudes. We landed somewhere in the Yukon.
Bob and his crew huffed and puffed.
“Is there a problem?” I asked. “Uh…(cough, heave)…nothing, Mrs. C.” “You boys a little winded?”
“Us…(hack)…no way. Never felt better. Right, fellas?”
The other seven reindeer nodded as they coughed and sputtered.
“…you got that right…top of our game…feel great…”
After a brief rest we continued south to the state of Washington. Bob stopped for a break on Mount Rainier, and then we flew over Mount Saint Helens, down the Columbia River and up the Willamette River to Northeast Portland. I found the address I wanted on Tenth Street.
I walked up the stairs and knocked on the door. An army of tiny feet tap danced away as a pair of big feet marched toward me. A curtain parted, a doorknob turned. Sandy poked her head through the opening.
“Mom. What are you doing here?”
“I need your help. Let me in.”
Sandy didn’t move, her face scrunched up as if focusing on a complicated math equation.
“Sandy Claus, open this door. NOW!” I said, stomping my boot on the porch.
Startled, she stepped back and I walked past her. An altar with cheese and treadmills stood in the center of the candle-lit living room. Mice scampered back and forth.
“This place is a mess. Grab your coat. I need your help.”
“I can’t leave, Mom,” Sandy said in a hushed tone. “I have a duty and responsibility here. Do you know who these mice are? They’re reincarnated holymen, and I’m their sworn protector.”
Sandy pointed around the room.
“This is Krishna, and Buddha, Mohammed, this is Moses, and gee, Gandhi is around here somewhere.”
“That’s very nice, dear, but we have to go.” “Mom—“
“Sandy, get your coat. I need you. You owe me that much.”
“Owe you, Mom? Is that what giving is all about? The more you give, the more you’re owed?”
My mother’s voice echoed in my head and a sharp pain from childhood burrowed into my stomach. I closed my eyes and focused on my mission.
“We have to go, NOW!” I said, stomping my boot on the floor again. I felt a squish under my heel, heard a pop like a walnut in a nutcracker. Sandy and I looked down at my boot. She bent over.
“Oh, no, Mom, it’s Gandhi. He doesn’t look good.”
“I’m sorry, honey, but he’ll be back…someday.”
She held the mouse in her hands like a chalice. “Honey, Flapjack is missing from his post.”
Sandy looked up at me, her eyes wide, the elf ’s name a Pavlovian trigger to her childhood. She dropped the dead mouse on the floor.
“Missing? What does that mean?”
“I don’t know. That’s why we have to hurry. NOW!”
“Watch where you step, Mom! I’m coming.”
I held the door open for Sandy while I watched Moses and Mohammed spinning on their treadmills.

WHILE SANDY HUGGED THE REINDEER, I jumped back in the driver’s seat and we headed west, the wind raking us with needles of rain. Bob and his herd slid into a groove, singing and joking like old times. The weather cleared when we turned south over the Pacific Ocean.
Stars twinkled and whales breeched as we approached the island of Maui. We landed on the main street of Paia, the last address I had for Sammy. The stores lining the street stood wrapped in Christmas decorations and draped in banners of holiday cheer. My son’s shop sat at the end of the block, its black-striped candy cane neon sign blinking: THE ANTI-CHRISTMAS STORE. When we neared his storefront he stormed out the front door and chased away a group of Christmas carolers.
“And Merry Christmas to you,” I said.
He whirled around like a gunfighter. Recognition softened his face.
“Mom…Sandy…Bob?”
“How’s business, son?”
“Oh, a little slow,” he said defensively, sounding like his father.
“Imagine that.”
“Very funny, Mom,” he said.
“Flapjack is missing, son, and you can help us find him.”
“Why should I? So you can send him back to that awful factory?”
“We’re taking him back to the North Pole, where he belongs. Where we all belong.”
“I don’t belong there.”
“We don’t have time for this, son. Come with us.”
“I can’t help you, Mom.”
Bob reared up on his hind legs, pulling at the harness like a bull in a stall.
“Don’t you talk to your mother like that, boy! Let me at him!”
Bob dragged the rest of the team toward the building and pinned Sammy against the wall with his antlers.
“Get your butt in this sleigh right now or I will stick these antlers in your behind and drag you with us. What’ll be, Sammy Boy?”
“Okay, Bob, okay, but I’m not staying at the North Pole.”
“Who would want you around with that attitude? Now, get in the sleigh.”
Sammy climbed into the back of the sleigh and slumped into the corner. I looked over at Bob, but he looked away.

SANDY TOLD US TO FLY TO CALIFORNIA. In his letters, she said, Flapjack told her Venice Beach was the only place he seemed to fit in. We zoomed across the ocean and landed near the Venice Pier.
“Where do we start?” I asked Sandy.
“He said he sings in a bar around here,” Sandy said.
“That should be easy to find,” Bob snorted, “he only knows one song.”
We walked down the strand, Sammy sulking behind us. We showed Flapjack’s picture to street corner Santas as they roller-skated by, but they only shook their beards.
We turned down a street lined with restaurants and bars. Through the wall of holiday music flowing from the building we heard the strains of an old familiar song. Sandy grabbed my arm as a raucous chorus of “Batter Up” roared from inside a biker bar across the street.
“Look!” Sandy yelled.
Flapjack, with bells on his slippers and his little elf hat on his head, stumbled out of the bar, through a row of motorcycles and dropped to his knees over a sewer drain.
“Flapjack!” we all said as we ran to him.
“Mrs. C., Sandy, Sammy…Oh, I don’t feel so good.”
Flapjack put his head down, recycling a meal into the gutter. I leaned over him, the smell of liquor sucking the air out of my lungs.
“Flapjack, you’re drunk. You don’t drink.” “But I’m unhappy, Mrs. C.”
“Getting drunk doesn’t help, Flapjack.”
“It doesn’t? But that’s what unhappy people do down here. Boy, am I sick.”
“Come on, Flapjack, we’re taking you home.”
“I don’t have a home anymore.”
“Yes, you do. We’re taking you back to the North Pole.”
“I’ll be good, I swear I will.”
“You were never bad, Flapjack.”
“I must have done something terrible to make Santa send me away, Mrs. C.”
I picked Flapjack up and hugged him, my mind muddled with emotions. A huge, bearded man dressed in leather walked out of the bar and started up his motorcycle. He noticed Flapjack and pointed his finger at us.
“Hey, little dude, the pancake song rocks.”

SANDY HELD FLAPJACK’S HEAD OVER THE side of the sleigh as Bob guided us north over the old delivery route we had honed so many years before. Above Haines, the necklace of lights rimming the small boat harbor triggered memories of my first Christmas run with Santa and the dull ache of the past swept over me. Flapjack perked up, as if from a cattle prod.
“Down there!” he said. “It’s Santa!”
Santa lay sprawled in the snow, gifts scattered around him like confetti. The hovercraft smashed into a building in the middle of the parade grounds. We landed and the four of us rushed to Santa’s side.
“Santa, are you okay?” I said, my heart exploding. “What happened?”
“Oh, my leg,” he moaned, dazed by shock. “Darn machine doesn’t listen to me like Bob did.”
Santa chuckled a weak “Ho-ho-ho.”
“It’s not broken, honey,” I said after I squeezed my hands down his leg. I checked my watch. “The deliveries are way behind schedule. Let’s use the sleigh.”
The kids and Flapjack gathered the gifts and loaded the sleigh. We huffed, puffed and grunted to get Santa on his feet but when I watched him hobble I knew he was in no shape to chimney hop. Santa tried to slide into the driver’s seat, but Sammy stopped him.
“Get in the back, Dad.” “I’m driving, Sammy.”
“You’ve already wrecked one vehicle. Get in the back and relax. I’m driving.”
“This is my sleigh and I’m driving.”
“Not now you’re not. But…” Sammy said, pausing for effect, “maybe next year.”
Santa stared at our son, frowned, then nodded in revelation. We helped him into the back seat and I sat beside him, keeping his leg elevated. When Sammy grabbed the reins, Flapjack turned to me.
“We don’t have a list, Mrs. C.”
“Oh, yes, we do,” I said, reaching under the seat for my laptop and turning it on. I squinted at the blur on the screen, feeling through my pockets for my reading glasses. Sandy snatched the computer from my lap.
“I’ll handle this, Mom. You take care of Dad.”
“On Bob,” Sammy said as we taxied along the snow and then up into the night sky. I sat back, Santa’s head in my lap, and watched our children work. Sandy checked the list while Flapjack refilled the sack between stops. Sammy, with the fervor of a firefighter, slid up and down the chimneys. With speed, enthusiasm and teamwork they finished ahead of schedule.
“This is Big Red to base,” Sandy said into the radio. “Do you copy?”
“This is base,” Griddlecake’s voice scratched through the air.
“We’ve got Flapjack and we’re coming home.”
“That boy can drive a sleigh,” Bob said as we landed back at the Pole, the Northern Lights blazing like a Mardi Gras party. Griddlecake and the gang raced out of the complex, hugging Flapjack and Sandy and freeing the reindeer. Blintz and Chapatty ran back inside to get a stretcher for Santa while the reindeer danced and slapped antlers in celebration of their trip.
The purity and joy of the moment bathed me in light. I looked down at Santa and took his hand. He turned to Sammy who was standing in front of the sleigh, staring at the complex.
“Nice job, son,” Santa said.
Sammy nodded and walked away. I squeezed Santa’s hand and stroked his head.
“Let’s talk, Santa,” I said.
An hour later we gathered for breakfast in the dining room. Bob had everyone laughing. The big reindeer was telling jokes, doing impressions, reliving the night’s highlights. Pancakes sat on the table, piled high like stacks of poker chips. I tapped on a gallon jug of maple syrup.
“I want to welcome Flapjack back to the North Pole,” I said.
Applause, hooting, tossing of pancakes.
“And I also want to thank Sandy and Sammy for visiting us.”
More applause, stomping of hooves, slapping of antlers.
“Santa and I have been talking and we’ve made a few decisions. First, if Bob and the crew agree, Santa wants them back next year as his delivery team.”
“Early retirement for the hovercraft!” Bob said, raising a hoof in the air.
“Second, we are returning to our centralized production system, which means we need you back, Flapjack.”
“Yes!” the elves said, exploding from their seats like sports fans.
While I watched the reindeer dance on tables and listened to the elves sing “Batter Up,” I thought about my life at the North Pole. What a success I had been at efficiency, but what a failure I was at effectiveness. How many times had I towed the bottom line of low cost production when the real bottom line was celebrating right before me?
“Mom, are you okay?”
I shook my head and turned toward Sandy, who was swing dancing with Bob.
“Pardon me, honey?”
“I said, ‘Are you okay?’ You’re staring.”
“Oh, I’m fine, sweetheart.”
Sandy rushed over and hugged me, squeezing me tight.
“I love you, Mom.”
Bob stepped up and gave me a wet, slobbering kiss, his breath stinging my eyes. I mopped my cheek with my sleeve.
“I love you, too, Mrs. C.”
The elves and the other reindeer rushed to me, kissing and hugging me as if I’d scored a winning soccer goal. Sammy fought through the crowd and whispered in my ear.
“Merry Christmas, Mom,” he said.
My throat was tight, my skin massaged by electricity. I grabbed Santa’s hand so I wouldn’t float away. I made a goal to get back on track, but this plan came from my heart, not my head. What was good for me would be good for our family, and what was good for our family would be good for our company, and what was good for our company would be good for the world.
Now that’s a bottom line I could live with.

I WAS BORN TO RUN A FORTUNE 500 company. At age seven I owned, operated and franchised a chain of successful drive-through lemonade stands. In middle school I reengineered the cafeteria food lines to maximize playground time. As high school treasurer, I funneled “donations” through the principal’s office to soften his views on independent study.
I went on to earn my MBA from a prestigious business school in the Midwest. For my master thesis I evaluated the efficiency of my own school’s business department. As a result of my recommendations, four professors were denied tenure, two assistants were urged to “pursue other opportunities” and my advisor, an old friend of the family, was stripped of his pension.
Upon finishing my Workaholic in Residence Program at the local branch of the Foreclosure Bank of North America, I graduated at the top of my class. Recruiters fought over me as if I were a blue chip athlete. I chose a small-cap, high growth company with rapid multiple product introductions. Within months, with my solution-oriented instincts for problem solving, I became an invaluable member of the senior management team. However, after the first leg of my oxygen-depleting career arc, I found myself curiously unfulfilled.
I set a goal to get back on track. I hired a Chinese Feng Sui master to re-energize my office. Mr. Woo built a moat around my desk and filled it with exotic Asian goldfish. He hung crystals from my ceiling and replaced my phone ringer with a ceremonial gong. I reread the
#1 bestseller, “Rationalizations Seven Successful CEOs Use to Convince Themselves They’re Doing Something Worthwhile With Their Lives.” I even refused to work more than 12 hours on Sundays.
Nothing helped. Was it me? Was it my job? Headhunters contacted me constantly, but I turned down lucrative offers every day. Then, one night, at 2 a.m., I turned in early. While flossing my teeth, checking my voice mail and balancing my check book, the business section fell off my lap onto the floor. I leaned out of bed and a block of letters from the page expanded in front of me:

IMMEDIATE OPENING!!!!!! Efficiency Expert at the North Pole Serious Inquiries Only

The North Pole! Now, that sounded interesting. I emailed my resume from the laptop I kept on the nightstand next to my bed. I nodded to sleep and tiptoed into dreams. I skied across the white frosting of a gigantic birthday cake with lit candles the size of pine trees. I laughed and giggled until a horn went off in the wilderness. I stomped my feet and yelled for it to stop. I woke up to the sound of my computer telling me I had a message. I reached over, turned on the light and checked my messages.
Would like to schedule an interview tomorrow night. Is
midnight okay? My driver will pick you up. Dress warm.
Ho-ho-ho
S.C.

To the amazement of the cleaning crew, I left work by eleven that night. I rushed home and changed into my blue wool power suit; assertive but friendly. I opened my laptop and reviewed my list of compensation requirements—short term and long term bonus potential, transportation allowance, 401 k, stock options, first dollar medical and dental.
My computer scheduling program beeped. There was a thud at the door. It was midnight. I put the laptop in my briefcase, grabbed my coffee cup and stepped onto the porch of my condo. On the sidewalk stood eight reindeer and a shiny, red sleigh, glowing like a hot coal.
“Wow, reindeer,” I said, icicles racing down my extremities.
“You think?”
“Excuse me?” I said, looking around for the source of the voice. The reindeer in front of the pack turned to me.
“I said, ‘You think?’ What part of that didn’t you understand, lady?”
I dropped my briefcase, coffee spilled over my shoes. “Talking reindeer.”
“We’ve got a smart one here, fellas.”
The other reindeer chuckled and stomped their hooves into the ground.
“You must be here to pick me up?” I said foolishly. “No, lady, we were just in the neighborhood looking for our cousin Rudy and we thought you might be roasting him over an open fire.”
The reindeer laughed, stomped and nudged each other with their antlers. They mumbled parts of the joke: “…just in the neighborhood…open fire…might be roasting…”
I checked my watch, straightened my suit, trying to act businesslike in front of eight talking reindeer. I reached my hand out to the head reindeer.
“Hi, I’m—“
“Bob.”
“Sorry?”
“Name’s Bob, ma’am. You have a problem with that?” “No…uh…Bob is a lovely name…for a talking
reindeer.”
“Bob is a lovely name for a talking, flying reindeer, lady. Let’s go.”
I stepped up into the sleigh and grabbed hold of the reins, a feeling of wonder sizzling my skin. The reindeer shuffled their hooves and lifted off, the momentum plastering me to the seat. We rose above the trees, the houses and the high rise office buildings. We flew north, above a quilt of clouds, the stars blinding me as if they were flashbulbs. Bob told stories while the reindeer joked and sang. I held on, the wind biting my face, spinning my hair into steel wool.
As we began our descent, the greens and reds of the Northern Lights danced in my head like a cartoon. We landed in the middle of the light show, on a snowed-in runway with a barely visible sign that read:

WELCOME TO THE NORTH POLE

SNOW FELL AROUND ME LIKE FEATHERS from a celestial pillow fight. I stepped out of the sleigh, took a breath and composed myself. Shoulders back, briefcase in hand, I trudged through the snow and opened the door to the complex. A voice yelled:
“You Better Watch Out!”
An avalanche of clutter buried me in darkness, a bike pedal stuck in my ribs, a basketball flattening my ear. Somewhere out there a talking doll repeated, “I’m Patty and I’m not afraid to say ‘no’.”
I heard someone digging me out of my tomb. A colander of light flowed through the spokes of a wheel pressed to my face. I looked up into a wall of red.
“Are you okay?”
“You’re Santa Claus!” I yelled, as if he were an amnesia patient.
He nodded and helped me up. We were standing in a warehouse the size of a cruise ship. With the inventory system of my grandfather’s garage, dolls, skis, clothes and games were stacked to the ceiling.
“Be right with you,” Santa said, one hand full of crumbled papers, the other searching through the debris.
“Um, you lose something?”
“Not yet. Just can’t find it right now,” he said, looking up and shaking the papers at me. “Checking a list, you know.”
Santa began excavating a corner, tossing packages and toys behind him like a dog digging a hole. He looked at me and shrugged. He walked over to a pair of rocking horses and sat on one, motioning for me to sit on the other.
“Things are a little disorganized right now,” Santa said with a flip of his chubby hand and a nervous “Ho-ho-ho.”
I rocked a few times, assembling my thoughts.
“This is your fulfillment center, I take it?”
“What’s that?”
“This is where you fill your orders for gifts, right, Mr. Claus?”
“Uh, right.”
“What type of database do you use?” I asked, rocking back and forth on my horsy.
“Database?”
“Database. How do you keep track? I mean, some years I get some pretty weird stuff, as if my list was crossed with somebody else’s.”
“Well, yeah, that happens once in a while,” Santa said defensively.
“How do you control your inventory?”
“I check the list twice,” he said with pride.
“That doesn’t do much good if you’re checking the wrong list, now does it?”
“Well…”
Santa looked around the room, down at the papers in his hand.
“I’d like you to come in for a month or so and work out some of the glitches we’ve developed.”
“A month or so?” I said, stopping my rocker. “I think you’re underestimating the extent of your glitches, Mr. Claus.”
“Nah, this is different than other businesses you deal with.”
That’s what they all say, I thought, as I reached for my laptop. Santa and I worked for an hour or two before he tired and went to bed. I stayed up and created spreadsheets and made to-do lists. Halfway through my personal brainstorming I eyed a pair of nearby rollerblades and couldn’t resist the urge to lace them up. I skated around and around the warehouse floor until I collapsed, exhausted, in a heap of teddy bears, the images of reindeer dancing in my head.

“BAAAAATTER UP!”
The chatter of vowels jerked me awake. Funny looking children were jumping around me with frying pans in their hands. They tossed pancakes from one to another, singing gibberish about batter and syrup.

