The Uncanniness of Near Success

I have a theory; more of a hunch really in that I believe your frustration level will increase the closer you get to actual success. This hypothesis is not unlike the Uncanny Valley, a term first applied to robotics in the 70s, that is now widely seen in the film industry, specifically in CGI depictions of aliens, zombies and all their B movie friends.

Consider for a moment two of Steven Spielberg’s most famous extra terrestrials, first the aliens from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and then E.T. himself.

As the theory goes the standard emotional response to these visitors from space differs because of their relative resemblance to human beings. E.T. is completely alien so our feelings toward him are positive while the ones from Close Encounters are near human and seem to us a little creepy. This effect intensifies to outright repulsion the closer a non-human approaches human likeness so that an animated human corpse, your typical zombie, is at the bottom of this hypothetical valley.

The concept of the uncanny was first identified by a man named Ernst Jentsch in 1906 and was later expanded upon by Sigmund Freud. It is simply the cognitive dissonance caused by something that is both familiar and yet strange. Few people have exploited this phenomenon more than Roger Corman. The legendary filmmaker has produced hundreds of low budget horror movies. One in particular, called Dementia 13, a horror/thriller from 1963 has the distinction of being the first film that was written and directed by 24 yr old Francis Ford Coppola. His script, hastily written over three days, is nothing special but it contains the following line of dialogue:

It’s nice to see her enjoying herself for a change. The mood around this place isn’t good for her…. Especially an American girl. You can tell she’s been raised on promises.

Thirteen years later, a 25 yr old musician in a little apartment in Encino California was composing songs for what would be his first album. It’s not known if he had watched Dementia 13 during that time but coincidentally he did compose the following lyric:

Well, she was an American girl
Raised on promises

Bay Area DJ Howie Klein picks up the story from here:

I met Tom Petty just before the release of his debut album. He was visiting San Francisco from Gainesville and the record company couldn’t drum anyone else to meet him but my friend Michael and I. They were lucky. His album came out and it died a brutal death– everywhere but in San Francisco. It was a smash on KSAN, where I worked. We got our listeners to sign petitions begging his label’s executives to re-release it. They did.  This is the song that broke him


In November of 2010, after many months of applying to any company that was even remotely related to insurance and meeting with very little success I finally had a serious job prospect. A restoration company sent me an email with a list of questions. My written response was good enough to secure an interview. In fact much to my surprise when I arrived I was given a hastily typed job profile that was much more involved than the original posting and suspiciously tailored to match my previous experience. I had a long and satisfactory interview with the manger and a person in HR and was scheduled for a callback where I would meet with the owner.

My strategy going into this interview was to primarily listen and not to talk a lot since in my mind the sale had already been made. However I didn’t get the position so my best guess is that perhaps I didn’t appear to want it enough. Hard to say because being needy and obsequious hasn’t worked in the past either. I am reminded of another lyric from that Tom Petty song:

God it’s so painful when something that’s so close
Is still so far out of reach

I try not to read too much into song lyrics. I know from first hand experience that not everything you write is autobiographical. However I can’t help think that, on the cusp of his first actual success, that the frustration he sings about in American Girl was very real.
When asked about the song Tom Petty had this to say:

“It was just a story when I wrote it. In my mind, the girl was looking for the strength to move on, and she found it. It’s one of my favorites.”

It’s one of my favourites as well. Time to move on.

The Making of a Canadian Folk Hero

Who is your hero?

I remember my parents asking me this very question, among many, as we were sitting at the kitchen table one day partaking in some sort of quiz.  I remember that my answer was Terry Fox although, to be perfectly honest, I was only eleven and I hardly knew anything about him.  I knew he had run half way across Canada the previous summer in an effort to raise money for cancer research but that by itself doesn’t explain my response.  If anything my answer was akin to a word association and by the spring of 1981, the name Terry Fox and the word hero had become synonymous.  There is a German word, zeitgeist, which literally means “the spirit of the times” and without question Terry touched upon something quite special that summer.

Terry Fox has to this day fascinated me.  Not the 21 year old kid who embarked upon that famous one-legged run, but the other one, the one that emerged after he died whose name adorned schools, roads, buildings, parks, trails, an 8761ft mountain and even a Coast Guard ship. There are statutes all over the country bearing his likeness, he was put on postage stamps and he has even been minted into legal currency.  In a nation with 200 years of history, with war heroes, great minds, countless cultural icons in entertainment and sports, 19 Nobel prize winners including  doctors that have actually cured a disease, it is the name Terry Fox which adorns more things and appears in more places than any other Canadian – ever.

