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.

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.

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.

I Only Exist in the Past

When I moved to the Bay Area in 1997, I brought with me a backlog of The New Yorker magazines. It was the first magazine I subscribed to that made me feel plugged into the adult world. The problem was that somewhere along the line, I got it into my head that I had to read every single article in the entire magazine, cover to cover. That meant every Joan Acocella dance critique where Ms. Acocella reveals in painful detail how bitter she is that her dance career never took off. I couldn’t care less about dance, and having it described, critiqued, teased apart and explained to me in painstaking detail is worse than having gum grafts (and yes, I’ve had gum grafts, so I have a basis for comparison).

Then I realized that I don’t care about anything that Roger Angell has to say about baseball, although I’ve ploughed through thousands of words about it because I had to finish that article to get to an Ian Frazier piece about the hilarity of child abuse. But the problem with forcing myself to read every single word is that if I procrastinate at all, the next issue is in my mailbox before I’m done with this one. And then the next one. And before you know it, I’ve got two years’ worth of magazines in a huge pile somewhere, mocking me.

And then I realized that it’s not just my reading habits that have me dwelling in the past. At some point over the summer, I decided that I would give the tv show Battlestar Galactica another shot. My husband and I tried watching it when it first came to Netflix, but because I hold FarScape up as my apex of space opera television, I found Galactica humorless and dull. But I have forced myself since then to watch it (although it’s still humorless) and I’m now nearly through the series. Which apparently ended in 2009.

And I’ve now extended my time travel to my podcast listening. I’ve been listening to Judge John Hodgman since it premiered in 2010, but I’ve since  checked out the other podcasts offered by Maximum Fun, and have started listening to Jordan, Jesse, Go!. I started listening to it yesterday, and I’m now up to Episode 5, which was recorded in January of 2007. Bush was still president. I was still working. My older kid still liked me. That 2007.

I have often been told that I do not look as old as I am. It’s true that I stay out of the sun, I do use a moisturizer every morning and every night, I have good genes for looking young. But I don’t think that’s what does it for me. I’d have to say that what keeps me looking young is that mentally, I’m still somewhere between 2006 and 2010.

 

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.

What I Can’t Count in Words

I’ve been trying to work out every day. For me, working out looks like jogging on a treadmill for 45 minutes. I also target shoot with my bow and arrow once or twice a day, 100 shots at a time. I normally listen to music while I’m working out. I’ve experimented with a lot of different listening options: silence, audiobooks, Gregorian chant, dance music, electronica. So far, synth metal is my best bet both for jogging and for target practice. Nothing with lyrics, which distract me.

I can’t afford to be distracted, because when I’m doing something physical, I’m counting.

I tend to count out loud so that anyone around me can hear my progress. When I’m target shooting, I count upward. I’m counting the number of bullseyes I’ve hit out of the number of shots I’ve taken, so I will say out loud “Zero zero” before my first shot. This morning was forty-one one hundred.

When I’m jogging, I’m counting down. I jog for 45 minutes, and I will say right now, I hate it. Jogging doesn’t feel good or natural or like an accomplishment. It feels like a torture and the only way I can get through it is by distracting myself. I break each minute up into both 10-second and 15-second increments. There are 270 10-second increments in 45 minutes, and 180 15-second increments. Every minute, I will subtract 6 from the 10-second increments, but I only subtract from the 15-second increments every two and a half minutes (meaning it’s always a multiple of ten). This happens smoothly in my head without missing a beat of the music. When I get down to 30/20 (5 minutes), I start counting each increment down singly, so the pairings of numbers change more often and I have to be more mentally present. By the time I get to 0/0, I’m normally just as happy not to have messed up my counting as to have finished my workout.

When I’m counting, there is no room for anything else. I can’t think about that cramp in my left calf, or what I’m going to write later or whom I’ve got to call when I’m off the treadmill. There is a conversation in my mind every second of every day. Even when I’m sleeping I have dreams of such vividness that many of them get made into fiction that I inflict on other people. The conversations in my head are most insistent when I’m talking to someone else. And those conversations in my head are so distracting that if I don’t find a way to deflect them, they’ll deflect what I’m trying to do. I’ve walked off in the middle of target shooting or of jogging because I decided something else was more important. The only way I can stay present with a physically demanding task is to crowd out all those words with numbers.

I guess that’s why I love numbers. Because there is a limit to the number of words in the English language, but there is no limit to how high I can count. If I hit the aleph, there’s always another aleph beyond it. Both of those thoughts are comforting to me. That there are only so many words that I will ever have to learn to describe my experiences, real or imagined. That there is no limit at all to the number of experiences I could possibly have.