It’s no secret: we Americans are obsessive consumers. We are, on the whole, wasteful and thoughtless. Thanks to our materialism, our landfills are overflowing. Earth’s atmosphere and waterways are becoming noxious, nasty wrecks. And what are we doing about this? Holiday shopping.
I confess that I am a primary culprit. A few weeks ago, my mother and I visited a store called “The Christmas Tree Shop” which sounds like it could be a quaint little mom-and-pop nook on any small town’s Main Street. In fact, it is a warehouse-sized chain, offering aisle upon mile-long aisle of holiday kitsch. Name a household item – cookie jar, doormat, toilet paper – and you can find it there with a picture of Santa ho-ho-ho-ing across it. The sight of all this junk and the rate at which people were buying it sickened me. I crossed my arms and shook my head in distaste. After a few moments, however, I managed to calm down and acclimate to my surroundings: I found an empty cart and started filling it.
I think comedian George Carlin puts it best:
“That’s all you need in life, a little place for your stuff. That’s all your house is: a place to keep your stuff. If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house. You could just walk around all the time. A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. You can see that when you’re taking off in an airplane. You look down, you see everybody’s got a little pile of stuff. All the little piles of stuff. And when you leave your house, you gotta lock it up. Wouldn’t want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff…That’s what your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get…more stuff!”
I had a run-in with my own pile of stuff a few months ago, when I attempted to clean out some old boxes in my father’s garage in Wisconsin. What do you think most of these boxes contained? (Well, okay, lots and lots of dolls, a whole sad orphanage of them.) But also: all kinds of skating paraphernalia. Competition T-shirts, bags, programs, trophies, medals, etc.. I had not laid my hands or eyes upon any of these items in more than 20 years.
I was hoping to complete this project within a few hours, but I ended up changing my flight by about half a day so I could make some sense of it all. What did I need to keep? None of it. What did I want to keep and why? Those were difficult questions, indeed.
The thing is, most activities we get mixed up in – cooking, camping, mountain climbing – necessitate a certain amount of equipment. But there’s also all this other corollary stuff, some of which you purchase yourself and much of which you receive as gifts. I have received boatloads of skating-related merchandise over the years. My Christmas tree, for example, has skaters and skater-less skates flying around in every direction, as if on a public session. Of course, these ornaments don’t define me or validate me in any real way, but I admit, as I look across the room at my twinkling tree, that I derive joy from their specificity. I can remember who gave me these ornaments, mostly students, some of whom are long gone to college, and some of whom are growing like trees from one lesson to the next.
And that is what I was so overcome with as I sifted through those ancient boxes in my dad’s garage: memories. I found a tiny Polar Sport jacket, navy blue with red stripes and a Figure Skating Club of Madison patch sewn on the sleeve. I found Inga leggings, in black and turquoise and tan, the fabric of which is thick (and warm) as at least three wool blankets. And I found my red, FSC of Madison skating bag, which has separate compartments for two pairs of skates (freestyle and patch!). It is splattered in bleach from a grocery shopping accident that occurred in the trunk of our car and my mom still feels terrible about.
I remember wanting to own each of these things and thinking that they were all very expensive. I remember the thrill of finally obtaining them. And I remember happily using them. My parents were very generous: I always had pretty much anything I wanted, but I didn’t usually have it right away. There was a sense that all good things come to those who wait, that patience was a virtue, and that the best things in life are those that are earned. As a result, I appreciated what I had.
As I pulled these items out of their boxes, some held no meaning anymore, and others were like portals to the past. They reminded me of a particular rink lobby, a skating friend, or a coach. But, really, how often do we have a chance to (or even want to) revisit the past through these relics? And how much stress is involved in storing and constantly moving them? It occurred to me, as I sat, stressed-out, amid piles on the garage floor, that photographs from those times are equally evocative. And they take up a lot less space! Still, I’m ashamed to report that I couldn’t let go of a lot of it. I repacked many of the boxes and shoved them in the corner. Next time, I’ll try again.
Recently, one of my teenage students came back from Salt Lake City with a Junior Nationals jacket. His club had also given him a National Team jacket. The first day he donned these new acquisitions, he beamed proudly; I recognized that feeling. Most of our students wear jackets from their clubs, or their synchro teams, or various competitions. The fact that you can now purchase competition sweatshirts displaying a printed list of competitors and a little red star by your name is simultaneously ridiculous and fantastic. If I were a young skater today, I would have loved this as much as I would have loved a pink, rhinestoned Zuca bag (the roller bag that brilliantly doubles as a chair) or the new blade guards that give their own laser light show. (These are the current trends that will clog up many garages for years to come…)
The point is that all of these things contribute to a feeling of affiliation or a sense of belonging. Literally and figuratively, we have all “bought in” to this activity. While other sports are also infected with a certain amount of commercialism, I have a hunch that skating is probably pretty high (if not the highest) on this spectrum. And I wonder why this is so.
For one thing, skating takes a crazy amount of practice and, at the competitive level it requires a great deal of sacrifice, in various forms. Maybe that new skating trinket will somehow make up for all those other things – slumber parties, Saturday morning cartoons, prom – we might be missing. (Or maybe it won’t.) Also, as much as our sport is about technical savvy, it’s also about appearances. To a degree, figure skating has always and will always place an emphasis on how you look. At heart, skating is about attractive body lines, effortless landings, and musicality, but if these can’t be achieved, maybe a $1000 dress will somehow make up for inadequacies? (Again, and maybe not.) Maybe there are so many nefarious temptations for kids that parents are willing to spend whatever it takes on positive distractions.
I was definitely one of those kids who, when the going got tough and I wanted to quit, I kept skating partially because I was excited about the dress that was being sewn for the next competition. For better or worse, I derived as much pleasure from the blade guards I decorated with flowers, or the stuffed smurf I covered with pins collected from competitions, as I did from the act of skating itself. I’m glad I continued to skate throughout my teenage years and eventually reached a place where the movement across ice eclipsed all the paraphernalia; in a weird way though, that paraphernalia, like a lure, helped me get there. And now, here.
So, can there be meaning in “things”? My answer is: definitely, yes. But how much meaning and how many things? I obviously haven’t figured this out, yet.
As an adult, I have certainly indulged in that panacea known as retail therapy. The problem (or maybe the good thing) is that my Manhattan apartment is approximately the size of a standard business envelope, and there is simply not room for very much stuff. (Hence, the boxes at my father’s house.) All of the news reports lately about global warming and Al Gore’s valiant, Nobel-winning fight to save the environment have alerted me that we all need to slow down our consumption and think about our own “ecological footprints”.
I’m not contemplating (or suggesting) severing all material attachments, just a general downsizing and thoughtfulness. In the meantime, yes, there are some presents to wrap, gifts to distribute: though, this year, mine are slightly more homespun. With a little help from that behemoth Christmas Tree Shop, I got crafty: I made some ornaments and I bet you can guess what kind of footwear I painted on them…
So what relics are in your boxes?
Bonus fiction: Check out “Holidays on Ice, Parts 1 and 2” in the column over to the right.