Tuesday, December 27, 2011

the perfect storm: disney, soccer, christmas

Not a Disney fan.  No.  Not at all.  Yet, I spent yesterday morning and afternoon hurtling down 95 at nearly that many miles per hour, heading straight for the hell mecca that is Orlando, FL.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that in a previous life, I wrote a dissertation that made frequent reference to everyone’s favorite entertainment company.  The whole ridiculous 200+ page compilation focused primarily on childhood and innocence in American Literature, but the subject of Disney came up a lot because apparently, you haven’t truly lived your innocent American childhood until you’ve experienced a Disney product, or more specifically, visited a Disney park.  That, my friends, is a piece of marketing genius that would fill me with unbridled envy if I also aspired to exploit young children for their parents’ money. 

Corporations that prey on children rank low on my list of “best places to spend my money,” and Disney leads the pack. Every Disney product is an advertisement for another Disney product.  This is true of other companies too, but Disney invented and perfected the practice.  They changed the landscape of childhood from the generic to the branded, and I object.

Why then, did I end up sitting in an interminable line of traffic that unfurled before me like a ribbon of tinfoil, glittering in the South Carolina sun as I made my way past Savannah, GA to the holy land?

I’ll tell you.  Two words almost all the more appalling than the destination itself:

Soccer tournament.

I have long stood on the soccer sidelines with a disgruntled look on my face, spouting off in my ornery way about this or that excursion we could have undertaken had the soccer establishment not demanded our time. 

I admit, however, that while I stand by my conviction that kids’ sports take too much time, I’m a little sick of myself and my complaining.  Also, Gareth started high school this year and has set a goal to play soccer in college.  All I needed to hear was the word “college.” If it motivates him, I’m in.  The hope for the team is that our presence at this “showcase” tournament will garner some attention from the many college recruiters who will stalk the sidelines with their clipboards and cell phones. 

Personally, I think it’s too early to talk about recruiting, but that’s the complainer voice in me, and I’m supposed to be suppressing that.  I figure it’s high I time I muster some parental support instead.  I mean, what if he turns out to be a star?  What if we fast forward 8 or so years and find him scoring the winning goal in the world cup with a spectacular bicycle kick to the high corner of the far left post? 

The crowd rises to its hysterical feet, the announcer booms out, “goooooaaaaaal” with untempered and sonorous glee. After everyone strips their shirts off and dances around the field for a bit, the camera zooms in on Gareth’s doting parents, you know, the ones who followed him around the country to help make his dreams come true.   The ones who gave up everything to nurture his burgeoning talent.  The ones who never missed a game. 

How will I measure up under those kinds of expectations?  Hmmmm.  I love him, but I also wanted to go camping every once in a while, you know?  Maybe drop into a museum or take a family bike ride.  Will that play out well in the post-victory interview?  

At least now I have some fodder for the mill.  I will be able to tell them about how I gave up our family Christmas break and drove to Orlando and submitted my family to an onslaught of commercial messages and purchasing opportunities, breaking all my well-formulated ideas about popular culture, our power as consumers, family and holidays. 

I have to wonder: Is this a test?  How is it that my efforts to let go of my anger and resentment for the soccer establishment have led me into the perfect storm of cultural misery that is: soccer tournament, Disney theme park and Christmas vacation. Isn’t that too much to ask?

I will buck up.  I will.  We will avoid the park, visit my brother and his family, spend some quality time with family.   I will have a good attitude, and we will have a good time.  

Can I do it? 

We shall see…

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

the cult of santa

Years ago, when Olivia discovered the truth, or rather, the falsehood about Santa, she burst into some high-powered tears.  After collecting herself, she turned to me with reproachful eyes and accused, “You lied to me!!”  The indignation was palpable.  Years before, Gareth had reacted similarly, imploring, “Why did you lie to me!?” in a great mournful sob.

My sad response:  "I don't know.  What was I thinking?"  

The worst is: I didn't even want to.  I grew up with Santa, so when the time came to introduce my oldest to the big fat man and the chimney, my discomfort surprised even me.  Besides the obvious anti-materialist rant, I had no well-formulated philosophical objections to offer anyone.  I just didn’t like how it felt to tell such an expansive lie—like stepping barefoot into something unknown and slippery. 

My kids tend to be worriers with imaginations as big and fat as the jolly old elf himself.  Their nervous and hyper-curious responses to the news that strange and fantastic beings (tooth fairy and Easter bunny included) would be slinking around our house in the still of the night didn’t encourage me in the storytelling.   