Put the heat up on the griddle
Put the batter in the middle
And flip those babies in the air
I sat up. Wait a minute, I said to myself, looking at the bells on their pointy shoes and their goofy little hats. It’s the elves!
“Hey, what’s going on here?” I said.
They turned to me and froze, flipped pancakes flopping on top of their heads. The elves bounced over and introduced themselves. There was Flapjack and Griddlecake and Blintz and Chapatty and Crepe and Pfannekuchen and the Stack Brothers—One, Two and Three.
While they fed me breakfast (Swedish, German and apple pancakes) they told me their story. Raised in an orphanage run by a mean, black-balled short order cook, they were fed only pancakes. One morning, during a grease fire in the kitchen, they escaped, and with the aid of Elf-Self-Help, a temporary elf employment agency, they found work at the North Pole. They took on batter related names, became gourmet flapjack chefs and constantly sang the classic ode to the pancake, “Batter Up.”
I passed on a strawberry waffle and a blueberry blintz, my urge to work overcoming my hunger.
“What time do you boys have to be at work?”
“Whenever,” they shrugged.
“What are you working on today?”
“Whatever.”
“Hmmm,” I said as I prepared for my nine o’clock with Santa.

SANTA WAS LATE AND HIS OFFICE WAS A mess, stacked high with papers. I picked up a letter from the top of the pile and read it:

Dear Santa,
I’m not happy. You used to be nice but you don’t give me the stuff I ask for anymore. Take me off your list and give my name to the Easter Bunny.
Georgia
Age 6
I read twenty more letters in the stack, all of them with the same complaints. Santa walked in, yawning and rubbing sleep from his eyes. I waved the letters at him.
“What happened to their gifts?”
“I don’t know,” he said, running his hands through his hair. “It happens once in a while.”
“Define ‘once in a while,’” I said, sweeping my hands over the reams of letters.
“Well…”
“Listen, Mr. Claus, it’s only February and we have time to straighten things up around here. However, before I do anything, I need to ask your office manager a few questions.”
“Office manager?”

I SENT AN EMAIL TO MY OFFICE INFORMING them I was working off-site for a while. Then I began my evaluation of the work flow at the North Pole.
I sat down with the elves and had them describe their jobs to me. I asked them what their major complaints were and how we could resolve those issues. Although they mentioned shortage of raw materials, frantic, last minute production and various safety hazards in the workshop, they said they never viewed them as problems because that was the way it had always been. Bob and his crew felt the same way. Sure, there were flight delays and extended holding patterns, Bob said, but that was the price of doing business on Christmas Eve. Job satisfaction was rated high by all.
By the end of February a project scope was in place with timelines and milestones to help ease the December crunch. By March, with the elves pulling all-nighters with me, we had a complete stock inventory. In April the database was up and running, listing the gift receivers by region, age and gift request history. During May Bob and his herd and me and my stopwatch began our monthly practice runs, testing new routes and timing our deliveries.
Santa was impressed and pleased with the reorganization, but he showed little interest in learning about the business side of his operation. Not much of a head for it, he would say as he “Ho-ho-hoed” through the complex. However, I insisted upon giving him monthly slide presentations, weekly status reports and sitting him down for a daily dinner meeting where I reviewed the day’s events.
I eliminated 52 rework loops by June. Everyone had a copy of “From List to Delivery,” a 750 page manual I threw together for reference points. There were T-shirts and posters on the walls that proclaimed our motto:

RIGHT LIST RIGHT GIFT RIGHT PERSON RIGHT TIME

On Christmas Eve I gathered Santa and the elves in the living room. I wore the red dress and black boots the elves made for me.
“I want to thank everyone for all the hard work you put in to make the new changes—“
There was a bang on the window. Bob glared at us through the window.
“Hey! Excuse me!” he yelled.
I ran to the door and opened it wide. The eight reindeer tromped into the living room, knocking over furniture with their rumps, poking the elves into the air with their antlers.
“Hey! Watch it, Bobby!” Flapjack said, rubbing his bottom.
“Welcome,” I said when the commotion died down. “Nice to be invited, ma’am.”
“Now, Bob, the Delivery Team Meeting isn’t for ten minutes,” I said, pointing to my watch. “You would know that if you’d read today’s memos.”
“Must have missed that one, ma’am. I could just kick myself.”
“Save your strength, Bob. Let me kick you.”
The other reindeer laughed and butted antlers. I thanked everyone again, then handed out gifts—red nose warmers to the reindeer and real maple syrup to the elves. After our final checklist we were ready to hit the sleigh.
“Okay, you know the drill, let’s go!”
With the precision of an Indy 500 pit crew, the elves funneled the sleigh with gifts and strapped harnesses on the reindeer. Santa jumped in the driver’s seat and grabbed the reins. I sat beside him, my laptop loaded with the list database with corresponding maps in one hand, a cup of hot chocolate with marshmallows in the other. I turned to Santa.
“Ready, Mr. Claus.”
“Ready,” Santa said. “On Bob.”
The reindeer pulled hard, jerking the sleigh forward like a railroad car. We lifted off, circled around the complex and headed south, the wind at our backs. Bob and Santa bantered back and forth, telling stories of Christmas past. We stopped at small houses and large houses, at hospitals and orphanages, wherever there were children who needed toys.
I kept an eye on the time as I checked the list twice. I fed the crew Reindeer Power Enhancement Bars when their energy levels dipped. I was all business and this was my watch. When we hit Haines, Alaska, one of our last stops, a heat surged through me. The snow covered rooftops and the Christmas trees in the windows made me clap my hands and hug myself in delight. It was Christmas Eve night and I was riding along in Santa’s sleigh!
“Ho-ho-ho, Merry Christmas,” Santa said as we landed on the air strip back at the Pole.
“Merry Christmas to you, Mr. Claus,” I said, checking my watch and making one last entry in my computer.
We sat silently in the sleigh, toasted by the glow of giving, watching the falling snow cleanse the night. I looked over at Santa and for the first time, I thought—he’s kind of cute.

“ARE YOU SEEING ANYONE?”
“Sort of.”
“I thought so. You don’t call for almost a year. A year! I have to call your office to find out you’ve quit your high paying, high profile job and moved to Northern Poland.”
“No, mother, not Northern—“
“So, what does he do?”
“He works with underprivileged children and—“ “There’s no money in that.”
“It’s non-profit, mother.”
“There is plenty of money in non-profit, dear. A CEO can make a bundle—bonus, compensation, padded expense accounts. You just have to keep it quiet.”
“Please, mother—“
“I’ll plan on you two coming for Christmas this year.” “That’s not a good time for us, Mother.”
“You owe me that much, don’t you think, for all I’ve done for you?”
“Well, okay, but we can only stay for a second.”

I NEVER CONSIDERED THE CHANCE OF romance in any work environment, let alone the North Pole. After our first Christmas success, Santa wanted to take a few weeks off, but I insisted we get back to work bright and early on December 26th. There was much to do and I stressed to Santa that he had much to learn about running a successful company.
As we continued to work together, I felt the heat of proximity. Something was melting at the North Pole and it wasn’t from global warming. Whether it was his beard tickling my arm as I handed him a graph or when I would squeeze by his soft, round belly on my way to the printer, there was the tingle of love at the North Pole.
I denied the feelings at first. He was my boss, for goodness sake. How many articles in women’s magazines had I read about this very peril? Then there was the age issue. I didn’t know how old Santa was, but he was at least as old as my mother.
I could tell Santa had similar feelings for me. I caught him staring at me while I prepared spreadsheets and work tasks. He would look away, turn redder than usual, and give a self-conscious “Ho-ho-ho.”
We took walks out in the snow while I taught him about process mapping, reengineering and rework loops. One day I slipped on the ice and he caught me and held me tight.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes, thank you, Mr. Claus,” I said, resting my head on his chest.
“Call me Santa,” he said.
We stood there, the wind frisking us, Santa’s heart pounding in my ear. Goodness radiated from somewhere deep inside his girth, a spot I had never found within myself. Where I came from people gave in order to control others, their apparent generosity really a chit to be cashed in at an opportune time. But Santa had a purity of heart that flowed into me like a blood transfusion.
We married a few months later during a blizzard in front of the workshop. Bob, who became an ordained minister through a number he found in the back of Reindeer Journal, performed the ceremony. The reindeer sang and danced while the elves threw dollar pancakes.
We didn’t have time for a honeymoon, I told Santa, but maybe next year. There was too much to be done. My proactive production plan was a week behind schedule, the number of flight delays was unacceptable and the stopover time ratio made me toss and turn all night.
The next year, during the first week of December, right on schedule, we had a baby boy, Sammy. Sandy came along a year later. I told Santa it was time for me to take one step back from the business and for him to take one step forward. With confidence in my system, I stayed home with the kids on Christmas Eve.
And life was good.
For his fourth birthday Santa gave Sammy a miniature chimney with real soot. At five, he gave our son a sleigh cycle with voice activated stuffed reindeer. By six, Sammy was putting on weight and “Ho-ho-hoing” around the house.
As a child, Sandy rode on her daddy’s shoulders while Santa went about preparing for Christmas. “List” was one of the first words she learned after “Mama,” “Dada,” and “Bob.” The elves workshop was my own little day care center for her. Sandy loved sitting with Flapjack at his workbench, laughing and clapping, eating hotcakes and singing along to “Batter Up.”
Yes, life was good.

“DAD, CAN I DRIVE THE SLEIGH THIS YEAR?” “Not this year, Sammy. Maybe next year.”
“You say that every year.”
“Do I? Well, not this Christmas. Maybe next year.” “Then can we finally go to Hawaii for a vacation?”
“This year is too busy. Maybe next year.”
“I’m going to be 12 next week. All I ask for every Christmas is for you to take me to Hawaii.”
“We don’t give you great gifts?”
“Yeah, everything but what I want.”
“So why don’t you and Bob go? He’d love it.”
“Bob? Dad, I want to go with you. That’s the point.”
“Maybe next year.”
“Let’s talk about this after dinner,” I said.
“Not tonight, dear,” Santa said. “I have to work late at the shop.”
Sammy, head down, poked his food with his fork, staring at his pasta as if it were a pile of worms.

THINGS WERE CHANGING AT THE NORTH Pole. At first I thought it was all for the good. Santa took my advice and became active in the nuts and bolts of the company. He drilled me on basic business theories and subscribed to 25 business magazines, from Business Week to Downsizer to Loopholes Monthly. He read every column in the Wall Street Journal except the editorials.
Driven by his new knowledge, he realized the department store process arc from Halloween to Christmas Day was too small a window of opportunity.
Santa hit the road year round promoting his image on talk shows, at Pro-Mythological golf tournaments and summer camps for future street corner Santas. He sponsored a professional wrestling extravaganza—the Battle of the Department Store Santas.
It all appeared to be working so well. The number of letters from disgruntled children dwindled. Santa was more popular than ever, immortalized in new songs and hit movies, buried in an avalanche of fan mail. He was voted “Sexiest Man Alive” for an unprecedented three years in a row.
But the more time he spent with the world, the less time he spent with his family. Sammy, now in his teens, withdrew, watched his weight and went on weeklong juice fasts. Sandy rebelled, turning her room into a shambles, refusing to use the index system I designed for her closet. She immersed herself in the teachings of obscure pagan religions.
Then the layoffs began.

“LET ME GET THIS STRAIGHT, FAT MAN. You’re shuffling me and the crew out to the back 40 for some kind of spacecraft?”
“Hovercraft, Bob.”
“Oh, hovercraft. Well, excuse me and my big ignorant rump.”
Bob and Santa never argued. I could see and hear them through the window as they stood outside the complex, the falling snow bleaching them into the backdrop.
“Let me ask you this, Santa baby. Have me and my crew ever missed any deliveries?”
“No, of course not.”
“Have we ever been late on our rounds?”
“No.”
“So, everything’s fine. Well, it must be time to send the boys to the sausage factory.”
“Early retirement, Bob.”
“Early retirement. Well, it’s too early to retire. We love our job. And you’re not the only star around here. They write songs about us, too. ‘Here comes Santa and his hovercraft’ is not what I would call a catchy hook.”
“Bob, this move is for technological advancement. I think you’ll see this is best for the company.”
“Best for the company? How many years have we broken our backs hauling your fat butt all over the world? And you’re telling me what’s best for the company doesn’t include us?”
“You’re not looking at the big picture, Bob.”
“Oh, yeah, well I’ve got a big picture for you right here, fat man.”
Bob turned around and wiggled his rump in Santa’s face, then stomped through the snow to the stable. Yes, things were changing at the North Pole.

“WE’RE LIMITING OUR RESOURCE ALLOCATION to strengthen our core business.”
“Wow, cool, Santa.”
I was standing outside the office. I recognized Flapjack’s voice through the door.
“As a valued member of our transition team, we would like to offer you an incentive to relocate.”
“Relocate?”
“Yes.”
“Leave the North Pole?”
“Yes, Flapjack. Next year we will be outsourcing our production to some cost-saving labor markets. We need you to relocate as a consultant.”
“But this is my home, Santa. All my friends are here. I don’t know anybody outside of here.”
“This is a terrific vertical move for you, Flapjack.”
“But I’m happy right here. I don’t want to go.”
“There’s no longer a job for you here. There is a job for you down there.”
The door opened and Flapjack, his head down, shuffled by me. I stepped inside the office. Santa beamed and opened his arms.
“Isn’t this great, honey?” he said. “I do have a knack for this side of the business.”
Santa kissed and hugged me tight, squeezing the breath out of me.
“I owe it all to you, honey.”

ON HIS 18TH BIRTHDAY SAMMY MOVED away from the North Pole. He was now a thin, gaunt young man, withdrawn and sullen. He seldom laughed. He bummed a ride off of Bob, who was more than happy to fly him to Hawaii where Sammy went into retail.
Four months later, Sandy, distraught over the relocation of Flapjack, ran away from home. She joined a cult that neither exchanged gifts nor celebrated holidays. Her sect believed that rodents were reincarnated holymen and Sandy founded The Creatures Are Stirring, a solidarity group for mice. She changed her birthday to February 2, Groundhog Day.
Santa minimized the impact of their departures.
“They’re kids, honey, it’s a phase. Look, I think I’ve figured out a drop shipment system that will cut some fat off our payroll.”
The next few Christmas Eves I spent alone, sitting in my rocking chair, the house smothered in silence. Santa was out in the hovercraft with its Global Positioning System and automatic list checker. How did it come to this, I thought, as my head nodded up and down, in and out of sleep, memory tugging at me like a puppet string. After all my work, how did I end up all alone, with no friends or family, just like I was before I came to the North Pole?
Then, on one more lonely Christmas Eve, with a draft biting my ankles and my rocker creaking a sad tune, Griddlecake ran into the room.
“Mrs. Claus, Flapjack has disappeared.”
I sat up, shook my head, leaned forward.
“I just received a call from the factory down south,” Griddlecake said. “Flapjack didn’t show up for work today, Mrs. Claus. He wouldn’t do that on the busiest day of the year.”
My mind was clearing, my head buzzing, a jar full of bees.
“What are we going to do, Mrs. Claus? He must be in trouble.”
I reached over and hugged Griddlecake. “I’ll go find him and bring him home.”
I stood up, moving with instinct, vision and purpose. I went to the closet and put on my old red dress. It must have shrunk, I thought as I bent over and pulled on my black boots. I made my way across to the reindeer stable and opened the door. A wave of snow surfed in on the wind.
“Bob,” I said, “let’s ride.”

THE SLEIGH WAS RUSTY, THE PAINT FADED. Bob and his crew had grown thick around the middle and the elves had to expand the harness straps to make them fit.
“Where we headed, Mrs. C?” Bob asked, pumped for action.
“South, Bob.” “Let’s do it boys.”
We took off into a headwind and fought our way across the latitudes. We landed somewhere in the Yukon.
Bob and his crew huffed and puffed.
“Is there a problem?” I asked. “Uh…(cough, heave)…nothing, Mrs. C.” “You boys a little winded?”
“Us…(hack)…no way. Never felt better. Right, fellas?”
The other seven reindeer nodded as they coughed and sputtered.
“…you got that right…top of our game…feel great…”
After a brief rest we continued south to the state of Washington. Bob stopped for a break on Mount Rainier, and then we flew over Mount Saint Helens, down the Columbia River and up the Willamette River to Northeast Portland. I found the address I wanted on Tenth Street.
I walked up the stairs and knocked on the door. An army of tiny feet tap danced away as a pair of big feet marched toward me. A curtain parted, a doorknob turned. Sandy poked her head through the opening.
“Mom. What are you doing here?”
“I need your help. Let me in.”
Sandy didn’t move, her face scrunched up as if focusing on a complicated math equation.
“Sandy Claus, open this door. NOW!” I said, stomping my boot on the porch.
Startled, she stepped back and I walked past her. An altar with cheese and treadmills stood in the center of the candle-lit living room. Mice scampered back and forth.
“This place is a mess. Grab your coat. I need your help.”
“I can’t leave, Mom,” Sandy said in a hushed tone. “I have a duty and responsibility here. Do you know who these mice are? They’re reincarnated holymen, and I’m their sworn protector.”
Sandy pointed around the room.
“This is Krishna, and Buddha, Mohammed, this is Moses, and gee, Gandhi is around here somewhere.”
“That’s very nice, dear, but we have to go.” “Mom—“
“Sandy, get your coat. I need you. You owe me that much.”
“Owe you, Mom? Is that what giving is all about? The more you give, the more you’re owed?”
My mother’s voice echoed in my head and a sharp pain from childhood burrowed into my stomach. I closed my eyes and focused on my mission.
“We have to go, NOW!” I said, stomping my boot on the floor again. I felt a squish under my heel, heard a pop like a walnut in a nutcracker. Sandy and I looked down at my boot. She bent over.
“Oh, no, Mom, it’s Gandhi. He doesn’t look good.”
“I’m sorry, honey, but he’ll be back…someday.”
She held the mouse in her hands like a chalice. “Honey, Flapjack is missing from his post.”
Sandy looked up at me, her eyes wide, the elf ’s name a Pavlovian trigger to her childhood. She dropped the dead mouse on the floor.
“Missing? What does that mean?”
“I don’t know. That’s why we have to hurry. NOW!”
“Watch where you step, Mom! I’m coming.”
I held the door open for Sandy while I watched Moses and Mohammed spinning on their treadmills.

WHILE SANDY HUGGED THE REINDEER, I jumped back in the driver’s seat and we headed west, the wind raking us with needles of rain. Bob and his herd slid into a groove, singing and joking like old times. The weather cleared when we turned south over the Pacific Ocean.
Stars twinkled and whales breeched as we approached the island of Maui. We landed on the main street of Paia, the last address I had for Sammy. The stores lining the street stood wrapped in Christmas decorations and draped in banners of holiday cheer. My son’s shop sat at the end of the block, its black-striped candy cane neon sign blinking: THE ANTI-CHRISTMAS STORE. When we neared his storefront he stormed out the front door and chased away a group of Christmas carolers.
“And Merry Christmas to you,” I said.
He whirled around like a gunfighter. Recognition softened his face.
“Mom…Sandy…Bob?”
“How’s business, son?”
“Oh, a little slow,” he said defensively, sounding like his father.
“Imagine that.”
“Very funny, Mom,” he said.
“Flapjack is missing, son, and you can help us find him.”
“Why should I? So you can send him back to that awful factory?”
“We’re taking him back to the North Pole, where he belongs. Where we all belong.”
“I don’t belong there.”
“We don’t have time for this, son. Come with us.”
“I can’t help you, Mom.”
Bob reared up on his hind legs, pulling at the harness like a bull in a stall.
“Don’t you talk to your mother like that, boy! Let me at him!”
Bob dragged the rest of the team toward the building and pinned Sammy against the wall with his antlers.
“Get your butt in this sleigh right now or I will stick these antlers in your behind and drag you with us. What’ll be, Sammy Boy?”
“Okay, Bob, okay, but I’m not staying at the North Pole.”
“Who would want you around with that attitude? Now, get in the sleigh.”
Sammy climbed into the back of the sleigh and slumped into the corner. I looked over at Bob, but he looked away.

