Buy Me a River

Quick, what’s the first thing you think of when you hear me say “Lange & Söhne Grande Lange 1”?  How about “Keith Lloyd”?  “Flora Danica”?  Or “Kallista Archeo Copper?”

If you are a normal person, you don’t think anything. These things have no meaning to you. And why should they? If you wear a watch, you likely wear something that was either a gift to you, or something you bought for less than a year’s wages, a brand that you’ve heard of – Timex, Swatch – something like that.

You also would have no reason to know that Keith Lloyd makes bespoke suits for men, that Flora Danica is the world’s most expensive china, or that if you want a Kallista Archeo Copper tub, you’ll be shelling out $70k for it.

I had to look these names up. I don’t have any of these things, and I don’t know anyone who does. When writers put details like these into a work, they may think that they’re adhering to “show don’t tell,” but if what you’ve shown me is something I can’t comprehend, you’ve just failed.

I’ve railed about the laziness of using brand names as description before, but in the wake of the news that another Dan Brown potboiler is coming down the colon, I felt it time to mention it again.

Therein Lies the Tale

Once again, I’ve been having a lot of discussions with people about what’s important in writing. As an editor in chief, I’m not the first person to read anything that comes to our journal. First, we have assistant editors who look things over and vote them up or down. Then we have editors who look at things and recommend them to be published. Then I look everything over and give it a yes or no. Well, actually, I give it a yes. I’ve only said “no” once, and I was outvoted.

Sometimes, I look at things that have been submitted and I fall in love with the story they’re telling, but other editors on the staff don’t like them because they’re not technically dazzling or have a shining, crystalline story structure or…honestly, sometimes I have no idea why the other editors hate them.

Then I read a piece in The Atlantic, and it all became clear. The journal for which I am EIC is affiliated with an MFA program, and all of the editors, myself included, are current or former students of that MFA program. We’ve been drilled by Rick Moody about varying our sentence structure. We’ve been inspired by Susan Orlean to carefully balance fact and judgement. We’ve been told by everyone who’s ever written anything to “find our voice.” (I would have made that a hotlink, but when I googled  “find your voice,” I got 1.1 billion results. Billion. With a B.)

So what do we do with those stories that are less than technically perfect, but where the writer is telling us something we haven’t heard before? Some experience they’ve had that is so surprising, so inspiring, so thought-provoking, that you find yourself thinking about it and referring to it long after you’ve finished reading it? I would like to think that our egos as writers are enough in check to be generous to that writer. As generous as the New Yorker editor obviously was to that writing student, but I have to be honest.

Every one of us is human. We are all, at various times, jealous, petty, nitpicky, prejudiced, or fearful, and we don’t always have control over those emotions any more than we have control over when our bosses are going to put a whole bunch of work on our desks and say “this has to be done by the end of the day.”

I finished reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest this past week, and it took me a couple of days to distill my thoughts and feelings about it. In the end, I ended up writing a 13-page annotation, complete with subsidized time section headings and footnotes. I mentioned on Facebook that I had finished it, but that I didn’t know anyone else who had read it so I had no one to talk about it with.

What followed was a thread in which those of my friends who had read it weighed in briefly, and those who hadn’t gave me their reasons for not having read it, and the adjective that I heard the most often was “pretentious.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, vis-a-vis Infinite Jest, because it’s not the story of how rich people know more, are better looking and deserve more than everyone else. Nor is it a mundane story told using unnecessarily large words. It does demand a certain amount of attention, but so does Anna Karenina, an even longer book that I’ve never heard called pretentious, although it does contain a lot about the privilege of rich people and unnecessarily large words.

At heart, Infinite Jest is about the gross and frightening appetites of human beings. For love, for approval, for honor, for money, for an undefinable happiness that they cannot construct for themselves, but must purchase new each day in a different form, while not throwing out yesterday’s happiness. I don’t suppose that’s a new story, but it’s told in a way that is off-putting to a lot of people, and (as I’ve learned in the biography of DFW that I’m currently reading) Wallace had a great deal of trouble during his lifetime getting people to recognize the worth of his writing.