So why did I do it? 

The pressure.  Think The Year Without a Santa Clause, The Santa Clause, Polar Express, and a slew of other Christmas shows in which the general population’s failure to believe in Santa serves as the primary plot-driving conflict.  The oddly confused moral of these stories:  you must believe in something that isn’t true or else be counted as one of the filthy low-down Christmas-wreckers among us.

What if I refused to comply?  Would my kids tell their friends, cracking the damn of Santa lore that shields other children from the waters of truth?  What if reality seeped through that crack, eventually spilling onto my kids’ preschool playgrounds and drenching all those beautiful bright-eyed-Santa-believers with the terrible realization that reindeer don’t fly? 

Did I want to be the Santa-killing mom at playgroup? 

I didn’t dare.  I once lost a babysitting job because my little charge claimed that I told her Santa wasn’t real.  I didn’t do it; I swear.  The mother didn’t give me a chance to defend myself.  She just banned me from the house, as if an alleged Santa whistle-blower were akin to an alleged sex-offender. 

I’ve been living with the stain of that accusation ever since.  True or not, something like that can really come back to haunt a person, right?  I could hear the whispers, as I imagined my kids chiseling at the Santa damn with the tiny pick-axes of their truthful words.  The mothers would say: “Well, y’know, she told that little girl when she was just a babysitter years ago.  A bad seed from the beginning!  We should have known.” 

So I caved.  I lied to my kids to save myself.

Our decade of falsehoods ended several years ago, and I’m only left to wonder, what would we have done without Santa?  What would Christmas have looked like? 

I think we would have treated it as we do now.   We pretend Santa is real for the simple honest fun of it.  We hang stockings; we find mysterious gifts under the tree, and the kids even put cookies out on the fireplace.  If this last one surprises you, just know that it wasn’t until they realized the true recipient of the plate (me), that they fully grasped the importance of this particular ritual. 

Perhaps it wouldn’t have been as magical if they’d always known the truth, but it would have saved my kids from their Santa hangovers—the big letdown that follows the great high.  It took several years for them to recover, to stop lamenting, “it just doesn’t feel like Christmas” — a rare confession that means: “I can’t believe Santa isn’t real.”

Thankfully, we have arrived.   Since the full exposure of my lies, the fabric of our trusting family circle has been restored, my kids are out of Santa rehab, and I’m as free from the cult of Santa as I can ever hope to be. 

Sunday, December 18, 2011

philosophy of a smaller christmas

Let’s face it, from an environmental perspective, the month of December is something akin to a natural disaster:  lights, wrapping paper, cards, envelopes, junk mail/catalogues, plastic crap (gifts), plastic crap (packaging), plastic crap (decorations i.e. those horrible blow up yard things), and of course, time/fuel spent producing, selling, shipping and shopping for all that plastic crap.  Christmas has cornered the market on waste.

Bah humbug.

Yes, but what are we bah humbugging?

I think the answer is me.


The creation of so much trash just seems counter to the spirit of the holiday to me. A celebration of hope for the future should not discard concerns about landfills and climate change, right? From Christmas to Hanukkah to the Solstice and Kwanza, there are lots of reasons to celebrate this time of year.  Couldn’t that just mean we splurge by breaking open an extra squash?! (OK, a little extreme I know, maybe a bottle of wine to go with it wouldn't be out of order).  

I dutifully read my Laura Ingalls as a child.  Apparently, it only took a stick of peppermint and a homemade doll to make the holiday bright.  What’s wrong with us?    

I think too much stuff at Christmas is like too much water in your chicken broth (I just made 30 cups of that stuff yesterday, so I assure you, it's a perfectly reasonable analogy).  The more water you add, the more broth you make, the less flavor you get.  See?

So here’s my “holiday wish list” (not the kind I usually make):

●Everyone gets one gift—or maybe one stocking.

●Wrap our gifts in recycled paper or reusable packaging.  Maybe the kids could decorate their own fabric Christmas bag then reuse it every year? (yikes…that sounds like a craft– I’d have to put my sister on that one).

●Trash those trashy Christmas lights—they burn electricity, they're made of plastic, and they break every year.  Instead, decorate the house with garlands and ribbons, then light luminaries on Christmas eve and on the solstice. Steve and I have 1 big holiday fight every year, and we can always trace its insidious roots back to the lights. This year, he hung all the tree lights then discovered he’d hung them upside down (with the plug at the top).  The kids and I fled the scene, so I don't know exactly what happened next.  If a man throws a Christmas tree out the livingroom window and nobody's there to hear it crash, did it happen? 

