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CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS (2021 Edition): The ‘One Thing’ Rule

January 15, 2022

“How am I supposed to pick just one?” my not-quite-seven-year-old granddaughter grumbled as she turned the page of the Amazon Kids catalogue she was studying. She was lying on her stomach, knees bent, feet scissoring back and forth as she held a ballpoint pen with a pink pompom on top in her hand, ready to circle the next must-have item that caught her eye.

“There are so many toys I want for Christmas,” she sighed, casting a soulful look my way. “But Dad says I can only ask Santa for one thing!

I smiled back, but didn’t reply. I agreed with her Dad. Because that’s the way I’d raised him. He and his brother never went ‘without’ on Christmas morning. In fact, our family room was generally so jam-packed with gifts on December 25 it was difficult to make your way across the room without having to step over various Lego sets, a Hot Wheels track, and a number of actions figures of one type or another. But only one of those many gifts for each boy had come from Santa.

Why? Quite simply, it was because that was how I (and my siblings) had been raised during the 1950s and 1960s, when money was tight and kids didn’t get every single thing they wanted for Christmas. And while Christmas had become a far more avaricious and commercialized holiday by the 1980s, and my generation had a lot more money to spend (and a whole lot more places to spend it), I didn’t want the boys to expect Santa to provide them with every toy their little hearts desired. So the ‘one item from Santa’ rule I’d grown up with was implemented right from the get-go.

As I sat there on the floor beside my granddaughter, watching her go through the catalogue, circling the occasional item, asking me to help her read the descriptions under some of the pictures, I found myself drifting back to the Christmas when I was seven.

~~~

“I don’t know whether to ask Santa for the bride doll or the ballerina,” I said to my nine-and-a-half-year-old sister Sharon, pointing to the page filled with photos of seventeen-inch ‘fashion dolls’ in the Eaton’s Christmas Catalogue. It was a Saturday or Sunday morning in late November, 1960. We were studying the glossy pages of the book with the same level of concentration my granddaughter had exhibited for her own modern-day catalogue.

“The bride doll has a …” I squinted at the strange word.

“True-so”, Sharon sounded it out. I had no idea what it meant, but there were a lot of clothes in the photo.

“The ballerina has bendable arms and legs,” I declared, moving my finger slightly to a doll posed in a pirouette. She was wearing a frilly black and white tutu and pink tights. “And she’s got real ballet slippers on!” I added.

“She doesn’t have as many clothes, though,” Sharon said.

“I know,” I replied. “But she’s really really pretty.” I’d never seen a doll with completely bend-able arms and legs before. Most had legs that went into a huge ‘V’ when you sat them down, and arms that stuck out to the sides when you tried to dress and undress them.

Except for Barbie® , of course. Her legs went straight out when you sat her down – but they didn’t bend. And her arms were pretty stiff. The ballerina doll – although much larger than Barbie® – could be posed!

“I’m going to ask for another Barbie,” Sharon announced, as if reading my mind. She turned the page to reveal the huge range of Barbie® dolls and accessories on offer. We already each had a Barbie® (blonde for her, brunette for me) and several outfits, but the ads on television had Sharon pretty much convinced that her life wouldn’t be complete until she had a whole lot more!

“Maybe I’ll ask for a Ken, too”, she murmured.

“That’s two things,” I told her. “You can only ask Santa for one.”

Sharon tapped her finger on the ‘Barbie and Ken Sun and Fun Gift Set’ positioned smack-dab in the middle of the page. “If I ask for this, I get both a Barbie and a Ken,” she announced. “And they’re dressed in their bathing suits, but they’ve got two outfits each. A tennis one and a …” She paused as she read the description to herself before finishing, “An after-hours outfit for everyday casual wear.”

 I was impressed. She had it all figured out. Of course, she had a couple more Christmases under her belt than I did, so she had the ‘one thing from Santa’ rule well under control. I was still learning.

When we visited Santa at Eaton’s Toyland in downtown Toronto a week later, Sharon did indeed ask for the Sun and Fun Gift Set. I’d settled on the ballerina doll (it really wasn’t much of a contest; Sharon already had a 17” bride doll that I could play with if I wanted to). Our little brother Bobby (who was only two-and-a-half) asked for a truck (although he was kind of reluctant to talk to the strange man with the white beard and red suit who kept asking him if he’d been ‘a good little boy this year’; that was a loaded question where Bobby was concerned!)

On Christmas morning we found just what we’d asked for waiting for us in the living room, right next to the Christmas tree. And while there were other presents wrapped and under the tree (from our parents and the two grandmothers who lived upstairs), we never expected or received an inordinate amount of ‘stuff’ for that Christmas, or any other. We were just grateful for what we did get – especially that ‘one special thing’ from Santa.

