I had the most vivid dream last night: I was standing on an island at the water’s edge. Not so far away, a 747 was taking off in my direction. I stood, transposed, as this magnificent beast lazily lifted first its nose, and then slowly its rear, its huge bulk improbably hanging in mid air. Suddenly, in a horrifying twist, its nose turned downward and it was heading straight towards me. This prior magical moment, full of wonderment at the marvels of modernity, turned into the shock of modernity causing my death; there was no where to run.
And so it is with Christmas, another altogether beautiful, mass market, man made beast. It has become an industry that spawns an entire collection of movies, its own section in book stores and the library, encourages even the most gifted of musicians to cover Christmas classics (as if anyone could improve on Nat King Cole’s version of Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire, but still, they try). Most importantly, it is the crowning glory of everything retail; spend! spend! spend!, advertisements tell us. As the days of December tick quickly by, the nose of that 747 has taken a nasty downward focus.
The internet has supposedly made shopping easy: one click and it’s on its way. Yet I am paralyzed. I have not bought one gift for my best customers, my children. The lights are too dazzling, the smell of pine intoxicating, the wrapping paper too varied, the choices of gifts both big, small and insignificant, overwhelming. I am frozen by the sheer volume of my growing list, and now it is too late to order online.
As the mother who wears the purse, if not the pants, in this family, I am the unspoken provider of Christmas. I have three little girls who fully expect Santa to bring them a boatload of presents on December 25. We are working our way through the multitude of Christmas movies Hollywood has faithfully produced, all with the same message: you must believe in Santa for him to come. Yet, try though I may to believe (dutifully, like all of the cards shout from my mailbox, Believe!), this higher being has yet to materialize. It will be me trudging through malls this week, battling frantic shoppers who are decidedly not in the holiday spirit as they beat me to parking spots and dash in front of me in long checkout lines.
I know this; I have been out there already. I haven’t bought one present for my family, but I’ve been trying hysterically to keep up with the other demands of Christmas. My daughters are each doing Secret Santa gift exchanges at school, at gymnastics, and now, they tell me, since they are so much fun, with their friends. They are collecting money for coaches and teachers, to give them gifts, and since it is all about giving, who can argue with that? Each of their classes are putting together a gift hamper for families in need – the most useful gifts I will purchase this season – but adding three more to my list. For every party they attend (classroom, school play, gymnastics, soccer) they bring items for the food bank, so my pantry is disappearing before my eyes, and I’m also expected to bake and decorate cookies for these events, as if the twelve other plates of gingerbread men are not enough. There are dresses and shiny shoes to be purchased, snow boots and ski suits that must be upgraded for the impending weather. I’m exhausted and broke and I haven’t even started on the list that includes my own family.
Our tree is up, but my children are begging for more decorations, more lights, more everything. When, they keep asking, will the presents be under the tree? Oh yes, those elusive presents. Telling them I’ve been a bit busy doesn’t fly: doing what? they ask.
The ten shopping days remaining are reduced to five for me, since school vacation starts at the end of this week, at which point I morph into camp director, shepherding my children to the skating rink, ski hill, indoor pools and playdates in an effort to entertain them.
The nose of the plane is now closing in on me, I am deafened by the roar of its engine. Should I run or swim, I wonder. It really doesn’t matter, since it is landing on top of me in any event. Just as the Grinch discovered, you can’t stop Christmas from coming; but unlike those gracious Who’s in Whoville, my children will not peacefully gather around a tree without presents underneath it, singing carols.
I have been a runner since Santa brought me my first pair of proper runners and track suit in grade two. In case you are wondering, Santa wasn’t trying to rid me of my baby fat, I had actually asked for them, at the very top of my list. My friends were all about dolls, I was all about two feet and a heartbeat.
From that first run (incidentally, down the street to A&W, where I rewarded myself with a baby rootbeer), I was addicted to endorphins as though they were crack cocaine. And luckily runners bear no track marks, just ugly feet; sandals can be a problem when your toenails are missing.
Running came easily to me, unlike math, and I continued to run throughout Junior High and High School – it was great for improving fitness for other sports, plus you could get about three days off school per track meet, if you signed up for the right events. It turned out I liked lazing around and sunning myself on the track as much as running on it; it was all good.
It was only natural, once I graduated from university, moved across the country, got a real job in the real world, and got married, that I would finally train for a marathon, that pinnacle of achievement for anyone who refused to use the term “jog” and who knew the difference between a kilometer and a mile. Aside from coming out of nowhere to win the Boston Marathon (or taking the subway in the middle of it and then pretending to win it), how else is the casual runner to experience moments of glory? And who doesn’t need those?
I bought a book and joined a running group in one foul swoop. I was going to do this right, and give my marathon experience its proper due, although if anyone could run a marathon surely that person was me (hello! I’ve only been running, like, my entire life!).
I took my training seriously, read the book cover to cover, and didn’t miss one Sunday morning long run, even making it to most speed workouts and interval training on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I ate well, hydrated myself, got plenty of rest, and listened to my body when it complained. When race day rolled around I was as prepared as I could possibly be, nothing could stop me from a successful race. I had this in the bag. I pictured myself sprinting effortlessly down the stretch, arms raised in my personal victory, enjoying my moment in the sun.
In actuality, the scene resembled a horror film much more than the romantic comedy I had envisioned.