●Listen to holiday music in moderation to avoid side-effects of overexposure that might include: chest pain; confusion; hallucinations; panic attacks, aggressiveness, irritability, hostility, inability to sit still; persistent or severe ringing in the ears; vomiting, diarrhea, or headache; suicidal thoughts or attempts; worsening of depression, and excessive sweating.  I've had some of these.  Have you?

●Only send cards to people I didn't see over the past year. Write personal notes to these people.

● Decorate the house with natural stuff like evergreens (tree, wreath), pinecones, strung cranberries or popcorn, candles (instead of lights) and a variety of crafts/artwork (saved school projects, items purchased from craftspeople, projects developed and executed by crafty sister). 

●Bake with the kids instead of shopping for the kids.

●Use the extra time and money to adopt a needy family, providing them with much the same: 1 gift a piece, a few homemade decorations, and food for a holiday meal. 

Surely these elements of a smaller Christmas would lead inevitably to a bigger  Christmas. 

Wouldn't it be great!?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

there's a lesbian in the gingerbread

Yesterday, I spent the afternoon decorating gingerbread men people with Olivia and 2 of her friends.  I arranged mine in efficient little rows with typical utilitarian zeal, but the girls made a beautiful mess, creating replicas of each other, squealing and giggling with delight at their miniature frosting-laden selves. 
As they bounded around the table slinging frosting, jots, and raisins, I kept to my assembly line.  Then at some point, I heard the word “gay” and tuned in more closely. 
“No, he doesn’t look gay,” answered one of the girls. 
“But it would be fine if he did,” chimed in another. [Think Seinfeld: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!”]

Recognizing one of those rare moments when the kids had forgotten about me and had begun to talk candidly with their friends, I willed myself into invisibility.  I studied my cookie intently, fiddled with the placement of the raisins, and zippered my mouth.           

I was so curious: What did these 11 year old girls have to say to each other about homosexuality?

“My Uncle’s gay,” offered the third without even looking up from the frosting mountain she was building.  I could see her in my guarded peripheral vision.
“Really?  That’s cool,” came Olivia’s response as she dug into the raisins. 

“The other friend added, “The only bad thing about being gay is that some states won’t let you be gay.” 

“You mean married, I think” – Woops – So much for my silence.

"Yeah, married.  Why can’t gay people get married?  That’s dumb!”

“I know!” agreed Olivia. “Who’s got the blue? Can I use it?...” and the conversation bounced on to something else.
Wow.  No need for gentle reminders about our house rules: “don’t feed the dog, leave your shoes at the door, and no hate-speech in the house!”     

When I was their tender age of 11, I called my younger brother a “lesbian” with a biting derision beyond my years.  My father promptly marched me to the bathroom to wash my "filthy" mouth out with a bar of good old fashioned Ivory soap.   He paused for a second, the bar poised and ready.  “Do you even know what that means?” he asked.

Not to be mistaken for a less worldly person, I clarified that yes, I knew what a lesbian was.  I had called my brother a lesbian because he was such a girl.

So, at 11 years old, I had formulated that my 8 year old brother was so pathetic he wasn’t even man enough to be gay.


There are so many things to object to in that.  I don't know where to start.

I wasn’t raised explicitly to be hateful towards homosexuals, but I wasn’t raised to be tolerant either.  When you leave a void like that, someone or something will eventually fill it in.  Without other guidance, I had simply absorbed the homophobic messages of the world around me, learning almost by osmosis that homosexuality was a thing to be reviled and that apparently, the only thing worse than being a gay man was being a lesbian woman. 

These words that I knew so little about gave me a place to put my anger; they also gave me a weapon to use against my annoying little brother.

I had learned the power of language. 

Within months, however, my world would change when I discovered that my two closest (and slightly older) friends were in a lesbian relationship with one another.  Suddenly, the words “gay” and “lesbian” ceased to be abstract ideas on which I could pile my frustrations.  Instead, they described people I cared about very deeply.

When he punished me, I think my father hoped to wash away the word, and thus, the thing, but familiarity, a great weapon against intolerance, washed away the hate instead.    

I’m grateful I had friends who were brave enough to teach me that lesson. 