~~~

“I bet Dad got lots of things from Santa when he was my age.”

My granddaughter’s voice pulled me out of 1960 and back to the present.

“No,” I answered honestly. “He got a lot of stuff, but only one thing from Santa. Just like you.”

She sat up, swivelling around to face me and crossing her legs effortlessly as she asked, “What did he ask for when he was my age?”

 I tried to recall the Christmas her Dad was six. My memories of specific Christmases during the eighties are a bit of a blur, and I couldn’t quite focus on 1987.

“I can’t remember,” I admitted. “Probably a Transformer of some kind.”

She rolled her eyes. Her Dad has a whole wall of shelves in his at-home office jam-packed with his collection of transformable robot vehicles. He’d been a collector from the age of five.

“But I do remember the year he was three and a half,” I told her. “He’d seen a wooden train set at the mall and immediately set his mind to asking Santa for it that year.”

~~~

“A train with a wooden track eh?” Santa said, running his hand down his long white beard. “I don’t think I’ve had anyone ask for one of those this year.”

He was crouched down in front of my son, who was dressed in his blue and white Cookie Monster snowsuit, his favourite toque pulled down so low it nearly covered his eyes. It was a frigidly cold December day in 1984 and we were in front of The Christmas Place in Grand Bend, Ontario, the town my parents had moved to in 1981. Santa made special guest appearances outside the store on weekends during December, waving to passersby and talking to children who stopped to sit beside him in his sleigh and make their annual gift requests.

My son, that day, had refused to get into the sleigh, convinced for some reason that Santa’s reindeer would magically appear and fly off while he was still sitting on the front seat with Santa. So Santa came down to talk to him face-to-face.

“I think we can do that. Is there anything else you want?” Santa asked.

My son looked over at me, confusion clear on his little face.

“He knows he’s only allowed to ask for one thing from you,” I explained to Santa with a smile.

Santa smiled back at me and winked. “Of course. But sometimes really good boys and girls get a little something extra-special as well.” He turned his attention back to my son as he added, “And I know you’ve been good this year, haven’t you?”

My son nodded furiously.

Santa ran his hand down his beard again. “Do you put your toys away every time Mom or Dad asks?” he inquired. “And brush your teeth every night before bed?” 

My son looked from Santa to me, and back again, his eyes wide. “Usually,” he said meekly. “Most of the time.”

“That’s what I thought,” Santa said. “As long as you do what you’re asked most of the time, it’s all good.”

“Okay,” my son eagerly agreed. “I will. I promise.”

For the next three weeks, he brushed his teeth every night without being told, and put all this toys away before bed. And on Christmas morning, there was a train with a wooden track waiting for him by the Christmas tree.

There were, of course, many more visits with Santa over the next several years (his younger brother came along in 1986, so Santa visits lasted well into the mid-nineties, even though The Christmas Place had closed and we were forced to visit mall Santas, who weren’t quite as convincing as the one in Grand Bend). And despite the temptation to do what they knew many of their friends (and even their cousins) did, and ask for more than one thing, they never did. They understood that greed wasn’t rewarded, and that many of the other items they coveted (from catalogues and trips to various department and toys stores) would likely find their way under the tree anyway (wrapped and labelled from their parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles). So they never wavered from the ‘one thing from Santa’ rule.

~~~

And now it was time for the next generation – my granddaughter – to choose that ‘one thing’ she wanted from Santa (even though, like the generations before her, many of the other circled items in her book would undoubtedly appear under the tree, too).

As I watched her return to her solemn consideration of the many options available to her (in the end, she would choose the Barbie® 3-in-1 Dream Camper), I couldn’t help but let my mind drift back again across sixty years of Christmases, and all the ways things have changed.

Sometimes, I feel as if Christmas has morphed into a completely different holiday from what it was when I was her age. There’s just so much more of everything – more toys, more choices, more expectations, more celebrations, more lights, more parades, more Santas in more malls. It’s often overwhelming.

