Off the wagon, shopping-wise

ticketsWell, now I’ve gone and done it. This is bad. I went on a shopaholic spending spree. You probably sense that I’ve been doing worse over the past month, and this afternoon, I realized how bad things have gotten. I’m embarrassed to confess this to you, but I simply went and spent a lot of money without thinking hard about it. I thought I was doing better with the shopaholism, but here I am off the wagon.

I’ve been very unhappy at work, and recently, things got even worse. But applying for jobs hasn’t been enough to fulfill my hunger for satisfying work. One advantage is that I avoided buying physical objects. The other is that I’m not going to be able to afford many physical objects for a while. I have now spent enough money that from now at least through this spring are going to be belt-tightening times. Avoiding physical objects is not enough of an improvement — I simply should have not spent as much.

Zummara_MedievalOver the past few weeks, I bought tickets to 4 early-music concerts in February and March, and I prepaid for Saturday to Sunday single nights at four-star hotels for 1) the weekend before New Year’s last month; 2) this weekend; 3) Presidents’ Day weekend; and 4) Memorial Day weekend. Oh, and I’m planning to visit the nuns for three days at the end of this month, which is $400 including the bus fare.

It isn’t enough to say the concerts are cheap and that I got really good deals on the rooms, that I could bring my own sandwiches to the hotels (room service doubles the cost of a hotel stay), and that the nuns almost certainly would accept less money than I intend to give them. No, I have to admit sadly that I simply spent too much.320px-Waiter_pouring_Zardetto_sparkling_Prosecco

And regardless of how grim my finances now look for the next few months, I am very happy to have all these experiences to mull over or look forward to. I’m still on the shopaholic high at the moment.

There’s a shrill little mosquito buzz of worry about how I am going to keep up with the payments as the bills come in, and some thumping sounds of embarrassment at trying to buy my way out of my unhappiness, both muffled by my shaky confidence that as much as I am a shopaholic, I have never gotten into financial straits I couldn’t get out of. Nevertheless, despite these alarms, I still feel happy to look forward to these experiences. They are anodynes that will (um, I hope) ease the pain of my work situation.

I went back to Wikipedia about “oniomania,” or shopaholism:

Compulsive buying seems to represent a search for self in people whose identity is neither firmly felt nor dependable, as indicated by the way purchases often provide social or personal identity-markers. Those with associated disorders such as anxiety, depression and poor impulse control are particularly likely to be attempting to treat symptoms of low self-esteem through compulsive shopping.

Well, that fits my situation to a tee. My once rock-stable work identity has been shaken by some nasty events at the office; I’m anxious about landing a new job and learning it; I’m depressed at the prospect that it may take years to find a job that I can do this well in, in terms of both competence and pay; and very strongly, I feel like asserting class markers, as pretentious and shameful as it is.

I want to tell my boss: “I stay in good hotels where they call me ‘madam’ and offer to summon the bellhop to pick up my matching luggage, and I eat good room service there, where the waiter lifts the lid off the entree with a flourish. I go to sophisticated early music concerts. I have a convent I like to visit and give money to, as if I were a medieval noblewoman. I want you to know, Boss, that I am still a smart, dignified, hard-working, professional helper, the way you used to treat me.”453px-Gheorghe_Tattarescu_-_Stareta_Manastirii_Ratesti_

So as happy as I feel that I have all these pleasant events coming up this spring, it’s all rooted in bitterness and resentment, and that is not a good thing. The only positive about this is that the purpose of the convent visit is to talk with the abbess about how to handle my work situation with less bitterness and more patience, while retaining my firm decision to leave this job. But she can’t do the heavy lifting. That’s up to me.

I’m ashamed at being so pretentious and resentful and shopaholic, because compared to millions of Americans in dire straits, I’m doing all right. But I know that I am no longer in the right job if my work situation brings out traits such as shopaholism that put me in a bad situation.

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Nothing that drastic

Some years ago, I discovered that I love staycations, rather than traveling. My style is to call them “mental health breaks,” aspirationally staying in a local four-star hotel for a night a few times a year. (My latest conquest was the InterContinental, on which I used points to get an absurdly low rate on a top rate room. My next conquest is the Langham.)

These places provide numerous amenities I don’t have at my SRO: A bed, a bathtub, movies, a pool, fine restaurant food served to me on a ceramic plate at a table with a cloth instead of handed over a counter in a styrofoam box, and access to alcohol, the latter prohibition in my SRO probably to prevent fights or people drinking themselves into a stupor alone every night.