SANDY TOLD US TO FLY TO CALIFORNIA. In his letters, she said, Flapjack told her Venice Beach was the only place he seemed to fit in. We zoomed across the ocean and landed near the Venice Pier.
“Where do we start?” I asked Sandy.
“He said he sings in a bar around here,” Sandy said.
“That should be easy to find,” Bob snorted, “he only knows one song.”
We walked down the strand, Sammy sulking behind us. We showed Flapjack’s picture to street corner Santas as they roller-skated by, but they only shook their beards.
We turned down a street lined with restaurants and bars. Through the wall of holiday music flowing from the building we heard the strains of an old familiar song. Sandy grabbed my arm as a raucous chorus of “Batter Up” roared from inside a biker bar across the street.
“Look!” Sandy yelled.
Flapjack, with bells on his slippers and his little elf hat on his head, stumbled out of the bar, through a row of motorcycles and dropped to his knees over a sewer drain.
“Flapjack!” we all said as we ran to him.
“Mrs. C., Sandy, Sammy…Oh, I don’t feel so good.”
Flapjack put his head down, recycling a meal into the gutter. I leaned over him, the smell of liquor sucking the air out of my lungs.
“Flapjack, you’re drunk. You don’t drink.” “But I’m unhappy, Mrs. C.”
“Getting drunk doesn’t help, Flapjack.”
“It doesn’t? But that’s what unhappy people do down here. Boy, am I sick.”
“Come on, Flapjack, we’re taking you home.”
“I don’t have a home anymore.”
“Yes, you do. We’re taking you back to the North Pole.”
“I’ll be good, I swear I will.”
“You were never bad, Flapjack.”
“I must have done something terrible to make Santa send me away, Mrs. C.”
I picked Flapjack up and hugged him, my mind muddled with emotions. A huge, bearded man dressed in leather walked out of the bar and started up his motorcycle. He noticed Flapjack and pointed his finger at us.
“Hey, little dude, the pancake song rocks.”

SANDY HELD FLAPJACK’S HEAD OVER THE side of the sleigh as Bob guided us north over the old delivery route we had honed so many years before. Above Haines, the necklace of lights rimming the small boat harbor triggered memories of my first Christmas run with Santa and the dull ache of the past swept over me. Flapjack perked up, as if from a cattle prod.
“Down there!” he said. “It’s Santa!”
Santa lay sprawled in the snow, gifts scattered around him like confetti. The hovercraft smashed into a building in the middle of the parade grounds. We landed and the four of us rushed to Santa’s side.
“Santa, are you okay?” I said, my heart exploding. “What happened?”
“Oh, my leg,” he moaned, dazed by shock. “Darn machine doesn’t listen to me like Bob did.”
Santa chuckled a weak “Ho-ho-ho.”
“It’s not broken, honey,” I said after I squeezed my hands down his leg. I checked my watch. “The deliveries are way behind schedule. Let’s use the sleigh.”
The kids and Flapjack gathered the gifts and loaded the sleigh. We huffed, puffed and grunted to get Santa on his feet but when I watched him hobble I knew he was in no shape to chimney hop. Santa tried to slide into the driver’s seat, but Sammy stopped him.
“Get in the back, Dad.” “I’m driving, Sammy.”
“You’ve already wrecked one vehicle. Get in the back and relax. I’m driving.”
“This is my sleigh and I’m driving.”
“Not now you’re not. But…” Sammy said, pausing for effect, “maybe next year.”
Santa stared at our son, frowned, then nodded in revelation. We helped him into the back seat and I sat beside him, keeping his leg elevated. When Sammy grabbed the reins, Flapjack turned to me.
“We don’t have a list, Mrs. C.”
“Oh, yes, we do,” I said, reaching under the seat for my laptop and turning it on. I squinted at the blur on the screen, feeling through my pockets for my reading glasses. Sandy snatched the computer from my lap.
“I’ll handle this, Mom. You take care of Dad.”
“On Bob,” Sammy said as we taxied along the snow and then up into the night sky. I sat back, Santa’s head in my lap, and watched our children work. Sandy checked the list while Flapjack refilled the sack between stops. Sammy, with the fervor of a firefighter, slid up and down the chimneys. With speed, enthusiasm and teamwork they finished ahead of schedule.
“This is Big Red to base,” Sandy said into the radio. “Do you copy?”
“This is base,” Griddlecake’s voice scratched through the air.
“We’ve got Flapjack and we’re coming home.”
“That boy can drive a sleigh,” Bob said as we landed back at the Pole, the Northern Lights blazing like a Mardi Gras party. Griddlecake and the gang raced out of the complex, hugging Flapjack and Sandy and freeing the reindeer. Blintz and Chapatty ran back inside to get a stretcher for Santa while the reindeer danced and slapped antlers in celebration of their trip.
The purity and joy of the moment bathed me in light. I looked down at Santa and took his hand. He turned to Sammy who was standing in front of the sleigh, staring at the complex.
“Nice job, son,” Santa said.
Sammy nodded and walked away. I squeezed Santa’s hand and stroked his head.
“Let’s talk, Santa,” I said.
An hour later we gathered for breakfast in the dining room. Bob had everyone laughing. The big reindeer was telling jokes, doing impressions, reliving the night’s highlights. Pancakes sat on the table, piled high like stacks of poker chips. I tapped on a gallon jug of maple syrup.
“I want to welcome Flapjack back to the North Pole,” I said.
Applause, hooting, tossing of pancakes.
“And I also want to thank Sandy and Sammy for visiting us.”
More applause, stomping of hooves, slapping of antlers.
“Santa and I have been talking and we’ve made a few decisions. First, if Bob and the crew agree, Santa wants them back next year as his delivery team.”
“Early retirement for the hovercraft!” Bob said, raising a hoof in the air.
“Second, we are returning to our centralized production system, which means we need you back, Flapjack.”
“Yes!” the elves said, exploding from their seats like sports fans.
While I watched the reindeer dance on tables and listened to the elves sing “Batter Up,” I thought about my life at the North Pole. What a success I had been at efficiency, but what a failure I was at effectiveness. How many times had I towed the bottom line of low cost production when the real bottom line was celebrating right before me?
“Mom, are you okay?”
I shook my head and turned toward Sandy, who was swing dancing with Bob.
“Pardon me, honey?”
“I said, ‘Are you okay?’ You’re staring.”
“Oh, I’m fine, sweetheart.”
Sandy rushed over and hugged me, squeezing me tight.
“I love you, Mom.”
Bob stepped up and gave me a wet, slobbering kiss, his breath stinging my eyes. I mopped my cheek with my sleeve.
“I love you, too, Mrs. C.”
The elves and the other reindeer rushed to me, kissing and hugging me as if I’d scored a winning soccer goal. Sammy fought through the crowd and whispered in my ear.
“Merry Christmas, Mom,” he said.
My throat was tight, my skin massaged by electricity. I grabbed Santa’s hand so I wouldn’t float away. I made a goal to get back on track, but this plan came from my heart, not my head. What was good for me would be good for our family, and what was good for our family would be good for our company, and what was good for our company would be good for the world.
Now that’s a bottom line I could live with.

I WAS BORN TO RUN A FORTUNE 500 company. At age seven I owned, operated and franchised a chain of successful drive-through lemonade stands. In middle school I reengineered the cafeteria food lines to maximize playground time. As high school treasurer, I funneled “donations” through the principal’s office to soften his views on independent study.
I went on to earn my MBA from a prestigious business school in the Midwest. For my master thesis I evaluated the efficiency of my own school’s business department. As a result of my recommendations, four professors were denied tenure, two assistants were urged to “pursue other opportunities” and my advisor, an old friend of the family, was stripped of his pension.
Upon finishing my Workaholic in Residence Program at the local branch of the Foreclosure Bank of North America, I graduated at the top of my class. Recruiters fought over me as if I were a blue chip athlete. I chose a small-cap, high growth company with rapid multiple product introductions. Within months, with my solution-oriented instincts for problem solving, I became an invaluable member of the senior management team. However, after the first leg of my oxygen-depleting career arc, I found myself curiously unfulfilled.
I set a goal to get back on track. I hired a Chinese Feng Sui master to re-energize my office. Mr. Woo built a moat around my desk and filled it with exotic Asian goldfish. He hung crystals from my ceiling and replaced my phone ringer with a ceremonial gong. I reread the
#1 bestseller, “Rationalizations Seven Successful CEOs Use to Convince Themselves They’re Doing Something Worthwhile With Their Lives.” I even refused to work more than 12 hours on Sundays.
Nothing helped. Was it me? Was it my job? Headhunters contacted me constantly, but I turned down lucrative offers every day. Then, one night, at 2 a.m., I turned in early. While flossing my teeth, checking my voice mail and balancing my check book, the business section fell off my lap onto the floor. I leaned out of bed and a block of letters from the page expanded in front of me:

IMMEDIATE OPENING!!!!!! Efficiency Expert at the North Pole Serious Inquiries Only

The North Pole! Now, that sounded interesting. I emailed my resume from the laptop I kept on the nightstand next to my bed. I nodded to sleep and tiptoed into dreams. I skied across the white frosting of a gigantic birthday cake with lit candles the size of pine trees. I laughed and giggled until a horn went off in the wilderness. I stomped my feet and yelled for it to stop. I woke up to the sound of my computer telling me I had a message. I reached over, turned on the light and checked my messages.
Would like to schedule an interview tomorrow night. Is
midnight okay? My driver will pick you up. Dress warm.
Ho-ho-ho
S.C.

To the amazement of the cleaning crew, I left work by eleven that night. I rushed home and changed into my blue wool power suit; assertive but friendly. I opened my laptop and reviewed my list of compensation requirements—short term and long term bonus potential, transportation allowance, 401 k, stock options, first dollar medical and dental.
My computer scheduling program beeped. There was a thud at the door. It was midnight. I put the laptop in my briefcase, grabbed my coffee cup and stepped onto the porch of my condo. On the sidewalk stood eight reindeer and a shiny, red sleigh, glowing like a hot coal.
“Wow, reindeer,” I said, icicles racing down my extremities.
“You think?”
“Excuse me?” I said, looking around for the source of the voice. The reindeer in front of the pack turned to me.
“I said, ‘You think?’ What part of that didn’t you understand, lady?”
I dropped my briefcase, coffee spilled over my shoes. “Talking reindeer.”
“We’ve got a smart one here, fellas.”
The other reindeer chuckled and stomped their hooves into the ground.
“You must be here to pick me up?” I said foolishly. “No, lady, we were just in the neighborhood looking for our cousin Rudy and we thought you might be roasting him over an open fire.”
The reindeer laughed, stomped and nudged each other with their antlers. They mumbled parts of the joke: “…just in the neighborhood…open fire…might be roasting…”
I checked my watch, straightened my suit, trying to act businesslike in front of eight talking reindeer. I reached my hand out to the head reindeer.
“Hi, I’m—“
“Bob.”
“Sorry?”
“Name’s Bob, ma’am. You have a problem with that?” “No…uh…Bob is a lovely name…for a talking
reindeer.”
“Bob is a lovely name for a talking, flying reindeer, lady. Let’s go.”
I stepped up into the sleigh and grabbed hold of the reins, a feeling of wonder sizzling my skin. The reindeer shuffled their hooves and lifted off, the momentum plastering me to the seat. We rose above the trees, the houses and the high rise office buildings. We flew north, above a quilt of clouds, the stars blinding me as if they were flashbulbs. Bob told stories while the reindeer joked and sang. I held on, the wind biting my face, spinning my hair into steel wool.
As we began our descent, the greens and reds of the Northern Lights danced in my head like a cartoon. We landed in the middle of the light show, on a snowed-in runway with a barely visible sign that read:

WELCOME TO THE NORTH POLE

SNOW FELL AROUND ME LIKE FEATHERS from a celestial pillow fight. I stepped out of the sleigh, took a breath and composed myself. Shoulders back, briefcase in hand, I trudged through the snow and opened the door to the complex. A voice yelled:
“You Better Watch Out!”
An avalanche of clutter buried me in darkness, a bike pedal stuck in my ribs, a basketball flattening my ear. Somewhere out there a talking doll repeated, “I’m Patty and I’m not afraid to say ‘no’.”
I heard someone digging me out of my tomb. A colander of light flowed through the spokes of a wheel pressed to my face. I looked up into a wall of red.
“Are you okay?”
“You’re Santa Claus!” I yelled, as if he were an amnesia patient.
He nodded and helped me up. We were standing in a warehouse the size of a cruise ship. With the inventory system of my grandfather’s garage, dolls, skis, clothes and games were stacked to the ceiling.
“Be right with you,” Santa said, one hand full of crumbled papers, the other searching through the debris.
“Um, you lose something?”
“Not yet. Just can’t find it right now,” he said, looking up and shaking the papers at me. “Checking a list, you know.”
Santa began excavating a corner, tossing packages and toys behind him like a dog digging a hole. He looked at me and shrugged. He walked over to a pair of rocking horses and sat on one, motioning for me to sit on the other.
“Things are a little disorganized right now,” Santa said with a flip of his chubby hand and a nervous “Ho-ho-ho.”
I rocked a few times, assembling my thoughts.
“This is your fulfillment center, I take it?”
“What’s that?”
“This is where you fill your orders for gifts, right, Mr. Claus?”
“Uh, right.”
“What type of database do you use?” I asked, rocking back and forth on my horsy.
“Database?”
“Database. How do you keep track? I mean, some years I get some pretty weird stuff, as if my list was crossed with somebody else’s.”
“Well, yeah, that happens once in a while,” Santa said defensively.
“How do you control your inventory?”
“I check the list twice,” he said with pride.
“That doesn’t do much good if you’re checking the wrong list, now does it?”
“Well…”
Santa looked around the room, down at the papers in his hand.
“I’d like you to come in for a month or so and work out some of the glitches we’ve developed.”
“A month or so?” I said, stopping my rocker. “I think you’re underestimating the extent of your glitches, Mr. Claus.”
“Nah, this is different than other businesses you deal with.”
That’s what they all say, I thought, as I reached for my laptop. Santa and I worked for an hour or two before he tired and went to bed. I stayed up and created spreadsheets and made to-do lists. Halfway through my personal brainstorming I eyed a pair of nearby rollerblades and couldn’t resist the urge to lace them up. I skated around and around the warehouse floor until I collapsed, exhausted, in a heap of teddy bears, the images of reindeer dancing in my head.

“BAAAAATTER UP!”
The chatter of vowels jerked me awake. Funny looking children were jumping around me with frying pans in their hands. They tossed pancakes from one to another, singing gibberish about batter and syrup.

Put the heat up on the griddle
Put the batter in the middle
And flip those babies in the air
I sat up. Wait a minute, I said to myself, looking at the bells on their pointy shoes and their goofy little hats. It’s the elves!
“Hey, what’s going on here?” I said.
They turned to me and froze, flipped pancakes flopping on top of their heads. The elves bounced over and introduced themselves. There was Flapjack and Griddlecake and Blintz and Chapatty and Crepe and Pfannekuchen and the Stack Brothers—One, Two and Three.
While they fed me breakfast (Swedish, German and apple pancakes) they told me their story. Raised in an orphanage run by a mean, black-balled short order cook, they were fed only pancakes. One morning, during a grease fire in the kitchen, they escaped, and with the aid of Elf-Self-Help, a temporary elf employment agency, they found work at the North Pole. They took on batter related names, became gourmet flapjack chefs and constantly sang the classic ode to the pancake, “Batter Up.”
I passed on a strawberry waffle and a blueberry blintz, my urge to work overcoming my hunger.
“What time do you boys have to be at work?”
“Whenever,” they shrugged.
“What are you working on today?”
“Whatever.”
“Hmmm,” I said as I prepared for my nine o’clock with Santa.

SANTA WAS LATE AND HIS OFFICE WAS A mess, stacked high with papers. I picked up a letter from the top of the pile and read it:

Dear Santa,
I’m not happy. You used to be nice but you don’t give me the stuff I ask for anymore. Take me off your list and give my name to the Easter Bunny.
Georgia
Age 6
I read twenty more letters in the stack, all of them with the same complaints. Santa walked in, yawning and rubbing sleep from his eyes. I waved the letters at him.
“What happened to their gifts?”
“I don’t know,” he said, running his hands through his hair. “It happens once in a while.”
“Define ‘once in a while,’” I said, sweeping my hands over the reams of letters.
“Well…”
“Listen, Mr. Claus, it’s only February and we have time to straighten things up around here. However, before I do anything, I need to ask your office manager a few questions.”
“Office manager?”

I SENT AN EMAIL TO MY OFFICE INFORMING them I was working off-site for a while. Then I began my evaluation of the work flow at the North Pole.
I sat down with the elves and had them describe their jobs to me. I asked them what their major complaints were and how we could resolve those issues. Although they mentioned shortage of raw materials, frantic, last minute production and various safety hazards in the workshop, they said they never viewed them as problems because that was the way it had always been. Bob and his crew felt the same way. Sure, there were flight delays and extended holding patterns, Bob said, but that was the price of doing business on Christmas Eve. Job satisfaction was rated high by all.
By the end of February a project scope was in place with timelines and milestones to help ease the December crunch. By March, with the elves pulling all-nighters with me, we had a complete stock inventory. In April the database was up and running, listing the gift receivers by region, age and gift request history. During May Bob and his herd and me and my stopwatch began our monthly practice runs, testing new routes and timing our deliveries.
Santa was impressed and pleased with the reorganization, but he showed little interest in learning about the business side of his operation. Not much of a head for it, he would say as he “Ho-ho-hoed” through the complex. However, I insisted upon giving him monthly slide presentations, weekly status reports and sitting him down for a daily dinner meeting where I reviewed the day’s events.
I eliminated 52 rework loops by June. Everyone had a copy of “From List to Delivery,” a 750 page manual I threw together for reference points. There were T-shirts and posters on the walls that proclaimed our motto:

RIGHT LIST RIGHT GIFT RIGHT PERSON RIGHT TIME

On Christmas Eve I gathered Santa and the elves in the living room. I wore the red dress and black boots the elves made for me.
“I want to thank everyone for all the hard work you put in to make the new changes—“
There was a bang on the window. Bob glared at us through the window.
“Hey! Excuse me!” he yelled.
I ran to the door and opened it wide. The eight reindeer tromped into the living room, knocking over furniture with their rumps, poking the elves into the air with their antlers.
“Hey! Watch it, Bobby!” Flapjack said, rubbing his bottom.
“Welcome,” I said when the commotion died down. “Nice to be invited, ma’am.”
“Now, Bob, the Delivery Team Meeting isn’t for ten minutes,” I said, pointing to my watch. “You would know that if you’d read today’s memos.”
“Must have missed that one, ma’am. I could just kick myself.”
“Save your strength, Bob. Let me kick you.”
The other reindeer laughed and butted antlers. I thanked everyone again, then handed out gifts—red nose warmers to the reindeer and real maple syrup to the elves. After our final checklist we were ready to hit the sleigh.
“Okay, you know the drill, let’s go!”
With the precision of an Indy 500 pit crew, the elves funneled the sleigh with gifts and strapped harnesses on the reindeer. Santa jumped in the driver’s seat and grabbed the reins. I sat beside him, my laptop loaded with the list database with corresponding maps in one hand, a cup of hot chocolate with marshmallows in the other. I turned to Santa.
“Ready, Mr. Claus.”
“Ready,” Santa said. “On Bob.”
The reindeer pulled hard, jerking the sleigh forward like a railroad car. We lifted off, circled around the complex and headed south, the wind at our backs. Bob and Santa bantered back and forth, telling stories of Christmas past. We stopped at small houses and large houses, at hospitals and orphanages, wherever there were children who needed toys.
I kept an eye on the time as I checked the list twice. I fed the crew Reindeer Power Enhancement Bars when their energy levels dipped. I was all business and this was my watch. When we hit Haines, Alaska, one of our last stops, a heat surged through me. The snow covered rooftops and the Christmas trees in the windows made me clap my hands and hug myself in delight. It was Christmas Eve night and I was riding along in Santa’s sleigh!
“Ho-ho-ho, Merry Christmas,” Santa said as we landed on the air strip back at the Pole.
“Merry Christmas to you, Mr. Claus,” I said, checking my watch and making one last entry in my computer.
We sat silently in the sleigh, toasted by the glow of giving, watching the falling snow cleanse the night. I looked over at Santa and for the first time, I thought—he’s kind of cute.

