Can’t Buy Me Love

The Pirate is sitting across the table from me writing his own blog post. He just got an email from the Sundance Institute about six films chosen to counter the “delusions” of Valentine’s Day. The thrust of the email is that normal love stories are unreal, and the desire to think about love in a way that makes you happy is not just naïve, but stupid.

I’ve been disturbed for a long time about the trend to denigrate anything that isn’t 100% good and wonderful and wholesome – and, in fact, even some things that are. For instance, I defy you to name a single popular musician whose work has earned a gold record or won a Grammy or has otherwise reached a large audience, but whose personal life has not been the subject of tabloid gossip. In some instances, such as Jennifer Lopez, the tabloid gossip outstrips the star’s recognition for her actual work. In the case of artists like Michael Jackson or Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens), or even Richard Wagner, people’s opinion of their behavior colors their opinion of the work.

Politicians, who, up until Kennedy, were mostly well-respected as civil servants trying to do good for their constituents, are now among the most likely to have their private lives dissected in such a way that the kind of lapses in behavior that all of us have from time to time are magnified, discussed and interpreted in ways that paint those people as monsters.

People whose personal lives are beyond reproach aren’t safe. We can’t believe that anybody is truly good, so in the absence of actual dirt to dig up on people, we start rumors.  When I was a kid, it was completely uncool to admit to liking Mr. Rogers, even if your childhood was uncertain and you found his unceasing expressions of support and acceptance comforting. People express the same rancor even toward fictional characters who don’t show a negative side – characters like Barney the Dinosaur or Mary Poppins (who acknowledged that she was “practically perfect in every way”).

I object to this ongoing need to strike down anything or anyone that makes us feel that we should try to be better people. When you’re in love, you want to be a better person so that the object of your desire is proud of you. When you admire your heroes, you strive to emulate them and work hard to accomplish your goals. What’s wrong with that? I’ll tell you what media thinks is wrong with that – there’s no way for them to monetize that feeling. America is run on the principle that for our economy to work, everyone must be buying things all the time, and if you’re taking long walks in the woods, holding hands with your beloved, or staying in and cooking spaghetti for two, or sitting up all night talking, you’re not spending money. You need to be reminded that love is false, and to get someone to walk with you, eat with you, talk with you, you need to buy a lot of stuff that will keep them interested.

Similarly, if you’re committed to being a better person – a better athlete or singer or artist – our society tells you that what’s important about those people is not the results they deliver. It’s the image they present. So you need to have the clothes and the hair and the dazzling white teeth, not the hours of exhausting work developing yourself at a skill before anyone even notices you. Because nobody makes any money off that.

So, what are we allowed to love? What are we allowed to express unashamed delight for?

We’re allowed to love our favorite brands. In fact, companies spend billions of dollars trying to ensure that we do love our favorite brands. Brands are not just lines of products, they’re lifestyles, dreams, aspirations. You’ll never be able to have Warren Buffet’s success, but you can buy the same kind of espresso machine, vacuum cleaner, paper towels that he does, and feel that you’re somehow the same.

We’re allowed to love food. I Googled “I love food” and got 985 MILLION results.  Food has become ridiculous. In most restaurants in America, the portions are excessive – 2-3 meals’ worth of food served to each diner, thousands of calories in each course of each meal. We’re told that this is a good thing – that more food is a “value,” and we believe it because we can’t get enough chocolate cake and french fries. 

We’re allowed to love sex. America is famous for its twofold relationship with sex – worshipping it on the one hand with advertising that sexualizes everything from cars to clean dishes, and villifying it on the other hand as shameful and sinful. We can say that we love sex so that all of our friends will know that we’re normal, but we aren’t allowed to demonstrate it, or even say it too often. There’s a line here, folks.

But America can’t monetize love or admiration. Those things serve no purpose in the Corporate State, so they will be rooted out and discarded, replaced by dissatisfaction, insecurity, and the notion that if I buy something, I’ll feel better.

Lemme know how that works out for you, Corporate State. In the meantime, I’m married to that guy who’s also sad about love-bashers, and tonight we’re staying in and amusing ourselves by having a long, interesting conversation. Take that.

Neither Love Nor Money

I went to the drug store this evening looking for those plastic scouring-pad things you use on your face. I normally get them in boxes of six, and I use each one until it’s smashed flat and has no fight to it – about two months or so. This particular pharmacy was the most rinky-dink, low-rent, sad-ass operation I’ve ever seen. Their “skin care” aisle was, to be fair, an entire aisle. But there was only one, perhaps two, but no more than four, of each product on the shelf. And they were spaced a hand’s breadth apart. They had one single sad little teardrop-shaped facial cleansing pad in a box for $4.79. I stood there and stared at it for a minute. Because what I’m used to getting is much, much less expensive.

