Monday, October 5, 2009

Memo to Your Inner Spendthrift

I love Mad Men: the show provides an object lesson in the complete lack of concern for consumers that defines the advertising industry. It is, as they tell us themselves, where the truth lies.

Advertising is a business designed to do two things: 1) tell us we are imperfect, 2) sell us whatever we need to improve ourselves. Advertising’s mantra is create a need and fill it, whereas most other businesses operate to find a need and fill it.

When I figured this out as a youngster, I felt as if I had just discovered that the emperor had no clothes. I could not understand how adults could be persuaded by advertising. It was the same to me as letting someone else tell me what I want and what I need. Why would a sane person do that? Didn’t people know their own wants and needs?

Advertising is persuasive because it is seductive. Seduction is only effective when there is an imbalance of power. Look at the social constructs that underlie the interpersonal dynamics in Mad Men: the women are subservient, more decorative than useful, not to be brought in when serious matters are under discussion. They may as well have a target on their foreheads that says: tell me what to do to please you; tell me what to buy.

When we abdicate to the dictates of advertising, we give advertisers all the power they need to walk all over us, and we leave none of it for ourselves. No wonder we line up like sheep to buy expensive handbags, and shoes that would encumber us if we tried to run to safety from a burning building. Those are stupid shoes! They're not designed with your best interests at heart. Why do women buy them?

Look in any fashion magazine on the stands right now. Flip through until you find a pair of 7” heels with 3” platform soles and enough straps to bind a martyr to a stake. Can you honestly say those shoes were created with women in mind? No! And any woman who wears them is that martyr! Maybe they were designed for men who frequent what they alone like to call gentlemen’s clubs.

Close your eyes. From all the gratuitous scenes you’ve see on screen that involve poles and sequins, imagine the inside of one of these clubs. Smell the smoke. Smell the whiskey. Look around at the faces of the men as they watch the women on the poles. These gentlemen would like you to wear those shoes.

I have never purchased a pair of FMs.

However, I have overspent on a handbag or two over the years. I have more shoes than I need, and I have enough cashmere sweaters to outfit the senior class for portrait day. Even a vigilant stance in the face of advertising tsunamis is not foolproof: my own personal fool can still occasionally emerge and overspend.

It's easy enough to lose resources due to market downturns without adding to the crisis through your own irrational spending. It is true that the older we get, the less we need to buy, anyway. Most of us already have at least one storage unit. Some of us have many more. Just think: all that stuff (that now has its own rent bill and zip code) was accumulated transaction by transaction, cash register by cash register, signature by signature.

Then you had to bring it home. Unwrap it. Deal with the wrapping. Hang it up/put it on shelf/squeeze it into a drawer. And then—and this may be the biggest challenge of all—then you had to remember that you had it and where you put it so you could actually wear it/use it/carry it before it was completely out of style.

At some point, you put it into storage because you paid a lot of money for it, it is in excellent condition since you never used it, and it’s just too good to give away. So by paying to store it indefinitely, you have, in essence, never stopped paying for something you don’t even use. I have not said need. We all know need has nothing to do with it.

We have been duped by our advertising-trained spendthrift once again. We ought to put her in storage with all the rest of that stuff that may as well be flashing GUILT! GUILT! GUILT! because that’s what it brings up in you when you give this entire cycle any thought—which you try not to do.

This is a little like telling an alcoholic she wouldn't be an alcoholic if she'd just stop drinking. The key word is irrational, and I believe that's why shopping issues are so explosive for so many women. Somehow money, possessions, and status are all wrapped up in a sense of entitlement for many women, and this is a dangerous combination. Caveat emptor, indeed: the dollar you save will be your own.

So-called Self Storage (it is difficult for me not to read this term literally and wonder just what’s inside some of those units) operations have proliferated across our country like golf balls on a driving range. It is possible that together we can work to put them all out of business!

This brings me to two questions:

What will your children do with all the stuff you’ve squirreled away in your storage units once you’re no longer here?

How many handbags will fit in a casket, anyway?

And notice that you don’t see national advertising from casket companies—no prime time slickness, no half-time sponsorship. Why might that be? Is it because we all know better than to buy a casket we don’t need?

Photography: Mad Men, AMC

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Hurt and Choice: What Viktor Frankl Knew

When something goes awry, we have two obvious ways of viewing the circumstances in order to make sense of them.

Here is an exaggerated example to make the point: Let's say you promised your sister that if you win the lottery, you will write her a check for $100,000. Then, let's say you did not win the lottery. How would you feel if your sister told you and anyone with ears that you owe her $100,000, and that you refused to honor your word, which was nothing more than a cruel lie?"

You might say, "That's not fair!"

If so, ask yourself, "What is it that is not fair?"

Your answer might be: what my sister did to me--what she said about me--is not fair.