“ARE YOU SEEING ANYONE?”
“Sort of.”
“I thought so. You don’t call for almost a year. A year! I have to call your office to find out you’ve quit your high paying, high profile job and moved to Northern Poland.”
“No, mother, not Northern—“
“So, what does he do?”
“He works with underprivileged children and—“ “There’s no money in that.”
“It’s non-profit, mother.”
“There is plenty of money in non-profit, dear. A CEO can make a bundle—bonus, compensation, padded expense accounts. You just have to keep it quiet.”
“Please, mother—“
“I’ll plan on you two coming for Christmas this year.” “That’s not a good time for us, Mother.”
“You owe me that much, don’t you think, for all I’ve done for you?”
“Well, okay, but we can only stay for a second.”

I NEVER CONSIDERED THE CHANCE OF romance in any work environment, let alone the North Pole. After our first Christmas success, Santa wanted to take a few weeks off, but I insisted we get back to work bright and early on December 26th. There was much to do and I stressed to Santa that he had much to learn about running a successful company.
As we continued to work together, I felt the heat of proximity. Something was melting at the North Pole and it wasn’t from global warming. Whether it was his beard tickling my arm as I handed him a graph or when I would squeeze by his soft, round belly on my way to the printer, there was the tingle of love at the North Pole.
I denied the feelings at first. He was my boss, for goodness sake. How many articles in women’s magazines had I read about this very peril? Then there was the age issue. I didn’t know how old Santa was, but he was at least as old as my mother.
I could tell Santa had similar feelings for me. I caught him staring at me while I prepared spreadsheets and work tasks. He would look away, turn redder than usual, and give a self-conscious “Ho-ho-ho.”
We took walks out in the snow while I taught him about process mapping, reengineering and rework loops. One day I slipped on the ice and he caught me and held me tight.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes, thank you, Mr. Claus,” I said, resting my head on his chest.
“Call me Santa,” he said.
We stood there, the wind frisking us, Santa’s heart pounding in my ear. Goodness radiated from somewhere deep inside his girth, a spot I had never found within myself. Where I came from people gave in order to control others, their apparent generosity really a chit to be cashed in at an opportune time. But Santa had a purity of heart that flowed into me like a blood transfusion.
We married a few months later during a blizzard in front of the workshop. Bob, who became an ordained minister through a number he found in the back of Reindeer Journal, performed the ceremony. The reindeer sang and danced while the elves threw dollar pancakes.
We didn’t have time for a honeymoon, I told Santa, but maybe next year. There was too much to be done. My proactive production plan was a week behind schedule, the number of flight delays was unacceptable and the stopover time ratio made me toss and turn all night.
The next year, during the first week of December, right on schedule, we had a baby boy, Sammy. Sandy came along a year later. I told Santa it was time for me to take one step back from the business and for him to take one step forward. With confidence in my system, I stayed home with the kids on Christmas Eve.
And life was good.
For his fourth birthday Santa gave Sammy a miniature chimney with real soot. At five, he gave our son a sleigh cycle with voice activated stuffed reindeer. By six, Sammy was putting on weight and “Ho-ho-hoing” around the house.
As a child, Sandy rode on her daddy’s shoulders while Santa went about preparing for Christmas. “List” was one of the first words she learned after “Mama,” “Dada,” and “Bob.” The elves workshop was my own little day care center for her. Sandy loved sitting with Flapjack at his workbench, laughing and clapping, eating hotcakes and singing along to “Batter Up.”
Yes, life was good.

“DAD, CAN I DRIVE THE SLEIGH THIS YEAR?” “Not this year, Sammy. Maybe next year.”
“You say that every year.”
“Do I? Well, not this Christmas. Maybe next year.” “Then can we finally go to Hawaii for a vacation?”
“This year is too busy. Maybe next year.”
“I’m going to be 12 next week. All I ask for every Christmas is for you to take me to Hawaii.”
“We don’t give you great gifts?”
“Yeah, everything but what I want.”
“So why don’t you and Bob go? He’d love it.”
“Bob? Dad, I want to go with you. That’s the point.”
“Maybe next year.”
“Let’s talk about this after dinner,” I said.
“Not tonight, dear,” Santa said. “I have to work late at the shop.”
Sammy, head down, poked his food with his fork, staring at his pasta as if it were a pile of worms.

THINGS WERE CHANGING AT THE NORTH Pole. At first I thought it was all for the good. Santa took my advice and became active in the nuts and bolts of the company. He drilled me on basic business theories and subscribed to 25 business magazines, from Business Week to Downsizer to Loopholes Monthly. He read every column in the Wall Street Journal except the editorials.
Driven by his new knowledge, he realized the department store process arc from Halloween to Christmas Day was too small a window of opportunity.
Santa hit the road year round promoting his image on talk shows, at Pro-Mythological golf tournaments and summer camps for future street corner Santas. He sponsored a professional wrestling extravaganza—the Battle of the Department Store Santas.
It all appeared to be working so well. The number of letters from disgruntled children dwindled. Santa was more popular than ever, immortalized in new songs and hit movies, buried in an avalanche of fan mail. He was voted “Sexiest Man Alive” for an unprecedented three years in a row.
But the more time he spent with the world, the less time he spent with his family. Sammy, now in his teens, withdrew, watched his weight and went on weeklong juice fasts. Sandy rebelled, turning her room into a shambles, refusing to use the index system I designed for her closet. She immersed herself in the teachings of obscure pagan religions.
Then the layoffs began.

“LET ME GET THIS STRAIGHT, FAT MAN. You’re shuffling me and the crew out to the back 40 for some kind of spacecraft?”
“Hovercraft, Bob.”
“Oh, hovercraft. Well, excuse me and my big ignorant rump.”
Bob and Santa never argued. I could see and hear them through the window as they stood outside the complex, the falling snow bleaching them into the backdrop.
“Let me ask you this, Santa baby. Have me and my crew ever missed any deliveries?”
“No, of course not.”
“Have we ever been late on our rounds?”
“No.”
“So, everything’s fine. Well, it must be time to send the boys to the sausage factory.”
“Early retirement, Bob.”
“Early retirement. Well, it’s too early to retire. We love our job. And you’re not the only star around here. They write songs about us, too. ‘Here comes Santa and his hovercraft’ is not what I would call a catchy hook.”
“Bob, this move is for technological advancement. I think you’ll see this is best for the company.”
“Best for the company? How many years have we broken our backs hauling your fat butt all over the world? And you’re telling me what’s best for the company doesn’t include us?”
“You’re not looking at the big picture, Bob.”
“Oh, yeah, well I’ve got a big picture for you right here, fat man.”
Bob turned around and wiggled his rump in Santa’s face, then stomped through the snow to the stable. Yes, things were changing at the North Pole.

“WE’RE LIMITING OUR RESOURCE ALLOCATION to strengthen our core business.”
“Wow, cool, Santa.”
I was standing outside the office. I recognized Flapjack’s voice through the door.
“As a valued member of our transition team, we would like to offer you an incentive to relocate.”
“Relocate?”
“Yes.”
“Leave the North Pole?”
“Yes, Flapjack. Next year we will be outsourcing our production to some cost-saving labor markets. We need you to relocate as a consultant.”
“But this is my home, Santa. All my friends are here. I don’t know anybody outside of here.”
“This is a terrific vertical move for you, Flapjack.”
“But I’m happy right here. I don’t want to go.”
“There’s no longer a job for you here. There is a job for you down there.”
The door opened and Flapjack, his head down, shuffled by me. I stepped inside the office. Santa beamed and opened his arms.
“Isn’t this great, honey?” he said. “I do have a knack for this side of the business.”
Santa kissed and hugged me tight, squeezing the breath out of me.
“I owe it all to you, honey.”

ON HIS 18TH BIRTHDAY SAMMY MOVED away from the North Pole. He was now a thin, gaunt young man, withdrawn and sullen. He seldom laughed. He bummed a ride off of Bob, who was more than happy to fly him to Hawaii where Sammy went into retail.
Four months later, Sandy, distraught over the relocation of Flapjack, ran away from home. She joined a cult that neither exchanged gifts nor celebrated holidays. Her sect believed that rodents were reincarnated holymen and Sandy founded The Creatures Are Stirring, a solidarity group for mice. She changed her birthday to February 2, Groundhog Day.
Santa minimized the impact of their departures.
“They’re kids, honey, it’s a phase. Look, I think I’ve figured out a drop shipment system that will cut some fat off our payroll.”
The next few Christmas Eves I spent alone, sitting in my rocking chair, the house smothered in silence. Santa was out in the hovercraft with its Global Positioning System and automatic list checker. How did it come to this, I thought, as my head nodded up and down, in and out of sleep, memory tugging at me like a puppet string. After all my work, how did I end up all alone, with no friends or family, just like I was before I came to the North Pole?
Then, on one more lonely Christmas Eve, with a draft biting my ankles and my rocker creaking a sad tune, Griddlecake ran into the room.
“Mrs. Claus, Flapjack has disappeared.”
I sat up, shook my head, leaned forward.
“I just received a call from the factory down south,” Griddlecake said. “Flapjack didn’t show up for work today, Mrs. Claus. He wouldn’t do that on the busiest day of the year.”
My mind was clearing, my head buzzing, a jar full of bees.
“What are we going to do, Mrs. Claus? He must be in trouble.”
I reached over and hugged Griddlecake. “I’ll go find him and bring him home.”
I stood up, moving with instinct, vision and purpose. I went to the closet and put on my old red dress. It must have shrunk, I thought as I bent over and pulled on my black boots. I made my way across to the reindeer stable and opened the door. A wave of snow surfed in on the wind.
“Bob,” I said, “let’s ride.”

THE SLEIGH WAS RUSTY, THE PAINT FADED. Bob and his crew had grown thick around the middle and the elves had to expand the harness straps to make them fit.
“Where we headed, Mrs. C?” Bob asked, pumped for action.
“South, Bob.” “Let’s do it boys.”
We took off into a headwind and fought our way across the latitudes. We landed somewhere in the Yukon.
Bob and his crew huffed and puffed.
“Is there a problem?” I asked. “Uh…(cough, heave)…nothing, Mrs. C.” “You boys a little winded?”
“Us…(hack)…no way. Never felt better. Right, fellas?”
The other seven reindeer nodded as they coughed and sputtered.
“…you got that right…top of our game…feel great…”
After a brief rest we continued south to the state of Washington. Bob stopped for a break on Mount Rainier, and then we flew over Mount Saint Helens, down the Columbia River and up the Willamette River to Northeast Portland. I found the address I wanted on Tenth Street.
I walked up the stairs and knocked on the door. An army of tiny feet tap danced away as a pair of big feet marched toward me. A curtain parted, a doorknob turned. Sandy poked her head through the opening.
“Mom. What are you doing here?”
“I need your help. Let me in.”
Sandy didn’t move, her face scrunched up as if focusing on a complicated math equation.
“Sandy Claus, open this door. NOW!” I said, stomping my boot on the porch.
Startled, she stepped back and I walked past her. An altar with cheese and treadmills stood in the center of the candle-lit living room. Mice scampered back and forth.
“This place is a mess. Grab your coat. I need your help.”
“I can’t leave, Mom,” Sandy said in a hushed tone. “I have a duty and responsibility here. Do you know who these mice are? They’re reincarnated holymen, and I’m their sworn protector.”
Sandy pointed around the room.
“This is Krishna, and Buddha, Mohammed, this is Moses, and gee, Gandhi is around here somewhere.”
“That’s very nice, dear, but we have to go.” “Mom—“
“Sandy, get your coat. I need you. You owe me that much.”
“Owe you, Mom? Is that what giving is all about? The more you give, the more you’re owed?”
My mother’s voice echoed in my head and a sharp pain from childhood burrowed into my stomach. I closed my eyes and focused on my mission.
“We have to go, NOW!” I said, stomping my boot on the floor again. I felt a squish under my heel, heard a pop like a walnut in a nutcracker. Sandy and I looked down at my boot. She bent over.
“Oh, no, Mom, it’s Gandhi. He doesn’t look good.”
“I’m sorry, honey, but he’ll be back…someday.”
She held the mouse in her hands like a chalice. “Honey, Flapjack is missing from his post.”
Sandy looked up at me, her eyes wide, the elf ’s name a Pavlovian trigger to her childhood. She dropped the dead mouse on the floor.
“Missing? What does that mean?”
“I don’t know. That’s why we have to hurry. NOW!”
“Watch where you step, Mom! I’m coming.”
I held the door open for Sandy while I watched Moses and Mohammed spinning on their treadmills.

WHILE SANDY HUGGED THE REINDEER, I jumped back in the driver’s seat and we headed west, the wind raking us with needles of rain. Bob and his herd slid into a groove, singing and joking like old times. The weather cleared when we turned south over the Pacific Ocean.
Stars twinkled and whales breeched as we approached the island of Maui. We landed on the main street of Paia, the last address I had for Sammy. The stores lining the street stood wrapped in Christmas decorations and draped in banners of holiday cheer. My son’s shop sat at the end of the block, its black-striped candy cane neon sign blinking: THE ANTI-CHRISTMAS STORE. When we neared his storefront he stormed out the front door and chased away a group of Christmas carolers.
“And Merry Christmas to you,” I said.
He whirled around like a gunfighter. Recognition softened his face.
“Mom…Sandy…Bob?”
“How’s business, son?”
“Oh, a little slow,” he said defensively, sounding like his father.
“Imagine that.”
“Very funny, Mom,” he said.
“Flapjack is missing, son, and you can help us find him.”
“Why should I? So you can send him back to that awful factory?”
“We’re taking him back to the North Pole, where he belongs. Where we all belong.”
“I don’t belong there.”
“We don’t have time for this, son. Come with us.”
“I can’t help you, Mom.”
Bob reared up on his hind legs, pulling at the harness like a bull in a stall.
“Don’t you talk to your mother like that, boy! Let me at him!”
Bob dragged the rest of the team toward the building and pinned Sammy against the wall with his antlers.
“Get your butt in this sleigh right now or I will stick these antlers in your behind and drag you with us. What’ll be, Sammy Boy?”
“Okay, Bob, okay, but I’m not staying at the North Pole.”
“Who would want you around with that attitude? Now, get in the sleigh.”
Sammy climbed into the back of the sleigh and slumped into the corner. I looked over at Bob, but he looked away.

SANDY TOLD US TO FLY TO CALIFORNIA. In his letters, she said, Flapjack told her Venice Beach was the only place he seemed to fit in. We zoomed across the ocean and landed near the Venice Pier.
“Where do we start?” I asked Sandy.
“He said he sings in a bar around here,” Sandy said.
“That should be easy to find,” Bob snorted, “he only knows one song.”
We walked down the strand, Sammy sulking behind us. We showed Flapjack’s picture to street corner Santas as they roller-skated by, but they only shook their beards.
We turned down a street lined with restaurants and bars. Through the wall of holiday music flowing from the building we heard the strains of an old familiar song. Sandy grabbed my arm as a raucous chorus of “Batter Up” roared from inside a biker bar across the street.
“Look!” Sandy yelled.
Flapjack, with bells on his slippers and his little elf hat on his head, stumbled out of the bar, through a row of motorcycles and dropped to his knees over a sewer drain.
“Flapjack!” we all said as we ran to him.
“Mrs. C., Sandy, Sammy…Oh, I don’t feel so good.”
Flapjack put his head down, recycling a meal into the gutter. I leaned over him, the smell of liquor sucking the air out of my lungs.
“Flapjack, you’re drunk. You don’t drink.” “But I’m unhappy, Mrs. C.”
“Getting drunk doesn’t help, Flapjack.”
“It doesn’t? But that’s what unhappy people do down here. Boy, am I sick.”
“Come on, Flapjack, we’re taking you home.”
“I don’t have a home anymore.”
“Yes, you do. We’re taking you back to the North Pole.”
“I’ll be good, I swear I will.”
“You were never bad, Flapjack.”
“I must have done something terrible to make Santa send me away, Mrs. C.”
I picked Flapjack up and hugged him, my mind muddled with emotions. A huge, bearded man dressed in leather walked out of the bar and started up his motorcycle. He noticed Flapjack and pointed his finger at us.
“Hey, little dude, the pancake song rocks.”