There was not a single instance of another brand of the same product, no similar products. But you know what I did find? Facial cleansing wipes. I won’t even link to them, mostly because if you Google that particular phrase you get over two million results. Which is about how many brands of the things that store had.

Living in northern California, I feel that I’m constantly being bombarded with the message that human beings are killing the planet with their unending appetite for more consumer goods. I’m inundated with the message that I need to consume less, recycle more, be creative about what I use. And yet, the second I step into any consumer good emporium, the message is not just that I must consume more, but that each purchase I make must be made out of the most material it can possibly use. I can’t buy an aseptic quart box of milk (one that can sit on a shelf without refrigeration before it’s opened), but I can buy four tiny aseptic boxes that are then wrapped in more plastic to keep them all together for more than it would cost to buy a regular plastic gallon jug of milk. People still buy disposable diapers, and then they buy those monstrous contraptions that wraps each plastic diaper in more plastic. Now it’s washing our face. I like just buying some face soap and either using my ancient plastic scrubber thingie or a regular wash cloth and washing my face with it, but obviously, I’m not doing it right if, at the end of every process, I don’t have something to throw away.

Some day soon, we’re going to look back on all the shit we threw away, and wonder “what the hell were we thinking?” It’ll be a day when you won’t be able to get any of this stuff for love nor money, and that day is not far off.

The Stuff Library

I took my kid to the Ren Faire yesterday. She brought a friend, and once inside they peeled away from the adults and went off to do their own thing. I had given her money for snacks and rides, and I was surprised when I caught up with her later that she had spent $20 on a fox tail.

My surprise was not at the fox tail itself. It was because she had bought a fox tail last year. It sat on the floor of her bedroom until one of the cats decided that it had been discarded and played with it until it was shredded. There are a lot of “treasures” on the floor of my daughter’s bedroom. Bits of costume jewelry, doll clothes, picture frames, drawings, colored pencils, small rocks, individual fake nails, single shoes.

My daughter has a passion for owls, and she has collected pins and earrings and drawings and pillows and paperweights and note pads…and they’re all sitting on her bedroom floor somewhere. Most of this stuff she gets from friends in that way stuff has of making its way from kid to kid, but she gets some of it from relatives and a small amount of it from me. I sometimes feel guilty, like I’m spoiling my daughter and failing to teach her the value of money, but as I recall, my own childhood bedroom was a disaster of books and rocks and jewelry and doll clothes and stray socks and hair bands and bits of paper that I was forever scribbling on. Money is not part of the equation. We didn’t have any, but it didn’t keep me from accreting stuff. I’ve begun to feel like an ogre because whenever my kid asks me “Mommy, can I have this?” I remind her that she’s got so much crap at home that it’s all over her bedroom floor and she does nothing but step on it. She does not see this as any kind of reason for refusal. In fact, it’s a reason to buy more fancy bins and containers to put everything in.

As an adult, I recognize the rewarding feeling of new stuff. We go out to the store and we find the thing that will make us perfectly happy and we bring it home and we’re thrilled for a week, and then we’re looking for the next thing. On the other hand, that urge is at the heart of America’s unsustainable consumer culture. I try to limit the amount of stuff I buy, and to think about what I’m going to use it for and whether I really need it. My kid has no such context.

It makes me wish for a “stuff library.” A giant warehouse full of stuffed animals, bits of jewelry, attractive rocks, comfortable pillows, large kits for making picture frames or friendship bracelets or potholders that no one will ever use, novelty socks, and all the crap that my kid begs me for regularly, but that she drops to the floor the minute we get in the house. People can go into this warehouse and choose the stuff they want. Exercise equipment, impractical shoes, novelty hats, lawn ornaments, stuffed animals, complicated board games, electronic toys. You can take the stuff home and have that great feeling of “new stuff”  – the feeling of discovery and anticipation and surprised delight.

After two weeks, when the “new” has worn off and it’s just another pile of crap cluttering up your space, you can put it back in your car and trade it in for different, newer stuff and get to experience that new stuff feeling over and over again without going broke or contributing to the glut of consumerism that plagues us.

Frankly, I  think this is a way better solution than lecturing people to stop wanting stuff. You can’t make people want less.

Making Things Right

A week ago, I went to Betty’s Eat Inn (Pacific Avenue, Santa Cruz) with my daughter. When I got the bill, I gave them my credit card but then never got it back, and so walked out without it. The next day I called the restaurant. They had the card, and I told them I’d come to pick it up. I didn’t make it there on Thursday, but on Friday when I went I was told that they had destroyed my card.

I’m still processing what happened. I called. They knew that I knew the card was missing. They knew that I knew they had it and that I wanted it back. And they destroyed it.