The real Terry Fox was a gifted high school athlete who, at age 18, was diagnosed with bone cancer and had to have his right leg amputated.  It was 1977, the year that Jim Fixx published “The Complete Guide to Running“, the year Brendan Kelly ran across Canada to promote the Canada Games, a time when everyone, including Forrest Gump was running.  Terry’s primary inspiration though was Dick Traum, who had just become the first person with an artificial leg to complete the New York Marathon.  His recovery from surgery morphed into training and by the summer of 1979 he had already completed his first marathon.  The next year, with the support of the Canadian Cancer Society, he ran 3339 miles in a 143 day journey known as the Marathon of Hope.

It all began with little fanfare on April 12, 1980.  The local TV station came out to film Terry ceremoniously dipping his artificial leg into the Atlantic Ocean but otherwise it was hard to get any press coverage. Originally they had hoped to raise one million dollars on their cross country campaign but after ten weeks on the road they were on pace to raise only half that amount.  Quebec had been particularly difficult as Terry could not speak French but next up was Ottawa where Terry had been invited by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to take part in the July 1st Canada Day festivities and then onward to Toronto.

Toronto AKA the Centre of the Universe as it is disparagingly called by the rest of Canada is by far the largest media market in the country.  As Terry approached the city something happened, what fellow Canadian Malcom Gladwell would call a social epidemic broke out.  When he arrived in the city on July 11 he was greeted by a crowd of 10,000 supporters not the least of which was Darryl Sittler, the star captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs. From that moment onward everyone wanted to see the kid from BC who ran on one leg.  The donations poured in, the million dollar goal was soon eclipsed and a new goal of 24 million was proposed.  Celebrities past and present rushed to participate including fellow folk hero Bobby Orr who donated $25,000.  The torch had been passed.

While Terry was the toast of that summer the very nature of marathons means moving on and by mid-August he had passed all the major population centers and was making his way across the remote wilderness of Northern Ontario.  The rest of the country had begun to move on as well, the murder of Playmate Dorothy Stratton had captured the headlines and Terry was old news.  Fall comes early to many parts of Canada and with Terry just past the halfway point logic would dictate that he had no hope of reaching the West Coast that year.  Terry’s quest though defied logic, it was fueled by pure emotion right from the start and when he suspended his run at the end of the month due to his encroaching illness, the nation’s heart was broken.

There is something deep in the human psyche that reacts more positively to heroic failure than it does to outright success.  Perhaps it is because the very essence of being human is to eventually fall short.  The marathon was always about raising money and in that regard it had earned 1.7 million, far beyond what the organizers had initially hoped to achieve.   However if the cancer never returns and Terry completes his run how could he have possibly matched what really happened next?

First there was a hastily organized telethon, which drew big international stars like John Denver and Elton John.  Within an hour it doubled Terry’s fund raising total and kept on going.  He was made a Companion to the Order of Canada, the highest honour in the country and while he lay dying in a hospital bed he raised money at an incredible rate.  The goal of 24 million was surpassed on February1st the following year, an amount adjusted for inflation (CPI) that is worth over 63 million today. He set a Guinness’s World record for fund raising by an individual, a feat that has gone unchallenged for more than 30 years.  Four months later he died.

Terry was an inspiration to many people but no more so than a 14yr old boy named Steve Fonyo who had also lost a leg to cancer.  The teen took up the cause in 1984 and by the spring of 1985 he had both completed Terry’s intended 5000 mile route and raised 14 million dollars for cancer research.  However he was never able to capture the imagination of the country the way that Terry had that magical summer despite the fact that he completed the entire run and had raised seven times Terry’s initial sum.   When he was accepted into the Order of Canada it was as a lesser member than what Terry had been awarded.   He was seen as derivative, an accusation that Terry never had to face because Mark Kent and Brendan Kelly had never become famous.  Worst of all he lived long enough to irrevocably tarnish his image something Terry could never do.

