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.

Tell Me a Story

I’ve started the process of writing my thesis paper for school. I’ve taken as my subject “the future of narrative,” except that, as a paper title, it will be capitalized.

When one starts out to talk about where something is going, what is the first thing one does? That’s right – talk about where it’s been. And it turns out that humans communicate primarily through storytelling, and always have. Think about your typical day. You get up, and maybe you turn on the radio or television to catch the news and traffic before heading out for work. Do the news and radio presenters give you long lists of undifferentiated information? Well, if it’s traffic, yes. Or weather. And sports scores. But all that other stuff? It’s all stories. Narratives about something that happened to somebody, and sometimes what that somebody did about it. Then you go to work or school and talk to your friends or co-workers. How do you talk to them? You tell them stories about things you’ve done or seen or thought about since you saw them last. Then you get home, and if you live with someone, you tell them the story about how your day went. If you don’t, you might call up a friend or two and the whole tribe of you will exchange stories. Or you might watch television – the non-literary narrative device. And, if you’re like me, before you go to sleep, you read a book. My entire day, from beginning to end, is steeped in story.

Now that I think about it, there’s a feature in our tiny town’s local paper that both intrigues and infuriates me – you probably have something similar in your local paper. It’s the police blotter, a place where all the calls to law enforcement are catalogued without any editorial. While it’s interesting to know whether my neighbors have also gotten their mail stolen, I want to know the stories behind these calls.

Here’s a sample:

Jan. 1

1:35 a.m.: A Boulder Creek resident reported that her live-in boyfriend had covered her mouth with one hand and used the other to try to choke her during an argument. The boyfriend had fled by the time deputies arrived at the scene.

What were they arguing about? How long had they lived together? Is this the first time they’ve called the police? How old are they? What happened after the police left?

I need story so much that when I’m bored out in public, I make up stories about the people around me. People at restaurants, people attending the same meeting I’m in, nobody’s safe. And, if asked, I’ll certainly share those stories, even if they’re about you.

Narrative is certainly changing. As technology moves ahead, it enables humans to offload some of the intellectual work of remembering a given story thread, so that stories can be told over longer periods of time. First writing made it possible to save stories for later, kind of like raisins are grapes someone saved for later, which makes the written word the raisin of narrative. Just go with it. Scrolls meant that we could have stories of any length – just start a fresh scroll when you get to the end of the one you’re on now. And whoever uses up the end of a scroll had better get out a new one, because no one likes to sit down at the writing desk and find they’re without a scroll. Not cool. Then books allowed for longer narratives in less space. Then, eons later, electronic media allowed books to take up almost no room at all.

Just wait. Next time, I’ll tell you more about where narrative is going. First, I have to go talk to some of my neighbors. Someone owes me a story.

What Does a Fist Know of a Hand?

It’s December. Christmas has just passed, and in a few days, it will be a new year. I started this post on December 3rd, and am only just finishing and posting it. That’s how my life has been for the past few weeks.The magazine for which I’m the editor in chief (it’s called Lunch Ticket, and we’ve got four Pushcart-nominated pieces that you should absolutely read), published on December 3rd, my first patent has been filed, and I’ve been working on the stuff I had to do for school, and three days ago, I had a whole bunch of surgery.

There have been days when I was up until three in the morning in tears, trying to do work that I was completely sure would be sent back to me, not marked with a failing grade, but packaged with a letter bomb and a note that I did not deserve to live. I am nothing if not grandiose in my neurosis. I’ve also had days where I’m in such deep denial of it all that I just play game after game of Plants vs. Zombies as though I have nothing else to do.

The upshot is that there are times when I actually get caught up on things and have some breathing  space, and the first thing that happens is that I begin to cry. For so many years, I have been so stressed every second of every day that on those few occasions when the stress lifts, I break down entirely.  How did this happen? It’s possible that I was just born this way. Being sensitive to noise, light, the emotions of other people in  way that makes daily life a challenge means that situations that are enjoyable for most people (parties, family gatherings, concerts, movies, etc.) are still enjoyable, but exhausting.

I have always wondered what it’s like to think about an upcoming social event with happy anticipation of meeting other people, of finding oneself in a crowd, of making new friends. I have always wished that I could be the sort of person who, when she relaxed, had that melty feeling where the muscles stop being tense and the mind empties itself. I’ve always been a tightly clenched fist who dreamed of being just a hand.

Who Am I, Again?

