Archive for November, 2010

I shop therefore I am

November 28, 2010

People in a retail store reaching to be the first to purchase a limited gaming system

Thank God Black Friday is finally over.  Every year it’s a sad reminder of the ugly side of human nature. The day that a good  “deal” can drive us to do disastrous things. Trample people. Steal from them. Even kill. All for the thrill of snatching up a limited edition Wii or an Xbox 360.

I often wonder though, if the whole concept of Black Friday is just a simple case of herd mentality, or if a majority of us are propelled by a relatively new evolving need to hoard stuff and buy? I mean, just as food is comfort, so is a day devoted to retail therapy, right? Nothing  identifies me more than my clothing style. And hell if I don’t have a plasma screen TV like everyone else on my block. I often wonder too if my love of French clothing, espresso makers and talavera tiles is nature or nurture. Is it so far fetched to believe our DNA has mutated to the point in evolution that shopping is now an instinct? Clothing is, after all, one of our top five necessary human resources. It’s up there with food, water, shelter and oxygen. But then, where does the purse hook, the pocket projector or the tattoo sleeve fit in? Especially when we’re going to wrap them up and give them to someone else.

In The Boston Review, Juliet Shor’s essay “The New Politics of Consumption” argues that we “Americans [have] been manipulated into participating in a dumbed-down, artificial consumer culture, which yield[s] few true human satisfactions.” In “Consumerism in America,” Kendra Wright writes,  “Americans are consumed by consumerism.” She says, “Our belongings have become probably the most important part of our life. We are so possessed with our things that it seems we often forget what’s really important in life.” And a Newsweek article entitled, “America’s Crazed Consumerism” the author writes, “Uncontrollable consumerism has become a watchword of our culture despite regular and compelling calls for its end.”

And so here we are, stuffing our souls and dresser drawers with useless crap that 85% of the world’s population has probably never seen or heard of. Do you think societies in the Australian Outback would know what to do with a baby wipes warmer, a pair of laser guided scissors, or a fondu pot? If aliens landed on our planet, and walked through one of our shopping malls,what do you think they would surmise about human culture if they saw baby toupees, clothing for dogs, or the leopard print snuggie? We obviously no longer purchase on a needs basis anymore. According to Globalissues.org “the wealthiest 20% of the world accounted for 76.6% of total private consumption. The poorest fifth just 1.5%.” That tells me that a huge percentage of our purchases go above and beyond the percentage required to simply cover our basic needs.

Somewhere along the way, we lost our common sense. We believed in Capitalism so much that we were willing to buy into the ads and the culture and the lies that told us the more we bought, the stronger we, as a Nation, would become. We believed it when they told us we’d be happier, stronger, more beautiful, better. We wanted happiness and perfection so badly, we believed Calvin Klein and Gap and Whirlpool and Kenmore. We bought into the idea that we all needed bell-bottoms, Beanie Babies, and  hand soap in a pump. And we wanted so desperately to keep up with the Joneses and fend off our own self-hatred and insecurity, that we (yes, me) believed in the plasma TV, the iPod touch and the HTC.

The author of “America’s Crazed Consumerism” summarizes the work of Economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who argued that “the modern economy didn’t flourish by satisfying the needs of consumers, but by creating the desire for products consumers didn’t need at all.” Even Dorothy Parker once said, “people don’t know what they want until you give it to them.” We were told that if we don’t consume, others lose jobs, shops go out of business, our economy fails, the stock market crashes, we fail as a society. But if we do consume, we lose touch with our basic human dignity and succumb to false gods. We become something we probably never expected to become: a product.

At this time of year I always think of the Grinch and how he “stole” Christmas. Bad, ugly Mr. Grinch straps a pair of antlers on his little dog Max and steals all the Christmas stuff from the Whos down in Who-ville, for what purpose I’m not sure. On the surface, it’s to stop Christmas from coming. But in reality, the Grinch is probably somewhat of a cranky Marxist who believes that Capitalism is evil. OK. A stretch, perhaps. But the bigger message is that despite the Whos having nothing, they wake up Christmas morning and still sing their hearts out. Mr. Grinchy “hadn’t stopped Christmas from coming! IT CAME! Somehow or other, it came just the same!” But the depressing reality is that Americans most likely wouldn’t be so happy without their stuff.  Would any of us really be able to celebrate a holiday without all the packages, boxes or bags? Are family and friends enough? These are good questions and ones that I am trying to get to the bottom of. I confess; I love stuff. But I’m willing to make sacrifices if it means altering the direction in which my DNA is mutating. Shopping does not have to be the “be all and end all” of my existence.

