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.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

"Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
and they're always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see, our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows Your name."
- Cheers Lyrics, by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo

I am addicted to Facebook.

This rather recent obsession started when several friends insisted I join, and even went so far as to set up my profile for me, including a hastily snapped digital photo. I was not at all interested and did not see the appeal, but I went along with them (because, well, I didn’t have a good reason not to).

And now I can’t stop.

That’s not completely true. I could stop whenever I wanted. But I don’t want to.

I’m in the infatuation stage. I can’t wait to log on each day and see who “friended” me, or who wrote on my “wall”. I stay up too late at night interacting, and then drag myself to work in the morning vowing to avoid logging in later that night (which I invariably do). Weekends supply many free hours to waste perusing profiles, playing Scramble and Sudoku, and posting answers to ridiculous questions (such as my porno name, which is the name of your first pet and the street you grew up on….yes, I am “Prissy Grandville”).

Like any relationship, I’m sure the infatuation will wear off, and then I will discover if this is something real or not. But I’m starting to suspect that it is. And of course, I want to understand why.

It’s partly the attention. It’s fun to think that the littlest mundane things in your life are actually of interest to someone. For some people, I think this is the whole appeal. They spend their time creating profiles that are seemingly advertisements for how full and happy their lives are, and how important they are to the world. Those profiles practically scream with insecurity. And the emptiness and sadness are right there, between the lines.

It’s partly the discovery. I’ve been friended by three people that I have had no contact with since I was a pre-teen. Others that I had lost track of over the years have also found me (or vice versa). It has been deeply rewarding catching up with these friends, many of whom I have wondered about for years. I’ve learned about everything from secret crushes to life-altering experiences. Many of my female friends are sneakily searching for their ex-boyfriends – not to friend them, but to see how their lives turned out (and sometimes hoping they are fat, bald, and unhappy).

But I think the most compelling feature of Facebook is the sense of community it gives you. I honestly feel, when I log on, that I am walking into a room where all my friends like to hang out. And I can learn with a quick mouse click who is already in the room, who was recently there, and what they have all been up to since my last check in.

It’s like having your own personal version of the TV show Cheers. You get to be where everybody knows your name.

It is hard to find that sense of place - that feeling of home - in society today. Many of us work far from where we live, spend most of our time away from home, and have friends and family scattered across the country. We live in small families in big houses. We interact with our gadgets more than each other. We miss the sense of connection that we had when our world was smaller and we could walk down the block to see our best friend every day after school.

No, I don’t think Facebook is the answer to world peace. And it is certainly not the ultimate solution to the loneliness and seclusion that seem to be seeping into our culture. But maybe it is a step in the right direction.

And if nothing else, you might get a good chuckle over the profile of the jerk who dumped you in high school.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Sticking it to "The Man"

"I am just an advertisement
For a version of myself"
- David Byrne

We are all in advertising. We advertise ourselves, all the time. What we wear, our body language, how we carry ourselves – they all advertise the person we are (or the person we believe that we are - or want others to think that we are).

This makes sense. We are visual beings. In tribal days, it was important to recognize a friend (who might help you hunt the wooly mammoth) or foe (planning to club you over the head). So we look for visual cues among those we meet.

Most of the time these visual clues are subtle. Other times, not so much (think Goth or Drag Queen). And speaking of non-subtle communications, I find it an endless source of fascination to observe the bits and pieces of information many people choose to display to the three or four hundred strangers they encounter on a daily basis.

I’m talking about bumper stickers.

According to Wikipedia, the first bumper stickers appeared shortly before World War II; they were flag-like, and attached to the bumper by wires. In the late 1940’s and early 50’s they eveolved into the more modern version of adhesive bumper stickers that we know and love today. I don’t imagine that "The Greatest Generation" envisioned the cultural and money-making phenomenon this would become (if you type “buy bumper stickers” into Google, you will get close to 13 million hits, as of this writing).