As common wisdom would dictate, you never speak ill of the dead and that’s the way it was with Terry.  When he was at the height of his popularity rumours surfaced that he didn’t run all the way through Quebec.  Stories emerged about his refusal to see doctors which some attributed to his religious beliefs while others blamed it on his legendary temper.  However once it became clear that he was going to die any and all negative press disappeared and the tragic folk hero was born.

People have a tendency to ascribe phantom accomplishments upon people with the misfortune to die before they had any chance to achieve them.   People assume that Buddy Holly would have gone on to make a string of popular records however it is far more likely that he would have never composed another hit song.  Much of his enduring popularity was due to the exposure he got because of his death.  His career at that moment was no different from a hundred other artists and yet when the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame opened in 1986, he was a charter member.  Consider for a moment Neil Diamond, he’s not in the Hall of Fame despite composing a dozen popular rock standards in the late 60’s.  Had he died in 69 or 70 and Buddy Holly instead been the one who lived to become an adult contemporary icon, Neil would already be enshrined.  Ironic as it may sound death is often a great career move.  Ninety percent of the population can’t name three songs by Janis Joplin and yet she sailed into the hall soon after she became eligible.

While musical ability is obviously a subjective exercise, what constitutes a hero?  In a 1999 national survey Terry Fox was named as Canada’s greatest hero.  Five years later the CBC had a series where they asked viewers to vote on the Greatest Canadian.  Terry finished second to former Saskatchewan Premier Tommy Douglas the so called Father of Medicare.  This is  a somewhat dubious claim since his province didn’t get universal health care until after Douglas had left office and while in federal politics he served as the leader of a fringe third party group.  While he certainly shouted the loudest and the longest about this policy he was doing it mostly from the sidelines.  Likewise much of Terry’s enduring legacy is from the Terry Fox Run, a worldwide event which has raised upwards of 600 million dollars, but it didn’t get started until three months after he had died.  Then there are all the copycat fundraisers, like the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, the Relay for Life and countless others who were no doubt inspired by the incredible success of the Terry Fox Run.

Much of the folklore surrounding Terry’s ascent to hero status is the notion that he was at one time just an ordinary high school kid.  While I believe that much of his fame and influence, from his sudden disability to his heartbreaking death was a product of chance and not by design, it shouldn’t take away from the fact that he was an exceptionally driven individual with noble ambitions and for that alone he should be admired as someone who was at the very least extraordinary.  However if someone asked me today who was my hero I wouldn’t pick an illusionary idol.  I would tell them that my hero would be someone who wasn’t able to go on a cross Canada adventure because they were too burdened by the responsibilities of working, raising a family and doing all the little things that makes this country what it is today.  While that description would fit thousands of ordinary Canadians I would tell them there was one in particular I had in mind, someone who is often sitting across from me at the kitchen table.

EDIT:  On Monday March 14th 2011 Neil Diamond was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Fierce Foliage?

If you want to get an idea of how a country views itself, look no further than the currency it produces.  One side will likely display a former head of state and the other, the tail, is symbolically that of an animal which personifies that nation.  All the great empires feature fierce creatures; the English lion, the Russian bear, the Chinese dragon, the Indian tiger, and eagles in both Germany and the United States.  France on the other hand – and I’m not making this up – has a chicken.  What animal best serves this role for Canada?

Well in order to answer that question you have to define Canada’s national identity.  Canada famously gained its independence from Britain by asking nicely and while it is a source of pride that no blood was spilled it doesn’t give people the impression that we are a fearsome people.  Traditionally Canadian soldiers served as part of the British armed forces and it wasn’t until the First World War that they even had the dignity of a Canadian commander.  I remember being told in high school about how our troops in WWI were so effective that the British used them as vanguard forces.  While I don’t discount the incredible bravery shown by our men in places like Vimy Ridge I couldn’t help but question the fact that this also meant that it was our troops and not our British masters who bore the brunt of the worst fighting.  I think this is the root of the Canadian stereotype of being good-hearted, very brave but not very wise.  I believe it is also the reason why the Moose became so closely identified with Canadians.

