Friday, November 13, 2009

The Search for Meaning

It's late and I'm sitting on my couch watching Christmas programs on TV. I'm wired because I just got home from working the closing shift, which is difficult because it takes me forever to calm down. The last couple of hours were spent rushing around and getting everything clean and stocked for the morning crew. Then, five minutes before we locked the doors, a customer came in and spent over a hundred dollars.

I just got home and I'm hungry and sweaty, despite the freezing cold. I ate the only thing we had in the pantry - off-brand Ramen noodles (has it really come to this?). Now my stomach hurts too bad to go to sleep. So I'm stuck looking for something on that will take my mind off the holidays long enough to put me to sleep. But I've been flipping the channels for twenty minutes without any success and I'm starting to lose it.

It's my own fault for having such a bad attitude during the holidays. No one forced me into a career in retail. I have no one to blame but myself for choosing a profession where I get to listen to Burl Ives and Eartha Kitt ten hours a day. I'm supposed to thank my company for waiting until the day after Thanksgiving to play Christmas music. But by the end of the first week of December, I'm ready to take some box cutters and go to work on the overhead speakers.

These days, when I stagger in from work and Laurie asks about my day, I tell her I spent all day listening to requests like, "I need ten $5 gift cards and five $10 gift cards." She tries her best to listen and sympathize. Then, ten minutes later she asks to take her shopping and wonders why I don't want to go.

I ask myself why I do it, why I work in retail, and I remember I stumbled into it the same way most people do - I wasn't good at anything else. This is why I have so little money, why I'm sitting in a bathrobe rather than turning up the heat, and why I'm watching local channels rather than cable.

It's also my own fault for looking for something upbeat on television. What was I expecting? Sympathy? I might have gotten that a few days earlier when A Charlie Brown Christmas came on. Charlie Brown asked if there was anyone who could tell him the true meaning of Christmas and now I can't get that line out of my head. The idea that I'm not alone in being a little down doesn't comfort me. Rather, it occurs to me that the show originally broadcast fifty years ago and nothing has changed.

I made the mistake of telling Laurie this. She called me a Scrooge and I thought about the countless remakes of A Christmas Carol. Lately, whether it's the version starring Fred Flinstone of Star Trek's Jean-Luc Picard, I'm getting more and more put off by the story's climax. The old curmudgeon runs amuck throughout the city buying things for the people who were nice to him an hour ago and I can't help but wonder what this has to do with the birth of Jesus.

Now, It's a Wonderful Life is on. I don't mind the film without commercials, which clocks in at just over two hours. But the network television version begins at 7pm and concludes just before sunrise. At eight o'clock, George finally meets Mary. At nine, George is slapping around his drunken uncle. At ten, he's in a bar praying and getting punched in the face. By eleven, he's finally jumping off the bridge. At this point, I'm so despondent that I find myself wishing Clarence would mind his own business and let George drown so I can go to bed.

At some point, I again ask myself what this has to do with Christmas. The film is about Jimmy Stewart's downward spiral and subsequent realization that his life really is significant. The message is good enough despite the fact that his decline takes up over ninety percent of the film. But that's not what bothers me. I just don't see what it has to do with the baby Jesus. Rather, the climax of the film happens to occur on December 24th.

A commercial comes on and I try to will myself to turn the stupid television off. But instead, I huddle under a blanket and watch a furniture commercial. One-weekend-only sale with no payments until after the new year!!! The announcer's voice is deep and enthusiastic, and it inspires me to look at my couch. I see the hole Lucy clawed into. There are the white stains that are either Isaac's drool or mucus. There's the yellow mark Vivi made with the marker that was supposed to be washable.

I reconsider Laurie's and my commitment to a debt-free Christmas. I think, Why did I agree to that? Then I remember the three credit cards we're already paying off - some of which are my ghosts of Christmas past. Laurie probably won't go for a fourth unless it's for the kids.

Finally, I'm fed up with the commercials and grab the remote. Rather than turn it off, I click around and find another movie that takes place at Christmastime, Die Hard. This is the edited-for-network television version where Bruce Willis jumps off the Nakatomi building after overdubbing to himself, "John, how the 'heck' did you get into this 'crap?'"

In light of the holiday season, I reconsider the plot. A foreigner comes to town. Sure, not everyone would consider a New York cop in Los Angeles a foreigner. But still, he sacrifices his won life to save a bunch of upper-middle class Americans from the forces of evil, or rather from the people who want the money of the upper-middle class Americans. This, I thought, is the true meaning of Christmas.

With my head straight and my heart warmed, I turn off the television, stand up and stretch, and put my slippers on. Then I head for the bedroom, feeling refreshed and armed with enough rage to get me through tomorrow's ten percent off sale at the store.