SANDY HELD FLAPJACK’S HEAD OVER THE side of the sleigh as Bob guided us north over the old delivery route we had honed so many years before. Above Haines, the necklace of lights rimming the small boat harbor triggered memories of my first Christmas run with Santa and the dull ache of the past swept over me. Flapjack perked up, as if from a cattle prod.
“Down there!” he said. “It’s Santa!”
Santa lay sprawled in the snow, gifts scattered around him like confetti. The hovercraft smashed into a building in the middle of the parade grounds. We landed and the four of us rushed to Santa’s side.
“Santa, are you okay?” I said, my heart exploding. “What happened?”
“Oh, my leg,” he moaned, dazed by shock. “Darn machine doesn’t listen to me like Bob did.”
Santa chuckled a weak “Ho-ho-ho.”
“It’s not broken, honey,” I said after I squeezed my hands down his leg. I checked my watch. “The deliveries are way behind schedule. Let’s use the sleigh.”
The kids and Flapjack gathered the gifts and loaded the sleigh. We huffed, puffed and grunted to get Santa on his feet but when I watched him hobble I knew he was in no shape to chimney hop. Santa tried to slide into the driver’s seat, but Sammy stopped him.
“Get in the back, Dad.” “I’m driving, Sammy.”
“You’ve already wrecked one vehicle. Get in the back and relax. I’m driving.”
“This is my sleigh and I’m driving.”
“Not now you’re not. But…” Sammy said, pausing for effect, “maybe next year.”
Santa stared at our son, frowned, then nodded in revelation. We helped him into the back seat and I sat beside him, keeping his leg elevated. When Sammy grabbed the reins, Flapjack turned to me.
“We don’t have a list, Mrs. C.”
“Oh, yes, we do,” I said, reaching under the seat for my laptop and turning it on. I squinted at the blur on the screen, feeling through my pockets for my reading glasses. Sandy snatched the computer from my lap.
“I’ll handle this, Mom. You take care of Dad.”
“On Bob,” Sammy said as we taxied along the snow and then up into the night sky. I sat back, Santa’s head in my lap, and watched our children work. Sandy checked the list while Flapjack refilled the sack between stops. Sammy, with the fervor of a firefighter, slid up and down the chimneys. With speed, enthusiasm and teamwork they finished ahead of schedule.
“This is Big Red to base,” Sandy said into the radio. “Do you copy?”
“This is base,” Griddlecake’s voice scratched through the air.
“We’ve got Flapjack and we’re coming home.”
“That boy can drive a sleigh,” Bob said as we landed back at the Pole, the Northern Lights blazing like a Mardi Gras party. Griddlecake and the gang raced out of the complex, hugging Flapjack and Sandy and freeing the reindeer. Blintz and Chapatty ran back inside to get a stretcher for Santa while the reindeer danced and slapped antlers in celebration of their trip.
The purity and joy of the moment bathed me in light. I looked down at Santa and took his hand. He turned to Sammy who was standing in front of the sleigh, staring at the complex.
“Nice job, son,” Santa said.
Sammy nodded and walked away. I squeezed Santa’s hand and stroked his head.
“Let’s talk, Santa,” I said.
An hour later we gathered for breakfast in the dining room. Bob had everyone laughing. The big reindeer was telling jokes, doing impressions, reliving the night’s highlights. Pancakes sat on the table, piled high like stacks of poker chips. I tapped on a gallon jug of maple syrup.
“I want to welcome Flapjack back to the North Pole,” I said.
Applause, hooting, tossing of pancakes.
“And I also want to thank Sandy and Sammy for visiting us.”
More applause, stomping of hooves, slapping of antlers.
“Santa and I have been talking and we’ve made a few decisions. First, if Bob and the crew agree, Santa wants them back next year as his delivery team.”
“Early retirement for the hovercraft!” Bob said, raising a hoof in the air.
“Second, we are returning to our centralized production system, which means we need you back, Flapjack.”
“Yes!” the elves said, exploding from their seats like sports fans.
While I watched the reindeer dance on tables and listened to the elves sing “Batter Up,” I thought about my life at the North Pole. What a success I had been at efficiency, but what a failure I was at effectiveness. How many times had I towed the bottom line of low cost production when the real bottom line was celebrating right before me?
“Mom, are you okay?”
I shook my head and turned toward Sandy, who was swing dancing with Bob.
“Pardon me, honey?”
“I said, ‘Are you okay?’ You’re staring.”
“Oh, I’m fine, sweetheart.”
Sandy rushed over and hugged me, squeezing me tight.
“I love you, Mom.”
Bob stepped up and gave me a wet, slobbering kiss, his breath stinging my eyes. I mopped my cheek with my sleeve.
“I love you, too, Mrs. C.”
The elves and the other reindeer rushed to me, kissing and hugging me as if I’d scored a winning soccer goal. Sammy fought through the crowd and whispered in my ear.
“Merry Christmas, Mom,” he said.
My throat was tight, my skin massaged by electricity. I grabbed Santa’s hand so I wouldn’t float away. I made a goal to get back on track, but this plan came from my heart, not my head. What was good for me would be good for our family, and what was good for our family would be good for our company, and what was good for our company would be good for the world.
Now that’s a bottom line I could live with.

I WAS BORN TO RUN A FORTUNE 500 company. At age seven I owned, operated and franchised a chain of successful drive-through lemonade stands. In middle school I reengineered the cafeteria food lines to maximize playground time. As high school treasurer, I funneled “donations” through the principal’s office to soften his views on independent study.
I went on to earn my MBA from a prestigious business school in the Midwest. For my master thesis I evaluated the efficiency of my own school’s business department. As a result of my recommendations, four professors were denied tenure, two assistants were urged to “pursue other opportunities” and my advisor, an old friend of the family, was stripped of his pension.
Upon finishing my Workaholic in Residence Program at the local branch of the Foreclosure Bank of North America, I graduated at the top of my class. Recruiters fought over me as if I were a blue chip athlete. I chose a small-cap, high growth company with rapid multiple product introductions. Within months, with my solution-oriented instincts for problem solving, I became an invaluable member of the senior management team. However, after the first leg of my oxygen-depleting career arc, I found myself curiously unfulfilled.
I set a goal to get back on track. I hired a Chinese Feng Sui master to re-energize my office. Mr. Woo built a moat around my desk and filled it with exotic Asian goldfish. He hung crystals from my ceiling and replaced my phone ringer with a ceremonial gong. I reread the
#1 bestseller, “Rationalizations Seven Successful CEOs Use to Convince Themselves They’re Doing Something Worthwhile With Their Lives.” I even refused to work more than 12 hours on Sundays.
Nothing helped. Was it me? Was it my job? Headhunters contacted me constantly, but I turned down lucrative offers every day. Then, one night, at 2 a.m., I turned in early. While flossing my teeth, checking my voice mail and balancing my check book, the business section fell off my lap onto the floor. I leaned out of bed and a block of letters from the page expanded in front of me:

IMMEDIATE OPENING!!!!!! Efficiency Expert at the North Pole Serious Inquiries Only

The North Pole! Now, that sounded interesting. I emailed my resume from the laptop I kept on the nightstand next to my bed. I nodded to sleep and tiptoed into dreams. I skied across the white frosting of a gigantic birthday cake with lit candles the size of pine trees. I laughed and giggled until a horn went off in the wilderness. I stomped my feet and yelled for it to stop. I woke up to the sound of my computer telling me I had a message. I reached over, turned on the light and checked my messages.
Would like to schedule an interview tomorrow night. Is
midnight okay? My driver will pick you up. Dress warm.
Ho-ho-ho
S.C.

To the amazement of the cleaning crew, I left work by eleven that night. I rushed home and changed into my blue wool power suit; assertive but friendly. I opened my laptop and reviewed my list of compensation requirements—short term and long term bonus potential, transportation allowance, 401 k, stock options, first dollar medical and dental.
My computer scheduling program beeped. There was a thud at the door. It was midnight. I put the laptop in my briefcase, grabbed my coffee cup and stepped onto the porch of my condo. On the sidewalk stood eight reindeer and a shiny, red sleigh, glowing like a hot coal.
“Wow, reindeer,” I said, icicles racing down my extremities.
“You think?”
“Excuse me?” I said, looking around for the source of the voice. The reindeer in front of the pack turned to me.
“I said, ‘You think?’ What part of that didn’t you understand, lady?”
I dropped my briefcase, coffee spilled over my shoes. “Talking reindeer.”
“We’ve got a smart one here, fellas.”
The other reindeer chuckled and stomped their hooves into the ground.
“You must be here to pick me up?” I said foolishly. “No, lady, we were just in the neighborhood looking for our cousin Rudy and we thought you might be roasting him over an open fire.”
The reindeer laughed, stomped and nudged each other with their antlers. They mumbled parts of the joke: “…just in the neighborhood…open fire…might be roasting…”
I checked my watch, straightened my suit, trying to act businesslike in front of eight talking reindeer. I reached my hand out to the head reindeer.
“Hi, I’m—“
“Bob.”
“Sorry?”
“Name’s Bob, ma’am. You have a problem with that?” “No…uh…Bob is a lovely name…for a talking
reindeer.”
“Bob is a lovely name for a talking, flying reindeer, lady. Let’s go.”
I stepped up into the sleigh and grabbed hold of the reins, a feeling of wonder sizzling my skin. The reindeer shuffled their hooves and lifted off, the momentum plastering me to the seat. We rose above the trees, the houses and the high rise office buildings. We flew north, above a quilt of clouds, the stars blinding me as if they were flashbulbs. Bob told stories while the reindeer joked and sang. I held on, the wind biting my face, spinning my hair into steel wool.
As we began our descent, the greens and reds of the Northern Lights danced in my head like a cartoon. We landed in the middle of the light show, on a snowed-in runway with a barely visible sign that read:

WELCOME TO THE NORTH POLE

SNOW FELL AROUND ME LIKE FEATHERS from a celestial pillow fight. I stepped out of the sleigh, took a breath and composed myself. Shoulders back, briefcase in hand, I trudged through the snow and opened the door to the complex. A voice yelled:
“You Better Watch Out!”
An avalanche of clutter buried me in darkness, a bike pedal stuck in my ribs, a basketball flattening my ear. Somewhere out there a talking doll repeated, “I’m Patty and I’m not afraid to say ‘no’.”
I heard someone digging me out of my tomb. A colander of light flowed through the spokes of a wheel pressed to my face. I looked up into a wall of red.
“Are you okay?”
“You’re Santa Claus!” I yelled, as if he were an amnesia patient.
He nodded and helped me up. We were standing in a warehouse the size of a cruise ship. With the inventory system of my grandfather’s garage, dolls, skis, clothes and games were stacked to the ceiling.
“Be right with you,” Santa said, one hand full of crumbled papers, the other searching through the debris.
“Um, you lose something?”
“Not yet. Just can’t find it right now,” he said, looking up and shaking the papers at me. “Checking a list, you know.”
Santa began excavating a corner, tossing packages and toys behind him like a dog digging a hole. He looked at me and shrugged. He walked over to a pair of rocking horses and sat on one, motioning for me to sit on the other.
“Things are a little disorganized right now,” Santa said with a flip of his chubby hand and a nervous “Ho-ho-ho.”
I rocked a few times, assembling my thoughts.
“This is your fulfillment center, I take it?”
“What’s that?”
“This is where you fill your orders for gifts, right, Mr. Claus?”
“Uh, right.”
“What type of database do you use?” I asked, rocking back and forth on my horsy.
“Database?”
“Database. How do you keep track? I mean, some years I get some pretty weird stuff, as if my list was crossed with somebody else’s.”
“Well, yeah, that happens once in a while,” Santa said defensively.
“How do you control your inventory?”
“I check the list twice,” he said with pride.
“That doesn’t do much good if you’re checking the wrong list, now does it?”
“Well…”
Santa looked around the room, down at the papers in his hand.
“I’d like you to come in for a month or so and work out some of the glitches we’ve developed.”
“A month or so?” I said, stopping my rocker. “I think you’re underestimating the extent of your glitches, Mr. Claus.”
“Nah, this is different than other businesses you deal with.”
That’s what they all say, I thought, as I reached for my laptop. Santa and I worked for an hour or two before he tired and went to bed. I stayed up and created spreadsheets and made to-do lists. Halfway through my personal brainstorming I eyed a pair of nearby rollerblades and couldn’t resist the urge to lace them up. I skated around and around the warehouse floor until I collapsed, exhausted, in a heap of teddy bears, the images of reindeer dancing in my head.

“BAAAAATTER UP!”
The chatter of vowels jerked me awake. Funny looking children were jumping around me with frying pans in their hands. They tossed pancakes from one to another, singing gibberish about batter and syrup.

Put the heat up on the griddle
Put the batter in the middle
And flip those babies in the air
I sat up. Wait a minute, I said to myself, looking at the bells on their pointy shoes and their goofy little hats. It’s the elves!
“Hey, what’s going on here?” I said.
They turned to me and froze, flipped pancakes flopping on top of their heads. The elves bounced over and introduced themselves. There was Flapjack and Griddlecake and Blintz and Chapatty and Crepe and Pfannekuchen and the Stack Brothers—One, Two and Three.
While they fed me breakfast (Swedish, German and apple pancakes) they told me their story. Raised in an orphanage run by a mean, black-balled short order cook, they were fed only pancakes. One morning, during a grease fire in the kitchen, they escaped, and with the aid of Elf-Self-Help, a temporary elf employment agency, they found work at the North Pole. They took on batter related names, became gourmet flapjack chefs and constantly sang the classic ode to the pancake, “Batter Up.”
I passed on a strawberry waffle and a blueberry blintz, my urge to work overcoming my hunger.
“What time do you boys have to be at work?”
“Whenever,” they shrugged.
“What are you working on today?”
“Whatever.”
“Hmmm,” I said as I prepared for my nine o’clock with Santa.

SANTA WAS LATE AND HIS OFFICE WAS A mess, stacked high with papers. I picked up a letter from the top of the pile and read it:

Dear Santa,
I’m not happy. You used to be nice but you don’t give me the stuff I ask for anymore. Take me off your list and give my name to the Easter Bunny.
Georgia
Age 6
I read twenty more letters in the stack, all of them with the same complaints. Santa walked in, yawning and rubbing sleep from his eyes. I waved the letters at him.
“What happened to their gifts?”
“I don’t know,” he said, running his hands through his hair. “It happens once in a while.”
“Define ‘once in a while,’” I said, sweeping my hands over the reams of letters.
“Well…”
“Listen, Mr. Claus, it’s only February and we have time to straighten things up around here. However, before I do anything, I need to ask your office manager a few questions.”
“Office manager?”

I SENT AN EMAIL TO MY OFFICE INFORMING them I was working off-site for a while. Then I began my evaluation of the work flow at the North Pole.
I sat down with the elves and had them describe their jobs to me. I asked them what their major complaints were and how we could resolve those issues. Although they mentioned shortage of raw materials, frantic, last minute production and various safety hazards in the workshop, they said they never viewed them as problems because that was the way it had always been. Bob and his crew felt the same way. Sure, there were flight delays and extended holding patterns, Bob said, but that was the price of doing business on Christmas Eve. Job satisfaction was rated high by all.
By the end of February a project scope was in place with timelines and milestones to help ease the December crunch. By March, with the elves pulling all-nighters with me, we had a complete stock inventory. In April the database was up and running, listing the gift receivers by region, age and gift request history. During May Bob and his herd and me and my stopwatch began our monthly practice runs, testing new routes and timing our deliveries.
Santa was impressed and pleased with the reorganization, but he showed little interest in learning about the business side of his operation. Not much of a head for it, he would say as he “Ho-ho-hoed” through the complex. However, I insisted upon giving him monthly slide presentations, weekly status reports and sitting him down for a daily dinner meeting where I reviewed the day’s events.
I eliminated 52 rework loops by June. Everyone had a copy of “From List to Delivery,” a 750 page manual I threw together for reference points. There were T-shirts and posters on the walls that proclaimed our motto:

RIGHT LIST RIGHT GIFT RIGHT PERSON RIGHT TIME

On Christmas Eve I gathered Santa and the elves in the living room. I wore the red dress and black boots the elves made for me.
“I want to thank everyone for all the hard work you put in to make the new changes—“
There was a bang on the window. Bob glared at us through the window.
“Hey! Excuse me!” he yelled.
I ran to the door and opened it wide. The eight reindeer tromped into the living room, knocking over furniture with their rumps, poking the elves into the air with their antlers.
“Hey! Watch it, Bobby!” Flapjack said, rubbing his bottom.
“Welcome,” I said when the commotion died down. “Nice to be invited, ma’am.”
“Now, Bob, the Delivery Team Meeting isn’t for ten minutes,” I said, pointing to my watch. “You would know that if you’d read today’s memos.”
“Must have missed that one, ma’am. I could just kick myself.”
“Save your strength, Bob. Let me kick you.”
The other reindeer laughed and butted antlers. I thanked everyone again, then handed out gifts—red nose warmers to the reindeer and real maple syrup to the elves. After our final checklist we were ready to hit the sleigh.
“Okay, you know the drill, let’s go!”
With the precision of an Indy 500 pit crew, the elves funneled the sleigh with gifts and strapped harnesses on the reindeer. Santa jumped in the driver’s seat and grabbed the reins. I sat beside him, my laptop loaded with the list database with corresponding maps in one hand, a cup of hot chocolate with marshmallows in the other. I turned to Santa.
“Ready, Mr. Claus.”
“Ready,” Santa said. “On Bob.”
The reindeer pulled hard, jerking the sleigh forward like a railroad car. We lifted off, circled around the complex and headed south, the wind at our backs. Bob and Santa bantered back and forth, telling stories of Christmas past. We stopped at small houses and large houses, at hospitals and orphanages, wherever there were children who needed toys.
I kept an eye on the time as I checked the list twice. I fed the crew Reindeer Power Enhancement Bars when their energy levels dipped. I was all business and this was my watch. When we hit Haines, Alaska, one of our last stops, a heat surged through me. The snow covered rooftops and the Christmas trees in the windows made me clap my hands and hug myself in delight. It was Christmas Eve night and I was riding along in Santa’s sleigh!
“Ho-ho-ho, Merry Christmas,” Santa said as we landed on the air strip back at the Pole.
“Merry Christmas to you, Mr. Claus,” I said, checking my watch and making one last entry in my computer.
We sat silently in the sleigh, toasted by the glow of giving, watching the falling snow cleanse the night. I looked over at Santa and for the first time, I thought—he’s kind of cute.

“ARE YOU SEEING ANYONE?”
“Sort of.”
“I thought so. You don’t call for almost a year. A year! I have to call your office to find out you’ve quit your high paying, high profile job and moved to Northern Poland.”
“No, mother, not Northern—“
“So, what does he do?”
“He works with underprivileged children and—“ “There’s no money in that.”
“It’s non-profit, mother.”
“There is plenty of money in non-profit, dear. A CEO can make a bundle—bonus, compensation, padded expense accounts. You just have to keep it quiet.”
“Please, mother—“
“I’ll plan on you two coming for Christmas this year.” “That’s not a good time for us, Mother.”
“You owe me that much, don’t you think, for all I’ve done for you?”
“Well, okay, but we can only stay for a second.”

I NEVER CONSIDERED THE CHANCE OF romance in any work environment, let alone the North Pole. After our first Christmas success, Santa wanted to take a few weeks off, but I insisted we get back to work bright and early on December 26th. There was much to do and I stressed to Santa that he had much to learn about running a successful company.
As we continued to work together, I felt the heat of proximity. Something was melting at the North Pole and it wasn’t from global warming. Whether it was his beard tickling my arm as I handed him a graph or when I would squeeze by his soft, round belly on my way to the printer, there was the tingle of love at the North Pole.
I denied the feelings at first. He was my boss, for goodness sake. How many articles in women’s magazines had I read about this very peril? Then there was the age issue. I didn’t know how old Santa was, but he was at least as old as my mother.
I could tell Santa had similar feelings for me. I caught him staring at me while I prepared spreadsheets and work tasks. He would look away, turn redder than usual, and give a self-conscious “Ho-ho-ho.”
We took walks out in the snow while I taught him about process mapping, reengineering and rework loops. One day I slipped on the ice and he caught me and held me tight.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes, thank you, Mr. Claus,” I said, resting my head on his chest.
“Call me Santa,” he said.
We stood there, the wind frisking us, Santa’s heart pounding in my ear. Goodness radiated from somewhere deep inside his girth, a spot I had never found within myself. Where I came from people gave in order to control others, their apparent generosity really a chit to be cashed in at an opportune time. But Santa had a purity of heart that flowed into me like a blood transfusion.
We married a few months later during a blizzard in front of the workshop. Bob, who became an ordained minister through a number he found in the back of Reindeer Journal, performed the ceremony. The reindeer sang and danced while the elves threw dollar pancakes.
We didn’t have time for a honeymoon, I told Santa, but maybe next year. There was too much to be done. My proactive production plan was a week behind schedule, the number of flight delays was unacceptable and the stopover time ratio made me toss and turn all night.
The next year, during the first week of December, right on schedule, we had a baby boy, Sammy. Sandy came along a year later. I told Santa it was time for me to take one step back from the business and for him to take one step forward. With confidence in my system, I stayed home with the kids on Christmas Eve.
And life was good.
For his fourth birthday Santa gave Sammy a miniature chimney with real soot. At five, he gave our son a sleigh cycle with voice activated stuffed reindeer. By six, Sammy was putting on weight and “Ho-ho-hoing” around the house.
As a child, Sandy rode on her daddy’s shoulders while Santa went about preparing for Christmas. “List” was one of the first words she learned after “Mama,” “Dada,” and “Bob.” The elves workshop was my own little day care center for her. Sandy loved sitting with Flapjack at his workbench, laughing and clapping, eating hotcakes and singing along to “Batter Up.”
Yes, life was good.

