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Category Archives: celebrations & superstitions

I remember our first Christmas together. I had gotten her one of those hand-held electric back massagers (which she asked me to return). She had gotten me a DVD player (which we had to buy a new TV to accommodate).

And we had a live tree that we bought from a reformed drug addict who was selling them outside the Rite Aid on Grand Street. He brought it to our apartment in a shopping cart that rattled and jangled across the islands on Delancey. He had a little hatchet he used to trim off the lower branches so the tree would fit into the stand. We didn’t question it at the time but later that night we kicked ourselves for being so naive. We let a self-admitted drug addict into our home with an axe.

There is a picture of the four of us (our youngest just over a month old) with Santa at Macy’s. It was the last time Christmas didn’t feel like a hassle. By “hassle” I mean it was the last time Christmas didn’t feel rushed or contrived. And by “contrived” I mean it was the last time Christmas felt like a celebration rather than an obligation.

I’ve been telling the same joke lately. For many of my friends and acquaintances, it is their babies’ first Christmases (or Hanukkahs). I’ve been telling them (jokingly of course): Enjoy baby’s first Christmas (or Hanukkah) because pretty soon he’ll (or she’ll) be asking for stuff.

I don’t mean it in a mean way. It’s not a cynical statement on the commercialism of Christmas and human greed. It’s more an amusing “circle of life” observation on my part. It’s normal child development for my boys to want specific things. It is also normal for them to want what their friends have. It’s a sign they are becoming self aware and constructing a personal aesthetic. It’s also a sign they are becoming socially aware.

A train set is no longer a train set, it is the Thomas the Tank Engine train set like the one [Insert Child’s Peer’s Name Here] got. A video game is not a video game , it’s a DS like the ones [the ominous] they have at school.

My boys are maturing and asserting themselves. The catalysts determining their desires is inconsequential for now. We will eventually have the “talk” about not mindlessly following peer groups but for now it is enough they are becoming sensitive to the norms of their peer group.

That said. It doesn’t mean I don’t get a little bit sentimental about the days when it was enough that the present was from me. With their newfound desires comes new burdens not to disappoint.

… humbug.

Elizabeth Bernstein writes about disappointing holiday gifts from husbands/boyfriends to wives/girlfriends in her Wall Street Journal article, “The Gift that Needs Forgiving.” It seems the “thought” is not enough.

After recounting several tales of “inappropriate” gifts she has been told, she concludes:

You shouldn’t need a gift consultant (or a marriage counselor) to tell you these presents are wrong. They’re utilitarian. Unromantic. Ugly. And, in many cases, more suitable for a man, or a cleaning woman, than the love of your life.

I am reminded of Cordelia’s plight in King Lear. She ineffectively expresses her love for her father and is cast out. However, the moral Shakespeare posits is the polar opposite of Bernstein’s. He chooses to show superficial gestures of affection paling in the light of those that are more subtle and genuine.

As I read Bernstein’s article, I felt a swell rise from my gut. It wasn’t the holiday sweets charitably giving me a second taste. It was annoyance. As clever as she was in her article, she (perhaps inadvertently) portrayed women as shallow, demanding princesses whose emotional investments are in tokens of homage instead of more meaningful, potentially sincere gifts.

To illustrate my point, Bernstein includes Tom Valentino’s story among the tales of disappointed wives and girlfriends. He is meant represent the “men’s perspective.” He tells of his upbringing and its influence on his values.

In his parents’ house, Christmas was all about religious values—and food. Gifts were an afterthought.

“I started to think, well, we have three kids already, so no need for anything from Victoria’s Secret,” he says. “And I bought her a fancy watch last year for her birthday. How many of those does she need?”

Then he remembered his wife had said she needed a vacuum and a bigger pasta pot. Off to Macy’s he went. “I could almost smell the sauce cooking with meatballs, sausage and braciole,” he says. “How could a woman not be happy with these?”

He found out, because the gifts made his wife cry.

What would have been an appropriate gift? For the most part, the true desires of the women included in the story are never revealed. Is it a matter of not knowing what you want but knowing enough that you don’t want what you were given?

I am reminded of “Rosebud” and a little snow globe given by a man to a woman. She rejects the gift and goes on to say he never gave her anything of value.

Bernstein concludes:

Sometimes men aren’t listening to their wives. But just as often, women aren’t clear about their desires. They want men to pick up on their subtle clues, rather than telling them outright what they’d like. As one woman I know explains, “It means we are special to them if they detect what we want without us telling them.”

