Friday, July 17, 2009

Your Manhood Will Return to You Like a Boomerang

“We all try to escape pain and death, while we seek what is pleasant. We are all ruled in what we do by impulses; and these impulses are so organised that our actions in general serve for our self preservation and that of the race.”
-Albert Einstein

"Our nervous system developed for one sole purpose, to maintain our lives and satisfy our needs. All our reflexes serve this purpose. this makes us utterly egotistic. With rare exceptions people are really interested in one thing only: themselves. Everybody, by necessity, is the center of his own universe."
-Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

“We're horribly mundane, aggressively mundane individuals. We're the ninjas of the mundane, you might say.”
-Andy Partridge

This morning I was contemplating my wardrobe options, trying to find an outfit that looks at least remotely summery but is warm enough to insulate my body from the sub-zero temperature in my arctic-like office building. While I was debating the heat retention capacity of cotton vs. synthetics, in the background, NPR was reporting about suicide bombers in Indonesia.

Suddenly, what I chose to wear seemed completely trivial.

This is the perfect example of how, every now and then, the universe sends you a message. It may be subtle, it may be blatant, but the point is clear – don’t waste energy on the small stuff. There are plenty of big things more worthy of your attention.

A few weeks ago I was browsing the Sunday paper. On the left hand page, an article laid out the plight of the starving in third world countries, complete with photos of skeletal children. On the right hand page was a full size lingerie ad, complete with photoes of a model who looked nearly as thin as the starving children. The contrast could not have been better if it were planned. Good morning, this is the Universe with your wake-up call.

The problem is, we are not really designed to live in the bigger picture on an ongoing basis. Human beings evolved taking care of the basic needs in front of us every day: food, safety, social structure, and reproduction. We have the same programming today, but live in a very different environment.

Take food for example. Most of us (thankfully) don’t have to worry about getting enough food to survive. But we still obsess over food. The amount of advertising dollars spent in the food industry is astronomical. We spend huge amounts of time and energy thinking about food, preparing food, reading about food, fantasizing about food (okay maybe that’s just me with chocolate), talking about food, and actually eating food, is huge. There are television shows, web sites, books and even international tours all focused on food.

And, if there is one thing we are more obsessed about than food, it is sex. Guess what? Reproduction is no longer critical for the survival of the species! Look around, there are quite a few human beings here already. But our programming is geared toward reproduction at all costs, which translates into sex. Sex appeal, romantic relationships, physical attractiveness, and, oh yeah, sex itself. If you don’t believe that this is a national obsession, turn on your TV for five minutes. Or open a magazine. Or better yet, let your email address leak out into cyberspace.

For example, I never knew, until my email address found its way to several SPAM lists, just how insecure men are about their sexual performance. Based on the proportion of SPAM received on this topic, this must be the absolute number one concern of every man. Here are a few of my favorite subject lines. And no, I am not making these up:

  • We offer the best alarm-clocks for your small friend down there.
  • "Your device is so petite she barely finds it in bed?"
  • "Every man dreams of the power and stamina that never end." (okay, but if it lasts more than 8 hours, call a doctor)
  • "Break her down with your incompatible power." (to quote The Princess Bride, “I do not think that word means what you think it means”)
  • "Your manhood will return to you like a boomerang." (um, yeah, and hopefully it won’t hit you in the head)
As for women, our number one obsession (based on my extremely unscientific study of SPAM and FaceBook ads) is our appearance. We want to look younger. We want to be thinner. We want less wrinkles and cellulite and larger breasts and flatter stomachs. And despite our knowledge that there is no magic bullet for this (despite the ads for botox, acai berry, and miracle creams), we continue to hope. I often wonder what a difference women could make in the world if we all decided that we look just fine the way we are. Think of the vast pool of time, money and energy that would be freed up for something more productive.