But woven throughout those changes are a few things that have, thankfully, remained the same, and been passed down from generation to generation – including our ‘one thing from Santa’ rule.

And, for me, that’s one thing that makes the holidays well worth celebrating.

EPILOGUE: My granddaughter brought her Barbie® 3-in-1 Dream Camper with her when she came to my house several days after Christmas for a multi-day/night sleepover. It was great fun for me to pull out some of my ancient Barbies® (yes, I still have them, as well as more than 50 collector Barbies® I’ve accumulated over the years) and get down on the floor to play with her (I gave her a ‘Fantasy Hair Barbie® with Unicorn and Mermaid Looks’ for Christmas) in much the same way Sharon and I played with our Barbies® all those years ago.

And for just a while, I forgot I was on … the other side of 55.

Playing Barbies at Grammy’s house, December 2021

To Review or Not to Review (Part 2)

December 18, 2021

Product Reviews

Unlike reviews of books, I DO check out product reviews before making most major purchases (i.e., appliances, electronics, or other moderately expensive household items). I tend to focus my research on items that have four stars or above (on sites like Amazon, Home Depot, Best Buy, etc.) and/ or those that are rated ‘Top 10’ or ‘Best Of …’ on consumer reporting sites (like Consumer Reports, Tom’s Guide, CNET, etc.). I base my final purchase decision on a combination of ratings (and comments), features, price, and availability. Generally, I haven’t gone wrong following these protocols.

Screen Capture of Tom’s Guides for Best Laptops for 2021

As for writing product reviews myself – well, I’ve done it a couple of times, but only when prompted to offer my rating and/ or opinion of a product (e.g., by Home Depot). Generally, I use product reviews for my own purposes, but I don’t think about offering my own opinions about something unless I’m really, really happy (or really, really unhappy) with it. I guess, like books, I don’t see how my singular opinion would or should impact someone else’s purchase decision (unless I want to warn them against something, and I’ve only done that once!) Unlike book ratings/ reviews, however, I use product reviews BEFORE I buy, rather than after.

Business Reviews

And, finally, on to the topic of Business Reviews. A lot of people put significant weight on business review sites like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Consumer Reports, Better Business Bureau, Yelp, TripAdvisor, FourSquare, GlassDoor, Houzz, etc. (and/or reviews posted on the websites or Facebook pages of individual businesses or brands).  

According to BrightLocal’s 2020 Local Consumer Review Survey:

  • 93% of consumers use the internet to find a local business
  • 87% of consumers read online reviews for local businesses
  • Only 48% of consumers would consider using a business with fewer than 4 stars

I can’t say I rely exclusively on public reviews before using a company or its products/ services (especially those with very few online reviews) but I do check them in many cases, and I certainly wouldn’t contact a contractor or other business/ professional if they had a significant number of 1 or 2 star ratings and/ or uncomplimentary reviews. In my mind it’s an issue of ‘Buyer Beware’ (i.e., do your research in many different ways and always check claims and / or references).

Screen Capture from Bright Local Consumer Review Survey site 2021

The big problem with many of the review sites is the idea of ‘fake’ reviews. It’s less of a problem now than it’s been in the past (in 2014 and again in 2017, CBC Marketplace did undercover investigations on fake online testimonials – where people hired themselves out to videotape or write positive reviews for money – and exposed a black market in review writing that brought an end to some of it). But that’s not to say it doesn’t happen – small businesses particularly ‘encourage’ family and friends to write positive reviews for them, and I know of firms (and writers) who host ‘give-aways’ or contests for those who post public reviews (and I would assume they only solicit input from people they trust to write positive reviews). There is really no way to tell if the person providing the review actually used the services of the company or not. So – again – it’s ‘Buyer Beware’ (i.e., do your research and don’t rely on web reviews alone!)

What is apparent is that a lot of businesses depend on online reviews. According to the Harvard Business Review, “As more and more consumers turn to e-commerce rather than in-person shopping, ensuring that these online platforms offer a reliable rating and review system is essential to maintain consumer trust. Unfortunately, recent research suggests that fake reviews are far more common than you might think.” NOTE: this also applies to fake reviews on products; search algorithms on sites like Amazon take ratings into account when showcasing products – so the more four and five-star “fake” ratings a company can include, the higher their product appears in the search results!