It occured to me as I looked over my neat rows of gingerbread men: where are all the girls?  In the past I've worked so hard to be sure my daughter had girls and women to identify with in her play (you know, like turning the playschool farmer into a woman).  Yesterday, however, I focused more on getting my part of the job done.  I didn't think about gender when I decorated my cookies.  Afterwards, I could see that their neutrality created another one of those voids, one easily filled by the label "gingerbread men."

Language shapes our world.

I glanced over at the girls' cookies.  They looked very different from my neat, minimalist creations.  Most notably, many of them had long hair.

They made girls.  

Of course they did.    And I bet if those girls hopped off the pan and ran out of the oven, some of them would turn out to be lesbians too. 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

philosophy of a bigger christmas

OMG – how could Christmas get bigger!?

It’s not what you think.

My Episcopal upbringing stuck just about as well as a band-aid would stick if you put it on while soaping up in the bath.   It doesn’t really matter why, it just didn’t.  For a time, I went spiritually adrift, not sure of what I believed, and by extension, what holidays to celebrate. 

Eventually, I gravitated to the cycles of the earth—to the seasons—as a way of marking milestones, and I quickly discovered that the Christian holidays of my Episcopal childhood fell into this same cycle. 

Who knew? 

I think, actually, a lot of people knew, but I was not one of them. 

For years since that discovery, I have celebrated the winter solstice, and little by little, it has transformed into a sort of revised version of Christmas.  Here’s the story:

From September 21st to December 20th, the days grow progressively shorter because the sun rises to a lower and lower point in the sky.  Ancient peoples feared that the sun would eventually fail to rise at all, leaving them in perpetual darkness.  On the solstice, which occurs on the 21st of December, the trend reverses itself and the sun rises a bit higher, signifying a shift towards longer days. 

Ancient peoples celebrated the return of light with all kinds of very familiar sounding traditions:  they brought evergreens inside to ward off the winter gray, they lit yule logs, caroled, feasted and exchanged gifts. 

Gee, haven’t I done all that before?

Meanwhile, I didn’t have to jump through too many intellectual hoops before noticing that the narratives of the solstice and of Christmas both revolve around homonyms: sun/son.  So the sun appears higher in the sky, bringing us light and hope, at the same time that the son is born under a “bright star,” giving us light and hope.  I can’t help myself: Are they the same sun/son? 
Growing up, I had no idea that the solstice existed. Nor did I understand that my Christmas traditions hailed from pagan customs in place long before the birth of Christ.  Even more interesting, and equally unknown to me: colonial puritans banned the celebration of Christmas in the early 17th century precisely because of these roots.       

So when my sister ironically asked me why I had a Christmas tree and an advent wreath after we stopped attending our Episcopal church, it occurred to me to ask, “Well, if we’re going to be picky (or Puritan) about it, why do you have a Christmas tree?” 

But I didn’t want to be picky about it.  To be fair, neither did she.  She was just curious.

To answer her question, here’s what we’ve ended up with.  I have come to understand winter holiday traditions as different ways of celebrating one thing: the need for spiritual light in a time of physical and spiritual darkness.   The “sun” brings us light and life in a literal way.  Meanwhile, the “son” brings the same in a figurative way while adding a moral layer in the messages Christ bore regarding peace, charity, love and community. 

To commemorate both of these things, we have all the trappings of Christmas, including lights, a tree and an advent wreath.  We even have a nativity scene.  The evergreens of the tree and the wheel-shaped wreath symbolize hope in the return of light and life.   However, we also light the candles every Sunday according to the Christian tradition of joy, hope, peace and love.  We light the 4th candle on the solstice for the “sun” and the white candle on Christmas eve for the “son.” 

The nativity scene depicts the birth of Christ and reminds us of his teachings.  It also stresses the importance of family: it portrays a family, it belonged to my grandmother, and it acknowledges our Christian family heritage. 

There's more, but I fear there's a law about blog posts that exceed a certain unspoken word count. I feel sure I'm approaching or surpassing that limit, putting me at risk for some sort of blogocide, so that's enough for now.

I don’t think I explained all this to my sister when she asked.  I’m sure her eyes would have rolled back in her head and stuck there.  But I like this rich tradition that we have woven. 

Whether a person finds light in the sun, God, Christ, advent candles, lights on a tree, or through light in other traditions such as the Jewish Menorah, what I think matters most is the celebration itself and the community, good will, and hope that it inspires. 

We can all celebrate in our varied ways, with puritan zeal or not, but if we can also recognize this commonality of purpose and circumstance, that human beings come together in winter darkness and are held together in holiday light, even better.