In a hotel, unlike the smallest real apartment I could rent at three times my SRO rent, I don’t have to clean the bathtub, tub, and sink, change and wash the linens, go out in the weather to watch movies, and lug home a bottle of wine that will half spoil because I cannot drink the whole thing in time. A hotel room for a night or two gives me true appreciation of amenities for a fraction of the cost of having them where they are merely burdens. (And, as I mentioned in my post on interior design, they have given me a taste for simpler design combined with finer, more durable materials.)

I have made these mental health breaks often enough over the years to sense how hotel clerks size up the customers. But, as I’ve told you before, I tend to look like a bag lady at the best of times.

Frame Traveler in Venetian PaisleyBringing one’s luggage in plastic grocery bags means bad treatment. Using black fabric bags means routine, mindless treatment. Bringing three or four largeish bags in a loud, matching Vera Bradley pattern means being treated like C’mell in Cordwainer Smith’s novel “Norstrilia.” A generous 20-oz. cold bottle of water appears from nowhere, the lightweight bags are gently lifted onto a giant brass luggage cart, and upon arrival at the room, the bellhop carefully explains how the thermostat works before bowing, accepting his tip, and literally backing out of the room.

The bear-man leapt from his stool with astonishing speed. “Cat-madame!” he cried, “A thousand pardons. You can have anything in the place. You come from the top of Earthport? You know the Lords of the Instrumentality personally? You would like a table roped off with curtains? Or should I just throw everybody else out of here and report to my Man that we have a famous, beautiful slave from the high places?”

“Nothing that drastic,” said C’mell. “Just food.”

So it is with embarrassment at my pretentiousness that I admit that for years, I have wanted a fine leather designer purse. Not the tacky fabric kind with an “LV” or “CC” logo; I mean the real real thing, leather. And classically styled, no fringes and useless buckles hanging off it. If humble Vera Bradley can get me this far, what will Longchamp or Coach Classic or Chanel get me? On the rare occasions I have had a chance to examine them, I am impressed by the scent and flexibility of the leather, the attention to rounding off the ends of the stitching, and so on. If you don’t have one of these real bags, and you can afford it, get the real thing and not a fake.

Coach classic duffle leatherBut I also know I have an almost magical, magnetic predisposition to walk clumsily into the tongues of doors hard enough to ruin shirts and, doubtless, ruin a fine leather bag. A good watch will keep running on time, A Vera Bradley bag is loud enough to hide the marks, a leather bag is scarred forever.

And, well, there isn’t much I want from the hotel, not worth spending that kind of money on something that has to be handled with such care to present a social clue that may or may not register. Nothing that drastic. Vera Bradley you can’t miss, it punches you in the eyeball at a fraction of the price.

So I must confine my admiration of fine leather products to the other side of the screen or the window. I’m all set now. Thanks for the free bottle of water!

The flesh pots of the Amazon

Hello again! I hope you had a fine Christmas and will have an excellent 2014.

Now we have finished the feast and afterfeast of the Nativity of God in the Flesh. You have read my mentions before of the eating guidelines in my religion. So for the forty days up to Christmas, I went pescetarian, mostly ovo-lacto vegetarian. But from Christmas on, I went whole hog, so to speak, eating red meat at least twice a day. This is not normal for me; for health reasons, I usually eat poultry or fish, not red meat.

320px-Tim_RussertAnd then I remembered Tim Russert. You remember him, too, the tough, hard-nosed, yet pleasant and likable political journalist on Meet the Press for so many years. In 2008, at the age of 58, he suddenly, shockingly collapsed and died of a heart attack at work, despite doing well on a cardiac stress test only a couple of months before.

It was shortly before Russert’s sad and unexpected death that I had read the following excerpt from his 2004 book “Big Russ and Me.” It’s a love poem to meat. I can do no better than to repeat his lyricism in a paragraph I find literally mouth-watering to read.

Tim Russert Big Russ and Me 92

I have not read the book, but having read that passage so shortly before Russert’s death made it spring to mind when the news came. Obviously, this man had a taste for meat, preferably fatty, processed meat, and it was none too good for his heart. But oh, that passage sure makes it sound tasty! The flavor and feel of salty fatty meat is incomparable.

But when that passage came to mind again a few days ago, I thought, “Why do I have cookbooks about meat on my Amazon wish list? I don’t even have a kitchen!”