The issue of rating/ review validity hit home for me recently when I did some research into a rather sketchy-looking trailer park in the ‘middle of nowhere’ that I passed when I took an ‘alternate’ way home a couple of weeks ago. A quick search turned up 92 Google Reviews for the place, with an average 3.9 star rating. Surprised, I began scrolling through the reviews. Right near the top were 15 one and two-star ratings – all from people with quite a bit to say about the horrific condition of the place. But then I came across an equal number from people who gave it 4 or 5-stars and left comments saying they’d been going there for years and loved it. So – who do you believe? (I certainly wouldn’t book a holiday there, based on the visuals and the number of negative ratings/ comments, but then I’m not a ‘trailer park’ kind of girl!)

In any case, I kept reading and was surprised to find 57 three, four, and five star ratings left by individuals who were identified as a ‘Local Guide’ (most didn’t leave any kind of comment, but the ones who did had kept it short and generic – things like, “Great place to go in the summer”, “Hidden gem”, “Nice people, interesting location”, etc.). This led me to immediately ask, “What (or who, I suppose) is a ‘Local Guide’?” And, “Have they really visited this place?”

Screen Capture of Google Local Guide information page

Well, it turns out anyone with a Google account can become a ‘Local Guide’ and post Google Reviews (usually for things like restaurants, hotels, tourist attractions, etc.), edit Maps, and a whole lot more. According to Google Local Guides “help visitors navigate your local neighborhood, and experience well-hidden secrets that only a resident would know.” Local guides are “a global community of explorers who share their knowledge, compile reviews, share photos, check facts, edit Google My Business listing information and help maintain the accuracy of Google Maps (and the larger ecosystem of Google features).” NOTE: as far as I could tell, NONE of this requires you to actually live in the area you are supposedly a ‘Local Guide’ for (although you do have to select your locale when you sign up), nor are there any apparent restrictions on how ‘far-flung’ your reviews can be.

Intrigued about the idea of the ‘Local Guide’, I did a quick Google Review search of our favourite brewery farm/ restaurant (a 10 minute drive from home). A significant number of Google ratings and reviews were left by Local Guides. Some were just a starred rating, several included (mostly positive) comments, a couple included photographs (although one or two were straight off the company’s website). There was no requirement for them to indicate when they’d visited, what they’d ordered, etc. so I had to wonder if it was all legit (or what percentage of it might be).

Ultimately, I asked myself, “What’s in it for people to become Local Guides in the first place?” Turns out (of course) there are quite a few incentives. Google Local Guides uses a ‘gamification’ reward system. The more someone contributes and shares, the more points (and rewards) they receive over time. Points and ‘badges’ can be traded with thousands of Google partners (to score points, all you have to do is leave reviews, upload photos, answer questions, make contributions to Google Maps, etc.; to earn badges, you must be more active. ‘Gamification’ refers to encouraging users to participate by providing a ‘hit’ of dopamine when they ‘win’ something, even if it’s nothing of actual monetary value).

The goal of gamification is to encourage users to collaborate, share, and interact by offering rewards.

What’s concerning to me here is that someone looking at these reviews has no way of knowing if a Local Guide actually visited the locale, ate at the restaurant, etc. I have a sneaking suspicion many merely respond to a ‘prompt’ from Google (Google apparently bases its notification system on the town/ city you select as your location when you sign up) by assigning a rating (X stars) and/ or writing a short, generic review (perhaps based on what others had to say about the place) without ever actually GOING THERE!  So – many of these are likely ‘fake’ ratings/ reviews (which doesn’t do the business any harm if they’re positive, but can be quite devastating to a company if they’re not).

And businesses are hard pressed to respond to ‘bad’ reviews without coming across as either defensive or arrogant (and its next-to-impossible to have a really negative review – or bombardment of them – removed from an ‘independent review site’ because there’s no ‘proof’ one way or the other that the reviewer is trying to do harm to your business, or that their comments are lies; basically it’s their word against yours). NOTE: However, if you leave a review on some sites – and are easily identifiable – the company CAN take action (even if they really shouldn’t) – like the hotel that kicked out a woman and her granddaughter because she left a three-star review on Hotels.com shortly after signing in. I guess the caveat here is – if you want to leave a negative review about a place, DON’T use your own name or contact info!