A Moose is an incredibly large animal, which befits the second largest country on earth.  It is a herbivore so it is not seen as being fearsome, however it is quite brave as any railroad conductor can attest since a moose will hold its ground no matter how foolish this may be.  Proof of this burgeoning stereotype was evident in the late 50’s with what was likely the first uniquely Canadian fictional TV character, the daring, well meaning and decidedly dimwitted Mountie called Dudley Do-Right.  It was a segment on the American produced Rocky & Bullwinkle show, which also starred a good-hearted and decidedly dimwitted moose.  While this caricature has certainly endured, good-natured dimwits Bob & Doug McKenzie of SCTV fame were the direct result of a required two minutes of Canadian content, I don’t think it really applies anymore.

In the generation following the Second World War the government made a concerted effort to try and forge a new and unique Canadian identity.  The Maple Leaf flag was adopted in 1965 and ten yeas later the beaver was adopted as our national animal.  It is understandable why a government committee would come up with this idea.  The beaver has a reputation as a little guy who accomplishes remarkable feats like felling tall trees and building massive dams through hard work and team effort.   It also had a historical component because much of Canada was first explored by trappers looking for beaver pelts, which were highly prized by European hat makers.  While their intentions were noble I find it hard to believe that most Canadians want to be represented by a glorified rat whose claim to fame was a 17th century fashion fad.  There is a precedent in the United States where they have both the Bald Eagle as a their national emblem and the Bison as a national animal.  I think as a nation we can do better.

The bald eagle was officially adopted by the US Congress in 1789 and at the time it was seen as a symbol of strength, courage, freedom, and immortality.  However the reality was much different.  While large and impressive looking the vast majority of Bald Eagles are lousy hunters with upwards of 90% dying before reaching adulthood.  The ones that survive do so by scavenging carrion and stealing from other birds.  Their courage has often called into question too since they are often chased off by mobs of crows or other smaller birds.  Freedom is a trait that can be attributed to any bird but immortality is not one that can be associated with Bald Eagles.  In the 18th century there were an estimated 500,000 Bald Eagles soaring through the skies North America, by 1963 this number had been reduced to just 487 breeding pairs in the lower 48 states.  Canada has yet to adopt a national bird.  Some have suggested the Canada Goose but this would be a travesty since they are an even bigger pest than the beaver.  There is a better option.

In 1987 the Canadian mint introduced a $1 coin with heads being Queen Elizabeth II and the tails represented by the Common Loon.   The Loon and its signature calls are synonymous with Canadian wilderness.  Their breeding range is a virtual map of Canada and there is a rich history both practical and spiritual with the native peoples of Canada.  The etymology of the name loon means awkward or clumsy and while this would seem to be an odd choice for a national symbol I think it fits with the famed Canadian sense of humour and the truth of the matter is that loons are absolute physical marvels.  The perceived awkwardness comes from the fact that their legs and feet are set farther back than they are on other birds however this enables them to be excellent swimmers who can also dive to depths of 200ft.  The can fly upwards of 90 mph and exhibit incredible stamina covering great distances without rest.  Adult loons don’t have any predators, they mostly keep to themselves swimming and fishing on the many lakes of the great white north.  While other creatures out there look fiercer, few are as tough as the Common Loon and none of the others can laugh.

The Next Bobby Orr

There is a photo of me, taken to commemorate what was probably my first Halloween outing and I am dressed up as a hockey player.  My costume consisted of little more than a Bobby Orr hockey jersey that was several sizes too big and draped down to my ankles.  At the time Orr was easily the best player in the game and was actively making his case for being the greatest player who ever lived.   While he led the league in points a few times what made Orr special was that he played defense, it wasn’t his job to score goals, his job was to prevent them.  When he was 22 he set the record for goal differential with a +124, a record that still stands to this day.   The previous record holder was Dallas Smith, Orr’s defensive partner who had a  +33, which he did during Orr’s injury riddled sophomore season when he played only half the games and yet still managed a goal differential of +30.  In Canada, where hockey is worshiped like a religion, he was the person you wanted to be when you grew up.

However in my case it was more of a question of whether I would ever grow.  At age four I had my first exposure to team sports when my father signed me up for baseball.  I was half the size of the other kids and worse yet I was shorter than the tee on which the ball was placed.  I tried to compensate by swinging the bat above my head but it was too heavy and I would clumsily hit the tee somewhere in the middle and if I got lucky it would knock the ball off.  More often than not I managed to strike out – in Tee ball.  Catching the ball involved an entirely different set of problems.  My father was the coach of the team and despite endless games of catch I was never, ever, able to catch a ball in my glove.  In fact the ball would usually bounce off my face instead.  I played new positions that my father invented to hide my defensive liabilities and ran as fast as I could the second I knocked the ball off the tee but it was mostly in vain.  Astonishingly enough we persisted in this exercise in futility for THREE YEARS until my father finally gave up.  However it wasn’t a complete waste.  My baseball ineptitude helped my parents diagnose that I had terrible vision, and that I was desperately in need of prescription eyewear.