The last time I had to get a new credit card, I found out a few things. I found out that my husband and I don’t just share an account, we share an actual card – our cards have the same number, etc. This makes it tough if, for instance, I want to use Paypal. You can’t have more than one account with the same card number, and he updated his with the new card first. I also found out that in some instances if you have a service that’s automatically billing your card and you switch cards, they may skip a single auto-billing. You’ll end up having a late fee (unless you’re me and pitch a fit about it). Most of our bills are on auto-pay, and every single one of those accounts would have to be manually changed over to the new account number.

I called the restaurant again to find out what happened. The woman I talked to said that she had spoken to the manager and that my card had been destroyed. She said that she understood it was upsetting, that it was all a misunderstanding. She said that the manager would call me on Monday (yesterday) because they wanted to “make this right.” Nobody called me.

What does “making it right” look like? In a case when you’ve accidentally done someone an injury that can’t be fixed with money (replacing something broken, etc.) how do you make it right? I don’t want vouchers for free food at a restaurant where the staff has done something to harm me. I don’t want to make friends with someone to reward them for having screwed me. It’s out of the question to have someone else go through my accounts and undertake the tedious work of both getting the new card and fixing the accounts that use that card.

I’m sure that a lot of people have had similar problems. Someone has done something to you that they can’t fix. How do you handle it? How do you gracefully get through it without letting yourself be made bitter at people’s incompetence? How do you allow the other person to atone for their actions without unfairly hanging a millstone of guilt around their neck. That gets to the crux of the matter. If you’ve done something wrong, you want to be able to apologize, be forgiven, and get back to okay as quickly as possible. But what if the thing you’ve done has long-term consequences? What if the thing you’ve done comes back to haunt the other person for months or years? How long do you have to keep apologizing for the same sin? When I look at it like that, I come up with a very different answer.

What’s right? Who’s right?

UPDATE: I happened to be having lunch on Pacific Avenue again today, and afterward I stopped by Betty’s to see if the manager would talk to me. He did, and he was just short of hostile in his condescension. His attitude was “I cut it up and now it’s gone. What do you want me to do about it?” Not “I’m sorry that I’ve just caused you a huge headache.” He consistently blamed everyone else on his staff (an action that always sticks in my craw). What’s worse, he and the assistant manager acted really strange about the whole thing. I asked them if there was a particular card that was different than the others. No, they didn’t think so. Really? No, they were all just regular cards. Except that mine was a Chase Sapphire Preferred card. They’re made of metal and so can’t just be put through a shredder or cut with scissors. You would notice if you were trying to snip one of these. And yet, nope, there was no problem with any of them.

The whole thing is beginning to sound suspicious to me.

What Money Gets You

In the past two years, I’ve heard “the rich” vilified. In the past six months, I’ve heard how “the rich” are coddled and catered to. In the past two days I’ve heard how “the rich” are uninteresting and nobody likes them.

Talk about “the rich” is beginning to take on the characteristics of bigotry. Merriam-Webster, would you do the honors? “Bigotry is the state of mind of a bigot: a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially: one who regards or treats the members of a group…with hatred and intolerance.” Thank you, Merry. Buy you a drink later.

I get that the gap between rich and poor is escalating in this country. A high school diploma is no longer enough to guarantee you a factory job that you can keep for life and pays a wage that will allow you as a single earner to buy a house and send your children to college. But the cost of college has already escalated out of reach of most people, so those who want to use higher education as a ticket to the middle class dream have to first put themselves in debt, so that even after they’ve graduated and are working better-paying jobs, they’re still starting out in the negative.

But who are these uninteresting, coddled, predatory rich people that everyone hates? Are they the people on shows like the Real Housewives franchises? Are they the folks that millions of people watch, read about, whose products they buy, whose lives they support? If that’s what the bigots are talking about, what they hate, I understand that completely. Watching people do nothing but consume is supremely uninteresting and panders to all the wrong instincts in people – a desire to be like them in their grossly unnecessary levels of consumption.

But I’m lucky enough to know some folks who have made a lot of money because they’re smart. They think about problems and come up with interesting solutions and then work to make those solutions available to other people. That’s the hard part. It’s easy to solve your own problems, but other people don’t always know what they want or want contradictory things.

Talking with people who made their money making stuff is fascinating. When your ability to solve problems isn’t limited by the money it takes to build the solutions, you can think big, crazy, fantastic. And they do. Big, crazy, fantastic ideas that become the Segway, antibiotics, pants.

So before you go badmouthing the rich, think about whom you’re disparaging. If it’s one of the larvae that clog the television, chewing their way through the retail forest with their platinum card teeth, I’m down. Consumerism is supremely uninteresting. If you are attempting to distinguish yourself by what you buy, you are doomed to fail. But if you’re badmouthing those people who are out there thinking about the next great thing they’re going to build, you’re missing out.