As I walk down Highway 9, I can smell the wet-redwood smell and hear the tinkle of the rivulets from the recent rain forming tiny streams that will trickle into the San Lorenzo River all of 20 yards away across the street. I feel awkward, unsteady on my feet, but otherwise fine.

I’m  just passing the laundrette when a car with two people comes toward me from the south. The car pulls in, blocking the parking spots in front of the laundrette, and the driver, a woman in her 50s, smiles at me. Her passenger, a small man with a mustache, doesn’t look at me.

“You’ve been out long enough. It’s time for you to come back.”

I freeze. I don’t know this woman. I’ve never seen her before. I turn and run back the way I came. The woman has gotten out of the car, as though she meant to open a door for me or something, so she has to get back in and start the car back up. I run straight up the street, stumbling over redwood roots and clumps of foliage since there’s no sidewalk. Dashing across the street, I run down the driveway of a house set back from the pavement. The driveway slopes steeply downhill for about 50 feet and the entrance is partially obscured by redwoods, so I hope that the woman didn’t see me.

The morning overcast, compounded by the shade from the redwoods overhead, mean that the house is in shadows except for the kitchen. Through the open door, I can see a man at the table with a cup of coffee and a newspaper. I don’t bother knocking.

“Help me!” I shout as I run across the threshhold and stop myself against the table. “There’s a woman chasing me! I’m afraid of her! Please, you have to help me!”

Cliff put his paper down. He was thin and slight, with a fringe of thin white hair that went from one ear to the other around the back of his head, set off by a deeply-tanned dome up top. He wore a vest and a white button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and had half-moon reading glasses perched at the end of his nose.

He looked across the table at the woman who had just burst into the kitchen. She was in her late 30s, maybe. Fit-looking, long, curling brown hair hanging lose around her shoulders, a face that would be attractive if it weren’t drawn with worry. She was screaming that someone was chasing her. He’d been expecting it. He put the paper down in front of him, exposing the photo of the same woman, taken at a time when she hadn’t felt under threat. I thought she looked pretty, but he didn’t care for her kind of looks. He was all eyes for his wife. I have a weakness for men who are in love with their wives.

Herb came in from the garage. He had heard the commotion and came to see what it was, and he stood in the doorway looking from Cliff to the woman, back to Cliff again.

When the second man comes in from another room, I feel like I have to start over in my story, although I haven’t really said anything. I can’t talk to the guy at the table because, in some ridiculous way, he reminds me of a shoemaker. The second one is fatter, with black, curly hair. The pink of his cheeks make him seem a little friendlier than the dour shoemaker.

“Help me. There’s a woman. She stopped her car in front of me and told me to get in. I’ve never seen her before,” I’m trying to create some kind of flow, some list of the facts that will make these two men understand why what just happened terrifies me, although the longer I stand in this cheerfully-lit kitchen in front of two men with quiet expectation on their faces, the less sure I am about why I was so scared.

“Who was she?” the shoemaker asks.

“I don’t know.”

“What kind of car was she driving?”

“A light tan sedan with white interior, but an older one.”

“Was she alone?”

“No, there was a man in the car with her.”

None of their questions sounds like they don’t believe me. They both look friendly and interested. I think if they thought I was crazy, they would look different, but I’m not sure how. I open my mouth to say something else, but I have no idea what else there is to say.

“I. I. I don’t think I’m … human.”  I didn’t expect to say that. And still the men don’t look skeptical or condescending or even surprised.

Cliff pushed a button under the table. The bookshelf behind the kitchen table slid back to reveal a hidden niche with a phone in it. He picked up the phone and pushed its only button. “Gary? She’s here.”

Herb brought her a cup of tea and took her into the living room. He told her to take a seat on the sofa, handing her the tea once she was comfortable. He kept up a steady stream of soothing words, and none of them sounded like the kind of words one uses to keep a lunatic calm. They were more like the kind of words that one uses to reassure fellow combatants just before a battle.

“We’ll get through this. Help is coming. We’ve got a plan.”

Before anyone could talk about this plan, another woman burst through the now-closed kitchen door without knocking. The woman in the living room, hidden in shadows, froze, but Cliff and Herb regarded the new intruder.

“Hello! I’m sorry to burst in on you like this!” Her bright, cheery smile looked straight out of tv, and she pulled an iPad out of her shoulder bag. The screen showed the woman in the living room, in the same photo as the newspaper showed. Herb moved between the new woman and the kitchen table, and while he was obscuring the table, Cliff quietly folded up the paper like he was done reading it.

