January Blues

A white-sky morning, gutters overflowing with dried mulberry leaves. I am 10 years old, kicking a stone down cracked pavement, trying to make the walk last as long as possible, pushing back the chilling moment of my arrival at The End of the Road—the bus stop on the first school day of January. The decades pass, but that feeling keeps coming back. Even when there is no Christmas vacation anymore, the old January mood pervades my days, and I am once again a kid wishing the lights would never come down.

It was a strange holiday season for Las Vegas. The sense of circling wagons, of communal embrace in hard times, added an odd shimmer to the usual commercial assault. I found myself oddly buoyed by small gestures: No journalistic cynicism could douse my naïve delight at the locals rates at the Venetian’s seasonal skating rink: $9, free for kids under 12. (Sure, it was synthetic ice, but maybe Charlie Brown underrated the allure of the ersatz.) I took my family to Ethel M’s illuminated cactus garden and joined hundreds of revelers roaming the grounds, looking at the lights and wondering, with a deep sense of appreciation and even awe, what kind of precautions one must take when decorating a saguaro.

I drove down a residential street in the south Valley and found a private home with a decorated mailbox where kids could put their letters to Santa. (No word yet on the response.) I went to UNLV’s basketball game against the University of California at 2 p.m. on a Friday and found more than 15,000 fellow fans in a festive holiday mood, which the Rebels’ stellar performance only intensified. Afterward, I took my son on a long walk on the UNLV campus, culminating at Einstein Bros. Bagels on Maryland Parkway. On our way back, the sky had gone deep purple behind the Lied Library, and for a moment I was sure that there wasn’t a more beautiful place in the world. For those of us who long to believe, the holiday soil is rich indeed.

Every year, just as the Rose Bowl trophy is being awarded, my stomach goes sore with a sense of impending disenchantment. The city has the sleepy glory of a fairground at carnival’s end. The carousel organ no longer drowns out the droning, sadly essential media conversation about foreclosures and unemployment and struggling schools and standardized tests. In this conversation, those tests represent the bright side—the opportunity to take measure of our children’s capacity to make it in the cold, hard world.

Somewhere, a stone is being kicked all the way to the bus stop. Slowly.

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