From that point onward sports was just something I occasionally watched on TV.   However despite my Canadian heritage I rarely saw a hockey game as my father become embroiled in an unfortunate love affair with the NFL.  The story goes that my mother made him choose between the two sports.  Since we lived in the Detroit media market this meant he gave up on the five-time Stanley Cup Champion Detroit Red Wings and their 27 playoff seasons to instead follow the hapless Detroit Lions.  However when I reached high school I found out that physical education was a required course in grade nine and once again my athletic prowess would be put to the test.

This time around my eyesight wasn’t an issue although at a strapping 77lbs (as a 14 yr old) I was still half the size of my peers.  This made me a highly sought after recruit for the school wrestling team (the entire city only had four other kids in that weight class) but it didn’t help elsewhere.  I scored a measly 3% in basketball despite the fact that I had a regulation 10ft net in my driveway.*  In fact the only sport I didn’t fail was weightlifting which was based on what percentage you could bench press of your actual weight (over 100%)  Even then I still would have failed the course if my grade had been entire based on my physical performance, fortunately sex ed was included in the curriculum and in that I was an A+ student.

*I knew it was exact regulation height because my father painstakingly measured it again and again as our neighbours patiently performed a re-enactment of the flag raising on Mt Suribachi.  In fairness to my father the family across the street were really tall and they had out grown the casually erected net in their own driveway.

During my first year of university my father enrolled me in the Dale Carnegie Course a popular corporate training program that had a focus on public speaking and each week you were expected to give a presentation about a specific topic.  One of our assignments was to bring in a trophy that we had won and tell the rest of the class about the experience, except I had never won a trophy.  In the end I gave a speech about the pen I had won for being the best speaker the very first week when I gave an impromptu retelling of my ordeals as a tee ball player.  Not long after that though I did get a real trophy as my residence floor in university won the intramural basketball tournament.  I never played a minute of the tournament but I did attend all the games and cheered the guys on.  At the end of the year they made up award just for me, a paper plate medal on which was inscribed “Better luck at the Special Olympics”

For reasons that should be obvious by now I was never really a big sports fan.  However one thing I’ve always appreciated about sports is that the games themselves are not scripted and every so often something completely unpredictable happens.  One year my buddies and I formed a slow pitch baseball team called Athletics Anonymous and joined a campus co-ed recreational league.  The sole purpose of the endeavor had been to meet girls and since we didn’t have any on our team we had to post an ad.  Fortunately we landed a trio of stellar female athletes and they turned out be a huge asset as the assorted girlfriends that filled the roster of the opposing teams were generally terrible at baseball.  Eventually we found ourselves in the playoff semi-finals against the dreaded Mathletics.  We were losing badly and down to our last out when yours truly strode to the plate.  My skills as a baseball player hadn’t really improved since I was six.  I still couldn’t catch despite being the catcher (it was slow pitch and all plays at the plate were covered by our first baseman).  I couldn’t really hit but my buddies had taught me to slap at the ball, a form of bunting where I would try to pull it along the third baseline and run like mad.  The usual result was a fielder’s choice but in this instance no one was on base and I made it safely.  The team then rallied and we won!  I wisely sat out the final game, which we also won.  It is still to this day the only time I have ever been a member of a championship team.

Now my hockey career didn’t go quite as well as it did for Bobby Orr, in fact at the risk of losing my Canadian citizenship I have to admit that I have never played hockey, not even once.  However like Orr I did need to change jobs quite often after I turned thirty and likewise I’ve had my share of financial struggles.   However Bobby Orr was able to overcome all of this and go on to enjoy a great second act.   In his forties he began a new career as a player agent primarily because his own financial problems had been the direct result of an unscrupulous agent and he wanted to be part of the solution.  His personal reputation is impeccable, his charitable works are legendary and when people talk about him being the greatest hockey player who ever lived its not all about what he did on the ice.  I can’t say what I will be when I grow up but I certainly know who I would like to emulate.

