Tag Archives: consumerism

The fish and the hairdryer

SmokedRainbowTroutDo you like smoked fish? I do, a lot. Nom nom nom! It’s full of that famous new type of flavor, umami, which distinguishes simple salt and vinegar, sugar and bitter, from luscious savoriness. It’s fun to eat a generous helping of that stuff, but really, very little is needed to be satisfying. It tends to be expensive because of the labor that goes into making it and the small amount produced, what with the wood chopping and the long drying at low temperatures, but that doesn’t stop me from standing at the display at the corner store and feeling myself starting to drool at the vacuum-sealed package of peppered smoked trout.

There are many and varied editions of anecdotes from the lives of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, who were Christian monastics, mostly from Egypt of the very early middle ages, and some from the Russian steppes of the early modern period. (Wait, this is connected!)

51hM9lR63QL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_One monk who lived out in the Egyptian countryside got a hankering for smoked fish. Smoked fish not exactly growing on trees in the desert, he had to walk to town to get some. He walked miles and miles with his mind preoccupied by the fabulous thought of a bite of smoked fish. (Being poor, he probably could afford no more than a bite.)

Finally, he got to the town, and suddenly realized that he had put an immense amount of time and labor toward acquiring nothing but a flavor that would be gone in minutes. “This is nucking futs,” he said to himself, or whatever early medieval Egyptian monks said to that effect. He repented of his gluttony. He turned around and walked all the way back to his home in the desert where, I imagine, in the typical monastic fashion he had bread, water, and probably nuts and dried fruits.

For over a decade, my doctor begged me to find some kind of exercise. (Wait, this is connected, too!) “Do what you enjoy doing,” he said. “Maybe you could try walking. Walk five minutes in any direction whatsoever, walk back home, and you’ve got ten minutes done.” I always replied, “No. What I enjoy doing is lying on the floor in front of my computer. A rolling chair like in the movie ‘Wall-E’ would be nice, too.” I am allergic to the term “exercise,” what with its connotations of “fitness” (what, so everyone else is unfit to live?), and sweatiness and heat.

But on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, I found myself in a hotel pool paddling back and forth doing laps. I suddenly realized with dismay and logic that I had found the famous “form of physical activity I like,” something I was so prepared to do voluntarily that I had packed my swimsuit in anticipation. So after six weeks of trying to ignore this grim fact, I joined a gym with a pool. I had a suitable gym bag, an extra hair dryer, some slippers.

Andis RC-2 Ionic 1875W Ceramic Hair DryerSo the first thing I did after my pleasant first swim at the gym was to go on a shopping quest, to look for a new hair dryer. The vast array online offers so many desirable qualities! Quiet, lightweight, folding, powerful, with a retractile cord, professional sturdiness, and all the cascading bounty of “ions” a girl could ever want. So much nicer than the old ones I have. I spent an hour or so putting many models into my wishlist. Such a technological upgrade!

And then, like the monk who wanted smoked fish, I suddenly said, “This is nucking futs.” I have a perfectly good hairdryer I use at home, and I had bought it as a quieter replacement to the one I keep in my until now-unused gym bag. To spend an hour selecting a third when I have two that work fine? That’s nucking futs!

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.

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

 

New “best posts” page

I’m excited to tell you about a new page in the top menu (the red ribbon). The page links to what I think are the best posts from my blog to date, things I don’t want to get buried. If you were brought here by a search engine, these posts probably relate to your interests. If you’ve been reading this blog already, take a look to see if you missed any of these posts when they were first published, with my thanks to you. Click here to go directly to the “best posts” page.

Black Friday preview

This 1:44 video made me incredibly sad. As an ascetic shopper, I cannot imagine how anyone could possibly get any good, satisfying, enjoyable merchandise under such circumstances, much less find a gift suited to a particular person; and I hope it is obvious to the reader that the free expression of unrestrained greed cannot be of any interior benefit at all to the participants. Turn your sound WAY down if you choose to watch.

Shopaholism by proxy, part 2

Yes, my relative was a shopaholic, a strange one, but a shopaholic like me.

I would have loved it if he had sent me generic gifts. There is always a need for more or less generic gifts, such as gifts to people we do not know well; housewarming gifts; and “hostess gifts,” the old-fashioned term for gifts given to people when we arrive at social events they are hosting. That is what I mean when I say generically that something would be a terrific gift. It is assumed that possibly the party-throwing recipient may not be crazy about the heart-shaped bottle of pimento olives, but that it was given on a guess that someone who likes to give cocktail parties will find a way to use olives. That is why nobody should ever expect gifts to match their specific fantasies of what they would like to receive.

However, my relative’s behavior is a warning that conversely, we shopaholics should not use other people as excuses for us to buy them what we would like to receive.

Putting it plainly, to do so is nothing but using other people in order to satisfy our compulsions. Yes. That bad.

188px-Angelico,_Bosco_ai_Frati_AltarpieceThis is a particularly subtle form of shopaholism — shopaholism by proxy. I have committed it myself many times, though less often, I hope, in recent years.

I am not specifying whether our gifts should be cheap, expensive, or moderate; I am only saying that the specific nature of the gift should be aimed to suit to the general style of the recipient, not that of the giver.