In this way, you can give voice to your perception that an injustice has been done. Your sister did something that hurt you, and you think about it in terms of fairness.

It is a very likely in this case that you will also think in terms of a perpetrator and a victim. To boil it down further, you feel that your sister has done something to you and that you are the victim of her behavior: she has twisted your good intention into a promise, which she claims you failed to honor. She is not being fair to you.

In other words, you react to this injustice by declaring yourself the victim. You stand accused of something you did not do. Not fair.

But another reaction to the same situation could be, "This is wrong."

Ask yourself, "What is it that is wrong?"

Your answer: The way my sister treated me--what she said about me--is wrong.

The situation shifts. The focus is no longer on you as the victim of someone else's bad behavior. It is now on the idea that your sister made a decision that is wrong. Her analysis of the facts is incorrect. She made a mistake.

The fact is that mistakes like this probably make her feel miserable. Remember that only a miserable person would feel a need to do something like what she did to you in the first place. No one misconstrues the truth like that out of happiness and contentment.

I'm not suggesting that you rush to embrace your unfortunate sister for her weak discernment skills. To the contrary, I believe that her choices create her life, and that her life is probably full of things she has created which she now trips over regularly. Which are not your responsibility.

The point I am trying to make is that your sister's behavior is not about you unless you choose to make it about you. You may choose to see her lie about the lottery money as a misguided departure from the truth, or you may choose to see it as something mean she has done to you.

You choose to see the incident as being unfair or wrong.

Of course, the incident described above is both: it is unfair and it is wrong. But if you choose to see it only as unfair, you are likely choosing the role of victim for yourself, a role that is not inherent in the facts of the case.

I bring this up because I see it as a way to set yourself free. Allow the choices someone else makes to reflect on her, and believe that the consequences of her choices pave the path of her life. In this way you can see that you are not part of the equation: you do not have to accept her wrong view of something just because she wants you to accept it.

This is your choice, and the same applies to you as to your sister: your choices pave the path of your life. Why litter it with misconceptions about the behavior of others, litter that can trip you and make you feel like a victim, powerless to change anything or move forward until justice is done? Victims are stuck. You don't want to be stuck, do you?

Something can be both unfair and wrong, and it can affect you deeply, but it doesn't have the power to mandate your response. That response is yours to choose.

Viktor Frankl survived life in concentration camps because he knew his dignity rested in his choice of how he would interpret the world as it caved in around him.

Choice is our greatest gift, and even our smallest decisions are important in making us who we are.

Photography: Clarice Cliff Winding Path,

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Panchromaticism--if It Isn't a Word, It Should Be

What is your favorite color?

Did you have to think before answering?

I'm not questioning your memory. I bring up the subject of your favorite color because I suspect it has changed over your life; therefore, you may have to think about the question for a minute and actually make a decision in order to give an answer, because it is possible you're not sure right now.

Twenty years ago, I would have said yellow without a second thought. Now I think of my old stand-by yellow first, but then I wonder whether I might prefer that burnt orange some pumpkins turn when they've been outside through a frost, or maybe the pure cobalt of the sky at certain times of year…or the clear aqua of tropical waters over crystalline white sand. But wait--fuchsia! I just love fuchsia, I realize. I find it dazzling in dupioni silk nestled next to crimson.

So I say…what? Yellow, as usual? Or Oh, I don't know, I like them all (a lie--I can't bear silly putty pink).

Maybe the answer depends on the application. My favorite color for clothing? In that case, because I have green eyes, I'd say olive green is my favorite color because I wear it well.

Or in my garden? Well, there I'd have to answer that it really depends, because I can’t get enough of the blue of iris germanica, but I also love that orange-red of Bishop of Llandaff dahlias (but only when it sits atop the bronzy burgundy foliage of that particular plant, because it's really the combination of the two that I like). On the other hand, I might have to admit that staring into the greenish-yellow of coreopsis verticulata Moonbeam, which I used to love, now gives me the same twitchy sensation I imagine I’d get by sucking on a yellow pepper--but I love that golden color of giant sunflowers and certain calendulas.

What about favorite colors for my home? I like to be surrounded by the deep colors in the Persian rug on the floor in my living room (I took my first steps on that rug)--and oxblood Chinese porcelain and taupe walls with crisp white woodwork set it off perfectly.

This is a more complicated question than I originally thought. Must I really choose?

I now see that there is no longer such thing as my favorite color. I like different colors for different things at different times--and in different places.

Is it possible this panchromatic answer is a reflection of broader tolerance I've developed through living a little bit longer than I had when yellow was my immediate response to the question?

It seems that the older I get, the more I realize that there really is a time and a place for everything. Even silly putty pink has its place, I reluctantly admit: it is the perfect color for silly putty. And yes on the Moonbeam, too.

What is your favorite color?

It this a tricky question these days for you, too?

Photography: Coreopsis verticulata Moonbeam,; iris germanica,