thankful

Exit 178. So why don’t we get it?

I took a week off.  Sorry.

A few days ago, I was with some friends trying to get into the Christmas spirit.  We watched all three of the Santa Clause movies.  I had only seen the first one, and it had been many years.  The main character, Scott (played by Tim Allen), does not always see eye-to-eye with his ex-wife and her new husband, and their conflict is starting to affect their son, Charlie.  Santa Claus dies on Scott’s property, accidentally falling off the roof.  Because of a clause in a contract (get it, it’s a play on words; the name Santa Claus is not actually spelled with an E), Scott has to become the new Santa Claus.  The following winter, when Scott’s appearance begins to change into that of a fat old man, the stepfather becomes convinced that he is suffering from some massive delusion of being Santa Claus and gets his custody taken away.  But this is a family-oriented Disney movie, so there is a happy ending, of course.

Two more movies with these characters were made some time later.  The second movie focuses on the search for a Mrs. Claus and Charlie being put on the Naughty List for being a rebellious teenager.  But it was the third movie that really got me thinking.  Scott has now been Santa for twelve years, and he and Mrs. Claus are expecting a baby.  Jack Frost, tired of being forgotten among the other holidays, tricks Scott into magically going back in time and not putting on the Santa suit the night that Santa fell off the roof.  Jack puts on the Santa suit instead, and Scott returns to a world very different from the one he left.

Early in the movie, when Jack Frost first mentioned the existence of a way to turn back time so that Scott never became Santa Claus, I turned to my friends and said, “Which movie came first, this one or Shrek Forever After?  Because they basically have the same plot.”  (For the record, Santa Clause 3 did.)  Scott finds out that in this alternate timeline, Jack Frost has turned the formerly secret Santa’s workshop into a very public amusement park, where tourists bring their children every Christmas.  The elves are now bored and cynical employees, the reindeer are attractions in a petting zoo, and parents are reminded to spend more money to show their blatantly ungrateful children that they supposedly love them.  Upon seeing the portrayal of this horrible alternate timeline, I said, “I want to add to what I said earlier.  Both Santa Clause 3 and Shrek 4 are basically the same plot as Back To The Future Part II.”

But alternate timelines where a greedy and selfish person becomes powerful and turns something wonderful into something ugly didn’t start when Biff Tannen stole the DeLorean.  Forty-two years before Back To The Future Part II, something similar happened in It’s A Wonderful Life, when George Bailey sees an alternate Bedford Falls in a world where he had never been born.  And, without the alternate universe aspect, stories of greedy and selfish individuals making the world a miserable place have probably been around as long as storytelling itself.

So why don’t we get it?  Why are there so many greedy and selfish people if there are so many stories like this out there?  And for that matter, why are so many wealthy people in the film industry making movies that show the dangers of greed while acting greedy and selfish themselves in their personal lives?

For one thing, usually greedy people are making others’ lives miserable, not their own.  The greedy villains in these movies always have their empires toppled in the end, but real-life selfish people probably just don’t think it will happen to them.  And all of this really comes down to the fact that human beings are broken and fallen and just generally capable of all sorts of destructive behavior.

I’ve been there before.  There were Christmases in my childhood when I threw a tantrum over the one gift I didn’t get.  I’m not proud of those moments.  I still have times as an adult when I lack gratitude.  I have so much that so many in the world would love to have, but the mention of the one thing I don’t have makes me just as pissy as the bratty children at Jack Frost’s North Pole.

I can’t change the world by myself.  I cannot singlehandedly fight all the influences that feed people’s greed and selfishness.  The burden is too great to bear.

But I can do my best.  And I can change myself.  And both of those are better than doing nothing.

Exit 134. Thankful.

Since 2009, I have been attending a weekly partner dance event at a dance studio in Sacramento.  When I first started, it was a combination of blues dancing and West Coast swing; it has now changed to blues-based fusion dancing.  Since around 2011, I have volunteered to work the front desk, taking people’s money for part of the night.

