December 7, 2016
Why wait? That was the question I got from a small group of teenage boys. I was leading my Thursday night discussion for a bunch of boys in a court-ordered residential facility in Northeast Portland. It was the late 1990s and these kids were on the verge of being locked up in juvie, but were the “at-risk” youth that still have a chance to not get sucked into the vortex of the criminal justice system. So a judge sent them to a group home and on Thursdays I was their counselor.
I was trying to share with them the simple joy of Pez, something I cherished from my own youth. I was carefully loading the tiny candies into a Popeye Pez dispenser. Some were going sideways and others were falling back out.
“Why don’t you just eat the candy?” asked one kid.
“No, wait, it’s gonna be great. The candy comes out of Popeye’s larynx,” I said.
“Why wait?” asked another.
It was a valid question. I mean, it’s not the greatest payoff in the world. Why not just eat the damn candy without all the hassle? Suddenly the Pez dispenser became a metaphor for a fading American value – delayed gratification, symbolic of a grand cultural shift. Sometimes the wait is part of the payoff, y’all. I know you want it now, but…
I was reminded of this because I bought Advent calendar for my daughter for Christmas. I loved them as a kid and this is the year Cozy’s really getting into the holiday. (Although she freaked out a bit at meeting the Macy’s Santa.) I liked the day-to-day anticipation of the arrival of the big event. Each day you get to open a window and get little surprise, making it one day closer to Santa’s orgy of gifts. The initial Advent calendars were created by the German Lutherans in the 19th century but they’re probably now mass-produced in Chinese factories for the Western world. You can get them cheap pretty much anywhere. You don’t even have to be Lutheran.
So I picked up a calendar called 24 Chocolate Days ’til Christmas (made in a gluten-free factory in Canada) to introduce Cozy to the tradition. When I pulled it out on December 1, she yelled, “Santa!” I explained to her that we open one door each day until Christmas and there’s a treat behind each flap. Day 1 was a little chocolate choo choo. She was thrilled. Then I told her we’d open the next door tomorrow. She was not thrilled about that. In fact she threw a screaming fit, laying on the floor, yelling, “No! No! No!” I mean, why wait?
I resisted the temptation to just give in. It would’ve been so easy. She’s a real heartbreaker when she’s sobbing. But I thought this would be a valuable lesson about delayed gratification. Now a week into it, she seems to be getting it. You’ve gotta pace yourself and spread the joy out.
For years I assigned a book in my criminology class at Portland State called Crime and the American Dream by Stephen Messner and Richard Rosenfeld. It makes the case that the elevated crime rates in the U.S. are a product of our “by any means necessary” values. For example, it’s not how you got your wealth/car/college degree, it’s that you got it. So if you embezzled/car-jacked/cheated to get it, no big whoop. It’s having it that gets you the points. It reminded me of the unofficial American motto, “You can never be too rich or too thin,” (explaining a lot of white collar crime and eating disorders). Just think of Donald Trump ripping off the chumps at Trump University while Melania gulps the postpartum diet pills. Look where that got them!
We live in a culture of immediate gratification. I used to have to wait forever just to hear an album I wanted. Now I just pull anything and everything I might want up on Spotify. Remember taking your film to the drug store and waiting a week to see the pictures? How about waiting for a letter to come from your beloved? Please Mr. Postman! (When my grad school girlfriend was studying in Paris, I would torture my Atlanta letter carrier with that song.) Now if something takes more than 30 seconds to get we are convinced the wifi has been hacked by the Chinese.
If you celebrate Christmas, you know that by 3 pm on Christmas Day the letdown has arrived. Is that all there is? “Christmas” is the anticipation of Christmas, the build up. Much of life works that way. Sweet anticipation. Of Friday at 5 pm, or a first kiss, or Election Day. I want Cozy to enjoy the journey at least as much as the arrival. How you got there matters. One door, one piece of Canadian chocolate at a time.