Day of excess or harmless holiday?

November 25, 2010

As we give thanks let us recognize that today is a rapaciously gluttonous day of celebrating the fact that we stole this land from Native Americans, raped it and wasted all  its precious resources and ultimately created a society of countrymen whose existence is based mostly on consumption and excess.  So, when you slather your bread with butter and dip it in turkey juice while simultaneously shoving corn and string bean casserole down your throat, be thankful that the best thing to come out of this culture is what’s left of a little Puritan guilt, and stretchy pants with elastic waistbands.

Did I get your attention?

OK, so I am not sure I think in such extremes. I am a grateful, happy girl. Able to be thankful on Thanksgiving and joyful of our bounty.  And yet,  I can’t help but wonder with obesity rates being so high in this country, mass consumption as our lifeblood, impending global warming and a population explosion that will double in twenty more year, that maybe, we might want to rethink the concept of Thanksgiving and Christmas and how we celebrate.  Do we really need all this STUFF to say that we appreciate our country, that we’re thankful for our friends and family, and that we honor our faith? Is minimalism such a bad thing?

For Christmas this year, my family has cut huge corners. The excessive gift giving over the past decade has been a mark of our good fortune, but at the same time, it has made many of us feel , well, slightly excessive and wasteful. We sat around the dinner table one Sunday and passed around ideas: we were buying gifts for others just for the sake a purchasing something. Did anyone really needed a Fry Daddy, or a lava lamp or a battery-operated neck pillow heater  thingy that you could use on a plane? Most gifts ended up in a garage sale anyway, sold for fifty cents. So, we decided to just buy toys for the kids and that the adults would do a book exchange. For a couple years everyone bought and wrapped up a book that either got read or didn’t. But even then, we still felt as though we were wasting. (Ok, so maybe my family has a little more of that Puritan guilt than others!)

This year, however, we decided we are only spending $20 on each kids and instead of buying a book for the book exchange, we will simply dig into our libraries (we’re all readers) and wrap up a book we already own. Despite the fact that others may accuse us of being cheap, I love this idea. It feels good. And  our holiday becomes more about what is essential rather than what can be bought.

Last year on FB one of my friends posted a picture of their Christmas tree. It had what looked like THOUSANDS of presents under it. It was a pretty picture indeed and looked like most of my trees from Christmas past, and yet, the more I thought about it, the more the idea kinda grossed me out.  Sure, all those gifts under a sparkly tree look Hollywood and Disneyesque. But are they necessary? Are they real? What are we teaching our children about Christmas? About tradition? About celebration? That these ideas revolve around our purchasing power? That STUFF is the meaning of life? I may be wrong but I haven’t met a kid yet who didn’t feel entitled to a gift bag or a present of his own at someone else’s birthday party.

Thing is, we are living in a changing world where we need to begin to recognize that all this stuff is simply too much. It’s cluttering up the planet, ending up in a landfill or being shot out into space with more space junk, causing trouble. What’s so wrong in cutting back? What’s so wrong in validating your children and your family members in other ways? Is our worth, value and identity so wrapped up in gift giving and product consumption that we no longer see the benefit in modesty, moderation and self-restraint? Heck, the reality is that a day or two after Christmas, my kids are back outside playing with sticks — the cheapest,  most versatile universal toy known to man, chimp and  higher brain functioning animal.

Look, I can’t lie. Every Thanksgiving it’s hard for me to resist pigging out. And every Christmas I want my kids to have that fantasy, that perfect Christmas morning where they come running down the stairs into the living room to see a tree lit up in the darkness, abundant with pretty packages and wrapped gifts. When I was a kid we had both– there were years when we had plenty and years when we had few. Of course, I preferred the years of plenty. They were a mark of validation– they meant that my mother and father loved me more those years and that Santa thought I was “good.” Those years also marked the fact that mother and father were happy (unlike the leaner years when my mother would cry), and that everything was going to be alright. But the truth is, whether I had lots or little the one constant was the love of my family. And whether or not I had a deeper understanding back then of the fact that we can all be so easily manipulated by STUFF, I certainly recognize it now. I am no better or worse with or without stuff and I can only hope to pass that concept on to my kids. We are not the sum of what we pick up during our shopping sprees. Our worth is based on something deeper. Mine is and yours is. There are new babies in our family; we are healthy; we all get along; no one is hungry. And this year, I am thankful that I am a few steps closer to recognizing that those are the true gifts of life.