Why a Padded Toilet Seat is a Bad Christmas Gift

The giving of presents at Christmas predates the three wise men of biblical fame by at least two hundred years.  However the modern practice, which comes with an expectation of a quid pro quo is something very different as the exchange of items of similar value amounts to little more than trading.  A true gift can only be given as part of a non-reciprocal arrangement, like the one between a parent and a young child, an important distinction since the original meaning behind the Christmas holiday was to create a celebration of charity.

To be perfectly honest I don’t specifically remember any of the toys I received for Christmas.  I doubt my own kids can remember when they came to possess their current assortment of playthings.  What I do remember are the really bad gifts, like the year I got three copies of Mastermind or the time my sisters – born seven years apart – were expected to share both halves of the same track suit.  As an adult gift giving is fraught with peril and the memory of a poor gift will haunt you for many a Christmas future.  Thus it is important for those among us who don’t have shopping as our primary avocation to know what constitutes a substandard present and what makes a truly great gift.

The old cliche “it’s the thought that counts” I believe gives people the wrong idea.  It implies that the clever but perfunctory gift from the professional shopper is more worthy than the trite token from the genuinely thoughtful person who is cursed with a stunning lack of imagination.  The real difference between the gifts remembered for all the right and wrong reasons comes down to something called opportunity cost.

My father one year gave my mother a padded toilet set as a Christmas present.  While it can superficially be attributed to parsimony it is closer to the truth to say he never wanted to feel like he was wasting something, a trait he inherited from his depression era parents who kept among other things a bucket of bent rusted nails.  His gifts had to be practical which by itself wasn’t the problem.   One year I gave my girlfriend (now wife) such mundane items as a towel, deodorant and a full set of clothes.  However they were wrapped and arranged in order so she had everything she needed for that day from the moment she stepped out of the shower on Christmas morning.  My father though ran into trouble because there was often a direct benefit for himself with his gifts.  This isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker.  As of this moment I am writing this essay on a laptop I bought my wife as a gift.  However at the time I made sure to get specifications tailored to her needs, I bought software just for her and I made it clear that its primary use was for her morning commute.  You can’t argue that a padded toilet is for one specific person and thus it isn’t really a gift at all.

Opportunity cost itself is a fascinating concept and it is basis of my all-time favourite Christmas movie; It’s a Wonderful Life.   The film examines the relationship between the choices we make in our own lives and the effect this has on the people around us.  While many of the incidents in the story, like saving his brother from drowning, are completely random, passing on college to run his fathers company is the kind of choice everyone has to make.  After watching this movie it is instinctive to think about what the world would be like if we were never born.  However since most of us lacking the selfless nature of the George Bailey character or the contrived situations of the story will feel like we come up short.

The truth is that the big events in our lives, like those in the story are almost entirely determined by chance.  The lives of my two future children once rested upon a tiny piece of paper that floated around in the bottom of a purse for two months.  A former co-worker, who was an insignificant person in my life, had received my future wife’s application for employment and had forgot to call her in for an interview.  Yet a small moment, like the infamous padded toilet seat can have just as big of an impact.  It certainly changed the way I looked at giving gifts and eventually the message got through to my father.

My wife and I first started dating a couple weeks before the Christmas of 1996.  That was also the year my father decided to give me his car as a gift.  I think this qualifies as a great gift, not because of the cost of the vehicle as I don’t think that the money really mattered to him.  The real gift to me was that my father, who generally dislikes travel, drove over 4000km in the middle of winter to deliver it himself.  The secret of a great gift is giving something of value to you, to a specific person, with no expectation of getting something of equal value in return.

2010 has been a particularly difficult year for me financially.  I don’t have what I would consider a great gift for anybody.   What I do have though is the greatest gift.  The movie It’s a Wonderful Life is based on a short story that is in fact called The Greatest Gift. It is a gift I have both received and I have given out.  It is simply the gift of life and like most of my childhood Christmases my mother did most of the hard work and my father takes most of the blame.  8^)

All I Want for Christmas is for it to be Over

The celebration that came to be known as Christmas has its roots in a well-known celestial event that precedes the very existence of human beings.  The modern Christmas may be known as the most fattening time of the year but for our ancestors food scarcity was a daily reality and the onset of winter was truly frightening.  It was this fundamental requirement that led to the discovery of agriculture and from that collective attempt to grow food civilization was born.  The specific date of the festival, chosen to coincide with the winter solstice, must have been a difficult time for those ancient villagers.  Its original purpose was to rejoice in the rebirth of the sun but it likely had a much deeper meaning.  The forerunner of Christmas was truly a celebration of hope.

