Thursday, August 14, 2008

Lemon Yellow Light

The news is bad, kids. BAD. Russia is pulling a sneaky-pete with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and yours truly is frankly worried.

Some of you know I tend to be a bit of a Cassandra. Or, Chicken Little, if you will. I will preface this comment with that excuse: I am concerned that Medvedev and Putin have a plan to try out some Soviet-era domination schemes. I'm concerned that this will happen during a time when the prevailing global police force (i.e. the U.S.) is too overextended, over-compromised and overwhelmed with domestic issues to possibly consider any sort of grand army march over bad intentions. Then I'm concerned that I'm even thinking this way, because I'm ALSO concerned that we (the U.S.) play police too frequently. And THEN I think about all the bad jokes I've heard involving European nations, and the reasons they are all still conducting their governments in their native tongues and not German....and I wonder.

Fear mongering works, as you can see. I'm conducting my own self-experiment to determine just how successful fear-mongering is in America. To date, here are the suspect behaviors I have that, I feel, are influenced by fear-mongering:
  1. I have rental insurance. And yes, I paid extra for electronics coverage, even though I've never been a victim of a fire, flood or break-in. And no, I will not cancel it, despite clearly seeing the apparatus that makes the insurance machine tick hard at work. Because I'm afraid of what if.
  2. I quit smoking. Years ago. And I bug S. to quit smoking, because I'm convinced he will die. This is not an irrational fear--I watched my grandmother die of lung cancer. It's not good, and the research doesn't (always) lie. However, I cannot control what my darling does. I can only sigh ponderously and make weepy doe-eyes at him every time he lights up, hoping this will persuade him to think about what if.
  3. I'm unhappy if I do not have vegetables or fruit in a meal. Because MY GOD people, do you REALIZE what havoc that can cause?
  4. When I travel abroad, I spend more time planning out safety than planning our itineraries. This to me is a shameful, shameful admission. What a waste of time and energy! I still manage to slice off a finger, bruise a muscle crucial to the walking process or catch a cold everywhere we go. The fact that I cannot accept that it is my destiny to be clumsy abroad is like something out of Beckett. I spend hours searching for collapsible finger splints and slip-safe shoes only to twist an ankle randomly in a sidewalk crack. But.....what if that penicillin prescription were necessary?
  5. I notice bags left unattended. EVERYWHERE. Thank you, MTA.
Because, indeed: what if.

Now, I'm not about to come full circle and suggest that we should all ignore Russian hijinks and fear-mongering, that we should throw insurance policies and vegetables to the wind (though I do think insurance is the oddest invention yet for controlling the middle class) and take to the streets for ice cream. No. But I do think a little reflection is warranted.

I don't feel we can ignore history while contemplating skirmishes such as the one emerging in Georgia's provinces, or the ones (oops!) we're up to our necks in in the Middle East. Too much has been ignored already, and I fear that we are setting ourselves up for some colossal troubles as a nation and as a world. (There's that word fear again....)

World War I was started by the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. I remember that from World History class in high school. I also remember what my history teacher repeated ad infinitum about every conflict we studied: tensions had been mounting. TENSIONS HAD BEEN MOUNTING. Is it just me, or have tensions been mounting for years?

Okay, that seems self-serving, doesn't it? Just because the U.S. has been involved in a war for six years doesn't necessarily mean that global tensions have been mounting. So is it just my paranoia speaking? Is it the comic-book-caper in my mind that whispers, "Watch out for Russia...they're waiting until you're weak so they can strike!"

It's not Russia...particularly. It's world politics at large. Paul Krugman's editorial today summed up what I'm trying to articulate, in a way that an econ professor at Princeton can do way better than moi. He gives a fruitful (if abbreviated) reading of J.M. Keyenes' 1919 comments regarding the state of the British economy and the resulting psychology of the urban British citizen, who firmly believed the world around him could not come crumbling down. He makes the following point toward the end of the essay:
"So are the foundations of the second global economy any more solid than those of the first? In some ways, yes. For example, war among the nations of Western Europe really does seem inconceivable now, not so much because of economic ties as because of shared democratic values.