Now, pass the sweet potatoes…

Confession Mondays: my coffee addiction

November 8, 2010

So, I made my re-entry back into the world of coffee without much of a glitch, save a bit of shame for being such a hypocrite, telling the world I would never drink “the crap” again. I had originally quit because of headaches and a near-complete dependence on the stuff, a la a pure substance abuse. I couldn’t wake up without it. I couldn’t get through my day without a second hit. And I couldn’t feel a part of American culture if, like everyone else, I didn’t have a tall soy latte in my hand while coursing my way through an intersection.

I had made it an entire month without it, and felt pretty good, despite some migraines the first week, for which I needed to see a doctor.  I substituted with green Kombucha tea, Yerba Mate and red rooibos–all of which did weird things to me. But, soon enough, I felt cleansed, unpolluted, alert, and mostly, free from the ritual of having to hunt down a Starbuck’s every where I went so as to recharge and make me feel part of humanity again. But my digestive tract had become so dependent on the caffeine (from roughly 300 mgs per day down to about 25 mgs or less) that for the entire month, horribly unmentionable things were happening to me. OK, I’ll mention them: burping, belching, farting, constipation, IBS and so on. Not only that, but, without caffeine, I craved bad foods. Usually my diet is very healthy: slow-cooked oats for breakfast, salad for lunch, chicken, veggies and a starch for dinner. Every once in a while  I’d have a sweet. But when I stopped drinking coffee, it was as if I had this Get Out of Jail Free card for eating burgers, fries, potato chips (something I NEVER eat), crackers, and other junk. It’s as if there was this yin and yang within me…pulling at me to do something bad to counteract all the good I was accomplishing. There’s only so much a green tea and Andrew Weil a girl can take, you know. I was too cleansed, too pure, too unpolluted. Not to mention all my friends were on my case, insisting that I needed a vice. “Live a little,” they said. As if drinking coffee, and vices in general are the mark of a satisfying life.

In a way, they were right. Coffee keeps me balanced. And  I don’t mean my digestive tract. Coffee keeps the bad girl in me alive. It keeps me a little sullied, a little uninhibited, a little wild.

My sis-in-law was over last night and we were discussing the documentary “Babies.” She was saying that too much care can cause an individual to weaken. Too much hand sanitizer, for example, can keep us over-protected from being able to build up an immunity to viruses and bacteria. In that sense, I’d like to think that my coffee addiction keeps me dirty enough that I can actually exist among society.

But the truth is, I’ve decided to try quitting again, after the holidays, when I can spend a month or two alone, isolated and insulated from the rest of the world. Detoxing is a slow, meticulous process, which needs time and patience. And the fact of the matter is, I feel better without it, physically and mentally. And though I’m sure to substitute my bad girl coffee habit with something equally bad (shoplifting? sex addiction? loitering in front of the “No Loitering” signs around town?), at least I will no longer be a slave to the ritual or dependent upon a substance that has a little too much control over my life.

But for now, the coffee maker is brewing my usual french roast and my Starbuck’s card is fully loaded and ready to be swiped.

Why Americans voted for the GOP

November 3, 2010

I truly don’t understand the mentality of my countrymen, save to say that corporate America and the media have more control over us than we may think. The blight of Capitalism is its egocentricity and “out to win big” mentality, where rampant irresponsibility and no accountability reigns. Soda machines in grade-school cafeterias. Nitrates in hotdogs. Adding more sugar to cereals, all the while marketing them as “Whole grain goodness.” Building cheap parts for cars so they’re guaranteed to fall apart faster. Streamlining every imaginable boutique drug to the point where we truly begin to believe that drugs are a part of the human experience. Releasing songs about a man who loves a woman so much he must burn her as she sleeps in her own bed so that no one else can have her. Cigarettes. McDonald’s. Gatorade. Hummers. Coffee.

When corporations and wealthy “donors” who sway elections do so for their own interests, the human element is lost; humanity is lost. And the only thing that’s put in its place is the lie that purchasing goods will save our souls.

