Sometimes It Just Works


Inevitable humor in a merchandise display at Barnes & Noble, Woodinville, Washington, 28 November 2014. (Photo by bd)

Every once in a while, inevitable humor just happens to coincide with one’s mood. That nexus of circumstance is the difference between this sort of thing being mildly amusing or just annoying enough to make one cuss beneath his breath. On this occasion, the merchandise arrangement at a Barnes & Noble had everything it needed, though in this case the one factor that makes the joke work is beyond the control of any hapless employee who figured it would be negligent, even counterproductive, to skip the obvious. One would not be surprised, indeed, if these were the merchandising instructions. But with comedy, timing is everything, and yes, in those days ‘twixt Thanksgiving and Christmas, it is also more generous. Besides, it’s all more decent than I would be. You know, Keep calm and go f―

That is to say, er … um … ah … as we were saying.

Right.

Carry on, then.

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Heckling the holidays


A few thoughts on this holiday season.

In the first place, I had not intended to say much specifically about the fact that Christmas is upon us, but it really is hard to ignore the obvious.

In the first place, we must recall that it is the giving, and not the getting, that is important through this season. Focusing on what we get, or what we expect, generally leads to pettiness, as a couple of simple examples will show. Because, in the first place, as they say, “It’s the thought that counts”. Which raises the question of thoughtless—or, if that word is too accusing for you, how about “low-thought” (97% thought-free!)—gifts.

A gift that went by the wayside this year was a small stocking-stuffer my mother had picked up for my daughter. Hairbands. Simple, necessary, and thoughtful. In the end, that gift has been nullified by a self-serve snip job; it didn’t really occur to me that the scissors were that available to my five year-old, but I was wrong. Whoops. No blood, lesson learned, life goes on. But the hairbands are officially useless. Which is a relief, I suppose, because while I’m saying more about it here than I ever would specifically, I’m still curious why so many people—and not just my mother—ignored a simple notion. Many hairbands are held together with a piece of crimped metal. Just look at the display in the store if you’re a shorthair and thus have little or no idea what I’m talking about. I have long held that these crimped sleeves are bad for long hair. Experience teaches that they break and pull out a lot of hair over time. I stopped using them a long time ago for my own hair. And over the years, people have, in kind gestures, provided me with hairbands that I do not use. And like I said, it’s not about this one gift from my mother. Even my daughter’s mother, who allegedly agrees with my assessment of the things, would buy them. I don’t resent the gifts, as such; I’m just glad it’s not something like a tie, where someone might wonder that I never use the gift they gave. And nor is it consistent; neither of the givers I’ve mentioned here are serial offenders on this count.

Myself, I bought a pair of pants the other day, and I’m glad I didn’t buy them as a gift for anyone else. I only bought the pants, quite literally, because they were there, and priced at a whole five dollars. I actually had to ask my brother, who was at the store with me, if I was reading correctly. We puzzled over the price, and then realized there were only a few pairs of these pants left. I did manage to find some in my size, though, and the issue was settled. But as anyone knows, men don’t actually need to try on pants. The size sticker on the leg is all I needed.

It turns out, though, that clearing limited stock was not the reason these pants were five dollars. It turns out that they are part of a signature line, Kenneth Cole’s “Reaction”. When I told a friend about the pants yesterday, she informed me that there is, apparently, a cologne and apparel line by this name; it makes sense, but who the hell is Kenneth Cole, anyway? Well, it turns out he’s a cheap bastard price-conscious designer. Snipping away the tags in order to wash the Chinese-made pants, I realized that the reason the extra buttons were included in a plastic zip-lock baggie more suitable for delivering crack was that the actual buttons sewn to the pants were ready to fall off. I expect to get one wearing of these pants before the poorly-threaded buttons simply fall off. Then again, if I get one use out of these pants, they’ve fulfilled their five-dollar mission.

Bottom line: I’m glad I didn’t buy any five-dollar pants as a gift for anyone else. Really, what would that have said?

And, yes, I understand. For some people, clearance price is what they can afford. And, yes, I understand that when it’s children you’re giving to, merchandise says more than sentiment ever could. “Bling”, as such, speaks louder than love.