“DAD, CAN I DRIVE THE SLEIGH THIS YEAR?” “Not this year, Sammy. Maybe next year.”
“You say that every year.”
“Do I? Well, not this Christmas. Maybe next year.” “Then can we finally go to Hawaii for a vacation?”
“This year is too busy. Maybe next year.”
“I’m going to be 12 next week. All I ask for every Christmas is for you to take me to Hawaii.”
“We don’t give you great gifts?”
“Yeah, everything but what I want.”
“So why don’t you and Bob go? He’d love it.”
“Bob? Dad, I want to go with you. That’s the point.”
“Maybe next year.”
“Let’s talk about this after dinner,” I said.
“Not tonight, dear,” Santa said. “I have to work late at the shop.”
Sammy, head down, poked his food with his fork, staring at his pasta as if it were a pile of worms.

THINGS WERE CHANGING AT THE NORTH Pole. At first I thought it was all for the good. Santa took my advice and became active in the nuts and bolts of the company. He drilled me on basic business theories and subscribed to 25 business magazines, from Business Week to Downsizer to Loopholes Monthly. He read every column in the Wall Street Journal except the editorials.
Driven by his new knowledge, he realized the department store process arc from Halloween to Christmas Day was too small a window of opportunity.
Santa hit the road year round promoting his image on talk shows, at Pro-Mythological golf tournaments and summer camps for future street corner Santas. He sponsored a professional wrestling extravaganza—the Battle of the Department Store Santas.
It all appeared to be working so well. The number of letters from disgruntled children dwindled. Santa was more popular than ever, immortalized in new songs and hit movies, buried in an avalanche of fan mail. He was voted “Sexiest Man Alive” for an unprecedented three years in a row.
But the more time he spent with the world, the less time he spent with his family. Sammy, now in his teens, withdrew, watched his weight and went on weeklong juice fasts. Sandy rebelled, turning her room into a shambles, refusing to use the index system I designed for her closet. She immersed herself in the teachings of obscure pagan religions.
Then the layoffs began.

“LET ME GET THIS STRAIGHT, FAT MAN. You’re shuffling me and the crew out to the back 40 for some kind of spacecraft?”
“Hovercraft, Bob.”
“Oh, hovercraft. Well, excuse me and my big ignorant rump.”
Bob and Santa never argued. I could see and hear them through the window as they stood outside the complex, the falling snow bleaching them into the backdrop.
“Let me ask you this, Santa baby. Have me and my crew ever missed any deliveries?”
“No, of course not.”
“Have we ever been late on our rounds?”
“No.”
“So, everything’s fine. Well, it must be time to send the boys to the sausage factory.”
“Early retirement, Bob.”
“Early retirement. Well, it’s too early to retire. We love our job. And you’re not the only star around here. They write songs about us, too. ‘Here comes Santa and his hovercraft’ is not what I would call a catchy hook.”
“Bob, this move is for technological advancement. I think you’ll see this is best for the company.”
“Best for the company? How many years have we broken our backs hauling your fat butt all over the world? And you’re telling me what’s best for the company doesn’t include us?”
“You’re not looking at the big picture, Bob.”
“Oh, yeah, well I’ve got a big picture for you right here, fat man.”
Bob turned around and wiggled his rump in Santa’s face, then stomped through the snow to the stable. Yes, things were changing at the North Pole.

“WE’RE LIMITING OUR RESOURCE ALLOCATION to strengthen our core business.”
“Wow, cool, Santa.”
I was standing outside the office. I recognized Flapjack’s voice through the door.
“As a valued member of our transition team, we would like to offer you an incentive to relocate.”
“Relocate?”
“Yes.”
“Leave the North Pole?”
“Yes, Flapjack. Next year we will be outsourcing our production to some cost-saving labor markets. We need you to relocate as a consultant.”
“But this is my home, Santa. All my friends are here. I don’t know anybody outside of here.”
“This is a terrific vertical move for you, Flapjack.”
“But I’m happy right here. I don’t want to go.”
“There’s no longer a job for you here. There is a job for you down there.”
The door opened and Flapjack, his head down, shuffled by me. I stepped inside the office. Santa beamed and opened his arms.
“Isn’t this great, honey?” he said. “I do have a knack for this side of the business.”
Santa kissed and hugged me tight, squeezing the breath out of me.
“I owe it all to you, honey.”

ON HIS 18TH BIRTHDAY SAMMY MOVED away from the North Pole. He was now a thin, gaunt young man, withdrawn and sullen. He seldom laughed. He bummed a ride off of Bob, who was more than happy to fly him to Hawaii where Sammy went into retail.
Four months later, Sandy, distraught over the relocation of Flapjack, ran away from home. She joined a cult that neither exchanged gifts nor celebrated holidays. Her sect believed that rodents were reincarnated holymen and Sandy founded The Creatures Are Stirring, a solidarity group for mice. She changed her birthday to February 2, Groundhog Day.
Santa minimized the impact of their departures.
“They’re kids, honey, it’s a phase. Look, I think I’ve figured out a drop shipment system that will cut some fat off our payroll.”
The next few Christmas Eves I spent alone, sitting in my rocking chair, the house smothered in silence. Santa was out in the hovercraft with its Global Positioning System and automatic list checker. How did it come to this, I thought, as my head nodded up and down, in and out of sleep, memory tugging at me like a puppet string. After all my work, how did I end up all alone, with no friends or family, just like I was before I came to the North Pole?
Then, on one more lonely Christmas Eve, with a draft biting my ankles and my rocker creaking a sad tune, Griddlecake ran into the room.
“Mrs. Claus, Flapjack has disappeared.”
I sat up, shook my head, leaned forward.
“I just received a call from the factory down south,” Griddlecake said. “Flapjack didn’t show up for work today, Mrs. Claus. He wouldn’t do that on the busiest day of the year.”
My mind was clearing, my head buzzing, a jar full of bees.
“What are we going to do, Mrs. Claus? He must be in trouble.”
I reached over and hugged Griddlecake. “I’ll go find him and bring him home.”
I stood up, moving with instinct, vision and purpose. I went to the closet and put on my old red dress. It must have shrunk, I thought as I bent over and pulled on my black boots. I made my way across to the reindeer stable and opened the door. A wave of snow surfed in on the wind.
“Bob,” I said, “let’s ride.”

THE SLEIGH WAS RUSTY, THE PAINT FADED. Bob and his crew had grown thick around the middle and the elves had to expand the harness straps to make them fit.
“Where we headed, Mrs. C?” Bob asked, pumped for action.
“South, Bob.” “Let’s do it boys.”
We took off into a headwind and fought our way across the latitudes. We landed somewhere in the Yukon.
Bob and his crew huffed and puffed.
“Is there a problem?” I asked. “Uh…(cough, heave)…nothing, Mrs. C.” “You boys a little winded?”
“Us…(hack)…no way. Never felt better. Right, fellas?”
The other seven reindeer nodded as they coughed and sputtered.
“…you got that right…top of our game…feel great…”
After a brief rest we continued south to the state of Washington. Bob stopped for a break on Mount Rainier, and then we flew over Mount Saint Helens, down the Columbia River and up the Willamette River to Northeast Portland. I found the address I wanted on Tenth Street.
I walked up the stairs and knocked on the door. An army of tiny feet tap danced away as a pair of big feet marched toward me. A curtain parted, a doorknob turned. Sandy poked her head through the opening.
“Mom. What are you doing here?”
“I need your help. Let me in.”
Sandy didn’t move, her face scrunched up as if focusing on a complicated math equation.
“Sandy Claus, open this door. NOW!” I said, stomping my boot on the porch.
Startled, she stepped back and I walked past her. An altar with cheese and treadmills stood in the center of the candle-lit living room. Mice scampered back and forth.
“This place is a mess. Grab your coat. I need your help.”
“I can’t leave, Mom,” Sandy said in a hushed tone. “I have a duty and responsibility here. Do you know who these mice are? They’re reincarnated holymen, and I’m their sworn protector.”
Sandy pointed around the room.
“This is Krishna, and Buddha, Mohammed, this is Moses, and gee, Gandhi is around here somewhere.”
“That’s very nice, dear, but we have to go.” “Mom—“
“Sandy, get your coat. I need you. You owe me that much.”
“Owe you, Mom? Is that what giving is all about? The more you give, the more you’re owed?”
My mother’s voice echoed in my head and a sharp pain from childhood burrowed into my stomach. I closed my eyes and focused on my mission.
“We have to go, NOW!” I said, stomping my boot on the floor again. I felt a squish under my heel, heard a pop like a walnut in a nutcracker. Sandy and I looked down at my boot. She bent over.
“Oh, no, Mom, it’s Gandhi. He doesn’t look good.”
“I’m sorry, honey, but he’ll be back…someday.”
She held the mouse in her hands like a chalice. “Honey, Flapjack is missing from his post.”
Sandy looked up at me, her eyes wide, the elf ’s name a Pavlovian trigger to her childhood. She dropped the dead mouse on the floor.
“Missing? What does that mean?”
“I don’t know. That’s why we have to hurry. NOW!”
“Watch where you step, Mom! I’m coming.”
I held the door open for Sandy while I watched Moses and Mohammed spinning on their treadmills.

WHILE SANDY HUGGED THE REINDEER, I jumped back in the driver’s seat and we headed west, the wind raking us with needles of rain. Bob and his herd slid into a groove, singing and joking like old times. The weather cleared when we turned south over the Pacific Ocean.
Stars twinkled and whales breeched as we approached the island of Maui. We landed on the main street of Paia, the last address I had for Sammy. The stores lining the street stood wrapped in Christmas decorations and draped in banners of holiday cheer. My son’s shop sat at the end of the block, its black-striped candy cane neon sign blinking: THE ANTI-CHRISTMAS STORE. When we neared his storefront he stormed out the front door and chased away a group of Christmas carolers.
“And Merry Christmas to you,” I said.
He whirled around like a gunfighter. Recognition softened his face.
“Mom…Sandy…Bob?”
“How’s business, son?”
“Oh, a little slow,” he said defensively, sounding like his father.
“Imagine that.”
“Very funny, Mom,” he said.
“Flapjack is missing, son, and you can help us find him.”
“Why should I? So you can send him back to that awful factory?”
“We’re taking him back to the North Pole, where he belongs. Where we all belong.”
“I don’t belong there.”
“We don’t have time for this, son. Come with us.”
“I can’t help you, Mom.”
Bob reared up on his hind legs, pulling at the harness like a bull in a stall.
“Don’t you talk to your mother like that, boy! Let me at him!”
Bob dragged the rest of the team toward the building and pinned Sammy against the wall with his antlers.
“Get your butt in this sleigh right now or I will stick these antlers in your behind and drag you with us. What’ll be, Sammy Boy?”
“Okay, Bob, okay, but I’m not staying at the North Pole.”
“Who would want you around with that attitude? Now, get in the sleigh.”
Sammy climbed into the back of the sleigh and slumped into the corner. I looked over at Bob, but he looked away.

SANDY TOLD US TO FLY TO CALIFORNIA. In his letters, she said, Flapjack told her Venice Beach was the only place he seemed to fit in. We zoomed across the ocean and landed near the Venice Pier.
“Where do we start?” I asked Sandy.
“He said he sings in a bar around here,” Sandy said.
“That should be easy to find,” Bob snorted, “he only knows one song.”
We walked down the strand, Sammy sulking behind us. We showed Flapjack’s picture to street corner Santas as they roller-skated by, but they only shook their beards.
We turned down a street lined with restaurants and bars. Through the wall of holiday music flowing from the building we heard the strains of an old familiar song. Sandy grabbed my arm as a raucous chorus of “Batter Up” roared from inside a biker bar across the street.
“Look!” Sandy yelled.
Flapjack, with bells on his slippers and his little elf hat on his head, stumbled out of the bar, through a row of motorcycles and dropped to his knees over a sewer drain.
“Flapjack!” we all said as we ran to him.
“Mrs. C., Sandy, Sammy…Oh, I don’t feel so good.”
Flapjack put his head down, recycling a meal into the gutter. I leaned over him, the smell of liquor sucking the air out of my lungs.
“Flapjack, you’re drunk. You don’t drink.” “But I’m unhappy, Mrs. C.”
“Getting drunk doesn’t help, Flapjack.”
“It doesn’t? But that’s what unhappy people do down here. Boy, am I sick.”
“Come on, Flapjack, we’re taking you home.”
“I don’t have a home anymore.”
“Yes, you do. We’re taking you back to the North Pole.”
“I’ll be good, I swear I will.”
“You were never bad, Flapjack.”
“I must have done something terrible to make Santa send me away, Mrs. C.”
I picked Flapjack up and hugged him, my mind muddled with emotions. A huge, bearded man dressed in leather walked out of the bar and started up his motorcycle. He noticed Flapjack and pointed his finger at us.
“Hey, little dude, the pancake song rocks.”

SANDY HELD FLAPJACK’S HEAD OVER THE side of the sleigh as Bob guided us north over the old delivery route we had honed so many years before. Above Haines, the necklace of lights rimming the small boat harbor triggered memories of my first Christmas run with Santa and the dull ache of the past swept over me. Flapjack perked up, as if from a cattle prod.
“Down there!” he said. “It’s Santa!”
Santa lay sprawled in the snow, gifts scattered around him like confetti. The hovercraft smashed into a building in the middle of the parade grounds. We landed and the four of us rushed to Santa’s side.
“Santa, are you okay?” I said, my heart exploding. “What happened?”
“Oh, my leg,” he moaned, dazed by shock. “Darn machine doesn’t listen to me like Bob did.”
Santa chuckled a weak “Ho-ho-ho.”
“It’s not broken, honey,” I said after I squeezed my hands down his leg. I checked my watch. “The deliveries are way behind schedule. Let’s use the sleigh.”
The kids and Flapjack gathered the gifts and loaded the sleigh. We huffed, puffed and grunted to get Santa on his feet but when I watched him hobble I knew he was in no shape to chimney hop. Santa tried to slide into the driver’s seat, but Sammy stopped him.
“Get in the back, Dad.” “I’m driving, Sammy.”
“You’ve already wrecked one vehicle. Get in the back and relax. I’m driving.”
“This is my sleigh and I’m driving.”
“Not now you’re not. But…” Sammy said, pausing for effect, “maybe next year.”
Santa stared at our son, frowned, then nodded in revelation. We helped him into the back seat and I sat beside him, keeping his leg elevated. When Sammy grabbed the reins, Flapjack turned to me.
“We don’t have a list, Mrs. C.”
“Oh, yes, we do,” I said, reaching under the seat for my laptop and turning it on. I squinted at the blur on the screen, feeling through my pockets for my reading glasses. Sandy snatched the computer from my lap.
“I’ll handle this, Mom. You take care of Dad.”
“On Bob,” Sammy said as we taxied along the snow and then up into the night sky. I sat back, Santa’s head in my lap, and watched our children work. Sandy checked the list while Flapjack refilled the sack between stops. Sammy, with the fervor of a firefighter, slid up and down the chimneys. With speed, enthusiasm and teamwork they finished ahead of schedule.
“This is Big Red to base,” Sandy said into the radio. “Do you copy?”
“This is base,” Griddlecake’s voice scratched through the air.
“We’ve got Flapjack and we’re coming home.”
“That boy can drive a sleigh,” Bob said as we landed back at the Pole, the Northern Lights blazing like a Mardi Gras party. Griddlecake and the gang raced out of the complex, hugging Flapjack and Sandy and freeing the reindeer. Blintz and Chapatty ran back inside to get a stretcher for Santa while the reindeer danced and slapped antlers in celebration of their trip.
The purity and joy of the moment bathed me in light. I looked down at Santa and took his hand. He turned to Sammy who was standing in front of the sleigh, staring at the complex.
“Nice job, son,” Santa said.
Sammy nodded and walked away. I squeezed Santa’s hand and stroked his head.
“Let’s talk, Santa,” I said.
An hour later we gathered for breakfast in the dining room. Bob had everyone laughing. The big reindeer was telling jokes, doing impressions, reliving the night’s highlights. Pancakes sat on the table, piled high like stacks of poker chips. I tapped on a gallon jug of maple syrup.
“I want to welcome Flapjack back to the North Pole,” I said.
Applause, hooting, tossing of pancakes.
“And I also want to thank Sandy and Sammy for visiting us.”
More applause, stomping of hooves, slapping of antlers.
“Santa and I have been talking and we’ve made a few decisions. First, if Bob and the crew agree, Santa wants them back next year as his delivery team.”
“Early retirement for the hovercraft!” Bob said, raising a hoof in the air.
“Second, we are returning to our centralized production system, which means we need you back, Flapjack.”
“Yes!” the elves said, exploding from their seats like sports fans.
While I watched the reindeer dance on tables and listened to the elves sing “Batter Up,” I thought about my life at the North Pole. What a success I had been at efficiency, but what a failure I was at effectiveness. How many times had I towed the bottom line of low cost production when the real bottom line was celebrating right before me?
“Mom, are you okay?”
I shook my head and turned toward Sandy, who was swing dancing with Bob.
“Pardon me, honey?”
“I said, ‘Are you okay?’ You’re staring.”
“Oh, I’m fine, sweetheart.”
Sandy rushed over and hugged me, squeezing me tight.
“I love you, Mom.”
Bob stepped up and gave me a wet, slobbering kiss, his breath stinging my eyes. I mopped my cheek with my sleeve.
“I love you, too, Mrs. C.”
The elves and the other reindeer rushed to me, kissing and hugging me as if I’d scored a winning soccer goal. Sammy fought through the crowd and whispered in my ear.
“Merry Christmas, Mom,” he said.
My throat was tight, my skin massaged by electricity. I grabbed Santa’s hand so I wouldn’t float away. I made a goal to get back on track, but this plan came from my heart, not my head. What was good for me would be good for our family, and what was good for our family would be good for our company, and what was good for our company would be good for the world.
Now that’s a bottom line I could live with.

Kevery Strunk March 18,1949–July 25th, 2011

 In my dream the pipes were playing
In my dream I lost a friend
Come down Gabriel and blow your horn
‘Cause some day we will meet again

–“Fallen Angel” Robbie Robertson

 

“The last goodbye is very hard to live with.”