Trivial insertion: Bumper stickers are not unique to this country. In fact, in Israel, one of the most popular songs of all time is Shirat Hasticker ("The Sticker Song") by Hadag Nachash, a song composed entirely of bumper sticker slogans.

The main question that I find myself asking repeatedly while sitting at yet another red light behind yet another car full of words, phrases, and slogans is “Who Are Bumper Sticker People?”

I should clarify that I’m not talking about the people that have a single bumper sticker advertising the charity they support or the radio station they listen to. I’m referring to those who seemingly want total strangers to know everything about them, from their religious and political views to what middle school their above-average child attends.

What is their motivation?

Do they think of this as a way to make friends? “Gee honey look! That person loves her shih-tzu, has an honor student at Tappan Middle School, is into Wicca, and loves to knit! I think I’ll go introduce myself!”

Perhaps they think they are influencing other drivers. “Gosh, I’ve never really had an opinion about abortion, but seeing all those pro-life bumper stickers has really made me think!”

Are they egomaniacs? Are Bumper Sticker People the same individuals who wear those T-shirts with large print, not-so-funny quips? Are they the same people who play their music really LOUD so everyone knows how cool they are? Are they the same people who insist on entertaining their friends at parties with amazing stories of their athletic prowess?

I don't think so.

As a communication medium, the bumper sticker is really pretty subtle. You make your point, quietly, and to total strangers. No one complains, and generally speaking, no one confronts you. For messages so personal, it is, well, rather an impersonal delivery system.

And perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps Bumper Sticker People are looking for a kinder, gentler way to make a statement. Without risk of confrontation. To total strangers.

Whether intentional or not, bumper stickers send a message about who a person is. And I wonder how often people actually think about what that message is.

In the last several years, a certain type of sticker has begun to appear in the back windows of pick-up trucks. This sticker is an outline of a cartoon figure of a little boy (who looks suspiciously like “Calvin” of Calvin and Hobbes), with his back to the viewer, urinating, while looking over his shoulder at the observer. On Dodge trucks, the sticker portrays the boy urinating on a Ford logo. Not surprisingly, on Ford trucks, the Dodge logo is the target. The look on the boy’s face is probably meant to be "impish", but I would describe it as akin to the face of Chucky the doll from the movie Child’s Play.

While I find these stickers mildly offensive, in a roll-your-eyes-and-sigh-in-disgust sort of way, I’ve never really paid much attention to them. But the other day, my husband and I parked behind a pickup truck displaying a new variation on this theme that caught my attention. The same nasty little boy was doing the same nasty little deed, but this time the target of his attention was a giant letter “U”.

It took me a minute to get it. Essentially, it was saying “Pi** On You”. To add insult to injury, the little boy was also flashing his middle finger toward the viewer.

My ever-questioning brain kicked into high gear. Who drives this truck? What kind of person wants their message to the world to be “screw you all, I hate everyone”? I mean, I’m all for free speech, and I don’t deny this person the right to express their opinion, but…..really? Is that the message you want to send to hundreds of strangers every day?

Of course, “Pi** On You” may be a perfectly nice person. We certainly don’t always walk the walk that our words (or bumper stickers) might imply.

It's a balmy Saturday morning. I'm driving along in the left lane on the freeway in fairly heavy traffic. Suddenly, and without warning, a speeding maniac zooms up behind me, tailgates me at less than 12 inches for about 5 seconds (before deciding I wasn’t going fast enough), then passes me on the right, barely wedging his car into the 6 foot space between me and the car in front of me.

I hit my brakes while uttering some decidedly non-Disney words. Then I see it. There is a Jesus Fish on his bumper.

Ummm...What Would Jesus Do? I'm not sure, but probably not that.

We all know that actions speak louder than words. When the rubber meets the road (pun intended), it’s not what you wear, the music you listen to, or even what you put on your bumper that tells the world who you really are. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say”. I love that quote.

Maybe I can get that on a T-shirt. Or a bumper sticker.