Today hope is symbolized by another long-standing Christmas tradition, the gift-wrapped present.  As a kid you wish for some cool new toy like a slot car track or if you were more like me you hoped you didn’t get something boring and practical like a new desk.  The reality is that on Christmas morning you would wake up to find a fish tank or some other equally bizarre gift that you had never even considered.  Much of what makes Christmas special is the anticipation that precedes the actual exchange of gifts.  Hope isn’t simply optimism.  It is about possibility.

As I grew older I began to see Christmas a little differently.  Feelings of anticipation were replaced by apprehension, as each year something would happen to spoil the holiday.  My older sister would get the season started with a messy break up from a high school boyfriend who was either too cheap or too lazy to buy her a gift.  Next came the visit to the extended family, a real ordeal since we had relocated to another town.  There grew to be a completion among the in-laws with petty jealousies and implied slights manifesting themselves into open arguments.  It got so bad that one year that we had people abruptly leave and get a hotel. .  Regardless each December we would do it all again.  As my late grandmother would say “Let’s hope we have a better time next year.”

My Christmas holidays were so bad they became legendary.  When I was 20, unbeknownst to me, my housemates made a bet to see if my family could top the disaster of the previous year.  The guy who bet it would be worse won as that was the Christmas when my parents officially separated.   From that moment on the Christmas became much less important of an event in our lives.  Even my grandfather, the one who loved Christmas more than anything stopped putting up a tree.  His health declined and I distinctly remember one particularly awkward Christmas where everyone made a big deal over taking his photo like he was the last living dodo bird in the zoo.  Eventually I moved away and spent the Christmas of 1993 alone with little more than a clock radio for company.  The familiar holiday sound of a Gene Autry Christmas song playing on a 78 record had become just a memory.

For many people Christmas is the loneliest time of the year.  It is a tough time to be alone which is why activities that give the allusion of a group experience are so popular.  Movie theaters do particularly well with the Christmas season being second to only the summer for ticket sales.  The studios take advantage of this and nearly every year there is at least one dark comedy where Christmas is depicted in a less than appealing light.  One in particular really resonated with our family, a Denis Leary vehicle called The Ref.

The premise is simple; a small time crook on the run gets embroiled in a hostage situation with a severely dysfunctional family on Christmas Eve.   While it received generally favourable reviews, the results at the box office were mediocre and like most people, we saw it first on video.   At first glance the movie may seem rather unpleasant and cynical, much of it is fast-talking sarcastic rants by the criminal antagonist interspersed with unrelenting insults by the various family members.  However comedy itself is often described as tragedy plus distance and the passage of time has enabled our family to appreciate the absurdity of it all and find the underlining truth within the story.  Who hasn’t felt like a hostage at his or her own family Christmas gathering?  Who among us at one time or another really wanted to say some of the very things expressed by the characters in this film?  While it may never become a classic it has aged well and is better appreciated than it was at the time it was released.

The Ref also has a little known but interesting back-story, which says a lot about human nature.  The film was initially set to be released for the 1993 Christmas season however test audiences hated the original ending where the Denis Leary character surrendered to the police.  This forced the producers to shoot a new alternative ending in January in which the character was given a chance to get away.  This pushed the theatrical release back to March and was a big factor in the disappointing box office returns.  However I don’t see how the story could have worked any other way.  While it was a dark comedy it was also a Christmas movie and no matter how horrible a Christmas it was for those characters, at the end, the audience wanted to be left with a feeling of hope.

On a personal level this movie represented the rebirth of the Christmas holiday in our family.  Every year since its release our holiday season gets better and better.  My older sister has a great husband now who is the antithesis of cheap and lazy.  My younger sister is married too and between the three of us there are lots of new cousins to visit.  This year there will no doubt be oodles of gift-wrapped presents, plenty of sweet things to eat, we’ll watch The Ref again and we might even play charades.  I only hope that everyone is looking forward to hearing Gene Autry Christmas tunes again because that’s my responsibility now.

