What with all the job-shifting and related identity adjustments going on over here, I’ve been thinking a lot about–well, about what amounts to the entire table of contents of just about any book you could pull off the Self-Examination for the Intellectual and Vaguely Buddhist, but, you know, Not In the Annoying Way That All Those Other People Are Doing It shelf down at your local crunchy-granola book collective. (What, your town doesn’t have one of those?)
My loyal readers (all three of you) might have noticed that I finally settled on a name for this here blog (and it only took 2 years!), and it’s characteristically obtuse, self-congratulatory in its cleverness, obscurely (arguably) humorous, and probably more complicated than it has to be. (But, hey–if you ask The Google, you’ll see that I’m not the first to think of it.) But I digress. The point is this: I come here to write for the sake of working things out in my own head. That a few of you take the time to read my ramblings is gratifying. It’s a very personal (self-indulgent?) endeavor, and I’m not going to try to make it something else that it’s not. There is already a wealth of useful information out there about anything I’d be inclined to write about–bikes, gardening, food politics, cooking, “green” living (and its unfortunate companion, greenwashing), yoga, music, books–and I don’t think I’ve got much new to add to that pool. And, anyway, trying to impose order here (sticking to a narrow theme or purpose) means constant work to contain and direct the energy of these words. To stay on message, as it were. This, in turn, leads to a minor crisis about what is and is not “important” enough to sprout a blog post.
Being overly self-conscious about the possible reception of any given post is tetanus for your writing muscles.
I’m swearing it off–all the internal drama about what’s worth publishing, all the internal criticism about whether or not the blog is boring. My site stats tell me that you keep coming back, even if by accident. For that, I say thank you. You are welcome anytime. Come back as you will, and I’ll do the same.
But I was talking about navel-gazing. One thing that’s been on my (our) mind(s) is how much of our behavior is dictated to us, frequently by people or entities we don’t like or don’t agree with. This happens both with and without our notice–though I’m taking note more often these days. Comes with all that pondering, I suppose.
Waylon over at elephant journal has posted a link to a novel Australian TV show that pits advertising companies against each other in a bid to “sell the unsellable.” Apparently, this has been quite the successful concept, and they seem to have had enthusiastic participation–until they asked for ads about banning all religion.
What intrigues me about this show is not that it attempts to distill incendiary ideas down into thirty-second TV spots, but rather how it not-so-subtly highlights the role marketing plays in our everyday lives. None of us are all that surprised to see commercials for ideas–even strange or unpopular ones. Campaign spots, PSAs, satire, and all those videos your friends share on facebook have taken care of that. What, then, makes this show’s concept compelling? Jarring, even?
I think it has, in some small way, removed the veneer of polite distance from the very act of advertising itself. Advertising is unobtrusive to the average person because it’s familiar. It’s selling you things you already are accustomed to see being sold (toothpaste, cars, toilet paper, popular music), and so it doesn’t feel challenging or confrontational. (I’m not talking about specific commercials–I’m sure most folk could agree that some are amusing while others are annoying. I’m talking about the very existence of advertising at all, which, I suspect, most people don’t question.) You might disagree with an ad’s assertion that toothpaste X will whiten and brighten and freshen better than toothpaste Y, but that’s cool. You and that guy Ad can nod when you pass in the hall and acknowledge each other; you will smile internally at how you’re too independent to fall for Ad’s game, while Ad is smugly confident knowing that his work is far more effective than you will ever know.
We’ve accepted that with our cherished freedom to choose comes a little friendly prodding about what choice to make. Hey, it’s just a little capitalism–nothing to be frightened of. That chewing gum commercial doesn’t feel strange because the product in question is ultimately trivial–your choice of chewing gum may indeed express a host of things about your personality and desirability and popularity, but it’s a harmless exercise. Who cares if someone else wants to try to convince you the other guy’s gum is better? And, anyway, every time you see the ad for your preferred brand, with its sexy models or funny punchlines or cute talking animals, your self image gets a tiny boost. You chose that brand, the brand of pretty, laughing people–ergo, you yourself must be (or have much in common with) an attractive and happy person.
But when a commercial tries to sell you an idea that you either A) aren’t accustomed to seeing sold at all or B) directly challenges a foundational belief, suddenly the arrangement doesn’t seem so congenial. This ad, apart from the particulars of its content, has drawn attention to the fact that someone is trying to tell you what to think. We’re comfortable with this when it comes to brand choice, because we’ve managed to accept the idea that products are personal–as expressions of our wealth and taste–but, you know, not that personal–you’re no ad man’s slave, you know. But if some marketeer tries to tinker with our moral fiber (nevermind that this is precisely what they do, day after day), then hoo boy… watch out. We’ll get mighty uncomfortable. And possibly vocal about it, for a brief time. Might even tweet about our discomfort before we settle back into our fluffy recliners and switch on the Everybody Loves Raymond reruns.
And that’s it, really. It’s far simpler to indulge momentary, fruitless outrage than it is to really examine what can and cannot be commodified, and what implications that has for the particulars of one’s own life.
Because, once you realize that we’ve successfully commodified all of it, what do you do with that information?
What person of my generation didn’t have their very own Lloyd Dobler moment?
And didn’t it sound great at the time?
But haven’t you grown quite accustomed to your house and your car and your teevee and your stuff?
Here’s something I keep running up against: my ideals remain, well, just that. On paper, lovingkindness sounds fantastic. In reality, people can be awful (myself included). In the abstract, justice is a fine thing, fearlessness is admirable, and the human capacity for greatness is limitless.
Seems rather different when one picks up a newspaper, doesn’t it?
Another one, that I’ve nodded my head to in agreement for years and years: stuff is just stuff. In the scheme of self-improvement and enlightened living, this is an obvious place to start. Attachment to things seems like the low-hanging fruit. Easy, really. I’ve read some shit. I’ve watched Fight Club. My stuff doesn’t define me.
Or does it?
It’s one thing to nod along in enthusiastic agreement when someone like the venerated Thoreau writes, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.” And this: “Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable…but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.” And when no less an elevated soul than the Dalai Lama says, when asked what surprises him most, said:
Easy to read this on a sunny afternoon, feet up, netbook open on your lap, hot coffee at hand. Easy to express wholehearted concurrence. Easy.
But it ain’t.
When the conditions are right, though, you can open that door. On a lazy afternoon not so long ago, a few pints in the shade by the river did just that. The Man Friend and I were talking about a big change that’s coming up for us (I’ll tell you all about it soon, I promise… I’m still working through the embarrassment at how scattered it makes me look after a summer of other, now-on-hold “big changes” announced on these pages), a change that butts right up against all these precious ideals I’ve emptily clung to for all these years–in particular, the true nature of our attachment to stuff.
At the prospect of getting rid of most of our possessions–coldly weighing questions of sentimental value versus market value and storage unit costs–the way should be clear for a virtuous, unattached thinker like myself, no?
A thought occurred to me, and made me laugh out loud.
“What?” he asked.
I had to get a few last, mildly hysterical giggles out before the words could form: “I was just thinking, But I have such cool tee shirts.”
He (as he does) instantly saw the problem.
“Yeah,” he agreed, with a rueful look, “I have cool tee shirts, too.”
In silence, we both took a long sip, watched the golden light play on the undulating surface of the French Broad, and considered our lives without the cachet of cool tee shirts.
Then we both laughed some more.