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.

1 comment:

Collins said...

i am away from the house and so haven't been able to give this post proper reflection, but i did want to let you know that you certainly struck a cord with at least one person-- my mom!

she blogged about your post today!