Much of the world, however, including nations that play a key role in the global economy, doesn’t share those values. Most of us have proceeded on the belief that, at least as far as economics goes, this doesn’t matter — that we can count on world trade continuing to flow freely simply because it’s so profitable. But that’s not a safe assumption."
Word to your mother, peeps. I've been thinking this for years (albeit in less eloquent form) and am privately convinced that my diligent contributions to my 401K are really less important than my ability to forage for edible greens.

Of course, now I'm curious whether his striking a chord with me makes him a Chicken Little, too. Fortunately or unfortunately, I've never been one to ignore my gut sense of things. I suppose we'll see.

And what does this have to do with lemon yellow light? Nothing directly. But isn't it a nice way to ice a terrible situation? Repeat that phrase to yourself a few times and see if you don't feel a tad better. It's like a linguistic cupcake.

Good night, and....well, you know. Good luck.

Monday, August 4, 2008


When I started this blog, I was determined to keep my politicizing largely out of it. I know I am prone to getting up on my soapbox, and in general prefer to reserve my indignant, self-righteous diatribes for S. (lucky man!).

But--and this is a big but--but today, I read Maureen Dowd's column on Obama and could no longer resist. The thing about Dowd that irks me can be summed up in this editorial. It's not that she's stupid. She's not, though occasionally I find her logic lacking. It's not that she's a bad writer. She's not! It's that she has a way of writing editorial that sets my blood cold, usually by applying inept metaphor and/or offending my politics.

Now, you can't take someone to task for offending your politics. That is the right of a writer, and in this country, the right of us all. But would it hurt so much to adopt a tad more of the finesse of David Brooks (who, as my friend S.M. so perfectly stated, is the only conservative a radical liberal intellectual can have a crush on)? Would it hurt to THINK for two seconds about what her message really is?

Today's editorial is a strong example (perhaps the strongest) of her stylistic wont to annoy. She uses a sloppy comparison between Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and our presidential candidates to (ostensbily) tease out some of Senator Obama's shortcomings with blue-collar women voters. I'm guessing its with blue-collar workers primarily. It's hard to be really sure from the essay, which bandies about references to "feminists" and "mac-n-cheese"-eating blue-collar woman in the same breath. Are these the same women? Are they different demographics? Is "mac-n-cheese-eater" a real category?

I love Jane Austen. I love PBS for loving Jane Austen, and I love the dickens (pun intended) out of any actor who's played even a wee bit part in a film adaptation based on any of her fine novels. And perhaps one of the first things I learned about Jane Austen whence first a copy of Emma came my way, was that Ms. Austen was British. That's right, British. As in, NOT American. And what did she write about? Comedies of manners involving nineteenth-century British society.

So, let's check out this parallel Dowd makes between Mr. Darcy and Barack Obama. Beginning with their height and slimness, she then extrapolates from "a prayer to the Lord at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, a note that was snatched out and published" to the fact that Obama is all too aware of his own propensity for pride. (This is a grave American crime, apparently. So grave that it, in fact, is British.)

Might it be that the savvy politician suspected his prayer would be so desecrated, and thus chose a spin that would help offset concerns the American people might have with his audacity to be black, educated and opinionated? No, of course not. Clearly, this is just the first step in the epistolary struggle between Darbama and Ameribeth, with America fronting as Elizabeth Bennett, in all her " spirited, playful, democratic, financially strained" glory.

I just ate lunch. I don't really know if I can muster the energy to unpack the ballyhoo that is this metaphor. But I will give a fighting shot at at least this much: perhaps comparing blue-collar, mac-n-cheese-eating feminists to Elizabeth Bennett is a tad . . . well . . . daft. Elizabeth Bennett was spirited, playful, financially strained and caught up in certain prejudices. But democratic?

Please, Maureen. Please give me a close textual response illuminating how Ms. Bennett was democratic. Because in my reading, she's a feminist, perhaps even a liberal -- but never a proponent of democracy. She demands equal franchise between the sexes, and expects a partner who respects her mind and opinion. BUT SHE SAYS NOTHING AGAINST THE QUEEN OF ENGLAND. She does not mention the vote, she does not mention suffrage. She never suggests holding an emergency session in the Houses of Lords and Commons for a restructuring of the patriarchal model that requires daughters to obey their fathers. In fact, there is the textual suggestion that had her father demanded she accept her first proposal to Cousin Collins, she may have acquiesced . . . or been out in the streets, on her fine, British arse.