My point is this. We are designed to worry about the immediate, mundane, in-your-face concerns. What will I eat today? What will I wear today? Does this make my butt look big? Paper or plastic? And we know, at some level, that this stuff isn’t all that important. World Peace is important. Saving the Planet is important. Helping to End Suffering in Third World Countries is important. But it’s really hard to live our lives staying focused on those bigger issues. We just are not wired to work that way. As long as our basic needs (and those of our immediate inner circle) are met, we are content.

Every now and then, the balance shifts when a tragedy forces the world to take a collective deep breath. Think about your life immediately after September 11th. Think about what seemed important and what suddenly seemed irrelevant. Think about how your priorities changed that day.

But the truth is, for better or worse, we are amazingly adaptable creatures. No matter how much we think something will “change our lives”, it very rarely does so in any significant manner. We are always amazed to find that we have somehow adjusted to the circumstances and are now re-focused on the same old short term concerns. Most of us prefer to hit the snooze button on the Universe’s alarm clock and go back to our comfortable lives. And at some level, many of us are conflicted about this.

We need to live with awareness of the bigger picture. Our time shouldn’t be spent worrying about the size of our thighs (or the size of our “friend down there”). But it is a balancing act. Focusing too much energy on the big things that you cannot control can also lead to problems. I am certain that one of the keys to a happy life is finding that perfect balance between our day-to-day concerns and the universe as a whole.

Let me know if you figure out how to do that. In the meantime, I’ll keep relying on messages from the Universe to keep me in line.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

It's All Talk

“Talk to me, you never talk to me. It seems that I can speak,
I can hear my voice shouting out, but there’s no reply at all.
Listen to me, you never listen to me…
I’ve been trying but we cannot connect. And there’s no reply at all, no reply at all.”
- Genesis

"If we could touch one another, if these our separate entities could come to grips, clenched like a Chinese puzzle...yesterday
I stood in a crowded street that was live with people, and no one spoke a word, and the morning shone. Everyone silent, moving...Take my hand. Speak to me."

- Muriel Rukeyser (from the poem Effort at Speech Between Two People)

“Everybody's talking and no one says a word” – John Lennon

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about communication. Well, really more about miscommunication. It seems that even with the vast array of interaction options available to the average person today, less actual communication is occurring.

The dictionary defines communication as “The exchange of thoughts, messages, or information, as by speech, signals, writing, or behavior.” The term dates to the 1300s, and is derived from the Latin word “communicare” which means “to impart, share”, or literally “to make common”.

Simply put, it is the exchange of ideas or concepts. It involves
1) a sender
2) a receiver
3) a concept
(Since dictating and/or pontificating does not qualify by this definition, we can now confirm what I’ve long suspected - no one on Fox News actually communicates).

Research shows that 55% of communication impact is determined by body language--postures, gestures, and eye contact. 38% is based on the tone of voice, and only 7% by the content or the words used in the communication process. (Mehrabian and Ferris. "Inference of Attitude from Nonverbal Communication in Two Channels". In: The Journal of Counseling Psychology Vol.31, 1967, pp.248-52)

That means that face to face situations provide the best chance for successful communication because 100% of the communication mechanisms can be put to good use. A phone conversation takes away a whopping 55% of those capabilities. Written communication brings you down to using only 7% of the available means, and that’s assuming you use well thought out words and content.

Which brings me to text messaging.

I’m not a big texter. In fact, I haven’t been able to figure out how to use mixed case, so any messages I send are in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS (giving the impression that I am very very enthusiastic about my message). But I suspect most of teenage America would quickly roll over and die without the ability to text message each other about every 20 seconds. And, call me crazy, but it seems like there is a lot more room for miscommunication here. Not only are you down to the 7% of communication mechanisms available to you, but, IMHO, you are not even using real words.

Then there is email, the communication method of choice for most of us over 30 (but under 65). You might think that with less abbreviations and less typing with our thumbs, we would have clearer communication, right? Yes, email is quick and yes, it is convenient. But I’m not so sure it is efficient or effective.