Every year, on the weekend of Thanksgiving, this group has an event where, essentially, we write notes to each other to tell others why we are thankful for them.  Everyone has a bag with their name on it for people to just drop notes in as the night goes on.  This is one of my favorite nights of the year, at least as far as dance activities go.  I’m not trying to be an attention whore, but it is a great uplifting encouragement to see that someone took time out of their evening to tell me that they enjoy dancing with me, seeing me welcome them every week, or that I make great chocolate chip cookies.

In addition to this, I also look forward to the opportunity to tell others that I enjoy dancing with them, or just talking to them between dances.  I’m not always good at saying this kind of thing to someone face to face, because of my introverted nature, and this gives me a chance to express something I might not be able to do otherwise, as well as to make others feel the same way I do about this night.

What always strikes me about this is that it is provides a contrast to the way I often feel about the blues fusion community in general.  Specifically, I often feel that I don’t fit in, to the point that I question whether my continued involvement in blues fusion dance is helpful or harmful.  I enjoy the dancing itself, but I am not a dancer by nature.  I had no experience with dancing, other than a few awkward moments at middle and high school dances, until that brief time in the late 90s when swing dancing was a huge fad.  I got back into swing from 2007 until about a year ago when I got really busy with life, and I still go occasionally.  I got into blues a couple years later through some regulars there who I already knew from swing.  To this day, I still feel like I’m doing this more just for fun, as opposed to trying to be the best dancer ever and win competitions.  I don’t have time to devote to training for dance competitions, taking lots of classes and workshops, or traveling to multi-day dance festivals in other states, as many of my dance friends do on a regular basis.  The blues fusion community also tends to attract people with lifestyles and values very different from my own; I want to be accepting of others, but given my much more conservative and sheltered upbringing, I often find their lifestyles strange and a little frightening.  I often feel isolated because of this, and sometimes others will say things, or share links on social media, that I find hurtful toward people with values like mine.

But despite all that, the blues fusion community continues to surprise me with the kind of notes they write to me for this event.  Sometimes I get complimented by people I don’t know well about things that wouldn’t even have crossed my mind as something I did that others would appreciate or remember.  I even had someone tell me in person that she started to write me a note, but didn’t put it in my bag because she had a lot more to say than would fit on the card, and she didn’t want to write me a “half-assed” note, so she would give it to me next week after she finished.  Of course, that made me feel like the three-sentence note I had written to her was pretty half-assed, but that’s not the point.  The point is that, despite the fact that I feel so different from these people on the surface, there are many nice people in this group, and so often human beings have so much more in common than the differences that we choose to obsess about.  So maybe I need to be looking for the positives instead of dwelling on the negatives.

Exit 82. Take nothing for granted.

Thanksgiving is this week, at least here in the USA.  This always lends itself to thoughts and conversations about thankfulness, people sharing what they are thankful for and the like.

I’ve been going to a new church (new to me, at least) the last two weeks, much smaller and a bit different compared to most of the churches I’ve been to before, but not in a bad way.  At one point, the pastor asked us to get into small groups of four or so and discuss what we are grateful for, and tell about experiences that gave us a new perspective on gratitude.  (The sermon tie-in, besides Thanksgiving, was to Job 42:6, where Job essentially repents from all his complaining to God.)

I always find this kind of conversation humbling.  I can be like Job at times, focusing on everything that has gone wrong without remembering that I actually am a lot better off than so many people in the world, even than so many people around me.  The first thing that came to mind in this discussion is that I’m grateful that I am relatively healthy, and this is something I tend to take for granted.  This was on my mind because of a relative who I’ve just gotten to know in the last few years.  I hope it isn’t too awkward that I’m mentioning her here, because I know she reads this.  It isn’t my story to tell, but basically she is seriously ill and doesn’t have much time left.  She is around my age, late 30s.  I think of people like her, faced with an illness in the prime of her life, with a family to take care of… or like Alpheratz, the student from the school where I work who has never known a normal life because of the brain tumor she got in first grade, yet who is always upbeat and cheerful about life (I wrote about Alpheratz here)… and I realize that I really don’t have any right to complain.  I have a roof over my head, I have a job, I have food, and while I may not have a wife or children of my own, I have a lot of friends and relatives who care about me.

So wherever you celebrate Thanksgiving this year, take nothing for granted.  Remember what you are truly thankful for, and do everything you can to reach out to those less fortunate.  I’m just going to leave this here now.