When I posted this photograph on instagram, my caption read: "Christmas cheer, as articulated by a drop ceiling, fluorescent lights, an artificial tree and wreath, faux leather seats, and a Merry Trashcan. #holidaycheer #mallaesthetics"
It sounds a little snarky -- I know that. And when I first happened upon this display, I had all the disdain and superiority that my instagam caption suggests.
The truth is a little more nuanced, though. And when I was trying to decide which of my favorite holiday pictures to post on Christmas? It was a coin toss between the picture above or this one:
This is really my favorite picture in all of time and history. It so perfectly articulates the dismal idea of "cheer" as co-opted by a chain fast food restaurant and combines it with such a beautiful expression of teen angst.
Dear Reader, if you have been with this blog for the while that it has been published, you'll know that I actually developed a tag from the early days called:
or, as we say it now in instagrammese: #cutekids
And the truth is, as an involved-father, I have taken enormous joy in appreciating my children's happiness, mistakes and inevitably winning humanness. Many times I have expressed this joy on my blog and on our (mostly defunct these days) family blog.
When the interwebs finally allowed me to find a good college friend after many years of wondering about him -- he visited the family blog and mentioned that the picture on the header made our family look genuinely happy instead of like some of the overly-posed and pretending families that often occupied friend's pictures.
I felt genuinely happy about it and probably just a little too proud of it. MY family was genuinely happy.
And that's one of the reasons I love the picture above. My kids seem to have a kind of insouciance that is *so emblematic* of their age and stage that the picture is an almost-too-perfect documentation of what it is to have teenage kids.
Of course I've even happier that this "We're Totally Over This" expression occurs against the backdrop of a failed attempt by mass consumption machines to dominate our imagination. There's something about the chintziness of the decor that actually makes both Taco Bell and Holiday Cheer look unappetizing.
So in this particular case, I'll admit it: I'm delighted to critique a culture of "Cheer" making with my camera and my kids.
But the truth is? Those same kids (way back in 2013) were actually still delighting me by doing things that they loved and by being awkwardly awesome.
But one of the great truths that kids give us as they move from being kids to being adolescents? Is that they start to refuse to cooperate in something that they do not believe in. This resistance feels TERRIBLE as a parent. It really does. But it's one of the best things that humans can do.
Whenever we wake up in the matrix and realize that there is a better way of being in the world? We need to refuse to cooperate.
So it's a good thing and I celebrate it and everything, but it makes the cheer industry have to work WAAAAY harder.
This past holiday I was lucky enough to be in the right time and place to snap a picture of "Cheer Wrangling." My mother has a longtime reputation of being a family picture taker. She has been organizing mass photographs of large groups of barely related people as long I can remember. Her biggest achievement was at my sister's wedding and included just over 100 relatives, but almost as challenging (recently) is her annual quest to manage a "cousin picture." In this picture you can see how her face is managing the annual bribes to the teenagers, the instructions to the photographer (my brother), the calculations about positioning and sunlight and the second round of bribes related to facebook tagging.
For the last few years, I've almost given up on getting a good family picture. I've resorted to unacknowledged selfies like this one at the ice cream stand this past summer:
Which is, obviously, not something that you can make into a Christmas Card.
But who wouldn't love a Christmas Card like this one? So full of the real life emotions we all experience?
AND pictures like the one above, make you even happier when moments like this happen:
No smiles are forced or cajoled and the memory of that one happy moment on the Ferry as we left after a daytrip to Mackinac Island is proof that:
There were good times in the past and there will be good times in the future.
This tension between Cheer and it's Malcontents is a good tension.
We need to work to be strongly critical of the mythologies that surround us. And we need to gratefully curate moments of happiness and icons of hope that can inspire us toward transcending all the limitations and disappointments that make it so hard to be a human being.
This tension (like all tensions) is not between us and them. It is within us. And to navigate a good path in this region of always shifting shadows? Takes all the courage, responsiveness and affection that we have.
I hope your holidays have had moments that remind you of the goodness of this humane kind of work and that they've allowed for a few good candid photos, too.