At an obvious level, you may love to bake, but don’t give a box of homemade sugar cookies to a diabetic and say, “Just one a day won’t hurt you.” You may love books about baseball statistics, but don’t give them to someone whose interest in sports is limited to tennis.

162px-John_Singer_Sargent's_Madame_Ramon_SubercaseauxOn a more subtle level, do not give people objects they might enjoy but in a style you like, on the excuse that you are “broadening their taste” or “giving them some contrast to what they already have.” It’s a temptation particularly in regards to the fabled “people who have everything,” but fight it, because it’s insulting. It’s insulting to suggest that the life of someone who likes Fra Angelico is incomplete without a calendar of works by John Singer Sargent, or the reverse.

And if you notice that someone owns a lot of something, probably it’s best to give them something else. Either they are big collectors or heavy users who have a very specific idea in mind of what they will need (such as a keen photographer or cyclist, whose next purchase is likely to be a piece of equipment you have never heard of) or they are getting a whole lot of what they don’t want or need, and aren’t using it (such as an artist I knew who had an immense collection of unopened bath products in shrink-wrapped gift baskets).

And when you need a more or less generic gift, let it not be conspicuously ill suited to the recipient, or requiring too specific tastes. Think before you give someone a doily you love or some wine of a vintage you esteem or, indeed, many of the items I have touted on this blog as good gifts. These may be excellent gifts indeed, but only for the right people. If you find a set of wine glasses that you think are wonderful, they may be a very fine wedding gift — but not if you know the groom’s first wife was a big drinker, because maybe he is marrying a teetotaler this time around!

good_cardIf it’s too hard to figure out what a recipient would like, give a Good Card charity card, which lets them choose a nonprofit to give it to. Better to be a vague giver than to indulge your shopaholism by giving an item that will not be enjoyed, that burdens the recipient with its disposal, that is a waste of money.

The gift-giving season should not be a cover for the sneaking pleasure of purchasing what we covet for ourselves. If we want something deeply enough, we should get it — for ourselves. If we want it that badly, we should either make a place in our lives for it, or give up our fantasies about it. We need to be honest with ourselves about our longings and what we can accommodate in our lives.

When we choose gifts, we should not be pursuing our own pleasure in making the purchase; instead, we should be seeking to optimize enjoyment for our recipients by choosing what they would enjoy themselves. We should not be choosing gifts thinking “What would I most enjoy receiving?” but, rather, “What would the recipient enjoy receiving?”

Our gifts should not circle around about ourselves and the gravity well of our bottomless shopaholism. What we should be seeking to express through our gifts is not how we feel about the things we give, but how we feel about our friends and family.

Shopaholism by proxy, part 1

I once had a faraway relative who sent me presents several times a year. He never had any children of his own, fortunately.

I say that because he was not a fun person. Perhaps he best revealed his general stance toward life when, in the early years of email, he vowed to me between clenched teeth that if anybody ever once dared to send him a joke, he would never again open an email from that person again, because that person had wasted his time. Good thing that graphics could not be sent in those days; God forbid anyone should send him pictures of kittens.

270px-Une_sandwich_au_beurre_de_pinottesWhenever I visited with him, he would lecture me (decades before it was boilerplate in every financial column) on how much money I could save by bringing a thermos of coffee and a peanut butter sandwich to work every day instead of buying any comestibles at the office, and by making an entire week’s dinners in one large batch all at once (the same dish for every night of that week). He expounded on “the power of compounding” as if I were a wastrel with the impulse control of an infant.

His gifts to me clearly arose from a dialogue he was having with himself that had nothing to do with anyone else. They were always things he wanted for himself but was too much of a cheapskate to get for himself. It was as though he were prying money from his own clenched fingers and, in a bizarrely literal interpretation of the Golden Rule, sent me precisely what he would have liked someone to send him.

The gifts displayed a mind-bending degree of specialization. One time I got an envelope from him, and I tore it to pull out the note inside. The note explained that the envelope was a first-day cover of the stamp, and thus, ineffably more valuable than the stamp purchased on the second day of release. I looked at the stamp in bewilderment and spotted the large picture on the front. The stamp celebrated a topic he deeply cared about which had never interested me; and I was confused about why he would be sending a stamp to me, who had never felt interest in philately, until I remembered that when he was a boy, he had had a stamp collection.

Harry_S._Truman_first_day_cover_1973-05-08Naturally, ripping apart the envelope ruined any value the first day cover may have had. But anyway I always got rid of his gifts as quickly as possible after I had opened them in the vain hope that for once, they would not be all about his own longings for himself.

I wasn’t hoping he would give me what I wanted; I just wished that once in a while he would give me something he didn’t want for himself. Nothing too complicated; it just would have been a nice touch to send, say, a piece of clothing in a woman’s size and proportioned for a woman, instead of the same item in a men’s size and cut.

It would be proper for me to acknowledge that it was kind of him to think of me, and good of him to spend his hard earned, extremely carefully saved money and to take the trouble to wrap and mail the package. And cetera. But when someone is a joyless skinflint, you know that any of their gifts is either joylessly self-seeking, or made from a joyless sense of obligation, or both; and under such circumstances, it is hard to be a joyful recipient.

What is the point of recalling this particularly unpleasant relative? In the light of the approaching “holiday season,” these repeated self-centered gifts bear a very stern warning for us shopaholics.

[to be continued]

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