As for me, well, I’ve posted positive Google reviews for a few businesses (the decking company we used in 2017; the realtor who helped us purchase our dream property; our local library; the optical house where I bought my glasses three years ago) and two negative ones (both for insurance companies that provided lousy customer service and lost my business as a result). I’ve posted a couple of reviews on Facebook about local businesses that have proven themselves worthy (and when we encountered a problem at our favourite brew pub, I didn’t diss them publicly – I sent a private message, letting them know.) I’ve never considered doing much more – if I’m really happy with a company, I let them know privately; if I’m really unhappy, I do the same. I’d only consider posting something publicly if I felt my positive review would bring the ‘good’ companies more customers, or warn people about the ‘bad’ ones. NOTE: I admit, I was tempted to sign up to become a Local Guide to see if I could post ratings/ reviews of places I hadn’t visited, but I decided it wasn’t worth my time! I’d love to hear from anyone who’s done it, though!)

Two of the three decks added to our house in 2017 by Hickory Dickory Decks (out of Waterdown, Ontario) Great company to deal with; skilled carpenters.

So – what’s the bottom line? I guess it’s this – use online ratings and reviews with the same skepticism you would use ‘word of mouth’ from someone you don’t know very well. Take everything you read with the proverbial ‘grain of salt’ and do as much research into products and services as you can. Weigh the results carefully before making decisions. And trust your instincts. That’s the best advice you’ll get from someone who’s on … the other side of 55.

To Review or Not to Review (Part 1)

November 22, 2021

What’s your take on online reviews? Do you leave them? When? Why? Do you trust them? Why or why not? (This inquiry process was prompted by an author friend who asked her Friends on Facebook why they generally don’t leave book reviews. My answer was: “I honestly don’t know. I just don’t think about it.” Which, of course, got me thinking about it!)

NOTE: this subject will be in two parts: (1) Book Reviews (this week) (2) Reviews of Everything Else (next week)

Book Reviews

By far the most popular book review site is Goodreads. It bills itself as “the world’s largest site for readers and book recommendations. Our mission is to help people find and share books they love.” They have over 120 million members worldwide, a hundred million or more reviews (with significantly more non-reviewed ratings), and around 2.5 billion books listed.

Goodreads Home Page, November 22, 2021

Goodreads began in 2006 when Otis Chandler and Elizabeth Khuri Chandler wanted to “create a space where people could write reviews regarding the books that they read.” It became so popular that Amazon (the second most popular book review site and largest book seller in the world) bought it in 2013. And despite complaints about the outdated interface and poor usability, questionable ratings and review processes (including review “bombing” and threats:  https://time.com/6078993/goodreads-review-bombing/), and problematic dealings with authors who use the platform for promotional purposes, it remains the de facto site for readers and writers alike to track what they’ve read, rate and review materials, and interact.

Many authors actively encourage readers to post ratings and/or reviews and/or list their books as “Read”, “Currently Reading”, or “Want to Read” on the site. Many ask readers to review their books on Amazon as well; however, the ratings on Amazon and Goodreads for the SAME book by the SAME reader will often vary widely, because they use a slightly different “star” system:

5 Stars:  Amazon: “I love it”; Goodreads: “It was amazing”

4 Stars:  Amazon: “I like it”; Goodreads: “Really like it”

3 Stars:  Amazon: “It’s okay”; Goodreads: “Liked it”

2 Stars:  Amazon: “I don’t like it”; Goodreads: “It was ok”

1 Star:  Amazon: “I hate it”; Goodreads: “Did not like it”

Amazon Reviews Page, November 22, 2021

Some writers are convinced that great reviews on Goodreads (or Amazon) will increase sales. However, this isn’t necessarily the case. According to fantasy author and research scientist Mark Lawrence (who studied reviews and ratings of his own books and others on Goodreads, and compared that to sales), it’s the number of ratings (not reviews) that seemed predictive of increased sales (see: https://bookriot.com/goodreads-ratings-and-sales/). So it’s more important (perhaps) for authors to encourage readers to leave ratings (which are quicker and easier to do) than detailed reviews in order to (hopefully) aid sales figures (and, let’s face it, most “reviews” these days are more like synopses of the story vs. “a report that gives someone’s opinion about the quality of a book”: Miriam Webster Dictionary definition of “review”). 