Obviously, it’s food porn for me — pictures and ideas just on the item page, not even owning the book, stimulating the contemplation of meat, particularly in fancy varieties I can’t even get in my neighborhood.

As with the arroz con leche I wrote about earlier, I should avoid more than very occasional intake of processed or fatty meats, no matter how pleasurable they are. And I should drop the contemplation of it from my mind.

And so, today, I am removing from my Amazon wish list all cookbooks solely about meat. I do not need to have them stimulating my gluttony. Enough that I should eat red or processed meat once a week or less; no need to actually fantasize about it.

I have been like the Israelites in the desert.

And the children of Israel said unto them, Would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots, and when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger.

God sent them manna to eat, which, although nutritionally complete, apparently was as appetizing as those round rice cakes with the texture of styrofoam, and they complained about that, too, and eventually God sent them pre-slaughtered meat and killed the ones who ate it, specifically because of their lust for it, and not because it was meat per se.

33 And while the flesh was yet between their teeth, ere it was chewed, the wrath of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord smote the people with a very great plague.

I choose to give up those books about luscious, delicious meat because there is no sense in fantasizing about it; I should simply enjoy it in the quantities I should have — say, going to a restaurant on Easter for a sirloin — instead of luxuriating in the daydream.

Charcuterie book Odd bits bookBones book

The scriptural basis for Christmas on December 25

Once in a while, most bloggers depart from the topics of their blogs. So this post has nothing to do with shopaholism. I make some claims that are not based on historical evidence. But I wanted to pass along this info, which was transmitted to me as oral lore a long time ago from I don’t remember who, because it is not well known and risks being forgotten.

I have an atheist friend who is very dear to me. He used to say to me, “You know, Jesus was really born in the spring when the shepherds are out in the hills.” “You know, Christmas was really an adaptation of the pagan feast Saturnalia.” And so on. But after I explained this to him, he stopped.

Yeah, I understand, it’s obvious that pious hymns like “In the Bleak Midwinter” that say “earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone” do not accurately reflect the likely circumstances of Christ’s birth. It has more to do with Christ’s cousin St. John the Baptist, whose mother was St. Elizabeth, the sister of Christ’s mother St. Mary the Virgin, who, tradition says, were both daughters of St. Anne and St. Joachim.

But the date of Christmas has nothing to do with the climatic circumstances of Christ’s birth. It has to do with symbolizing the meaning of two Bible passages, Luke 1:26-28 and John 3:30.

First, St. Luke writes:

In the sixth month [of Elizabeth’s pregnancy] the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

So we know that Christ and St. John the Baptist were about six months apart in age.

Then, according to St. John the Evangelist, when St. John the Baptist and Jesus both were doing public ministry, John the Baptist said about Jesus,

He must increase, but I must decrease.

And thus, birth of John the Baptist is celebrated on June 24, around the summer solstice, when the length of the day begins to decrease.

And the birth of Jesus Christ is celebrated on December 25, around the winter solstice, when the length of the day begins to increase.

The dates of the feast days are a symbolic illustration of what John said about Jesus, that Christ’s ministry was rising just as John was about to get in trouble and be executed.

It’s sort of like the birthday of Queen Elizabeth, whose real date of birth is April 21, but whose official birthday is celebrated in June when the weather is likely to be good in the United Kingdom. (But that is not symbolic, it’s for convenience.)

Celebrations of the solstices go very far back in human history, long before the Romans who ruled the area that gave rise to Christianity. So one could perhaps claim that Christians were trying to appropriate these days for themselves. But the scriptural reason Christians observe the births of Christ and the Baptizer at the solstices is because of these two scriptural passages.

In short, John and Jesus were about six months apart in age, and their feastdays are on the solstices as a symbolic illustration of what John said about their ministries’ growth and decline. And this is based on Bible verses from the New Testament.

Christ’s money

As you probably have noticed, the header on my blog shows three magi (mages, Wise Men) happily hustling along with their gifts for the young Christ, who is out of camera view to the right with his mom.

The traditional Christmas nativity scene or creche is a mashup of the story in the Gospel of Luke (the manger, the angels and the shepherds) and the story of the Wise Men in the Gospel of Matthew. The Wise Men probably showed up months or even years after the birth of Christ. That is why King Herod ordered all the boys in the region two years and younger to be slaughtered. It had to take some time for the rumors of Christ’s birth to travel across the land, for the Magi to do their astrological calculations, for them to travel to meet Herod, and then to find Jesus.