So what’s a Rice Daddy to do? The Asian side of me says: Gift Cards! The American side of me says: That’s so “utilitarian, unromantic,” and “ugly.”

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Marita doesn’t need a brand-new school with acres of playing fields and gleaming facilities. She doesn’t need a laptop, a smaller class, a teacher with a PhD, or a bigger apartment. She doesn’t need a higher IQ or a mind as quick as Chris Langan’s. All those things would be nice, of course. But they miss the point. Marita just needed a chance. (Gladwell, Outliers. 2008)

If you were to agree with Malcolm Gladwell, success would be one part cultural legacy, one part family and support, one part perseverance, and one part chance (or opportunity).

Milton Hershey is an “outlier.” He is someone who (per Gladwell’s definition) has done something “out of the ordinary.” His parent’s only surviving child, Milton Hershey dropped out of school in the fourth grade because his family moved around a lot. With the collective resources of his mother’s family (who were not rich) an adult Milton Hershey began and ended several failed candy making businesses.

A trip to Colorado (where he learned to make caramel from milk) after another failed attempt at starting a candy making business and a trip to The Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 (where he first saw and eventually purchased chocolate-making machinery)  laid the foundation for the creation of “the largest producer of quality chocolate in North America and a global leader in chocolate and sugar confectionery.”

Building off Gladwell’s definition of “outlier,” I would like to say Milton Hershey was a  “true outlier.”  He was someone who did something “out of the ordinary” with his success. Milton Hershey used the fortune earned from his success to build a “complete community around his factory.” To discourage comparisons to the stereotypical factory town, Hershey requested architects vary the look and feel of houses as they would look like in any other town or community.

I am sure if we dug deep enough we could find evidence that would attribute his desire to build a community rather than a factory town is a result of the frequent family moves he experienced as a child and his adult understanding of the importance of strong family ties. (His mother’s family was essential in providing him with the opportunities to engage in his candy ventures.)

As a “true outlier,” someone who applies the lessons and rewards of his or her success towards the greater public good, Hershey (more specifically his wife) founded the Milton Hershey School – “the nation’s largest, cost-free, private, co-educational home and school for children from families of low income, limited resources and social need.”

To its students, the Milton Hershey School (MHS) represents that “chance” Malcolm Gladwell speaks about in Outliers.

For a century, MHS has served as a transforming environment for children in need. Boys and girls who hail from different social and ethnic backgrounds, but are connected by surroundings that threaten their ability to realize their dreams, come together as one family, under one roof, on the rolling green campus in Hershey, PA.

100_YrsI was moved by Cynthia Wade’s film on MHS, Living the Legacy: The Untold Story of the Milton Hershey School. I saw it at a MWW Group event celebrating MHS’s centennial. There was a reception before the screening that included a signature dessert created by MHS culinary students and a panel of Hershey company executives and MHS alumni afterwards moderated by Phylicia Rashād and Paula Patton.

Jerrica Bechtold’s story was the most dramatic in the film. The eldest child and only daughter of a crack-addicted mother and a somewhat absent father (partially because he was serving a jail term), Jerrica had the toughest situation to contend with (beginning with the simple fact that only one of her two brothers was accepted into the school). Despite her initial desire to follow the rules and get good grades, the film documents her descent into potential expulsion. Frustrated, her counselor  asks her quite plainly to make a decision: Stay or go?

You can see the desire in her eyes for “normality” as she has defined it. And you hear about her reaction to the disappointing reality of her home life from her house parents at the school, teachers, and counselor. However, as one reviewer put it, the film seems a little “superficial.”

Somewhere someone made the decision to include the story of two boys at the school (though that story was not as developed as Jerrica’s). Instead of adding to the film, the story of the two boys is distracting. Thinking about the film, I wonder if it wouldn’t have been more effective to focus on the story of Jerrica and her family, peppering it with the “cameo-like” reflections from other students on similar circumstances?

The film had a fair amount of these reflections and they worked to bring the points being made home. However, a stronger, more focused storyline was needed to fully carry the film into greater depths. As it is now, neither the two boys or Jerrica gets enough screen time to make the movie poignant.

But regardless, the film did succeed in changing my shopping behavior. Hershey will certainly be my first choice in chocolate and candy products from now on. Until I saw the film, I never thought of Milton Hershey as a dedicated philanthropist and humanitarian.