In Dan Franzen’s latest novel “Freedom” his protagonist Walter who’s an environmentalist tries to save this rather decent-sized tract of land for the Warbler, a migrant bird that’s not even on the endangered species list. To do so, he has to displace about 200 people from their homes along the mountain top – a place where families have lived for generations and have buried their dead. But the underlying point of saving the land for the bird is for a wealthy “friend of the Bushs and Cheneys” to begin mountain top removal mining for coal. The underlying message Franzen sends his readers is not so much that it’s wrong to displace people for the sake of coal mining. That is the obvious message. But that the displaced people themselves are part of the problem in that they allow corporations to take over, and they sell out for the promise of money and “six-foot-wide plasma TV screens,” and the ability to move into the middle class. Franzen’s message is that family, land, earth, tradition are no longer enough to sustain us; we no longer believe in simplistic values, but rather in money, immediate gratification and consumerism.

And that, right there, is the basic hook of Capitalism: you too can be middle class and have a decent salary and buy, buy, buy, if only you let us do whatever it is we want to do without you asking any questions. Because the American dream, after all, is to keep up with the Joneses and to buy a house and a plasma screen TV and have two cars in the driveway and two kids. Why just yesterday, one of my FB friends said, “I vote with my wallet.”

And so, the Republicans gained control of the House last night. Their agendas can finally be met and big business can once again prosper and we can once again earn our incomes and consume more products. We had such high hopes for Obama and in our impatience for him to fix everything, we ousted him, if only in voting for the Reps during the midterm elections. Have we lost sight of the Bush years? Have we forgotten that Bush, dare I say it, got us into this mess in the first place? Or is there a deeper, more troubling specter that is to blame for America’s free fall from our happy place? Could it be that we have reached the point where the vestiges of a real life are being replaced by a more desultory one?

As Camille Paglia once wrote: “Are we like late Rome, infatuated with past glories, ruled by a complacent, greedy elite, and hopelessly powerless to respond to changing conditions?”

Again, our relentless pursuit of consumer goods and the fact that they’ve been denied us since 2008 may be playing a bigger role than we’d like to think. Let’s face it, we want our purchasing power back. In today’s NYT Op Ed section, even Timothy Egan writes, “Obama got on the wrong side of voter anxiety in a decade of diminished fortunes.”

So what does all this mean to me? It means that the gap between one side of the country and the other seems to be getting wider. It means that people’s incentives for happiness needs to be a little less superficial. And it means that I, within myself, will be more aware of resisting the dangling carrot of consumerism as best I can, and not be so easily swayed, misled, or seduced by the mindless, sugar-coated world of a whole grain box of cereal or a Starbuck’s coffee. It means making sure I keep what is truly of value in perspective and never put the illusion of money as the American Dream above what really matters: the future of this planet, my lifelong friends, and my family.

Confession Mondays: Debt victims

November 1, 2010

I don’t even know where to begin, Dick. For starters, the whole “victim” mentality is so not happening for me. That’s very 1980’s. Second, is that your metaphor of children swallowing toys is just not a very strong one. WE ARE NOT CHILDREN. Perhaps that’s the problem here. When we think of big old banks doing bad things TO us, and we imagine we have no control over what they do (i.e. dish out high risk debt) then, sure, we are all victims. We are enslaved. And yet, how is it that some of us aren’t victimized by banks while others are?

For the record, I am 40. I have existed in every tax-bracket imaginable. My father was a brilliant manipulator of the system and I saw how he used it to his advantage. I also saw how banks can fall a part when an individual takes control of his own credit and financial situation. Individuals have HUGE amounts of power that they don’t even realize. We are not victims, Dick. And when we stop thinking as victims we are able to change the paradigms that have us believing we are enslaved.

You seem like a smart guy. And I appreciate an intelligent, non-hostile discussion with you. But you’re idea of me being an extreme libertarian is way off. And your tale of people being punished for wanting to eat a good meal is too. I have had many good meals in my life. The best were paid in cash. And if I didn’t have the money, I ate at home. Simple mathematics.

I’m going out on a limb here and bringing in the possibility that this angst toward the debt crisis is due in part to people’s own shame at having let things get so out of control. As we try to keep up with the Joneses we see consumerism as more essential than good credit and we end up getting buried in debt. Once that happens, we look for any way out and we look for others to blame. Now that more people are recognizing the ugly side to banking and credit, the banks have suddenly become the perfect scapegoat for all our financial woes. It makes us feel better, mentally and emotionally, to know all this debt we’re buried under isn’t our “fault.” it’s someone else’s fault. We’re just a victim.

That kind of thinking is detrimental to the self AND to the economy as a whole because once we give up our responsibility to our own debt and put others in charge, we are susceptible to becoming victims. When we put others in charge, they do not make decisions based on our best interest but theirs. And on and on…

No one snowflake ever feels responsible for the avalanche. Maybe it’s time we start.