And, besides, my daughter picked out some hairbands at the store not too long ago. Her criteria was the packaging, and she insisted on a pack that resembled a crayon box, and had thirty-two or so pastel-colored hairbands held together with crimped metal sleeves. And then, a couple days later, she swiped the scissors from the basket atop the fridge and rendered the question moot.

But when it’s not children learning by our giving the values of commercialization, effective branding, and how to envy the herd, some different rules apply. For years, I’ve had a bizarre relationship with Christmas. I don’t want to be a Scrooge. I’d just rather leave it to people who believe in things like saviors named Jesus Christ.

I’m not a Christian, and have not been for years. From the time I was allowed to make the decision for myself, this has been true. I’m a confirmed Lutheran and a willing graduate of a Jesuit high school, but I cannot recall a time when I ever actually, genuinely believed. Like many, I recall saying some prayers as a child because I was scared silly of God’s wrath, but I got over it. I think. Entering adulthood, I even attempted to withdraw from Christmas. It wasn’t my holiday. I actually tried telling people that they didn’t need to buy me gifts. Contrary to the stories we hear about parents using Christmas gifts to bribe religious faith out of their kids (“I guess that means you don’t believe in Christmas; I’ll just take back all your presents”), the notion that I did not want people buying me stuff actually offended a few people who actually looked forward to giving me stuff.

Really.

Seriously.

I mean, what the hell am I supposed to say to that?

Additionally, while I’m not Christian, certain lessons did stick with me through the years. Before I dropped out of college, I worked in specialty retail shop well-placed at a mall in Oregon. And I think it was July, 1994, when I found myself unpacking Christmas merchandise and signs to remind customers to do their holiday shopping early. I remember this because it was disturbing; people were already complaining that Christmas had trespassed on Thanksgiving and was creeping toward Hallowe’en, but July? It just seemed perverse. More than any affront to Jesus or Christian faith or Christmas itself, though, I simply found it a testament of what’s wrong with capitalism. (What? I was still a college student. That’s what college is for, right?) So more than the crass commercialization of Christmas, what has long offended me about the pop-culture holiday is that it’s the time of year we’re supposed to be good and helpful and decent to one another. I remember some of my Christian indoctrination, and part of what stuck is the idea that every day is a fine time for compassion and decency. For some reason, it seems our annual ritual of goodwill—also known as the holiday season—is expected to suffice. This should be especially apparent, since we’re only a couple of weeks away from the official start of political primary season.

And I am, indeed, a child of good fortune. My entire life, in some contexts, and certainly the whole of my comfort and opportunity most recently, depends on the compassion and goodwill of others. Those who know me are painfully aware of how I’ve fallen to pieces over the years, and also how unique are the conditions of my attempted recovery. The idea that anybody should be giving me any wrapped and tied Christmas presents strikes me as absurd. But now, as then, there are those whose hearts, it seems, would break if they didn’t.

The whole spectacle of the Christmas myth and what it brings to those around me is insane. It is a bizarre ritual that I would indict for missing its own point, except that nobody I know really cares, so it seems rather petty to worry about it. After all, as the season reminds, I’m one of the luckiest bastards on the planet, and it’s hard to sincerely complain. And, yes, the hurt that comes with knowing what an utter disappointment I’ve become is more acute during the period between Hallowe’en and the New Year, and drinking heavily for the latter doesn’t seem to help.

If you had what I have, well, of course you would see the absurdity—recognize a certain insanity—about the Christmas season. But, strangely, that’s part of the point. What I have is worth more than I can express, and I cannot wish anything less for anyone else. And I know that sounds paradoxical in a certain way. Again, that’s part of the point. But it should not detract from the obvious. If I am worthy of so much love and compassion and goodwill, it would seem that the same is the least I could wish for anyone else. And this, more than hairbands or five-dollar pants, more than brand-names and “bling”—more than the economic necessity of a yearly ritual providing, in some cases, a fifth of the year’s receipts and more—seems to be the purpose of the season.