Yes Sarnia, There is a Santa Claus

Without sounding trite there is a truly a meaning to the Christmas holiday.  It is quite simply the belief in a legendary man, eternal, all-knowing, magical and always sporting a beard.  This can be Jesus of Nazareth, but for many the modern Santa Claus has supplanted him in the same way that Jesus himself replaced a myriad of pagan gods who were celebrated on or about December 25th since the dawn of civilization.  This indelible celebration of faith, one that spans the entire breadth of humanity and the depth of human history is lost on me.  My first ever Christmas memory was in fact a moment of skepticism.

I was five years old at the time and I remember confronting my mother with the fact that Santa used the same wrapping paper that we did and had her exact same handwriting style.  To her credit she didn’t try to lie her way out of it and gave me an honest answer.  Thus I have no memories of a time when I believed the Santa Claus myth to be true.  I was attending kindergarten at the time and like any other time when I discovered a new fact I shared it with everyone within earshot.  This of course made me very popular with all the neighbourhood moms.  One in fact called our house and berated my mother.  Her daughter was actually an interesting case.  She had told me that she had discovered her parents stash of presents’ and that she already knew that Santa Claus wasn’t real.  However it turns out that she still believed in both the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy until I came along and told her it was all the same thing.  I don’t understand how a person could believe in only some but not all of these childhood stories but then again from my perspective I don’t understand how a person could believe in any of them.

While Santa was never part of my childhood Christmases there were still a lot of other things I did enjoy.  The presents themselves were very real as were the many sweets within reach of my larcenous little fingers.  My maternal grandfather loved Christmas and he shared with us an extensive collection of kids Christmas music on old 78 records.   We would listen to these over at my cousins’ house while we stayed up late playing charades.  Another holiday tradition was watching Miracle on 34th Street on TV.

Most people interpret this film as a conventional, highly sentimental, feel good holiday story.  In reality the movie was released on May 2nd and was promoted as a light romantic comedy.  The Edmund Gwenn (Kris Kringle) and Natalie Wood (6yr old girl) characters do not even appear in the theatrical trailer.  The sole purpose of the Kris Kringle subplot was to showcase that the young lawyer, by doing something altruistic (quitting a high paying job to represent Mr. Kringle pro bono) was worthy of the affections of the cynical and jaded single mother.  The reason I think this picture has become such a part of the Christmas tradition is that its core, like Christmas itself, it is all about faith.

The pivotal moment in the story is an argument between the two romantic leads over lovely intangibles, an allusion to their budding relationship.  He believes it will work out but her cynicism won’t allow her to consider that possibility.  Today people more remember that the 6yr old girl doesn’t subscribe to the Santa Claus myth but in the confines of the story this isn’t really remarkable because like a typical child she believes in what her mother has told her.  Her narrative arc isn’t about believing in Santa rather it is about believing in the man who has a romantic interest in her mother.  It begins with him acting as her sitter and leads to the final scene when she makes them stop at the house that’s up for sale and reveals her secret desire is to have a father to complete their family.

The Kris Kringle character in Miracle on 34th street like a devout clergyman is a source of strength for others due to his unshakable faith in himself and what he believes.  While I don’t ascribe to a particular faith I understand the appeal of religion having been raised catholic and having endured thirteen years of Catholic school indoctrination.  However, for reasons I cannot explain it didn’t take and my inherent skepticism made my life difficult.  I would often challenge my teachers, my catholic father and by extension all forms of authority.

There was a Christmas time late in my teenage years when I was in a really dark place.  I really wanted a portable cassette player, particularly an expensive Sony Walkman but truth be told I didn’t really deserve much of anything.  Santa came through and to this day it is the greatest gift I have ever received.  For me it wasn’t so much about the material possession it was the show of faith on behalf of my parents, they gave me a second chance and I never looked back.  A few weeks later I fumbled the Walkman while climbing the stairs and broke it which only proved that whatever omnipotent force was out there it didn’t like me.

This year I get to enjoy Christmas with my almost 6-year-old girl.  She’s smart and curious so we’ve had to take extra precautions so that we don’t blow the whole Santa Claus myth through our own carelessness.  If one day she asks a direct question about it I won’t lie to her, and while we may not be religious I do want her to believe in an eternal, all-knowing, magical and sometimes bearded individual.  However I want that person to be me.