Please, for the love of your Lord (you know, the one who didn't mind when Obama's PRAYER was swiped from its resting place), consider your metaphors. This editorial appears like the result of a quick session on the laptop after a long brunch. (One with mimosas. Lots of them.) Perhaps, at this mimosa-laden brunch, you had been discussing your love of Jane Austen, and your secret attraction to Obama's embodiment of the very qualities that make Mr. Darcy a toothsome bit of literary man. Perhaps you then thought of macaroni and cheese, and then perhaps read yet another distorted blog post claiming feminists are turning against Obama out of defiance. Perhaps you lastly thought, sighing, "well, isn't that just like a Jane Austen novel. 'Twhatever shall become of these lovers?"

Perhaps you didn't think at all, beyond the assumption that female readers of your column might appreciate this literary nod to their stereotyped proclivities, and that just maybe they'd consider Obama for the presidency.

My main question, though, is whether the whole thing is but a mish-mash. We all are curious about whether we can, as a country, overcome our terrible history of prejudice. But are you trying to be supportive of Obama by comparing him to Mr. Darcy, or are you trying to put yet another doubt in the mac-n-cheese-eaters' mouths? 'Cuz frankly, I don't see how suggesting Obama is a noble Brit will help his cause at all.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Overmuch by How Much?

I think I've been looking at the etching of "Excess," personified in the being of a pale, fleshy woman who looks maybe a tad too much like me for comfort, for too many days. Maybe I'm starting to see myself in this etching because excess has got me down. Regardless, Monday I will have to find a new bugaboo.

But today is Saturday, my chickadees, and tomorrow is Sunday. And you know what Sunday's children are full of: being fair and wise and good and gay. (And...oh, never mind.)

So in my effort to harness a touch of the fairness, wisdom, goodness and gayness that must mark the lucky child of Sunday, I want to find a way out of the excess mess.

It started Friday when I read Judith Warner's editorial in the NY Times, reprising an article earlier this week about affluent parents' behavior (specifically, their difficulty letting go of control of their children, their demand for exceptional attention and their flagrant disregard for rules).

The latter article caught my attention because, as a teenager, I worked two summers as a camp counselor at the glorious Camp Wekiva in Florida. Camp Wekiva was the farthest from a $10K-a-week camp that you could possibly get. The benevolent members of the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs personally saw to it that children in need had the chance to apply for scholarships, and even for those who did pay full-kitty. . .it wasn't pricey.

My experience as a camp counselor was a fairly idyllic experience, marked by skinny-dipping with other counselors while my junior counselor tended to our bed-wetting wards, confiscating cigarettes from a few plucky campers and occasionally writing snarky nature haiku.
N.B. To my dear friend T.E., I will never forget your prize-winning haiku, nor our chants to the spirit of the sacred titmouse.

Boom goes the sand pine
onto the soft forest floor.
During my tenure, only one experience still stands out to me--and it wasn't a pushy parent. Rather, it was a camper who, the eve before her session ended, woke with night terrors so severe that she crawled under the bunk, clung to the bed coils and refused to come out.

We had to wake the head of the camp, as no group of terrified 15- to 18-year-olds is equipped to handle such a situation. By the time they were able to pull her out from under the bed, one of her fingers was broken from her grip on the coils. I have never in my life seen such terror in a child. The worst part, of course, was that it turned out that her estranged father, a suspected child-molester no less, was picking her up from camp the next day. And the camp had no choice but to release her to her father's care, per the mother's specifications. That's right, ladies and gents. When the head of the camp called her the next morning to see if perhaps she could fetch her daughter instead (given the broken finger, night-terrors, suspected diddling and what-have-you), the mother refused, and was annoyed by the request.

