Saturday, October 11, 2008

Irrational and in progress


I'm in a west-end Costco on a mission for my company. I detest spending other people's money, especially my employers, and have volunteered a Costco run to buy large boxes of cookies straight from their bakery rather than buying overpriced stale pastries from one of Canada's favourite donut chains. I'm also insane enough to voluntarily do this at noon on a Friday before the kind of holiday that most people require vast amounts of food to enjoy properly. I've done my Thanksgiving duty for the year in a filial, come-to-dinner sense (attended a meal out of town with cousins I've known since we were all assigned to a kiddy table). Any spiritual responsibilities of the count-your-blessings variety are too esoteric to outline in this forum, and I wouldn't know how to address those half-murmured, half-heard voices at the best of times.

The noon-hour rush at Costco is not the best of times. The place is its usual zoo, and since it's never too early to encourage people to drain their disposable income, there are a few shelves stocked with assorted Christmas items and general ephemera. The aisle isn't decorated for the occasion, it's just a reminder that seasons change and if you're going the way of material goods, why not start with a sale? I'm not going that direction myself, but at least the Costco floor plan isn't offering me a few jolly (and compulsory) carols or compelling me to feel warm and fuzzy. It's just a fact of life. We've all got to make a buck, here's our scratching at the matter.

None of this interests me. The 600 cookies for my company doesn't interest me. The rectangular box of oversize Christmas tree ornaments does interest me, only in that I'd be much happier if I hadn't seen it. The ornaments feature a small colour screen and a discreet USB port at the back. It probably runs on triple A's or watch batteries. You can upload JPGs into it and set a duration for the image display. The ghosts of Christmas past will be displayed at whatever rate you want, from wistful meandering to blink and they're gone.

My response to the beast worked out as follows, and I'm not calling it sane, rational, or the mark of a man without issues. I'm just outlining what played out:

1. I looked at the thing and thought 'My mother would like that.' The year my father died, there were ornaments with a voice chip that you could drop sound file onto. My mother asked for one - we could look at some of the old tapes, maybe grab a few words, hear my dad's voice around the tree. It'd never go away.

I didn't bring myself to edit the tracks (or figure out how to do it on short notice) and couldn't figure out what few, scattered words from old videos would be appropriate for an on-the-tree, we-'ll-always-have-him-near gesture. The whole idea just wore me deeper into the all-purpose numb I was feeling at the time, so it never came together.

2. I realized that we could fill this new ornament with family photos.

3. I realized that most of the photos I would hold dear involved the recently deceased and this is a broad term. Let's call 'recently' anything with the last 5 years since that feels, right or wrong, like recent events. I realized that if I found myself gazing into a plastic ornament looking at tiny pixelated renditions of happier times (or at least formative times), that I would probably lose most control and fall to the floor as a mess.

4. Ergo and therefore, the ornaments were trying to ruin my life and remind me of mortality, and had ruined my Christmas. Which is 2 months away. And will, most likely, not take place in a Costco.

5. There's a happy ending to this - I realized that the previous 4 steps amounted to the kind of morbid self attention that DeNiro warned us against in Taxi Driver.

And if I could realize that the nice folks at Costco and whatever South Korean electronics firm developed the cheap ornament were not personally out to make me sad...then I could put on a facade of normality, buy the damn cookies, and get the hell out of Dodge City.

I did.

An odd overreaction to a relatively innocuous item. I have a beautiful, healthy and charming 3yr old son who is far happier to focus on during any holiday season. And Thanksgiving isn't Christmas, isn't even located near to it in the dictionary, there are spiritual, associative, and probably karmic apples and oranges getting re-arranged in short notice in a damn Costco for corn's sake. This is a corporate Amex expedition, not the long tea time of the soul.

And that said, triggers do what they do, without rationale or apology. I left the store. Delivered the cookies to a storeroom. Picked up my wife and son and got away from either things lost or the simple fear of remembering what is no longer with us. It's always odd what comes to the surface, and when.

I had a family friend who was a rare bird, a devout Baptist, social conservative, economic liberal. He wanted to distribute wealth to developing nations, set up micro loans, and compel corporations to put more of their proceeds to charity whether they wanted it or not. He also had a knee-jerk reaction against Hillary Clinton, who was going to steal the presidency and make abortion mandatory in the one-child-only Chinese model or some such.

The thing about this person was that, knee-jerked, he would back away from the more extreme aspects of his argument and provide an engaging debate. He'd listen to your points, find something to agree with, and somehow not come across as potentially frightening as he might appear here.

I did not agree with his politics. But in the wake of the US situation, I would very much like to have been discussing the election with him. I'd like to know what he would have thought about Harper (would probably have appreciated the family angle) and Dion (would have been a green shift fan). It would have been a respectful chat. The last time we spoke was in a restaurant 10 months ago. He'd held a Christmas party for years. Elections and thanksgiving and that damn ornament in a big box store. Triggers. Unrelated. Unrelenting.

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