Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Gift of Something That Matters

A short while ago, as my seven-year-old son and I were talking in bed one weekday morning, I asked him what he was most looking forward to about Christmas. Without a moment of hesitation, he answered "grandma and grandpa." A few weeks earlier, he had added "good luck for my family" to the end of his wish list to send to Santa. In fact, his list of things that he wanted was so short, we had to encourage him to look through some toy catalogs to lengthen it some. He seemed entirely content with receiving a couple of toys, as long as he could spend the holiday time with family.

I have always adored the giving of gifts. The pleasure of finding a gift that the recipient will truly enjoy or find useful is eminently satisfying to me. For me, giving a gift is one of those opportunities where you can demonstrate that you truly have listened to and understood the needs and interests of the recipient. The old phrase -- "It's the thought that counts" -- only partially captures this sentiment. For me, it's never been enough to give a gift of something. I've always tried to give the gift of something that matters.

This year, I've been thinking a great deal about this concept of giving something that matters. And what I've realized is that, in my son's eyes, the greatest gift I can give him is my time and attention. To him, that is what matters. Surely, he will enjoy seeing a tree full of presents when he awakes tomorrow morning. But all those boxes mean nothing to him outside the context of the time shared with family, the foundation of this holiday.

For those who accept the biblical foundations of Christmas, this holiday celebrates the entry into humanity of a child who would someday teach the people around him to give of themselves to those who are least fortunate. In the more secular version, we are inspired by a story of giving where all children are visited by the spirit of the season, who leaves good tidings and gifts in his magical wake. Whichever allegory you choose, the message is not about receiving, but of giving of oneself.

We miss this message as we stand in long lines under the oppressive glow of commercial fluorescents, waking up at 4am to fight our fellow humans for a toy that will be forgotten soon after it is opened on Christmas morning. We miss this message when we stress our families by shuffling our families between five different destinations in a vain attempt to please everyone. We miss this message when we use this holiday as bribery for good behavior in our children.

Tomorrow, as I hear the handle turn on my son's bedroom door, and see his bright eyes peer around the corner into our room, my mind and heart will be completely focused on giving myself to him. Regardless of what waits for him under the tree, his greatest gift will not come from a store, or be wrapped in a box. It will be something that matters.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Wanting To Know Who I Am

I walked out of the office tonight to perhaps my least favorite kind of weather. The temperature hovered just above freezing. Sheets of large, heavy raindrops marched through the illumination of street lights, buffeted on an increasingly strong wind. My lack of umbrella was practically inconsequential. This was the kind of weather that comes at you from all angles, mocking protection from above.

My path from the front door of my office building to the parking garage can't be more than a few hundred yards, but by the time I arrived at my truck, my shoulders were hunched, my hair glistening with nearly frozen moisture. I hopped in the driver's seat, plugged my iPhone into the truck's stereo system and hit shuffle.

Now I don't often subscribe to talk of fate, but there are times when I think my iPhone has some sort of subliminal connection to my brain. As my finger lifted off the play arrow, the acoustic flourish of the Goo Goo Dolls Iris made its rising entrance through the speakers. Have you ever heard a song and -- from the very first note -- feel as if it were written by someone sharing your soul? Well, Iris is that song for me. It is one of the most instrumentally stirring rock songs ever penned, and its lyrics speak to me like no other. The lyrics and music blend perfectly to convey both desperation and hope, isolation and connection.

And I don't want the world to see me
'Cause I don't think that they'd understand
When everything's made to be broken
I just want you to know who I am

When John Rzeznik sings the chorus, I hear a soul unsure of its place in the world, a soul whose past is peppered with loss and dissolution. But in this desperation hides a soul that has found a kindred spirit, someone to walk with through the chaos.

So tonight, the cold, rainy night outside my truck disappeared, as my ride home was warmed by thoughts of those fellow souls who have wanted to know who I am.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Helping Our Kids Decipher the Message

Earlier today, I made a quick trip to Walmart to pick up a few things we needed around the house. The store was reasonably busy for pre-Christmas Saturday, and most people seemed to be in a festive, pleasant mood -- from the Salvation Army bell ringer to the handful of guys ogling the flat-screen entertainment nirvana at the back of the store.

After finding each of the items on my short list, I chose the shortest line and queued up behind what appeared to be a grandmother, mother and her elementary age son. The family could have been any of the rural, small town families of the area. The mother had the haggard look of someone who had spent all day with an energetic child. And the boy was clearly not going to wind down any time soon. He jumped around, hands attached to the end and sides of the cart that awaited his family's checked items. He was making an enormous amount of noise, but his chaos seemed unnoticed by his mother or grandmother. Seems they had become immune.

I started to pay closer attention to the boy's words. He was singing what sounded rhythmically like hip-hop, and I soon deciphered the words as "Bow, wow, wow, that's what my baby says." I will admit surprise and disgust that a young boy (or anyone for that matter) would be singing words that had such a disrespectful tone to them. My mind immediately assumed he had heard these lyrics in one of the mysoginistic songs that litter pop radio stations too frequently.

Walking out of the store, I began to wonder if we shouldn't start issuing licenses for procreation. What kind of parents would let their child listen to -- and repeat -- such drivel? Seated in the front seat of my truck, I pulled out my iPhone to post something scathing about this boy and his family.

But first, I checked YouTube to find the song he was signing. Turns out, it's not from plethora of interchangeable pablum that passes for hip-hop today. It's from a Playhouse Disney "tween" show called Phinneas and Ferb, a show that is often promoted in commercial shorts between shows aimed at toddlers and early elementary students.

Perhaps I'm being a little too sensitive on this issue, and I'm just blissfully unaware of what passes as entertainment for pre-teens and teenagers now. But I can't help but feel that we as parents need to take a stand to help our kids decipher the message that is being fed to them.

If we want to raise our sons and daughters with a healthy respect for their friends, their future partners, and the men and women whose lives they touch, we can't become immune to the messages they receive.

We have let them hear, "No, no, no, that's not what your baby says."
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