I admit to being stupefied sometimes by seeing thousands of 5-star ratings and glowing reviews for books I simply couldn’t get through (or HATED for any number of reasons). Alternatively, I’ve often enjoyed books that have gotten a fair number of 1 or 2 star reviews on Goodreads or Amazon (for reasons that often baffle me).  NOTE: It’s sort of like how I look at movie reviews these days. I remain convinced that the majority of movies that receive poor ratings from “professional” reviewers (on sites like Rotten Tomatoes or the Internet Movie Database) will be ones I actually enjoy (and vice versa); in general, the “user” reviews / comments back up that point of view (honestly – I haven’t been able to get through ANY of the films nominated for Academy Awards in YEARS!!!)

I have left a couple of “verified purchase” reviews on Amazon, but only for books by authors I know personally. I check the ratings (and read some of the reviews) on Goodreads (or Amazon, occasionally) only if I really DON’T like a book, and want to see if other readers felt the same way (and for the same reasons). I have an account on Goodreads (connected to Facebook) but I’ve never reviewed a book there. Why? I suppose because I feel my opinion really doesn’t matter to other readers (or authors). With hundreds or thousands of ratings and reviews for most books already visible, how much does one more really matter? I also believe that what I like (or don’t like) really SHOULDN’T influence someone else’s decision to buy and/or read a book (any more than their opinion should influence me). And as a writer, I would feel awkward leaving a 1 or 2 star review for a book I didn’t enjoy (especially if others have given positive reviews) because I know how much time, effort, and hope goes into writing a book – no matter how poorly executed it might end up being – and I just don’t want to hurt the author’s feelings by telling them I didn’t like it.

My Last Three Reviews on Amazon.ca

So, while I find book reviews interesting to read and ponder, I don’t give them a whole lot of weight. Which is why, I suppose, I don’t bother leaving them myself – even though I’ve always been somewhat opinionated (LOL!) and have only gotten more so now that I’m on … the other side of 55.

Riding Out the Pandemic

July 9, 2021

In early 2021, a call went out for submissions to an anthology about surviving the COVID-19 pandemic. I had penned this poem a couple of months earlier so I decided to submit it. By mid-June, I realized it hadn’t been selected for the anthology, so I put it aside. However, as we’re (hopefully) nearing “the beginning of the end” of a year and a half of lockdowns and worry, I thought I’d share it here.

If wishes were horses
Beggars would ride

If wishes were promises
We’d all stay inside

If wishes were horses
We’d ride away fast

If wishes were cures
This thing wouldn’t last

If wishes were horses
We’d run wild and free

If wishes were sunshine
We’d hug every tree

And thank all the people
Who are doing their best
To drive off the scourge
That’s proven a test
Of mankind’s resilience
Our stamina and grit
The desire to survive
Not give up and quit

There’ve been many times
The last year or so
When I’ve struggled to cope
With all I’ve let go
Trips to the library
The park and the mall
Shopping for bargains
Spring, summer, and fall

I don’t enjoy Zooming
With colleagues and friends
Just watching the screen
And praying it ends
While I miss them like crazy
It’s not nearly as fun
As being together
In a room, one-on-one

I want to visit my children
Hold on to them tight
Have my granddaughter here
For a sleepover night
Enjoy dinner with friends
Get caught up on their news
Have the freedom to travel
Wherever I choose

Then I stop to consider
All the things that are fine
I’m safe and I’m healthy
I have food, I have wine
There’s a fire in the grate
A roof over my head
A computer in the kitchen
A TV by the bed

And I think, “I can do this”
(Do I have any choice?)
Stay home awhile longer
Without raising my voice
Keep my friends at arm’s length
Get the shot when I’m able
Put off any trips
Till the world is more stable

I’m doing my best
It’s been hard, there’s no doubt
But I’m not giving in
I won’t whine, I won’t pout
The world’s at a crossroads
We’re all in this together
We can’t change the past
Any more than the weather

But we can change the outcome
Save those who might die
If we believe hard enough
And are willing to try
The end isn’t written
In stone as of yet
We can conquer this virus
I’m willing to bet

If wishes were horses
Beggars would ride

If wishes were miracles
We’ve got hope on our side

by Margo Karolyi © 2021

The End of 2020

December 31, 2020

I’ve never been much of a “New Year’s Eve” celebrant. Sure, in my “younger days”, I’d visit with friends or go to the odd New Year’s Eve party (all dressed up!) to watch the old year disappear and the new one arrive (because that’s just what you did when you were young and not overly concerned about “the morning after”).