So, when I read about overly-concerned parents, it doesn't exactly rub me the wrong way. I've never had to deal with them, give or take a few stroller-wars on the sidewalks of Brooklyn, and even if I gripe about their gross sense of their child's entitlement (to, say, lay on a busy CITY sidewalk to better explore cement), it could be much, much worse.

The children, after all, are our future. And no one knows that better than a crack-smoker, isn't that right, Whitney?

Ahem. I digress.

Warner's editorial addresses the effect of "affluenza" on parenting, and considers the potential problems said-parenting promises the future. Her argument is that certain groups of affluent parents cannot merely stop at showing their children all the beauty they possess inside. No, nor can they merely teach them well, then let them lead the way. (I'm sorry, Whitney, but it's too easy.) Instead, they inculcate expectations of privilege and exception based on purchasing power.

I was familiar with the "affluenza" term, but I had never read the exact definition of affluenza. I will share, thanks to my good friend Wiki:
n. a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.
n. 1. The bloated, sluggish and unfulfilled feeling that results from efforts to keep up with the Joneses. 2. An epidemic of stress, overwork, waste and indebtedness caused by the pursuit of the American Dream. 4. An unsustainable addiction to economic growth.
You mean, Doctor, there's a name for it? Condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.

I really thought for a long time that this was the description of living in New York. I didn't realize it was an actual socio-psychological DISEASE. But seriously, pathologizing this phenomenon makes me feel better. It actually gives me hope that the particular malaise I fall into occasionally (say, after buying three pairs of shoe on sale), is not just me being crazy. That there actually is ill-effect to be had by the pursuit of overmuch.

For a while, I thought it was class guilt. I have a tense relationship with an inveterate fashion-whore and general aesthete, I can't help but care about clothing (for example). As a reader and bibliophile, I cannot resist having (too) many books. Yet, I notice that after making many purchases (say, the week the toaster breaks, the luggage we've been wanting for years goes on sale and the scheduled-maintenance for our work wardrobes come due at the same time), I do not feel good. I feel actually the opposite of good.

In spite of our "success" in obtaining what we want, in reaching the "next level," I feel overloaded, anxious, indebted and stressed. Even if I'm not technically overloaded or indebted, the anxiety and stress of the stuff tends to lead to feelings of indebtedness and overload the next day when I go to work. These feelings then tend to lead to a feeling of deep dissatisfaction, a lack of desire to be productive (as productivity is linked to stuff) and a depressed desire to run out into an open field, lay down, close my eyes and disappear for a while.

Now. I'm fully cognizant that this may just be me. Truly. I mean, few children have anxiety dreams that involve them being buried in all their toys until they can't breathe. It may be my own particular relationship with so-called pleasure-objects (toys or shoes or books, they are much the same) and the listlessness of a wasteful, bloated existence.

I'm not exactly saying let's all run off and go Walden. Hell, I don't even like camping. But there is something to be said for being content with what I have, and breaking off from the bigger-better-faster-more mentality. There is something to be said for making my way to that empty field and taking a deep breath, taking an hour, and not worrying that I have to get to the gym before 5pm so I can make it to CVS before it closes to get that toothpaste I read about. There's something to be said for just saying no, and, as Ms. Warner has pointed out in other editorials, opting out.

So my new experiment for self-improvement, and in consideration of what this may means in terms of Maslowe, affluenza and poetry along the way, I've decided to opt out for the next month. I'm still hammering out what "opt out" will mean, in practice. As of now, this is what it looks like:
  • Make no purchases beyond necessities such as food, soap, etc.
  • Avoid "up-grading" any necessity purchases. (This would mean getting the happy hour special rather than paying twice as much for the glass of viognier, for example. I'm not advocating asceticism, but rather temperance. Uh, I mean prudence.)
  • Finding things to think about and do that do not involve accumulation or vanity.
  • Writing about topics (especially poetically) that endeavor to avoid self-indulgent navel-gazing, or striving to be greater-than or more-than they are.
  • Avoid chastising myself for not adhering perfectly to my plan. (Aren't unhealthy standards partially responsible for the affluent malaise?)
Other suggestions? I'm all ears. But don't try to one-up me. . .I'm not playing that game again until September 1st.