The main problem with email is that people assume that their intent is clear. They assume that their body language and tone of voice come through in an email. They add little emoticons :) or abbreviations (LOL) to try to convey what is nearly impossible to convey in brief written communication – the emotional context of the message. Consequently, messages often come across as abrupt, snarky, or downright rude when the writer had no intention of conveying any of those impressions.

I just did a quick check. So far this week, I have received, on average, 80 emails per day. It’s hard to believe that when I started working at this company, 15 years ago, we did NOT HAVE EMAIL (dramatic pause while anyone under the age of thirty picks their jaw up off the ground).

To further date myself, when I was in high school, we DID NOT HAVE COMPUTERS OR CELL PHONES (anyone under thirty is now thinking, “come on, you’re making this up!” No, it is true, I swear!).

How on earth did we communicate with each other in those dark, dark ages?

Let’s see….we wrote letters, memos, and notes. We talked on land lines (*gasp*) using phones with cords that anchored you within 8 feet of the base unit (unless your parents were really nice and bought the 20 foot phone cord that reached your bedroom). Sometimes we even talked in person!

When I was in high school, we passed the time in our more boring classes (read: all of our classes), by writing each other notes. We wrote about our crushes, about our families, about our thoughts. We folded these notes into intricate shapes and slipped them to each other when passing in the hall between classes.

To this day I can recognize the handwriting of any of my high school friends. I still have a box of these notes in my attic. Can text messaging really replace all that?

Even in person, we don’t communicate well. We pass others on the street and avoid eye contact, all the while talking on our cell phones. We greet our co-workers with “how are you” but don’t expect to hear anything other than “fine, and you?”. We don’t know our grocery store clerk, our dry cleaner, or our bank teller.

I know that some actual communication must be taking place, or we would cease to function as a society. But lately, anytime I’m in public, I am reminded of the words of Simon and Garfunkel:
And in the naked light I saw
ten thousand people, maybe more.
People talking without speaking,
people hearing without listening

Think about it. And the next time you ask someone “how are you?”, try looking them in the eye, and paying attention to the answer.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Up Up and Away

"Every time I fly and am forced to remove my shoes, I'm grateful Richard Reid is not known as the Underwear Bomber."

— Douglas Manuel, aerospace executive, USA Today, March 13, 2003

I recently returned from yet another business trip. I’ve been spending a lot of time traveling by air over the last couple years, and there are a few things about airline flying that never cease to intrigue, amuse, and/or frustrate me.

    How insane is that? We are ground-dwelling creatures flying through the air at over 500 miles per hour, 30,000 feet above the earth. It’s crazy, really.

    We are sitting in a small metal and plastic container (likely built before most of us were born) that rattles and shakes like a 25 year old Datsun…and we sit there calmly drinking ginger ale and eating peanuts. It’s just plain ridiculous.

    And, oh by the way, we are doing this on purpose. In fact, we pay money to do it.

  2. Security Policies
    Couldn’t the ingredients to make a toxic substance be placed in 3 oz containers and then mixed together in flight? Why does the Ziploc baggie have to be see-through if they are going to X-ray it anyhow? What is it that they can see in a laptop computer alone in a bin that they couldn’t see if it remained in its case? What can I hide in my flip flop sandals that I couldn’t also carry in my pocket? Has the rate of foot fungus acquired in airports risen dramatically since 9/11? Is security level Orange better or worse than Yellow? These are some of the things I ponder as I wait, and wait, and wait…

  3. The Personal Space Issue
    Flying, especially in coach, presents an awkward social situation. On any domestic flight over 100 people are packed like sardines into seats that were built for people prior to the weight of the average American rising from 150 to 180 lbs. Plainly put, many of us don’t fit in the seats without touching the people next to us. And touching, among strangers, is, well, uncomfortable.

    We cope with this discomfort by practicing what I call “Active Ignorance”. We put ourselves into a state of altered reality where we can read our newspapers, work on our laptops, and take naps (complete with snoring) seemingly oblivious to the fact that the person next to us is most definitely invading our personal space. This not unlike the strategy employed by my 13 year old Labrador Retriever when I use any sentence not containing the word “treat”.