–Elizabeth Strunk, Kevery’s mother

 

          A year ago, Kevery Strunk, my buddy and part of the family at Chilkat Guides rafting company for 15 years, went, as they say in gospel churches, home. Kevery, isolated by liquor and chased by demons I was sure he was beginning to conquer, took his gun and shot himself in his open, fragile heart. There is something so wrong about a bullet, self-inflicted or not, shattering the ventricles and auricles of a big, beautiful heart that fed a body and soul that nourished all of us for so many years. His death was as if the glacier that feeds the Tsirku River, where most of the raft trips are run, had dried up overnight.

 

I don’t believe it’s all for nothing
It’s not just written in the sand
Sometimes I thought you felt too much
And you crossed into the shadowland

 

         

Kevery came to Haines, Alaska over 15 years ago, after many years as a deep sea fisherman. He was a Vietnam Vet, had lived in communes, built yurts. He first drove the bus for Chilkat Guides that took the guests up the valley to the put in for the Bald Eagle Float trip. I was usually giving a talk on the bus so he and I spent many hours, before and after trips, exchanging stories on the bus.

 

           

Kevery's Workroom

The mid-90s was a boom time for tourism in Alaska and Chilkat Guides experienced a huge growth spurt. A warehouse was built, managers hired, more boats and buses acquired. We needed a full time maintenance manager and Kevery took the job. Patching boats, sewing straps, building benches, Kev was a master of triage in keeping gear in working condition.

           

           

Kevery's Throne

A few days after he died, Kevery stepped into my dreams, telling me he was sorry for something. I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep, so I rode down to the warehouse around 1 in the morning. I went over to his work station and sat in his chair and looked at the boats that he would never patch. I thought of all the times we’d sat and talked about everything from our mothers to music to motorcycles to alcoholism. I thought of how all of us, for months, would come into the warehouse and look over at Kevery’s chair and maybe, just maybe, he’d be sitting there, that it had all been a bad dream.

 

           

Kevery's Potions

After an hour or so, I stood up from his throne and walked over to the Kevery’s standing workstation, a room full of toxic chemicals and sandpaper and tools. On most work desks there are photos of kids, or pets, or pictures of faraway places that evoke wonderful memories. Above Kevery’s workstation were two album covers. One was of a 1974 Olivia Newton John album and the other was a Carly Simon Greatest Hits album.

 

           

An unrepaired raft that lay there for a month after Kevery's passing

In 1974 I was listening to the Stones, Bob Marley, Al Green, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye. I would turn off the radio or go running from a room when an Olivia Newton John song reached my ears. But like a bad advertising jingle or a cluttered room, our minds keep things whether we want them or not. Looking at Olivia Newton John on her cheesy album cover, the opening to one of her songs streamed through my brain:

 

Maybe I hang around here
a little more than I should
We both know I got somewhere else to go
But I got something to tell you
that I never thought I would
But I believe you really ought to know

 

            There was such a self-eulogy from Kevery in those lines for me that, at 2 in the morning, in an empty warehouse in Haines, Alaska, I can honestly say that an Olivia Newton John song made me cry.

 

            Thanks for everything Kevery. I know you’ve come back. Maybe you’re that Balinese baby I held last year. Maybe you’re that young eagle the tourists are photographing. Maybe you’re a pup in a wolf den in Alaska. Wherever you are, lucky them.

 

            The only way I could send you more love is if I had a bigger heart.

Curtis Salgado, Booker T, James Cotton, Bobby Rush, Bettye Lavette, and Tom Lang (and some fun music clips)

Portland Waterfront Blues Festival 2012

 

            Curtis Salgado,  Booker T, James Cotton, Bobby Rush, Bettye Lavette, and Tom Lang (and some fun music clips)

 

                    Curtis Salgado is having part of one of his lungs removed this week and, understandably so, Curtis cancelled his concert last night at Dawson Park, a small park in north east Portland, Oregon, across the street from my elementary school, Immaculate Heart.

 

Curtis almost died of liver failure 6 or 7 years ago. Without health care (of course),  help came from the music world in the form of a fundraiser headlined by Steve Miller and Bonnie Raitt and terrific blues bands from up and down the coast. Curtis received his liver transplant and lived to sing again.

Curtis and Steve Miller on Conan in the 90s

I first heard Curtis when he fronted the Nighthawks, a boogie blues band in Eugene, Oregon where I was studying journalism. That was two years before John Belushi, filming “Animal House” near the University of Oregon campus, walked into a bar and heard Curtis. The Blues Brothers album is dedicated to Curtis Salgado.

 

Curtis went on to sing for another Eugene based band, the Robert Cray Band. The popular, Ronnie Earl guitar driven road band Roomful of Blues took him on as lead singer. He followed that with a brief stint with Santana. In the 90s, in recovery, he settled into a productive period back in Portland with the Stilettos, and I would go hear him whenever I was in town. He even popped up in my little Alaska town, Haines, for the Southeast Alaska State Fair.

 

So it was great to be at the 25th Portland Waterfront Blues Festival and to see him headlining the first day. The Portland Blues Festival is the second largest blues festival in the world next to Chicago. All proceeds go to a food bank in Portland. Admission is $10 and 2 cans of food. This year the festival raised almost one million dollars and over 100,000 pounds of food for the hungry.

 

On the four stages there were zydeco bands and dance lessons, blues harmonic blow-offs, a tribute to Etta James. There were the relatively new school bands like James Hunter, Galactic, Lionel Young, the California Honeydrops.

 

And then there was old school. Curtis, James Cotton, Bettye Lavette, Bobby Rush, Booker T. And over the five days of the festival they made me reflect on the blues.

 

Before I became obsessed with basketball I spent many mornings and afternoons in Dawson Park, across from my grade school, playing on the teeter totter, swinging on the swings.  There was an old black man who always sat on the same bench every day, a brown paper bag in one hand, slugging back, probably, the cheap, fortified wine of the day. My mother always told me to be respectful to everyone and my daily exchange with the man went like this:

 

“Good morning, sir.”

“Good morning, little white boy.”

“How are you, today, sir?”

(Pause) “I’m a little bit of all right, little white boy. I’m a little bit of all      

right.”

 

He said that to me every day. It was like a great blues song, the singer repeating the first two lines (I’m a little bit of all right/I’m a little bit of all right”).  But I hadn’t heard much blues music yet. What I was hearing on my walks to school was jazz I learned later was Miles and Cannonball Adderley and the Modern Jazz Quartet and r & b from Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson.

James Brown watch out

 

I was the MC at the Immaculate Heart Talent Show in fifth grade and I introduced my classmate Ron Steen, now a legend in the jazz scene of the Northwest, as he played drums to a recording of “Green Onions” by Booker T & and MGs. But not much blues until new neighbors moved in.

 

In the late 60s Sweet Billy moved into the Dietrich’s old house across the street and one house over from our house at 2617 N.E. 10th.  Billy was a small African American man, who would have had to put on weight to be a jockey. His wife was close to 300 pounds.

          Sweet Billy and his wife were neighborly but never went out of their way to talk to me. I would sit out on my mother’s porch during the summer they moved in and listen to the music coming out of Billy’s house. Lots of harmonica played over thick, grinding blues guitar riffs. On my home from school one day, bouncing a basketball, this stopped me in my Converse All-Stars:

                  

                  I should have quit you

                   Long time ago

                   I should have quit you, babe

                   A long time ago

                   Should have quit you and

                   Gone down to Mexico

The wolf

 

          The voice sounded like a backhoe clearing gravel from a mudslide. The guitar player kept repeating this wild riff, like he was making loops on a racetrack.  I was just learning about writing and story telling, reading American classics, and these lyrics told so much in their simplicity.

 

                   Lord knows I should have been gone

                   Lord knows I should have been gone

                   And I  wouldn’t be here

                   Down on the killin’ floor

 

          “That’s the Wolf,” somebody said. I looked up at Sweet Billy. “Howlin’ Wolf. Hubert Sumlin playing that guitar.”

 

          Over the next few years Sweet Billy, stoned on weed with a couple of beers to balance the high, played and explained his blues collection. Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Hound Dog Taylor, James Cotton, Big Walter Horton, Little Walter (“Little Walter was like Charlie Parker of the blues, Tommy; the blues harp was never the same after Little Walter”)

 

          Years later, at the end of my college days, I bartended at Euphoria Tavern, a converted warehouse located down in the produce row of Portland. The owner loved the blues, and even though he would lose money on many of the shows, I had the chance to listen to legends like Muddy Waters, Big Walter, James Cotton, Sunnyland Slim, Pinetop Perkins, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells.  I must have heard Texas bluesman Albert Collins, the Master of the Telecaster, 40 times.  A monster guitar player and a charming performer, we spent sometimes hours before the club opened for the night talking sports and, of course, other things men talk about.

The Master of the Telecaster

 

          Of the above list, Buddy Guy and James Cotton are the only ones who haven’t gone home yet. And it was a treat and a gift to hear Cotton at the Blues Festival. Moving slow at 77, he can still blow, although not with the pace or passion I remembered from those wild nights at Euphoria. One afternoon Cotton gave Q & A/harp workshop. He brought up a few kids to give them harp lessons. One little boy’s face lit up when he heard what came out of the harmonica in his hands and James Cotton smiled at him with the beauty of a master passing on his skills.

James Cotton putting on a clinic

 

          When Robbie Robertson tried to get Otis Redding to cover Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman”, Otis shook his head and said, “Too many words.” Redding’s classic, “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (to Stop Now)” only has 10 lines but Otis takes each syllable apart and makes this song “The Odyssey” of heartbreak. “It’s not what you play, it’s what you don’t play,” my blues piano teacher would always say.

 

          Bettye Lavette took the stage on Saturday. Bettye is the Otis Redding of today. In 1962,  at sixteen, Bettye toured with Otis and Ben E. King and Clyde McPhatter.  She had an r & b hit in ’65, “Let Me Down Easy,” and 40 years later reemerged on the scene, a survivor. The reason I say she’s like Otis is that she can reconstruct a song and steal it from the originator by giving a deeper and richer interpretation of the song. Otis did it with “Satisfaction”, turning the song into an aching drive of unfulfilled desire. In 1972, Bettye slowed to a crawl John Prine’s song, “Souvenirs”, wailing as if a wrecking ball is hitting her directly in the heart for each loss of a treasured memory.

Bettye Lavette telling us the news

 

          My two favorite moments of the blues festival came late at night, at the after hours parties in the ballroom of the Marriott, across from the waterfront venue. I had passes and, each night after the festival, I joined a couple hundred people in the basement of the hotel.

 

Bobby Rush and his Wife

          Bobby Rush is 79, two years older than James Cotton. He walks with the sway of a young man walking down Beale Street, checking out the scene. In the 50s he was more of a traditional bluesman who performed with the likes of Bobby Blue Bland. Somewhere along the line he switched to a raunchy, risque, blues based, sexual innuendo show with him as a septuagenarian Casanova (for those who get offended easily, do not click on the video of Bobby playing with one of his dancers, who happens to be his young wife). He is uninhibited and charming and playful. His band is tight. He has two dancers who weigh more than the entire band who change their outfits every other song. Who can dance. And he can sing. And play harmonica.

More Bobby Rush and his wife

 

          His after hours show was the same as the festival show and it didn’t matter. There are few 79-year-old yogis who move with the grace of Bobby Rush, kicking his legs in the air, dancing across the stage. He played with the crowd the entire show, making fun of a husband here, a wife there, an uptight couple in the back. As he left the stage I walked back to the lobby to get some water. On my way back to the ballroom I passed Bobby walking to the green room. When we made eye contact I smiled and started laughing and he smiled back and gave me a wink, like he knew I understood, that he was saying, “I’m just having fun out there. I’m just playing, making people have a good time.”

 

          My second highlight was the first after hours night with Charlie Musselwhite followed by Curtis Salgado sitting in with a local band. So many musicians, by the time they’ve been playing 40 some years, have lost the love they had for what they do. Then sometimes the spark strikes and we see their essence. And that night I saw everything great about Curtis. I remembered when I walked into Taylor’s Tavern in Eugene and he was singing a cover of Johnny Watson’s “Cuttin’ In” (“Pardon me, partner/For being so bold/But that’s my girl you’re dancing with”), one of the greatest make-up love songs ever written. I love that song and Curtis was singing it like he loved it, too.

 

          Curtis did a version of “Slow Down.” Many people, to this day, think the Beatles wrote it. Larry Williams, a New Orleans singer/songwriter/pianist in the 50s wrote it. He also wrote “Bony Maronie,” “Dizzy Miss Lizzie,” and “Short Fat Fannie,” songs that were part of the foundation of rock n’ roll with clever wordplay and catchy melodies. Williams was one of John Lennon’s favorite songwriters.

 

          Curtis danced and played with the band and played the harp and sang with the same spirit I remember from him back when he was 20 years old. I didn’t get to say hello or nod to him after “Slow Down”, but if I had, I know he would have given me the same look as Bobby Rush, telling me, “I’m just having fun out there. I’m just playing, making people have a good time.”

 

          So, get well, Curtis, and this clip is for you and for everybody out there who has been stopped, like me in my Converse All Stars in front of Sweet Billy’s house, by a song that opened doors that lead to unimaginable joys.

Happy Valentine’s Day 2012!

My Favorite Rose Quotes for Valentine’s Day

 

Rose Painting Nurham Ilham, Javanese Painter

I will soothe you and heal you.

I will bring you roses. I too have been covered with thorns.

Rumi  

 

 

 

Yellow Rose Nurham Ilham Javanese Painter

 If I had a rose for every time I thought of you, I’d be picking roses for a lifetime.

Swedish Proverb

 

 

 

 

 

Purple Rose Nurham Ilham Javanese Painter

The fragrance always stays in the hand that gives the rose.

Chinese Proverb.

 

 

 

 

 

And My Favorite Quotation:

Every day is Valentine’s Day for me

Tom Lang Proverb

Super Bowl, Bali Style 2010 Reprinted by Request

Super Bowl, Bali Style

It is 6 a.m. Monday morning in Ubud, Bali, and one hour before Super Bowl kickoff. I am trying to explain to the staff of my little homestay what I am going to watch. I pantomime the throwing and catching of a football until a group light bulb goes off and all three young men put on their motorcycle helmets and begin banging into each other and laughing.

We Americans are constant entertainment to the Balinese.

 

Nuri’s popular t-shirt

I have watched the last three Super Bowls in Ubud at Naughty Nuri’s, an infamous open air bar owned by an Indonesian woman, Nuri and her New Yorker husband Brian. Nuri’s is famous for its martinis (a curry dish at Nuri’s costs around two dollars, whereas a martini, due to the huge tax on alcohol, will set you back $10. A three martini lunch at Nuri’s costs more than an average Balinese makes in a week.)

 

I arrive at Nuri’s at 7, and most of the good seats are taken by a group of Americans who, for all I know and wouldn’t surprise me, have been there all night. Beer is flowing, Bloody Marys are refilled. A regular stares at me with the glazed eyes of a man who has been hit by a tranquilizer dart. A couple across from me is drinking beer and eating runny eggs and fried potatoes with so much ketchup on their plates it looks like a CSI crime scene.

 

 

Big screen where game is usually shown

Colts 3, Saints 0

 

The first sign of trouble. Brian is skipping through the 500 Indonesian channels looking for the game. This goes on for a half hour. Highlights: A thin, large breasted Asian woman (unusual) is selling us something while what sounds like a dental drill orchestra plays in the background. Either a Dutch or German weatherman is screaming at us with the vocal tone of an SS officer telling us what to expect on this morning’s Death March (Sunrise 6: 21 a.m. chance of rain 70%). An advertisement for an Indonesian soap opera that features animated ducks sitting on chairs talking with the human actors (How could I make that up?). The only game on: two teams from the dregs of the Pac-10 men’s basketball conference.

 

Colts 10, Saints 0

 

It is clear that we are not going to see the game, even though you’d think Brian would say something. He and his group slowly move discreetly away from the television, like the cowboys in the old movies who slink away from the saloon doors before the shootout begins. Now there is, on my left, Jack, a retired security consultant from San Antonio; on my right, Darren, from New Jersey via San Jose and his friend Phil, from, maybe Santa Cruz. I say, maybe, because it’s impossible to get a straight answer out of anyone in Bali. There are three languages in Bali: Indonesian, Balinesian and ExPat.  A simple enough question such as, “What are you doing in Bali?” leads to a complex web of vagaries, interspersed with faraway glances and exhalations of breath. Not unlike interviewing Sarah Palin.

 

Darren is a quick-witted, charming guy who doesn’t like football but enjoys drinking beer in a bar at 7 in the morning. He’s brought his laptop to check email during the game and he is bathed in revelation:  Darrin has Skype on his computer, he will call a friend in the States who also has Skype, have him point his computer video camera at the television set and we will get a feed back to Bali and watch the game on Darrin’s laptop.

 

The excitement of Gilligan’s Island when the professor came up with a rescue plan pulses across our little table. Darrin, our MacGyver, makes a few calls to friends in the States.

 

No one answers.

 

Colts 10, Saints 3

 

Bill is behind me. He has a friend, Tom, in San Francisco, well, really Oakland, who’s a football fan, and a real partier, Bill adds. While Bill calls Tom I try to decipher what Bill’s resume of Tom means. He’s not just some regular football fan; he’s actually quite the partier as well. What a dichotomy, a football fan/partier. He sounds like a Renaissance Man.

 

Tom appears on our screen, with a post-waterboarding daze on his face. All of us yell at him until he lines up his camera correctly for our laptop. And then, game on. I can see the number 18 on a blue jersey. A cheer goes up from our table. Brian and his group, on the other side of the bar, don’t seem interested at all.

 

Game Time!

The quality of the image is blurry and washed out, a recently discovered home movie from the 50s. The speed of the action is jumpy like an old projector or, better yet, like watching dancers in a nightclub under a strobe light. I’m reminded of the frame by frame examination of the Zapruder Kennedy Assassination film in the movie JFK.

 

            Manning, I think, throws an incompletion and the Colts punt. Brees and the boys come on the field. They march deep into Colts territory, in the Red Zone, then…

 

The screen goes black, the connection gone. Bill’s on it, calling Tom and, reiterating once again, that Tom’s a partier. The connection is back, just in time for Pierre Thomas to be stopped for no gain on 4th and 1. We watch the rest of the half without a glitch.

 

Colts 10, Saints 6

 

Halftime

 

The Who? How absurd is this? Why? How much more vapid and meaningless can this be? A band who hasn’t even released anything new in almost 40 years and a band that is missing two of its four members? Why not the Jackson Four? The Blues Brother? Why not, seriously, to reflect the symbolism of New Orleans, have Fats Domino and the Neville Brothers and Dr. John out there? Why not celebrate the resurrection of a great American city, a city we left for dead, by having Fats sing “Blueberry Hill.”? Instead, let’s listen to a quasi-band that symbolizes nothing but excess and obviously 40 years of writers block, as they sing about a blind kid who’s been molested by his uncle. Charming.

 

            Of course, as to sound quality, what does it matter who’s playing? Norah Jones would sound like a witch drunk on two bottles of cough syrup through our feed. Impossible to identify any of the Who’s songs, Roger Daltrey’s voice is thick and sludgy, the electronically altered pitch belonging to a member of the Federal Witness Protection Program testifying behind a curtain at a Senate Hearing.

