Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Mythology of Desire

Time for another confession. This staunch anti-consumer found himself in Macy’s on Black Friday. Horrors!!! Well, I have a few excuses.

It started with the Portland Macy’s Day Parade. Though I grew up a half-hour outside of New York City, I never got closer to the famous Manhattan parade than watching The Miracle of 34th St. Too bad, because I like parades! Seen lots of remarkable processions worldwide, from Ghana to India to Sri Lanka to Bali to Japan and beyond and though the music and costuming varies, the spirit is the same. Here were inflated floats, people dressed as animals, marching bands, stilt-walkers, baton twirlers and the like and fun to see it through the eyes of my granddaughter, twinkling with excitement.

But it was Portland, after all, so close to the end, the light rain picked up to heavy and we needed some asylum. What better place than Macy’s, where Santa was due to take his orders? And so we joined the line in the bedroom section for Zadie’s first exposure to that jolly old man. And in-between monitoring Zadie jumping on some beds and talking to the kids in line in front of me (they wanted a remote-control helicopter and a Barbie), I was thinking about this induction into American consumerism, that the conversation with Santa was mostly around “What do you want?” I have no problem with the mythology of Santa as a jolly spirit freely bestowing gifts and holding his “naughty and nice” threat over the unsuspecting child is a step better than the boogeyman (though should be reserved only for desperate situations— like kids plucking off ornaments at the neighbor’s Christmas party), but reducing the whole matter to the level of dubious material gifts (Barbie) calls into question my deepest-held values. And here I was about to perpetuate them.

But standing in line, I found an escape clause. What is our desire for presents but a concrete manifestation of deeper desires? Why was I anxiously awaiting Gary Snyder’s new book or keeping an eye out for the next jazz CD I think I need? Why does that new shirt from my birthday still give me pleasure? Why did I have Bulgarian bagpipe on my Christmas list for three years? Each thing we desire has another story behind it and one essential to our continued development and evolution. If the question “What do you want?” is followed by “Why do you want it?” it gives a different spin to the whole enterprise. Try it yourself and also with your older children. If the answer is “Because my friends have it” or “It will be cool for five minutes and then I’ll never play with it again,” maybe it can re-direct our wishes toward some more genuine desire.

And so the moment finally came when it was Zadie’s turn. Santa had a real beard (this was Portland, after all) and seemed a gentle man. (My wife couldn’t stop talking about him, making me suspicious of some thoughts about sitting on his lap.) When it came time for the all-important question “And what do you want?” Zadie rose to the occasion: “Red.” “Anything else?” Santa continued. Zadie: “Hmmm. Yellow.” That’s my girl!

We got a little coloring book and a box of crayons and lo and behold, there was a red crayon and a yellow crayon. The magic has begun!

P.S. We took a photo with a phone and declined the $48.00 four-photos Macy’s offered. And walked out of the store without buying anything. In your face, Black Friday!

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