  4. Air Sickness Bags
    Tiny paper bags with the words “For Motion Discomfort”. First of all, speaking as one who suffers from motion sickness, “discomfort” might rank among the largest understatements in modern culture. How about “For Holding Over Your Mouth When You Are Writhing in Agony and Can No Longer Retain The Contents Of Your Stomach”?

    Secondly, why paper bags, and why so tiny? Think about it.

  5. First Class
    They board the plane first. Their seats are wider. They watch all the poor lower class schmucks pass them on the way to the tiny seats in the back of the plane. They get free drinks, and often a meal. They get the nice stewardess (see #6). A curtain separates them from the rest of the plane. The restroom at the front of the plane is reserved for their use, supposedly “to avoid congestion in the aisles” (more like to avoid contamination from the untouchables in the back).

    If this does not reinforce a class-divided hierarchical society, I’m not sure what does.

  6. Mean Stewardesses
    I know, I know, we are supposed to call them Flight Attendants. But it seems it’s always the older female ones who are mean, and I still think of them as stewardesses.

    I suspect they started their careers back in the day when only the rich and powerful traveled by air, and they are bitter about having to wait on us average folks. Or maybe they are mad because no one calls them stewardesses anymore. Whatever it is, one nasty stewardess can ruin the day of everyone in coach. And they don’t even know it.

  7. Airplane Food
    Food that can be pre-made, frozen, then heated and served in a kitchen the size of a locker. Enough said.

  8. Me First Me First!” – aka The Deplaning Game
    The plane lands. We taxi to the gate. The seatbelt sign goes off. And even if I’m in the very last row of the largest and longest plane imaginable, everyone around me jumps out of their seats and begins gathering their luggage as if they are going to walk off the plane immediately.

    But it never works that way. The doors have to be opened. First class has to be personally escorted off the plane led by an adorable small child strewing rose petals in their path. The rose petals have to be cleaned up. Then, and only then, does coach class even begin the process of leaving the plane. The PSJUs (Premature-Seat-Jumper-Uppers) quickly realize they are not going anywhere soon. Refusing to admit defeat, they continue to stand, avoiding eye contact, awkwardly hunched under the low ceiling until at last we begin to sense movement ahead.

    A side note: Given the Personal Space Issue (see #3), the desired for escape is completely understandable. But the outcome is always the same. The basic principals of behavior modification would predict that after a few flights, people would understand that they are not going anywhere quickly and would choose to remain seated. But this is not the case. The behavior pattern is definitely fodder for someone’s psychological doctorate.

Air travel truly is a wonderful thing. With it we can traverse distances in timeframes that were unimaginable even 100 years ago. It is truly one of the greatest inventions in the history of humankind.

Now if they could just do something about the tiny bathrooms…

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Things That Go Bump In The Night

Daylight is climbing the walls
cars start and feet walk the halls

the world wakes and now i am safe
at least by the light of day”

-John Mayer

“ not distress yourself with dark imaginings.

Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness”

-Max Ehrman

It’s three o’clock in the morning. Something wakes you - a disturbing dream, a spouse snoring, a noisy neighbor arriving home from a late night at the bar. That’s when the Anxiety Gremlins make their move.

They immediately pounce on your semi-conscious brain. “Did you remember to set your alarm? Are you really prepared for the presentation you have to give later today? What if the car doesn't start?”

If there is no future event handy on which they can focus, the Gremlins are masters at combing through your past with a critical eye for anxiety-producing material. “Shouldn’t you apologize to your mother for the nasty tone you took with her on the phone yesterday? What if there is an accident and that is the last time you speak to your mother? What will happen to your father if your mother is gone? How will you deal with losing your parents? Do they know, really know, that you love them? How can you be such an ungrateful daughter?” And so on.

By this point your heart starts pumping harder and the adrenaline begins to poke at the rest of your muscles like an annoying little brother, forcing you to pay attention.