For starters, it poured rain the entire race, and although it was May it could easily have passed for February. It was miserable, and my first (of many) mistakes was thinking that Mother Nature would actually listen to the optimistic sun dance I was conducting in my head. She didn’t, I underdressed, and there is nothing like being cold and wet for four hours, I learned that day.
The next mistake was reading that book, which told me to wake up at least a couple of hours before the race in order to hydrate. The year was 1997, and that was the popular belief at the time. Between the hours of 4:30 and 6:30 that morning I drank two liters of water. Dehydration was the dragon you had to slay, we thought; none of us (in our running group, anyway) had heard of hyponatremia, where your sodium levels get dangerously low should you ingest too much water.
Taking in calories through gels or bars was also news to us. I was starving at the halfway mark and curiously took a gel someone offered me and choked it down. In the last few miles I started taking everything any sticky fingered child was offering: a banana rolled in dirt, oranges with pebbles, anything that could possibly sustain me was game. (A shout out to every sticky fingered child who braved the route that day – I would not have finished but for them.)
My dreams of glory were replaced by the reality of me, water logged and freezing cold, stumbling towards the finish line which, despite it being less than a mile from where I lived, I could not recognize. It was not pretty, and resembled the agony of defeat much more than anything else. It was not a success; it was traumatizing.
So much for my cocksure attitude. To make matters worse, I could not step off a curb without an incredible amount of pain for the next month, and all of my toenails eventually fell off from that rainy day, providing me with an unwelcome reminder of the incredible pain I went through in those last few miles every time I glanced at my toes.
I hung up my hat, threw my medal in a box, and decided marathons were not for me.
But the postscript to this story, and the story I prefer to relate when I speak of this experience (which as you might guess is rarely) is this one:
My running partner for this marathon had never run a mile in her life before our first six mile training run. Not one mile. I was incredulous. She, too, followed our program religiously, determined to achieve this goal. And she unapologetically kicked my ass quite handily come race day. She was adamant that it was all in the mind, and if you put your mind to it, you could do anything you wanted.
I did get back on the horse eventually, and started running again. It was, after all, in my blood. I ran another marathon and had a finish much like the one I had envisioned that first time, but it took me thirteen years to work up my courage to do it.
In the interim, I thought a lot about the success my partner had that day because she never wavered from the idea that she could do it, and wondered how it was that my mind had come up so short. She was also underdressed, over-hydrated and hungry, yet had a fantastic run, said she felt like she was running on air. I mulled it over and over, berating myself for not performing that day.
I wish someone had counselled me a long time ago that every day is different – both in life and in marathons – and one bad experience does not an ex-runner make. But I now know a runner cannot plan their race, and on every starting line to expect the unexpected. And if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
Halloween is not in the can for a week, and the Christmas crap starts.
Before I have even taken the skeletons and cobwebs (this, in itself, is alarming: Halloween decorations??) to storage and put away the multiples of costumes, the kids have their Christmas lists finished and are asking about their dresses.
Dresses? For one day?
As I’m questioning the necessity of whether they each need a dress they will never wear (Doesn’t last year’s fit? How about something a little nicer than normal that you will actually wear again throughout the year?), I catch a glimpse of my oldest daughter’s list.
The first item is a laptop computer. And then the cheeky bugger has listed several other items beneath it, since you can’t simply get one gift for Christmas.
Hardly an original thought, but once more, with feeling: have we lost our marbles when it comes to consumerism at Christmas?
I said as much to her. “But I need it for school! We don’t have enough laptops to go around,” she wailed.
She is eleven. Whatever happened to the blackboard? And slates?
I try not to point my finger solely at her – it is the age in which we live. Also to blame is her peer group, who seem to up the ante on every birthday and occasion. You can’t blame her for trying. But it seems to get worse every year, the wish list loftier and longer, the price tags higher, the gadgets fancier.
We’ve traded in American Girls (who knew you could spend that much dough on a doll?) for electronics. A couple of years ago it was the iPod, then the Nintendo DS, then the iTouch. (The requests for the cell phone have been ignored although her voice gets louder, and I am sad to report she is in the minority of her group of friends who must resort to land lines for calling home – “use your friends cellphone,” I tell her cheerfully.)
When I was her age I was lucky to get a Barbie. The world, and not just my daughter, has gone mad. And you either must buck up in order to make their wishes come true, or buck the trend; in which case your name, come Christmas day, will be the Grinch. Or Scrooge. Pick your poison.
The answer, of course, is to educate your children about those who have so little at this time of year; let’s help them instead. We gather necessities and tiny treasures and put them together for families in need in our community. We deliver bags of food to the Food Bank. We talk about all the people all over the world who are simply trying to survive each day, let alone play with a new toy. We do all this until the cows come home. And yet when tucking them in at night, it’s back to their list.
This is where the tough parenting comes in. I love my children to the ends of the earth, but it’s my job to teach them that their happiness can’t be bought. I want them to be joyously happy on Christmas Day, but not because I’ve forked out January’s grocery money on their gift. I want them to have great friends and feel secure but not because they received what the rest of their friends got during the holiday. I want them to be thoughtful, loving, caring, empathetic citizens, not greedy, selfish drama queens.
It’s so much easier to say yes than no, but what is that teaching them? I always did have a soft spot for the Grinch.