18 December 2006

You're Getting a Lump of Coal!

Well, here it is but a week before Christmas and only one of you has sent in a yuletide memory. I know how hard it is to remember. All month I have been straining to recall. Most of the eyars between 1970 and 2000 just run together because they are so similar. How odd that we collectively pine for the season and lavish our time and energy and money on it but cannot recollect them - and memory is after all the only coin we get to keep as change.

For some reason the story in my heart this morning is especially sad....

... My eldest son, now a college graduate, was perhaps seven. We were living in Austin, Texas, the place we dwelled the shortest amount of time in my checkered career.

Christmas in Austin is different than in New England where we had been for ten years. The weather gets sharp so there is a taste of winter in the air; but snow is exceedingly rare. The landscape is sharper too, with lots of cedar and cactus and hard yellow soil eroded from the limestone bedrock that was a great prehistoric sea. You can feel a bit of the arid loneliness in the original Christmas story, in contrast with the snowy pagan cheer our anglo culture prefers.

And there is the Spanish influence as well, with its Catholic love of the posadas, the mariachi inflected songs, the luminarias and other folkways that feel more honest in many ways than the manufactured and marketed forms that permeate our WASP ways.

But my story has nothing to do with this at all. It is simply about the desires of a seven year old for a robot. The Saturday television shows he loved seemed all about transformers and robots and other Japanimation inspired creatures. This was all he wanted, well not all but chief. The choices, however, were sparse. Santa's helpers went high and low, far and wide, to find something that met his requriement that it actually walk.

Glorioski if we did not finally happen upon a black plastic thing about foot tall that inched along and whose eyes behind its visor blinked red and whose arm raised to fire a ray gun or some such weapon.

Here comes the sad part. I knew that he wanted something that did far more, but also knew that telling him about it would tamper with his delicate faith in the power of Santa. He had already braved the Santa skeptics on the playground and manfully retained his faith. He came home bloodied in spirit one day, asking us if it was or was not so. Shades of Virginia!

What would be the better choice - crush his spirit now or on Christmas morning when the toy he was already imagining proved to be less than marvelous. We chose the latter. I truly found the thing awful. It was cheaply made despite its elevated price, and thus would not last long. The gap between reality and hope was vast. Something about buying it made me feel tawdry and low, as if I were caving in to something less than honorable, but I saw no better course. He would see in that instant how misplaced his hopes had been.

The morning came and he tore at its glittery wrapping. We received the great benediction of his ecstatic face, realizing this was his heartfelt desire. So far he was pleased. We raced to release it from all the cardboard and clear plastic. Unable to resist, he pressed various buttons and sure enough its eyes lit up, he growled mechanically, and tried in vain because we had a plush rug, to walk in his lumbering way. His arm rose up and sparky lights appeared at the muzzle of his pistol.

He was happy as it turned out. And the toy lasted a long time. What made it sad was that its charm was short lived. It was fun for a day, and for part of a day thereafter, and by spring was gathering dust on a shelf. Now and then it came out for a moment of poignant reiteration, but the passionate hope so invested in the weeks before Christmas evaporated quickly. A few years later his younger brother discovered it and enjoyed the same brief romance with it. And then it resumed its position among the artifacts of our growing past. My curatorially gifted wife preserved it in good order for many years. It finally left us, I think, as we departed Brooklyn and both were well beyond boyhood.

What makes this sad for me is how we live in a world where children are taught to desire things to answer their needs. Few of the toys I gave or received lasted in my life or memory much beyond the week after Christmas. I was not disappointed directly, but their joy was very short lived. Somewhere in my life, somewhere around ten or eleven, I began to wonder what could possibly equal the promise of Christmas? The great build up seemed ievitably to lead to a let down.

This is what I wanted to spare my own boys, even as I knew I could not. There is a horrid despair when the world proves less marvelous than you believe it is, when the magic is shown to be a ruse after all. Must we all want the false before we want the true. Is heartbreak really the only way to wisdom?

Maybe so. That does not ease those hardest moments of life when a child discovers the brutal facts, the first of which is the scandal of Santa. I still wish the story was true, sometimes, and count among my dearest possessions the clear memory of when it was true when I was a boy. Everyone should remember a time when all things were possible.

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