You try to ignore the Gremlins. You tell yourself you need to sleep. Yet you toss, you turn. You watch your spouse sleeping blissfully through the entire ordeal. You envy him. You hate him. The Gremlins sense this and use it to their advantage: “How can he sleep while you suffer? What kind of person is he? If he really loved you, he would know you are upset and wake up! Does he love you? Should you have married Joe Smith your eighth grade boyfriend instead?” *Sigh*.

Anxiety Gremlins are creatures of the night. They abhor daylight. They live in darkness, feeding off the anxieties they generate. We learned of their existence as children. They were the monsters under the bed, the demons that hid in the closet. Night lights may have kept them at bay, but we knew that they could not completely protect us. Sleeping with Mom and Dad was the only true salvation. Sadly, as adults we lack that magical parental protection.

What is it about our nighttime state that makes us so vulnerable to the Gremlins? It's as if the primal part of our brain – the one best suited for fighting saber tooth tigers or running from stampeding wild boars – takes over. For most of us, this part of our brain doesn't get much attention. We spend our days exercising our higher brain – the rational, logical, more evolved portion. But at night, our guard is down. We are caught between the everyday world of control and order and the nighttime world of dreams and fantasy.

Fortunately, there are techniques to defeat the Gremlins. Some people rely on meditation or other relaxation techniques. Some, medications. I find the best technique to be simple distraction. If your brain is distracted with something relatively mundane, like counting sheep, naming the seven dwarfs, or reciting your multiplication tables, you will have some very disappointed Gremlins.

But....maybe we should not ignore them, these annoying creatures. Ultimately, the Gremlins arise from the depths of our own minds. Perhaps they are blessings in disguise. If we kept our darkest fears inside at all times, without a chance to express themselves, would they eventually explode into some hideous form of action? Perhaps the Gremlins serve as a built in pressure valve, allowing our minds to release some of the built up anxieties we don't want to acknowledge during the daylight hours. Maybe letting the Gremlins have their say, and addressing those anxieties directly, would make us all healthier people.

But not tonight. After all, I have that presentation tomorrow. And I've already double-checked my alarm. Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful.....

Friday, April 10, 2009

Hello, Dolly!

“You know you've made it when you've been moulded in miniature plastic. But you know what children do with Barbie dolls - it's a bit scary, actually.” – Cate Blanchett

"I love shopping!"
"Wanna have a pizza party?"
"Math class is tough!"
- Teen Talk Barbie

"In 1993 a group in the United States calling itself the "Barbie Liberation Organization" modified Barbie dolls by giving them the voice box of a talking G.I. Joe doll, and secretly returned the dolls to the shelves of toy stores. Parents and children were surprised when they purchased Barbie dolls that uttered phrases such as 'Eat lead, Cobra!' and 'Vengeance is mine.'" -Wikipedia

OK, I admit it. I loved Barbie.

I spent many engrossing childhood hours “playing Barbies” either alone or with friends.

As an adult woman with feminist leanings, I have trouble reconciling my passion for a fashion doll with over-applied makeup, an artificial tan, and an anatomically impossible figure with the person I am today. I find myself slightly embarrassed when admitting my childhood weakness for the plastic doll.

Yet the fact remains, I was a Barbie fan.

I got my first Barbie for my eighth birthday. It was actually a Skipper (Barbie’s younger sister), since Barbie herself was “too mature for young girls to play with” (per my mother). She had two sausage-like spirals of long blond curly hair. I was hooked.

As I got older, my collection evolved, primarily focused around the Malibu line. Tanning was trendy during the seventies, and the “California” perfectly tanned blonde with blue eyes was all the rage. My collection included three Malibus: P.J., Francie, and Skipper (actually, I had two Malibu Skippers, the first one having been vandalized by a never-identified schoolmate who chopped off her long blond hair and left a permanent dirt smudge on her cheek. Replacement Malibu Skipper assumed the role of Barbie’s fashionable younger sister, while original Malibu Skipper was forever relegated to being the “tomboy” twin with the boyish haircut).