The gifts of the Wise Men are now considered quaint, if not actually incomprehensible. Gold famously was called a “barbarous relic” by the economist John Maynard Keynes, and relatively few people have seen it in the coin form that was probably given to Christ and his family. Myrrh comes in hard little brown chips a little paler than instant coffee crystals. Frankincense is small firm irregular blobs shaped like Nerds candies, but they are the tan, slightly translucent shade of boogers. Pure myrrh and frankincense aren’t self-lighting like incense sticks and cones; they are resins that need to be placed on burning charcoal to make fragrant smoke.

Lydian Lion One OunceHowever, like salt or peppercorns used as money in other times and places, all three of these gifts met the characteristics of money: Portable, divisible, durable, fungible, and a store of value. These substances are completely useless to a child — but extremely useful in funding the care of a child. Indeed, some have speculated that the gifts of the Magi were used to support the family during their years in Egypt. So what the mages were giving was money.

God is spirit, as St. John writes, but he also was a little kid. It’s dreadfully expensive to raise a child, even when there are no iPads to buy them, because the poorer you are, the higher the proportion of income you spend on food, so that having to feed another mouth, even a young one, can be quite a blow. The wise men may have been a little strange about astrology, but they knew about money.

Unless one belongs to a church that preaches prosperity theology, one hears among people of faith a concerted attempt to make one feel guilty about one’s comfort. One cannot be a servant to both God and money, and the love of money is a root of evil, and one should not store earthly treasures. Hermit saints like Seraphim of Sarov and Mary of Egypt who lived in destitution are held up as examples.

But this kind of preaching is as unbalanced as prosperity theology. We are called to be “as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” It is irresponsible not to manage one’s money carefully when one has children. In this era of modern medicine where people grow old slowly and die even more slowly, it is irresponsible not to save up money for the time of disability that most people face in old age.

What is more productive than austerity preaching is to teach ascetic questioning, to challenge ourselves: Do I really need both television and internet? Do I really need clothes I do not wear? Do I need a new computer? Do I need a little gadget singing in my ear all the time? Do I need that bag of flour? Do I need that bar of soap? Do I need that pencil? Do I need those plain cotton underpants? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe we should go commando!

Some traditions call the Wise Men kings, although there is no scriptural evidence that they were kings, or even that there were exactly three of them. What is clear is that they were pretty wealthy. And this shows in the mosaic header I use on my blog: They are richly dressed in heavy, multicolored robes and red Phrygian caps; they carry fancy containers and not simple earthen pots; and they are depicted in a scene of luxury, a dreamy golden sky with delicious fruit hanging down from date trees. (If you have never eaten a whole date and not one of those crumbly pebbles, you have missed a real treat.)

Critically, above all, they are offering their gifts to God, the King of All, who normally doesn’t need anything, but as a baby desperately needs material support.

And, as Christ says, “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me” and “whoever gives one of these little ones only a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple, assuredly, I say to you, he shall by no means lose his reward.” When we look into one another’s eyes, we are seeing God in them. So in the midst of the commercialism and greed of the Christmas season, I want to affirm that in the spirit of self-questioning, the act of gift-giving, and enjoying doing so, is nothing to be ashamed of and can indeed be an expression of respect to God.

We, too, are spirit, and we, too, are flesh. We are both physical and nonphysical. As was God. So let us take an attitude neither of unrestrained materialism or unthinking renunciation, but instead follow a truer path of asceticism, which is questioning, and challenging, and taking action.

motherofgodnourisheroflife

Christ was a baby who needed milk

 

Too snug

I started out by writing some nonsense about not having posted for over a week because I was struggling with a topic. Indeed, my next post will be an Observation, and those always take a little longer to write.

However, the main truth about my silence was that in my constant war against overflow of the “bathtub” of my SRO, I’ve had to turn my emotional attention, slowly and very reluctantly, from shopaholism to hoarding.

Packratting is boring compared to shopaholism: I don’t want to gather up all my trash, then walk it down two storeys to the garbage depot, and then walk back up. Same story, again and again. And the more days I am in denial, as I have been this past week, the worse it gets.