“A friend of mine is missing,” the woman continued. “I’m really worried because she needs medication and she’s missed several doses. She’s not well, and we need to find her before something bad happens to her.”

Neither man said anything, and both kept their faces pleasantly neutral, but as Cliff came around the table craning his neck like he wanted a closer look at the picture on the screen, he pulled a gun out and took a shot at the woman. His arm had been in motion and his shot went wide, the bullet hitting the wall behind her and to her left. The woman’s smile disappeared and she shoved her hand back into her shoulder bag, dropping the iPad and bringing out a pistol of her own, Herb had ducked behind the door to the garage and was shooting at her from there. Cliff crouched in the hall doorway. The woman was backing into the doorway she had just come in, but it was a mistake. She was exposed, and before a dozen shots had been fired, she was down. Where had the guns come from?

When the shooting stops, I get up off the couch. The woman’s body doesn’t look right. There’s whitish goo puddling on the floor, and swirls of oily black, and the skin around the bullet holes looks like burned fabric. The men are good shots – there are seven bullet holes in her.

“You okay?” the shoemaker yells from the hallway leading off the kitchen.

“I’m good. She grazed my arm, but it’s fine. You?” the fat one yells. I’m glad he’s not hurt.

“Never touched me. They’re lousy shots.”

The shoemaker comes back into the room and looks at me. “You should go back into the living room. There’ll be more of them.”

I bend and pull the iPad from the woman’s bag, but when I try to turn it on, the screen is locked so I can’t see it.

“Here, let me have that,” the fat one says, taking it gently from my hand and leading me back into the living room. I’ve just sat down when the man with the mustache comes in, gun drawn. I’m afraid to move, because I know that I’m in shadow, so as long as I’m still, he won’t see me.

The mustache man comes in, but before he can fire a single shot, the fat man, hidden in the shadows of the living room, shoots him three times in the head. Before he goes down, the mustache man turns and looks the fat man in the eyes, his face expressionless. He raises the gun, then falls over the body of the woman. I know that I should feel something about this. It’s not natural to be in a position like this and feel nothing. But apart from a confusion about who these people are and why they want to kill me, and I presume they do want to kill me, I feel nothing. I continue to stay absolutely still, and the two men talk so quietly in the kitchen that I can’t hear them.

From outside, more shots. It occurred to me to wonder how long it would be before the police showed up. The two bodies lay in the doorway,  and Herb and Cliff had to sort of hop over them to get out the door. From inside I could hear voices, but because everyone was yelling back and forth, it was impossible to tell whether they were friendly or not. The woman was frozen, standing next to the couch, not even daring to turn her head to look around her. Only the occasional flicker of light against her moist, slick eyeballs betrayed their movement from the bodies in the doorway to the curtained window.

Through the window, only a sliver of the view shows through. The drapes are a golden color, and they frame the green of the shrubs outside like the filling of a pie oozing out when the golden crust is first cut. Flashes of color cut in front of the green and I get ready to duck, or to run, or to do whatever I will need to do, even though the woman is dead and I’m not sure that if someone I don’t know comes through that door I’ll know whether they’re friendly or not. Something nags at the back of my mind. Those things in the doorway. I can’t even call them “people” or “bodies” anymore because they look like nothing but machines. Am I like them? One of them? Are machines self aware? Does my computer miss me when I don’t open it up? Does my smart phone think I’m stupid? If I’m one of them, why did they want to kill me?

Did they want to kill me?

When Herb walked through the door, she almost burst into tears. She stumbled out of the living room, fell into his arms, stood there, weeping and shaking for a long moment. Once the crisis was past, he stood her back up and helped her sit down at the kitchen table. Cliff came in, followed by Gary. The men carried the bodies into the garage, saying nothing as they worked. When the bodies were gone, the woman stole back into the kitchen and sat down at the table. She snuck the paper open, looking for the picture of herself. It was buried deep in the B section of the paper, on page 8.

I’m still not sure what I’m reading. I see my face, but I can’t make out the words. It’s like trying to read in a dream, where you know that it’s writing, but the letters morph, or they’re unfamiliar glyphs or they’re in nonsense configurations. But there’s my picture. It’s me. And I can’t understand why I’m seeing my picture and, at the same time, seeing me sitting at the kitchen table, looking at my picture. Is the me standing a few feet away being watched by another me who sees her seeing me seeing the picture? How far out does that recursion go?

The men aren’t back from the garage, and I can’t hear them talking or working or anything. I think it might be time to go. She folded the paper and left it on the kitchen table, shutting the door behind her as she went.