All of my Barbies had distinct personalities - consistent names, ages, and character traits -throughout our years together. Because of the obvious family resemblance, my Malibu quartet became a family unit of four sisters. Typical story lines included some form of tragic death of both parents, resulting in the oldest sister, Jamie, raising her younger siblings alone. Jamie was 27 years old. Somehow, in my mind, 27 was the magical age where you were old enough to be an adult, but young enough to still be fun and adventurous.

In addition to the core group of sisters, Jamie had a close friend, Laura (a short-lived model known as Yellowstone Kelley), who had the same fantastic tan, but with auburn hair and brown eyes. A little diversity for the group. And I had not forgotten my original non-Malibu Skipper, who put in appearances as the pale-skinned best friend of the twins.

The main feminist criticism of Barbie dolls is that they objectify women and portray an impossible physical standard. I cannot argue with this. A standard Barbie doll is 11.5 inches tall, giving a height of 5 feet 9 inches at 1/6 scale. Barbie's vital statistics have been estimated at 36 inches (chest), 18 inches (waist) and 33 inches (hips) (according to Wikipedia).

However, I take issue with the argument that the Barbies teach young girls that fashion and external beauty are the most important things in life. For me, Barbie provided much more.

For example, Barbie encouraged my creativity. Buttons and thimbles became plates and glasses. Swimming pools were giant lakes. Scraps of paper were transformed into tiny record albums and magazines. The backyard garden was a forest, the lawn was a prairie. Flip-flops (called “thongs” at the time) made fantastic cars – tiny one-seated convertibles one could drive around the house. Commandeering the guest bedroom to set up a Barbie mansion with secret rooms, multiple levels, and extensive integration of various household items could occupy us for hours, and was much more enjoyable than playing with the pre-fab Barbie Dream House.

Barbie taught me about disabilities. Due to the unfortunate fact that Barbie dolls hips are not designed for external rotation, I had several “amputee” Barbies as a result of trying to ride my collection of Johnny West horses. These ill-fated Barbies had to forevermore deal with the repercussions of being differently-abled.

Barbie taught me that the bonds of sisterhood would not be broken. As the youngest of three girls, I strongly identified with the youngest sister, “Jennifer” (aka replacement Malibu Skipper). Her butch but sensitive twin (aka vandalized Malibu Skipper), allowed me to explore all those anti-girly-girl tomboy feelings. The addition of best-friend-original-Skipper created the unstable triangle that always seems to occur in groups of three friends.

I won’t lie, I did enjoy the fashion aspect. The tiny outfits were cute, and choosing clothes to fit various scenarios and personalities was, well, fun. Did playing with Barbies contribute to the body-image issues I, like most American women, seem to be plagued with? Perhaps, but no more than magazine ads or television commercials (which feature actual human beings twisted and contorted into a “perfect” image).

And Barbie gave me so much more than any advertising image ever could. My Barbies were proxies by which I navigated the emotional jungle of childhood and early adolescence. They allowed me to play out complex relationship scenarios without risk. And they exemplified women making it on their own (yes, I eventually obtained a Malibu Ken, but he made only rare appearances in the plot lines).

My Barbies discussed life, love, grief, and family values. They had fights, apologized, and made up. They had their hearts broken. They experienced rage, jealousy, and compassion. At the end of the day, they made it through everything unscathed.

Barbie turned 50 this year. But to me, she’ll never be a day over 27.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Lyrical Tale

“I want to rewind every time
'Cause the words have so much meaning
They were there when nobody cared
Always knew what I was feeling”
-Sugar Ray

I’ve always loved song lyrics. From an early age I was fascinated with the way words and music can be combined to affect your emotions and thoughts.