At this time of year, facing my clutter is even more difficult. I don’t want to deal with the gifts that people give me, so I leave them here and there half-opened so that the boxes and wrappers snag on me when I try to walk from one place to another in my little home. (Let’s see if I get to the Harry and David’s basket before the pears go bad.) Then there’s the problem of the original boxes that things were shipped to me in that aren’t nice enough to use to give people their presents in. And now I don’t have space to gather up trash as I usually do, so the bags and boxes from needful things like food and prescriptions pile up, ready for me to slip and fall on and for vermin to explore

It’s like the huge garbage whorls in the Pacific Ocean. There’s the big patch by the sink, the patch between my computer and the window, the patch by the door on the closet side, the patch by the door on the other side…

It always amazes me that in about ten days I can go from imagining that I’ve got my hoarding sort of under control to finding that I’m living in quite unpleasant circumstances of my own making. Given that my place is only 8′ x 10′, I shouldn’t be so surprised at how fast this happens, but the sudden ballooning always takes me unawares. I really do feel like Alice (in Wonderland) panicking at how small my room has become so quickly.

I took a couple of little presents to the foyer and put them on the freecycle shelf for someone else to use as their Christmas presents for people in their lives, but that’s not nearly enough to make up for the chaos reigning rampant in my home.

So I am sorry not to have written as I regularly do, but I think the hoarding situation is urgent enough for me to sign off now and put some sweat into dealing with the mess. Housekeeping requires a completely different sort of asceticism from restraining shopaholism, but it is ascetic nonetheless.

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A delusion, not a fantasy

The waiting room in Radiation Oncology had as its focal point a big, expensive saltwater aquarium full of colorful fishes with lovely cool blue illumination. The fish were not just the center of attention; they were celebrities who got the most flattering light in the place. The walls were off-white yellow and the fluorescents the old-fashioned greenish kind, so all the humans in the room looked utterly drained of hemoglobin, as if the Angel of Death had drifted by, as, perhaps, it had.

As the treatments progressed, I realized that the lighting in the clinic was not solely to blame — I really was turning pale. Blusher became not a grooming accessory but the way to keep from looking like a cold ivory carving.

After I recovered, I kept wearing blusher, because I never did regain all my color. Blusher (or rouge, as my mother called it) makes me feel more confident and energetic. The range of tints is wider than one might imagine, and selecting just the right colors of blush and lipstick each day is a minute of calm pleasure in the morning rush.

I discovered that blush looks so stripey or dotty on most people because they actually use the doll-sized brushes that come with the compact. Cosmetics are no exception to the need for the right tool for the job. So I became fascinated by blush brushes in all their many shapes – flat, oval, fan, round, angled.

da Vinci 332 large travel blush brushI bought just two, though, from Bdellium and Mary Kay. They were perfectly fine, but they could not keep me from obsessing over the luxury collection of da Vinci brand makeup brushes. In particular, I pined for the $65 large retracting travel blush brush in a gleaming metal case. I imagined how smoothly the mechanism must work, how soft the brush must feel and how evenly its perfectly domed fluffiness would apply color so naturally, as if I really still did have roses in my cheeks. I envisioned myself opening the case, swiveling out the brush, touching it to the lovely pan of color, and making my aging, post-cancer complexion come alive.

But then I realized that the da Vinci brush was so magnificently large, shiny, scratchable, and dentable, it wasn’t practical for daily use in my purse (alongside my headlamp), nor for the one-night “mental health breaks” I take in hotels a few times a year (a chance to soak in a tub, sleep in a bed, and watch TV). This brush was meant for the kind of travel that involves entire weeks away from home.

At that point, the brush came to represent for me a fantasy life of leisure, of weeks spent here and there in five-star hotels, in multiple homes in the great cities of the world, and in a quiet, breezy villa overlooking the blue, blue ocean the color of the aquarium in the Radiation Oncology waiting room, but with the drowsy brushing sound of waves soothing me as I gently used the brush to apply to my skin the shade of lifeblood, even when nobody was around to see, or perhaps too when there was someone special nearby.

All for a clever piece of metal filled with artfully shaped hair for which squirrels doubtless have more practical uses.

The fantasy is having the villa; but the delusion is that owning that brush would get me somehow closer to having the villa, in the manner of sympathetic magic. No, I can daydream about a villa just fine without delusionally spending money on something that I cannot use in its proper manner. But if you are the kind of person who uses the words “summer” and “winter” as verbs, and you use rouge, I recommend this brush highly because it is beautiful and so consistent with your way of life.

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