Consumerism and Childlike Vision

Ours is a consumerist society.  When I enter the word “consumerism” into my application, three definitions appear:  one concerning the protection of customers; one about the benefit of goods consumption to the economy ; and one dealing with the “practice of an increasing consumption of goods”.  All of these are represented in America, but the last definition is the one that readily reveals our unsavory side.  We are addicted to whatever is newest, best, and/or most impressive.  There is a wide-ranging impulse to buy up each technological advancement the moment it comes to rest on a retail shelf, and the lack of funds is hardly a hurdle given the surplus of financing options at our disposal. The release–or better still, the reduction in price–of a much ballyhooed product has the power to whip a crowd into a credit card-wielding frenzy.  At its most uncivil, the consumerist bent leads to violence, as evidenced by the senseless trampling at a predawn Wal-Mart a few years back (the day after Thanksgiving, no less).


With characteristic resistance, I try not to get taken in by the darker side of consumerism, by which I mean the reckless expenditure that has its roots in the notion that one can buy happiness.  Yet there I was on a December Sunday, strolling past a quaint Dickensian miniature village on the second floor of a department store at the Galleria mall, thinking to myself, without a bit of irony, “Hmm, that’s nice.”  Meanwhile, seasonal classics sung by assorted somebodies are falling like snow from audio speakers in the ceiling and the spicy-sweet scent of cinnamon emanates from some unknown region of the store.  A hitherto non-existent urge to part with my money begins to form, and it becomes clear how easy it is to get caught up in the consumerist moment and exit the mall with an armload of extraneous merchandise.  Is it really that big of a leap from the desktop pinball game to the latest high-definition television at a Black Friday sale?


There may have been no irony behind my admiration for a ceramic Christmas village, but there is a bit of irony in the fact that some of the very props used to lure unsuspecting customers into a spending stupor are those that can provide a way out of this costly conspiracy.  It is by looking at them through the eyes of a child.  By recalling the sense of wonder we had as we gazed upward at a lighted tree that seemed impossibly tall, we can lay claim to the old magic that made us fall in love with this time of year in the first place.


My son gazes up at our tree from time to time.  He is barely a year old, so nothing holds his attention for very long.  It was obvious moments after we put the tree up, though, that we would not be able to leave it on the floor. Arthur tends to pull down, take apart, or throw whatever is within reach.  The tree is now on a side table, with all but the lowest branches inaccessible to his two-and-a-half foot frame. Seeing his upward stares gives me a specific memory of doing the same thing.  I was a little older–old enough to have memories, obviously–but still very much a child.  I remember thinking that either chipmunks or elves lived in the center, behind the pine needles where they could not be seen.  They would run around, jumping from branch to branch, way up high and out of sight, rearranging ornaments while we slept.  This sounds like it has the potential to be scary, but it was not.  It was an imagination at play, inspired by the colorful lights and shiny garland that embellished a big tree in my family’s living room.  It was a part of the joyful anticipation of that big day that was coming ever so slowly.  Perhaps harnessing just a hint of childlike vision will help us to resist the soul-squeezing grip of unbridled consumerism.

Embracing the In-Betweens

Overused expressions from popular culture are to be avoided in general, often repeated as they are to the point of becoming trite.  But I can think of no more appropriate phrase for this post than that of John Lennon in his song “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)”:  “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”  An unfortunate side effect of the holidays (which begins for me the moment Halloween decorations hit store shelves) is the occurrence of lulls in the in-betweens.  The three month period for which the Halloween season and New Year’s Day serve as bookends may be viewed as an imaginary mountain range.  The peaks in this range are the calendar holidays themselves, and they are connected by a lengthy trail which requires time and patience in the ascent of each peak but then plunges precipitously down the other side, dipping into the mundane.  An irony of this festive time of year is that what is considered mundane–the ordinary chores, the routine tasks, the minutiae of the workday–begins to feel even more so.  Jobs become drudgerous with much clock-watching.  Occupations that allow for little time off during the holidays can even become sources of bitterness.  We who appreciate this part of the year juggle conflicting feelings of eagerness for cherished traditions with the fear that they will end too quickly.