During my teenage years, lyrics were of particularly importance. My friends and I kept so-called “poem books”, which were spiral-bound notebooks consisting primarily of song lyrics, along with fairly cheesy poems published in Teen magazine (“I do believe that God above created you for me to love. He picked you out from all the rest because He knew I’d love you best…”)

I fear that the whole song lyric experience is lost on today’s teenagers. And it’s sad.

Let’s go back to the early eighties. You hear a song on the radio in the car on the way home from school that catches your ear. You feel compelled to learn and record the lyrics for posterity. The first thing to do is to obtain a copy of the song on….yes, you guessed it….cassette tape. No ITunes to download the song to your MP3 player, no internet to look up the lyrics, and who has the money to run out and buy a full length record album that may or may not include the lyrics printed on the sleeve based on a single song you’ve heard only once?

So you pull out your cassette recorder, find a blank tape, and set the machine up with the microphone as close as possible to the speaker of your clock radio. Cassette recorder ready? Check. Clock radio on high volume? Check. Now you just need the radio station to play the song. You could just wait. If a song is popular enough, it will eventually be played on the radio again. But…there is another option: call the radio station.

Remember, this is the early eighties. There is no speed dial. The only phone in the house is attached to a cord that doesn’t quite reach your bedroom even when it is fully extended. So you resign yourself to spending several hours dialing (yes dialing on an actual rotary dial phone) the radio station phone number. You get a busy signal. You dial again. You ignore the blister on your finger. You ignore your parents who are insisting that they are expecting a phone call. And if you’re lucky, at last, after 100 or so tries, you get through to the local station. And if you’re really lucky, the DJ agrees to play your song.

Now that you’ve captured the recording, the real work begins. Some song lyrics are pretty straightforward. But take a song by someone like, say, REM or The Cure, and add in your somewhat interference-prone recording technique, and deciphering the lyrics becomes a puzzle akin to trying to distinguish David Cassidy and Scott Baio in 1980 while wearing dark sunglasses in a dimly lit room (which also might be enjoyable, but in a totally different way).

We spend countless hours playing and replaying portions of the song while writing out the lyrics by hand, one tedious line at a time. These papers are often a scribble of scratched out words, question marks, and possible alternatives to inaudible lyrics written in the margins. Finally, after many discussions and debates, the final lyrics are transposed carefully onto clean notebook paper.

The next day at school someone mentions the great new song they heard on the radio. You casually throw out the fact that you possess the lyrics to said song. If you really like the person (or want them to like you), you then might offer to make a copy of the lyrics for them (this involves a new sheet of notebook paper and your best handwriting – no computers, printers, or copy machines). They are eternally grateful. You are now at the beginning of a chain of copied lyrics that eventually make their way into poem books across the school. With lyrics come social power.

Contrast this memory with today. This morning I heard a song I liked on the radio. I came into work and within minutes of "Googling", I not only had the full set of lyrics to the song ready to print, I also knew the album name, the history of the band, when and where they are in concert next, and how to instantly download the song as a ringtone for my cell phone.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love the internet. I love the convenience of being able to instantly answer nearly any question that comes up in daily life. I love the ability to find 365,472 recipes for rhubarb.

But I miss sitting on my bedroom floor with my best friend playing a song over and over again while debating whether “I miss the rains” or “I felt the rains” down in Africa makes more sense (neither was correct, as it turns out). I miss giggling hysterically over various possible misinterpretations (it’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you, there’s nothing that a hundred men on Mars could ever do…”). I miss the feeling of accomplishment when the final copy was complete. And I feel sorry for today’s kids who might never have that experience.

When Mahatma Gandhi said “There is more to life than increasing its speed”, I’m sure he was referring to life as a whole: hastiness vs. depth of experience, efficiency vs. stopping to smell the roses.

But I think these words of wisdom are just as aptly illustrated by a teenager, scribbling song lyrics in a spiral notebook, laughing with her best friend.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Please Don't Eat the Daisies...