What Should Have Been Playing at the Super Bowl in New Orleans

Or How About This!

Or This!

 

Me on the right, standing room only

Saints 13, Colts 10

 

            We have another technical blackout and miss the onside kick, but get the feed back just in time for the go ahead touchdown. Darren didn’t have his power adaptor so we had to move the laptop to a table near an outlet. Brad grabbed a stool and set it on the table to elevate the computer screen. Now the owner Brian and his crew have joined us and that creates another visual impairment, the smoke screen.

 

Everyone and everything in Bali, it appears, smokes. A gecko in my room has a smoker’s hack. I hear him coughing up phlegm at 3 in the morning.  And it’s not just Bali; all of Asia will soon be one big black lung. Asia became the market for the tobacco companies after America went soft. Hah, you think you can stop us with your little smoke free restaurants and advertisement bans? Well, watch this. In 20 years the death and misery from cigarette smoking in Asia will make malaria look like post nasal drip.

 

One pack of Indonesian cigarettes has enough tar to pave a cemetery driveway. Dean, a Nuri’s regular, lights up another one. It ignites like a road flare, creating an inversion of smog over the laptop screen. Hard to tell through the field burning, but I think we’ve lost our connection again.

 

Colts 17, Saints 13

 

We did and we missed another score.  A call to Oakland, some fiddling by Darren and we’re back on. A sense of weirdness washes over me as I squint at a commercial that I’m pretty sure has two chickens sitting on a couch. First the ducks in the Indonesian soap opera, now this.

 

Colts 17, Saints 16

 

            It is after 9 and the tropical heat is filling the bar with early morning heaviness. Darren is obviously bored, walking around taking photos of innocuous objects…a table top, a wall menu, an empty glass. The smoke is getting to me and I step outside before I start coughing up blood. I hear someone pontificate, “Quarterbacks get the press, but without a great center, you’re nothing.” A pause for dramatic effect. “Nothing.” I try to name five NFL centers.

 

Saints 24, Colts 17

 

Another blackout. Tom doesn’t answer his phone in Oakland. We’ve been warned about Tom. Maybe the party’s over. But, no, after 5 or 10 minutes we’re back and we squint at a replay of a diving catch in the end zone. The play is under review. Good thing we’re not the judges. The picture is so bad that I have to look around and focus on other things in the bar to make sure I’m not going blind.

The play stands. There are sounds of joy and sorrow, mostly from the gamblers who have entered the football pool. For the gambler, there is only loyalty to the bet, the line. Who cares who wins? It doesn’t matter how you play the game, it matters about the spread. And according to the regulars, our owner, Brian, has won each quarter.

 

Saints 31, Colts 17

 

            What’s happening? Someone in a white and yellow, or is it gold, jersey is running…a long ways with, I’m betting but can’t see, something in his arms.  With the slow feed it looks like I’m going to have to shave again before he reaches the end zone. It’s over.

 

And Brian wins.

 

“Hey, you should buy a round for us,” Bill says to Brian as he swells to a drunken oration. Brian looks at Bill like Republican senators look at Al Franken when he mouths off to them. Of course Brian is going to buy a round. For Brian, Bill is obviously a cheap drunk, unaware of tradition and respect.

 

“This is the guy, right here,” Bill says, motioning to Darren to come over to him, as if this were an awards ceremony. “Without him, none of this would have happened. He made it happen.”

 

Bill says it with emotion, as if Darren had rescued a baby from a burning building. Darren, a smirk on his face, doesn’t look up from texting on his cell phone. I slide out the front and head home.

 

“How game? Your team win? You happy?” the owner and his staff ask when I walk into the garden.

 

Post Game Analysis With Raka and His Dog and Raka's Sullen Granddaughter

“Saya senang. I’m happy.”

 

Two of the staff butt their heads together again and we all laugh. I love Bali.

 

Etta James, Keith Richards and Me

During the mid-80s I worked at the Vine Street Bar & Grill, a small jazz supper club located in Hollywood between Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards. Legends from an earlier age played there every week, Wednesday through Saturday. Nina Simone, Anita O’Day, Yma Sumac, Eartha Kitt, Joe Williams, Moses Allison, Esther Phillips, Shirley Horn, Carmen McCrae, McCoy Tyner, Marlena Shaw, Houston Person and Etta Jones (not James).

It’s beautiful when legends exit gracefully, but few of them do. Working at Vine Street my heart was constantly tugged by a mix of sadness, respect and compassion. There was Esther Phillips, still my favorite soulful singer of all time, walking from the dressing room to the stage, dressed beautifully, wasted on heroin, taking a detour behind the stage wall to the kitchen, puking in the trash can, wiping her mouth on a wash rag, straightening her hair and going out and ripping her heart open for the audience. “I’ve got scars on my knees/I’ve been praying so long,”she’d sing. She died a few weeks later of liver and kidney failure. (Esther’s interpretation of Gil Scott Heron’s “Home is Where the Hatred Is” is an incredibly raw and emotionally naked performance by an artist in any field. (“home is where I live inside my white powder dreams/home was once an empty vacuum that’s filled now with my silent screams/home is where the needle marks/ try to heal my broken heart”) http://www.youtube.com/RvdnMzQGbEQ

Nina Simone, long in exile in Barbados, coming back to L.A. to perform at Vine Street, having a psychotic break in the middle of her first set, screaming into a pay phone, then stomping out the front door, leaving a dressed up Hollywood crowd staring at me for an answer. I didn’t even know the question.

(Those who love always give the most/We’re cryin together from coast to coast/Love leaves us cold and hurt inside/These tears of ours are unjustified/Beggin ya ta, SAVE ME!/Yeah, need somebody to SAVE ME!)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ZUlWsmeqr0&feature=related

And Anita O’Day, knocking back shots of scotch at the bar (“don’t put any soda in it, goddamn it, it hurts my voice), insulting the daughter of a long time fan, then going out and screeching on stage, her voice gone, sounding like a cat with its tail caught in a Cuisinart.

And then there are legends that rise from the ashes and go to new heights. Mondays were dark at Vine Street until the owner, Ron Berenstein, decided to make Mondays Blues Night and the headliner every week would be…Etta James.

Anybody who has read Etta’s recent obituary knows her basic story from the 50s to the 60s, her resurgence in the 90s and Grammys in the early 2000s. However, the 80s was where she began to come back. She had opened for the Stones in the early 70s, then dropped out with new substance abuse issues and cleaned up and Vine Street was her first regular gig in years. She didn’t have a manager, her two sons played in her band with a young blonde haired lead guitar player.

I wasn’t really familiar with Etta James at the time she started at Vine Street. I grew up in a neighborhood surrounded by the sound of jazz and blues. Across the street from my mother’s house lived Sweet Billy, who loved to have me over and play Muddy Waters, Lightning Hopkins, Big Mama Thornton, Big Maybelle, Howlin’ Wolf. Varnell Williams, my childhood buddy, first introduced me to Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins and Etta Jones, the jazz singer, but not Etta James.

But when she first walked out on stage at Vine Street the first night, in front of maybe 20 people, most of them comps, and broke into “Tell Mama,” she opened a door I didn’t even know was there to be opened (“Tell Mama all about it/Tell Mama what you need
Tell Mama what you want/And I’ll make everything alright”)
.

Word spread through the L.A. music circle and soon Monday nights were sold out (maximum 100 people in the club). Movie stars, musicians (Stevie Ray Vaughn would show up and stare at Etta, mesmerized by every syllable she sang) and producers and fans came to see her. When she sang “I’d Rather Go Blind” the house would fill with moans, goose bump shivers and gasps as we all relived our major heartbreaks: “Something told me it was over/When I saw you and her talkin’/Something deep down in my soul said, ‘Cry, girl’/When I saw you and that girl walkin’ around/Whoo, I would rather, I would rather go blind, boy/Then to see you walk away from me, child, no.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YApNirMC9gM

            I don’t know how long Etta had been clean and sober when she started her run at Vine Street, but for the first few months her AA sponsor, a huge biker would come every Monday night and sit in the front table to support Etta. I would ask him what he would like each week and he would say, “Give me a 7-up!” in a tone and volume that made me think he was about to disembowel me.

Etta charmed us all, playing with the audience, laughing at herself . And for a few of us young men who worked at the club, she was our dating service. She would stop between songs and heap praise upon us. “Ladies, and especially you ladies, are these young men taking care of you tonight the most charming, most handsome men in the world. Look at Alan and Peter and Tommy. Aren’t they great? You single ladies better grab one of them before somebody else do.” Then she would sing “At Last” for us. (At last, my love has come along/My lonely days are over/And life is like a song/Oh, yeah, at last/The skies above are blue/My heart was wrapped up in clovers/The night I looked at you) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1MUilZpErlw

After a few months of sold out shows there were two men sitting on stools at the bar one night, sliding quickly into their drunken comas, slamming back straight shots. They looked old and haggard to me, the one man’s skin, even in the dark light, had the texture and color of bleached parchment paper. He motioned toward the bar and raised two fingers over the empty shot glasses. I can’t remember how I broke the news to them they had enough to drink and they were cut off, but the older man seemed to take it well, sheepishly, like a reprimanded over eater.

Right then, Etta ended a song and said, “Everybody, the greatest guitar player in the greatest rock and roll band in the world is here. Let’s get him to come up here. Keith Richards!”

Keith Richards! How did I miss him coming in? Vine Street was a small club. I looked around the club. The man I’d cut off was reacting in a funny way to the Keith Richards news, raising his hands and shrugging and mumbling. Etta had walked over and given him a hug. I just cut off Keith Richards, I thought.

“No gwtr, no gwtr,” he slurred to Etta in that drunken patois of lost vowels, strumming an air guitar with his hands. Etta helped Richards off the stool and walked him the short distance to the bandstand. Richards listed to his left and to his right, a centenarian who’d lost his walker. The blond lead guitar player handed Richards his guitar. Richards pantomimed that he didn’t have a pick. Etta snapped her fingers to four and the band started a basic 12 bar blues jam. Richards looked confused, as if he had been thrust into an avant garde music scene with esoteric musical scales and complicated time signatures.

A breeze of embarrassment floated through the club as Richards fumbled through the song. Etta looked at her guitar player, he whispered something to her and he hit the opening bars of the Stones hit, “Miss You.” Richards perked up, his head straightened, a marionette brought to life by a wizard of subterranean musical memory. Richards added fills while Etta sang, did the automatic solo he’d done a thousand times before and finished off the tune with some quick runs. As he walked back toward the bar, the packed house on their feet, he turned to me, a star to be served, and motioned for a drink.

No, I shook my head. He stopped, puzzled.  We looked at each other for a moment. Then he smiled, shrugged and gave me a soft bow, acknowledging my sovereignty and integrity.

Every Monday night, after the show, Etta would sit back in the funky dressing room and I would serve her favorite dish off our menu, clams in a linguini sauce. The first time I brought her dinner she handed me a tip. I waved it off.

“That’s not necessary, Ms. James.”

“Yes, it is,” she said, holding the money out to me. After I took it, she said, “And, it’s Etta.”

That little moment was a symbol of how Etta respected all of us and the part we played in her world. Many of the performers at Vine Street were aloof and demanding and it carried over to their performance: technically rich, emotionally bankrupt. Not Etta. She had the strength to be soft and open and it reverberated through the club every Monday night.

The last time I saw Etta was, I guess, 1987, my last week of work at Vine Street. After the show, as usual, I brought her the linguini. She looked up at me.

“Thank you, Tommy. Sit down, you’ve been on your feet all night.”

I pulled up a chair next to her. We didn’t talk while she ate and there was a comfortable, post show/work serenity in the silence. She looked over at me a few times and smiled. When she was done, I stood up and reached for her plate. She looked at me with the joy we give when all we see is the good in someone (and why don’t we look at everyone like that?) and she leaned over and kissed me on the cheek and tousled my hair.

It was a moment of pure sweetness, affection and love. I walked to the door of the dressing room and stopped.

“I love listening to you sing, Etta.”

“I love singing to you, Tommy.”

When I heard she died, I put on my headphones, lay down on some cushions, closed my eyes and, for an hour, listened to Etta James sing to me.

Merry Christmas from Mrs. Claus, everybody

What is good for me will be good for my family and what’s good for my family will be good for our company and what is good for our company will be good for the world.”
from Mrs. Claus: A Bottom Line Story

I was born to run a Fortune 500 company. At age 7 I owned, operated and franchised a chain of successful drive-through lemonade stands. In middle school I reengineered the cafeteria food lines to maximize playground time. As high school treasurer, I funneled “donations” through the principal’s office to soften his views on the independent study.

I went on to earn my MBA from a prestigious business school in the Midwest. For my master’s thesis I evaluated the efficiency of my own school’s business department. As a result of my recommendations, four professors were denied tenure, two assistants were urged to “pursue other opportunities” and my advisor, an old friend of the family, was stripped of his pension.

Upon finishing my Workaholic in Residence Program at the local branch of the Foreclosure Bank of North America, I graduated at the top of my class. Recruiters fought over me as if I was a blue chip athlete. I chose a small-cap, high growth company with rapid multiple product introductions. Within months, with my solution-oriented instincts for problem solving, I became an invaluable member of the senior management team. However, after the first leg of my oxygen-depleted career arc, I found myself curiously unfulfilled.

I set a goal to get back on track. I hired a Chinese Feng Shui master to re-energize my office. Mr. Woo built a moat around my desk and filled it with exotic Oriental goldfish. He hung crystals from my ceiling and replaced my phone ringer with a ceremonial gong. I reread the #1 bestseller, “Rationalizations Seven Successful CEOs Use to Convince Themselves They’re Doing Something Worthwhile With Their Lives.” I even refused to work more than 12 hours on Sundays.

Nothing helped. Was it me? Was it my job? Headhunters contacted me constantly, but I turned down lucrative offers every day. Then, one night, at 2 a.m., I turned in early. While flossing my teeth, checking my voice mail and playing an obscure Mongolian word puzzle, the business section fell off my lap onto the floor. I leaned out of bed and a block of letters from the page expanded in front of me:

IMMEDIATE OPENING!!!!!
Efficiency Expert at the North Pole
Serious Inquiries Only

The North Pole! Now, that sounded interesting. I emailed my resume from my phone I kept on the nightstand next to my bed. I nodded to sleep and tiptoed into dreams. I skied across the white frosting of a gigantic birthday cake with lit candles the size of pine trees. I laughed and giggled until a horn went off in the wilderness. I stomped my feet and yelled for it to stop. I woke up to the sound of my phone buzzing that I had a message. I reached overand turned on the light:

Would like to schedule an interview tomorrow night. Is midnight okay? My driver will pick you up. Dress warm.

Ho-ho-ho,

S.C.

To the amazement of the cleaning crew, I left work by 11 that night. I rushed home and changed into my blue wool power suit, assertive but friendly. I opened my laptop and reviewed my list of compensation requirements — short-term and long-term bonus potential, transportation allowance, 401k, stock options, first-dollar medical and dental.

My computer-scheduling program beeped. There was a thud at the door. It was midnight. I put the laptop in my briefcase, grabbed my coffee cup and stepped onto the porch of my condo. On the sidewalk stood 8 reindeer and a shiny, red sleigh, glowing like a hot coal.

“Wow, reindeer,” I said, icicles racing down my extremities.

“You think?”

“Excuse me?” I said, looking around for the source of the voice. The reindeer in front of the pack turned to me.

“I said, ‘You think?’  What part of that didn’t you understand?”

I dropped my briefcase, coffee spilled over my shoes.

“Talking reindeer.”

“Double duh.”

The other reindeer chuckled and stomped their hooves into the ground.

“You must be here to pick me up?” I said foolishly.

“No, lady, we were just in the neighborhood looking for our cousin Rudy and we thought you might be roasting him over an open fire.”
The reindeer laughed, stomped and nudged each other with their antlers. They mumbled parts of the joke: “…just in the neighborhood…open fire…might be roasting…”

I checked my watch, straightened my suit, trying to act businesslike in front of 8 talking reindeer. I reached my hand out to the head reindeer.

“Hi, I’m–”

“Bob.”

“Excuse me?”

“Name’s Bob, ma’am. You have a problem with that?”

“No…uh…Bob is a lovely name…for a talking reindeer.”

“Bob is a lovely name for a talking, flying reindeer, lady. Let’s
go.”

I stepped up into the sleigh and grabbed hold of the reins, a feeling of wonder sizzling my skin. The reindeer shuffled their hooves and lifted off, the momentum plastering me to the seat. We rose above the trees, the houses and the high rise office buildings. We flew north, above a quilt of clouds, the stars blinding me like flashbulbs. Bob told stories while the reindeer joked and sang. I held on, the wind biting my face, spinning my hair into steel wool.
As we began our descent, the greens and reds of the Northern Lights danced in my head like a cartoon. We landed in the middle of the light show, on a snowed-in runway with a barely visible sign that read:
WELCOME TO THE NORTH POLE

20 Years Guiding in the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve 1991-2011

For the last 20 springs and summers I’ve had the greatest job—guiding people down the Tsirku and Chilkat Rivers through the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, the site of the largest gathering of bald eagles in the world. My little town, Haines, Alaska, is in the Chilkat Valley, carved, over the centuries, into a U-shape by thousands of feet of moving ice. The braided Chilkat River is the fertile highway for five of the salmon species: King, Sockeye, Silver, Pink and Chum. Hundreds of thousands of salmon run up the river every year. The salmon provide a buffet line for the eagles and bears. The low lying willow, ferns and marsh plants is an all you can eat salad bar for moose, herbivores that eat 50 pounds a day.

The Chilkat Valley is the home of the Tlingits, the native tribe of Southeast Alaska, master totem carvers and legendary businessmen who once maintained a trading route from Northern California through the Chilkat Valley into the interior of Alaska. The Tlingit’s mother village, Klukwan, a treasure chest of native history, sits along the Chilkat River 25 miles up valley from Haines.

Haines itself sits in the middle of pure beauty, on the tip of a peninsula, the Inside Passage’s ocean waters on one side, the Chilkat River on the other. The postcard shot of Haines most people have seen is taken from Picture Point with the snow packed Chilkat Mountains booming from behind the town.

I fell in love with Haines the day I stepped off the ferry 20 years ago. The artistry of the landscape, the aromas of the rainforest, the people who made me feel at home right away.

This blog will look at my 20 years of guiding in Haines and Southeast Alaska. Funny stories and tragic stories. How things have changed and how things have not changed. What I’ve learned and what I haven’t learned. What makes a great guide and an examination of why there are so few great guides anymore, a reflection on where we’re at as a culture and a country.

I am grateful to many people for helping me achieve my goals in Alaska. All of them are great river guides who have been great friends to me. John French (Frenchy), world class international guide who brought me to Haines 20 years ago; Michael Pratt, a great guide who supported me with friendship and guidance; Lorin Hayden, who laughed with me through many a challenge; Joe Ordonez, who mentored me and opened doors of possibility for me; Mike Speaks, who trained me on my first Tatshenshini river trip and set the high bar of great guiding for me; and Bart Henderson, owner of Chilkat Guides, who allowed me the freedom and gave me the platform on which to continually grow and learn.

Also thank you to the hundreds of guides who came and went in the Chilkat Guides system over the last 20 years and, in many ways who I learned the most from, the thousands of people from all over the world and from every walk of life that I’ve rowed down the river.