Everything changes: Michael McDermott


State employee by day, Santa by night

Everyone has a moment in life when things change. Sometimes we know it right away, other times we only recognize it looking back. With the turning of the year, we're taking some time to listen to people's stories about the moments that changed them, and what they've learned.

By day, Michael McDermott works in training for the New York State Attorney General's Office, but for one month out of every year McDermott trades in his jacket and tie each night at 5 pm for a beard and red suit to play Saint Nicholas on Santa's Magical Express.

McDermott has become an expert in change. In a former life, he helped two publishing companies move from legal pads to computers, and he moved into a job helping state workers tackle change in their work lives. That was a temporary position and a few years ago he was left looking for work again.

Losing a job can seem like the end of the world, but for McDermott it ended up being a life saver -- literally. And it gave this part time Santa a new lease on life.


The second time I got laid off from a publishing company I went to work as the change management director of a new state agency. I basically talked myself into this job. I didn't have professional credentials, but I was very fortunate to work with consultants who were really good at change management. We helped people transition from an old way of doing things to a new way of doing things. The job lasted five years.

Mike McDermott.jpg

When I left I figured I'd go back to consulting, but I wanted to get all of my medical tests done while I still had insurance. I told my doctor I wanted a colonoscopy. He said I didn't need one. I told him I wanted one and, reluctantly, he agreed.

My last day of employment came on Friday. On Monday I was self employed and looking for work. I expected a leisurely day at a Panera or Starbucks looking to pitch my next thing, when I got the call from the doctor telling me I had colon cancer. I was in a Market 32 and for the next hour I can't remember what happened or where I went.

The cancer was very small. I had surgery. My doctor said losing that job probably saved my life because it was caught early and hadn't spread. She suggested I go for genetic testing and it turned out I have an H1L1 gene defect called Lynch syndrome and my siblings and children had a 50% chance of having it as well. They got tested and my sister did have the syndrome which could have meant endometriosis -- so she had a hysterectomy. Her son has it so he has to have a regular colonoscopy. If it were not for this one chance thing -- losing my job -- I would not have found out about it and who knows what would have happened.

It caused me to look at things differently. I'm not a Pollyanna -- I don't mean that I don't bitch and complain when things go bad -- but I do think I have become more resilient. That one big cancer scare more than anything just gave me the freedom to let shit go.

I think that when you change your point of view it has a way of changing everything. Like when you change where you've kept that plant in your house and you move it into a window with sun and water it more and it starts to grow. Everything is connected. I really think that I'm a better person for going through that life change. And it translates into every part of my life, including Santa.

McDermott as Santa with Adults

I love Santa! When you walk into the green room and put on the belly and pants and boots with furry tops and beautiful beard that is curled and styled and you look in the mirror and you've transformed yourself into a mythical character with years of stories from different cultures, you can put yourself aside and become this other thing. It would be nice if, in other parts of life, you could put aside those other parts of yourself -- that little red wagon of beliefs and stuff that has happened to us -- if you could just put that aside and come in and be. And that is the wonderful thing about Santa -- you can just be. We focus on the family and the sharing and God knows in these times it's certifiably something we should have more of.

Myth is an important thing about any culture, and Santa is a wonderful myth. Through no gain of his own, he goes around and gives presents to people. And if you really break that down and think about it, it is really about the giving and the sharing. And I can't tell you how much it lightens your day when some six year old will say, "I don't really care about gifts for Christmas, I just want to be with my family and have a good time."

The vast majority of kids are coming in to celebrate the myth, and if it's handled properly it's about goodness and treating people right, but if it's handled wrong becomes materialistic. I make it about "What you do in life to be good to other people?"

Very few of the children focus on the materialistic -- it's about the wonder of things. Sometimes parents are in line with kids and right away they say, "Tell Santa what you want," and I'll put my finger on my lips and say "please." I understand their excitement at having the child share the experience they had as children -- but it's not about telling Santa what you want, it's about having a conversation.

"Tell me what you've done in the past year to help people out and at school, to help people out at home." And always reinforcing, "You can do this. I believe in you. You can do better. And you're not going to be punished if you don't." You put aside your beliefs and come in as this character... and it's beautiful .

Santa and the Mrs.s.jpg

I am certainly no saint. I don't handle everything kindly. But in reflection -- and I do reflect often -- I think, "I could have been better, done that better. And maybe next time I will."

Someday I may reach the point in my life where I'm as pure as Santa -- possibly -- five degrees at a time.

Everything changes

+ Robyn DeSantis Ringler

+ Jonathan Lajas

+ Alicia Lea


Great interview.

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