“You know that we are living in a material world
And I am a material girl”

I like to order from catalogs. Catalog orders are convenient and bring with them their own special rewards. There’s the excitement of receiving a package, the delusion that you really didn’t spend any money (because you didn’t actually hand anyone any cash, did you?) and, my favorite, the thrill of the Free Shipping Coupon.

The problem is that once you dip your toe into the ocean of mail-order purchases, other catalog companies, smelling blood, circle like sharks. As a result, I often find myself on the receiving end of multiple catalogs each day, particularly around the holiday season (I have actually come to believe that they are not all originally sent to us, but that they multiply like bunny rabbits in our mailbox).

Most of the time, these unrequested catalogs are quickly browsed (or not) and end up in the recycle bin. But I find myself asking the same very basic question over and over again while in catalog browse mode: Who buys this stuff?

Take, for example, a recent catalog I received with the motto “Garden D├ęcor that Leaves a Lasting Impression”. The nicest way to describe the collection of items would be “eclectic”. Less nice ways might include the terms “unusual”, “bizarre”, and “downright tacky”.

It’s not that there were no appealing items in the catalog. But the juxtaposition of the somewhat attractive items with the more…shall we say, unusual selections was just plain ridiculous.

Another striking oddity is that the marketer appears to be completely obsessed with the size of each and every item. Nearly every statue has a caption on the photo indicating the size of the item, complete with exclamation point (e.g., “Over three feet tall!” ). Bigger is Better must be the company’s secondary motto

On one page, we have a collection of classic statues for the garden. They include St. Francis, Jesus (nearly three feet tall!), Our Lady of Fatima (nearly five feet tall!), a Giant Buddha (four feet tall!), and….yes, you guessed it, rounding out this serious religious collection is…The Meerkat Gang (over two feet long!). Yes, you too can have three meerkats standing on their hind legs, “hand painted and authentically sculpted”, for only $85 plus shipping and handling.

On another page, we have the option to purchase a Tyrannosaurus Rex Dinosaur Garden Sculpture (Over three feet long!), which is “realistically sculpted” from “quality designer resin” with “rows of menacing teeth, a fearsome tail and scaly skin”. Realistically sculpted? T-Rex?

I could go on to describe Big Foot, the Garden Yeti (Over two feet tall!), several variations on the gargoyle theme, the Crocodile Skull Sculptural Artifact, and The Zombie of Montclaire Moors (Life-size!), but you get the idea.

Who buys this stuff?

I know that we live in a capitalistic society. Consumerism drives our economy, and if people aren’t buying, other people aren’t earning a living. Money makes the world go around. Buying things brings people a little joy in a cold world.

But here’s the thing that bothers me. Somewhere in the world, maybe in China, or Vietnam, there is a poor woman working long hours, possibly under unregulated conditions, hand-painting thousands of three foot resin T-Rex statues.

What does she think of us? This person who probably works for minimal pay that is barely sufficient to feed her family….she must shake her head in wonder. What kind of country is America where people have SO much money that they can spend $100 on a plastic statue? I imagine her describing her job to her neighbors and friends – those crazy Americans will buy anything, they must think. And maybe they are right.

Now, we are not blind followers of the advertising Pied Piper. Most of us know, deep in our hearts, that material goods don’t bring lasting happiness. Most of us try to live our lives with more important goals in mind. We struggle to find the perfect balance between time spent acquiring possessions and time spent building relationships. We navigate the tension between the material and the spiritual. But we are pitted against experts in psychology and human behavior whose goal – whose actual full time paying job – is to make us want to buy their product.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines Materialism as: “The theory or attitude that physical well-being and worldly possessions constitute the greatest good and highest value in life.” I can’t think of a better way to describe the message promoted to our culture every day through advertising.

“Physical well-being and worldly possessions”. We all fall into the trap of spending too much time and money in this arena. Show me one TV commercial that isn’t centered around these themes. Show me one online, print, or radio ad that doesn’t focus on how we can look better, live longer, and be happier by buying some product.

And then, please, tell me how a plastic T-Rex in my garden is going to make the world a better place.