So here is a challenge to myself and to anyone else who struggles with finding a balance between these special days and all the tedium-laced, unremarkable ones that surround them.  Let go.  Halloween, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Eve will take care of themselves.  The embedded psychological weight of each of these all but insists on their prominence on the calendar.  Keep traditions, but understand that they will endure without excess of effort and anxiety.  The preparation of food or the purchase of gifts may be necessary, but fretting over making the day memorable is not.  Instead, direct that energy into embracing the in-betweens.


Nature is a worthwhile place to start.  Fall colors peaked weeks ago, and a majority of hardwoods have lost their leaves, but throughout Middle Tennessee there are little pockets of color–solitary maples clinging stubbornly to their bright reds and yellows, which appear all the more dazzling amid the encroaching browns and grays of the surrounding trees.  To a willing mind, even the browns and grays have their charms.  A line of bare branches, when positioned opposite the sun, has a way of softening the waning rays of dusk into a mellow red-orange glow, which in turn is complemented by a paled and deepening turquoise sky, quilted with magenta-pink cirrocumulus clouds.


Cold nights are here, yet there is an alternative to bemoaning the onset of early darkness.  When the premature sunset fools us into thinking the hour is late, shift focus to the comforts of home.  Home can be a loaded concept, but hopefully it is a positive one.  Perhaps it implies family, but it also can imply warmth and refuge.  In the abstract, home may imply a place inside ourselves, where we are able to retreat regardless of our physical environment.


In the spirit of Thanksgiving, the mountain peak at which we arrive this week, I suggest one last way to ease the anxiety of the mundane (and I do it with another potentially overused phrase):  count your blessings.  Loosen your grip on tomorrow’s ambitions and take stock of what you already have.  Everyone has something, and most of us have much.  Inevitably, the in-betweens will be sweetened, and an impulse toward generosity may just reveal itself.

Fatherhood: Impressions from Year One

Upon word of our impending addition to the family, many an experienced parent set about assuring me of the joys of fatherhood.  I was grateful for all the well-wishing and good-natured advice, but nothing could have prepared me for the way it actually would feel to welcome my son into the world.  Here was this little person that I knew I would always love, no matter what situations may arise.  I knew this immediately.


I also knew that my perspective had been forever shifted.  Within my orbit, there was now a true dependent–not in the sense that a family member may be listed as a dependent on a tax form, but in the literal sense.  Someone was trusting in me for their security, for mobility, for shelter, for nourishment.  In no way do I intend to downplay my wife’s role in providing these things alongside me–she is the consummate mother, as far as I can tell–but to communicate that this type of necessary provision was a new expectation for me.  On paper, to someone outside the situation, this advanced level of responsibility may be lacking in appeal, but a year of practice has taught me there is a deep satisfaction to be found in the act of providing so much for someone who is capable of so little, and the satisfaction is all the deeper when that someone is your own.


In the initial days of Arthur’s life, there was a barely perceptible quiver at the end of each long cry, a tremulous shudder of sound that would have been easy to miss had I not been in a state of hyper awareness, as I imagine new fathers often are.  His newborn lungs were giving it all the volume they could muster.  It is a mystery as to why this became a point of pride for me, but it did.  There was an identification with this desperate, infantile wail–a heart connection–that apparently was based in nothing more than the fact that he was mine.


Several of his actions would create mysterious heart connections that year:  the spirited shouts of made-up words when he discovered his voice (many of which sounded to me like various forms of “daddy”); the ecstatic smiles he would give from his crib first thing in the morning; the upright angle of his back after he learned to sit on his own; the way his brow would furrow at the serious business of eating a cookie; even the downturned corners of his mouth, sunken deep into his chubby cheeks, as a pout was about to materialize into a full-blown tantrum (so traumatic to him, yet so endearing to me).


At this early stage, it is difficult to resist imagining what Arthur will look like or what he will find interesting when he is older, but I am careful not to let those musings overshadow what a miracle he is right now, at one year of age.  His face brightens when I come home, and sometimes he squeals.  To think that this little boy will soon be calling me Dad, and to think he may even want to be like me one day, fills me with a joy I can hardly contain.  And in case he happens to stumble across this post at a point in the unknowable future, I just want to say, “Arthur, you have made me proud just by being born, and I love you.”