Later, the boys and I would stay up until midnight, watching one movie trilogy or another (the original “Star Wars”, “Back to the Future”, “Indiana Jones”), then flip over to TV mode to watch the giant ball in Times Square slowly descend while thousands of people called out, “Five, four, three, two, one  … Happy New Year!” But I never really felt an affinity for the concept of January 1st representing some sort of “fresh start”.

It may be that I was so entrenched in the education system (for 40+ years) – first as a student, then, after a three-year stint working in a “business” environment, as a curriculum designer and part-time instructor at the local Community College and mother of two school-age children, and finally as a full time professor for various educational institutions – that I just naturally viewed September as more of a “new year beginning” than January 1st. There was something extra special about starting a new school year – from getting a brand new “back to school outfit”, binders and paper and pencil crayons when I was a student (or buying same for my own boys), to the preparation of new courses, lesson planning, and the anticipation of meeting a group of eager adult learners for the first time as a teacher that filled me with enthusiastic expectation. September starts also followed some sort of  prolonged summer break, so it always felt like I was “starting fresh” every year (vs. January, which came after a two-week period of overwrought madness and mayhem).

For the past five years (since my husband retired and we moved to the country), I haven’t really paid much notice to either September or January. We don’t have to think (or worry) about any of the issues that drove us for so many years (my husband was also a Community College professor, hanging in for an additional six years after I retired). The boys are grown and married and not working in education, and while my granddaughter has gone off to school in September for the last two years, I’m not intimately involved in the process, so I’ve acknowledged the moment (and shed a tear or two over the first day photos), but I don’t dwell on it. And we don’t pay any special attention to December 31st (dinner, a movie, in bed by 10:00) or January 1st (get up to a new day, go about our usual business) because they’re just part of the ongoing cycle of life in the country as retirees!

First Day of School, 2019

This year is different, though. I imagine every single person on this planet is anxious for 2020 to end and 2021 to begin. I think we’re all secretly hoping that January 1, 2021 will bring some major shift in the Universe that will set our planet back on course to health, happiness, and prosperity. That 2020 will just be one of those things we look back on with regret and a touch of sorrow – maybe a few tears – and can then forget all about, because it’s over and all the “bad” that came with it is over too. I just hope we (as a society) aren’t fooling ourselves too badly. Because, of course, that’s not the reality. Not by a long shot.

I like to think of myself as a “glass half full” kind of person, but I have enough of my father in me (for him the glass was not only half empty, but probably poisoned as well!) to acknowledge that the turning over of a calendar, the striking of a clock at midnight, the addition of the number “1” to the year is not going to magically make all the ills of the world disappear. We’ve still got a long way to go. And while I’m eternally hopeful that things WILL get better, we have to keep in mind that we all have a part to play in making that happen; we can’t expect the medical experts or the politicians or the front line workers to do it for us (and blaming them for whatever has or hasn’t happened is not only pointless, but misguided; they’re doing the best they can with the information and resources they have). The WHO is suggesting this pandemic isn’t “the big one” – that it’s just a precursor, a trial, a test so see how we cope (and we aren’t coping terribly well, are we?)  I don’t want to sound like Debby Downer, but we really all must do better in 2021. We have to come together not just as a community, or a province, or a country, but as a PEOPLE (of the world) and defeat not only the virus but the whole stinking mess we’ve made of our planet by always demanding more (of everything) while, at the same time, not wanting to give up the “luxuries” we’ve come to expect as our “right”. It’s not going to happen by magic, or by hoping for it, or by dreaming about it. It’s going to take a lot of work. I’m ready do to my part. Are you? (Here’s an extremely enchanting-to-watch bedtime story video about what the world could be like if we all do our part: “The Great Realisation” by TomFoolery)

So, with that off my chest … here’s to a much better year ahead, and a global, concentrated effort to make the best of it, and all the ones that follow. Because, honestly, I want to live many, many more years here on … the other side of 55.