Maybe that’s it. The more uncomfortable a subject makes people, the more they’re going to look for something else about the story that bothers them. The voice doesn’t sound “genuine,” the sentence structure doesn’t vary, there are too many or not enough commas, they don’t know the difference between “there” and “their.” It keeps them from having to say “I don’t understand or relate to this material,” or “this portrays people like myself in an unflattering light,” or “I disagree with this person’s worldview.”

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.

More Than You Can Imagine

Right now, I’m watching The Matrix. Remember The Matrix? Remember Keanu Reeves, turning in a typically obtuse performance that works because the rest of the movie just kind of spins around him? I still like this movie, regardless of whether or not it stands up, especially in light of the two sequels.

There’s a line toward the beginning that I hear in quite a few movies, and every time I hear it, it makes me flinch. Trinity is taking Neo in to see Morpheus, and she exhorts him to “Tell the truth. He knows more than you can imagine.”

Now, given the mental opacity Keanu Reeves displays (although that could just be amazing acting on his part, because I’ve also heard that he’s both very smart and a decent human being), it’s not hard to think that his imagination isn’t quite enough to come up with something as radical as, say, Oreos consisting of vanilla cookies with chocolate frosting between them. So perhaps telling Neo that something is more than he can imagine is not just true, but sort of obvious.

But there’s me. And a ton of people like me. I imagine a million things more fanciful than this every minute of every day. Granted, I haven’t been able to get my ideas the wider audience I personally think they deserve, but that does not mean that my imagination is at all lacking. Frankly, I feel that telling people that they lack imagination is the first step toward turning them into better consumers. If you can’t think for yourself, you’ll buy whatever someone else is selling you.

Don’t buy what someone else is selling you. Think of something better, then go out and make it for yourself.

Film #3: 99%–The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film

99% took footage shot by four directors and five co-directors all over the country, interspersed with commentary that highlighted the footage.

Overall rating: 3 out of 4

Before the main feature, we watched a great short – 30% (Women and Politics in Sierra Leone). In about 10 minutes, it highlighted three women in Sierra Leone who, despite threats and the resistance of the current power structure, are fighting to get the percentage of women in government. The thing that stood out to me was the woman who talked about the need to educate women about how to organize, raise funds, prepare their families for the character assassination common in politics, create actionable agendas, etc. I wanted her to go to Egypt and to Wall Street and talk to the organizers of those movements, since she had a much more clear understanding than they did of how one is effective in politics.

As for the feature – before seeing the film, I had read a blurb in Variety that called it shapeless, but I didn’t feel that in the film. Given that there were four directors and five co-directors, the film showed more narrative cohesion than yesterday’s offering “The Square.”

The film started with the occupation of Zuccotti Park, and talked about how the protesters organized themselves, but early in the film it still wasn’t clear what the protesters wanted. Several times, people talked about their individual circumstances, but “remedy my plight” does not necessarily translate to actionable policies. There was one woman whose house was being foreclosed, but nobody talked about amending foreclosure laws.

The separate pieces filmed all over the country, stitched together by thoughtful, coherent commentary by Naomi Wolf, Matt Taibbi,  and Richard Wilkinson, who talked about the organization of the movement, its aims and its victories and defeats. At the end, as a sort of ray of hope, the film offered statistics citing the number of political entities that have enacted legislation to repeal the Citizens United decision, the main cause of the current political atmosphere.

But the film didn’t change my mind about the Occupy movement as a whole, which was nicely summed up about halfway through the film by Naomi Wolf who pointed out that movements without a central leader have never succeeded.

It also brought to mind for me the number of people who, after 9/11, thought that passing the Patriot Act was the right thing to do. They were too happy to give away their civil rights in exchange for protection from terrorists. Except now that same Patriot Act is being used to justify the police actions that put down many of the Occupy demonstrations. And people are all too happy to shop at Target, Walmart, etc., but don’t understand why their jobs have dried up and their local economies have gone under. I’m hoping that more attention to the sickness of whole economic ecosystem will get people to change the behaviors that feed the corporations.

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.