Right Thought

As a Buddhist, I am used to thinking very hard about my actions in the world. One of the central Buddhist teachings is the Noble Eightfold Path, which describes in clear detail what it means to live a Buddhist life. Right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. All eight start with the word “right,” but the same word can also be translated as “skillful.” For me, right thought is by far the most slippery of the eight, and therefore the most important. How does someone else get to decide if I’m thinking the “right” things?

You might think that your thoughts are private and that they affect no one but yourself, but there is a tremendous body of work that explores the relationship between your attitude (your thoughts) and your behavior. A Google search on the phrase “attitude behavior relation” yielded 1,420,000 results. What you think very clearly manifests itself in what you do.

The place that unskillful thinking hurts the most is when we’re in our peer groups. We think of our friends as those people among whom we can really be ourselves. How many of us have been in a situation where someone in our group made an unkind remark, and everyone else piled on, thinking that it was okay to talk disrespectfully, even hatefully, because “it’s just us”? Think all the way back to junior high school – you know you’ve done it. And the truth is, even at the time you probably thought to yourself “This feels wrong.” The “unskillfulness” of groupthink lets our desire to fit in with the group outweigh our own sense of what’s right.

If you were talking smack about a fellow student or a teacher, you might have worried that the person would hear about your remarks and feel bad. If you were generalizing about an entire class of people, like “boys” or “kids from our rival school,” you might even have thought “but I like this particular boy,” or “one of my friends goes to that school,” but you went along with it in order to go along with the group. You knew what was being said was wrong, but those people weren’t around and therefore couldn’t possibly be hurt by your words, right?

This is the kind of thinking that leads to mob behavior, where the loudest, most extreme voice in the crowd is the most persuasive and can cause a group of otherwise-sane people to do crazy things like the Watts Riots, the Los Angeles riots, and most inexplicably, the Chicago Bulls Victory Riot. It’s the kind of thinking that leads to lynching. It’s the kind of thinking that leads to the sort of attacks that both ends of the American political spectrum are unleashing on each other.

Policing my own thoughts, forcing myself to think, if not positively, then at least honestly about things is absolutely the hardest thing I’ve ever undertaken. But the payoff has been the feeling that I can trust my own judgement and my ability to make good, unbiased decisions. It has meant that my dealings with other people have been more respectful and honest, and people respond to the feeling that they are respected by acting more respectable. Given the chance, people step up to your expectations. Forcing yourself to confront your own negativity about yourself and others gives you the chance to rid yourself of prejudices that do nothing but hurt you. Letting other people know your high opinion of them gives them the chance to reinforce that opinion. Doesn’t that sound like a better deal all the way around?

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.

Some For You, Some For Me, All For Us

My husband and I have been together for about 12 years. When we first got together, we told each other all of our deepest, darkest secrets – all of the likes and dislikes and fears and desires that another person might hear and say “Ew. That’s weird.” Telling him these things made me feel I was testing him. If he could hear the worst about me and still want to be with me, then he really loved me. Hearing those things about him made me feel he was blessing me with things he couldn’t share with other people.

Somewhere along the line, it got harder to share things. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that we keep secrets from each other, but we certainly went from “I love you and I want to share every single new experience with you” to “I don’t want to bother you with this, I know it’s not your thing.”

On the one hand, that’s a good thing. I think that every relationship goes through that initial phase where you’re pretending to like things the other person likes just to have an excuse to have more experiences together. Once you live with someone and get to experience them in uninterrupted stretches, there are things you can skip.

On the other hand, when you’ve been with someone for a long time, it’s easy to make assumptions that cut off what could be shared experiences. Assuming that your partner doesn’t like a pizza because one time you asked if they wanted some and they said “no,” or thinking that your partner’s dislike of a particular band equals hating an entire genre of music means that there are whole areas of potential shared experience that you won’t have.

My worry is that once you start cutting out shared experience, you start diminishing your relationship. You find other people to go out for pizza with, you start going to see your favorite band alone, and then you start building new communities that don’t involve your partner. The bigger worry is that the reason one person isn’t sharing is because they’re afraid. Afraid that you won’t like their new thing. Afraid that not liking that thing may make you not like them.

It’s an effort sometimes to remember that risks are still part of bonding, even after we’ve been together for so long. I’m always encountering new music and theater and movies, etc. that I think are interesting. It’s good to think back to those early days, and remember how amazing it felt to spill all my secrets and remember that it was sharing that made us into an us in the first place.