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Archive for the ‘Commercialism & Consumerism’ Category

Stephen King Steps Up

If ever I should manage to become a well-off, well-respected author who’s rolling in money, I hope I have the good sense to handle it like Stephen King, who has never forgotten what it’s like living in America when you’re not Stephen King.

Stephen King in a crowd.

Image via The Cleveland Fan.

He’s just put out an article on The Daily Beast where he criticizes the wealthy for refusing to pay more taxes. Here’s his basic argument in summary (though the full thing is well worth reading): philanthropic giving may be nice and get your name on buildings, but the Stephen King School of Literary Criticism is not going to stop global warming, clean up the environment, or feed poor children. Upward mobility is possible in America because the country offers safety nets for its citizens, paid for by everybody’s collective tax dollars. Current American politics is damaging the potential for upward mobility that got today’s wealthy fat-cats where they are today, putting a disproportionate amount of the tax burden on people who are still struggling to make it.

And, King insists, those fat-cats need to stop complaining that they’re being asked to contribute a fair share.

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The Practical Charity Santa

Santa Claus

Image via Turn Back To God.

There’s a holiday tradition in my family. Ever since my husband and I met, we’ve made children’s charities a part of our Christmas celebration by purchasing and donating brand-new toys to children living in poverty. In fact, the tradition has been going on since before I met him: I started to secretly donate toys around the holidays as a teen with the proceeds from my part-time job. So I have a decade-long history with charity-giving for children.

And yet I’ve never had a year when the gift-giving process has been as difficult (or as satisfying) as this Christmas.

The reason seems simple to me. I’ve spent the last couple of years learning a lot about the needs of children – physical, social, intellectual, emotional, psychological, spiritual, and developmental – and I wanted to take those things into account as I picked gifts for my Christmas Children. I’ve learned a lot about what shapes the way we each think and feel about ourselves. Some of it has been intellectual “book-learning”, but a lot of it has been experiential. I’ve watched children grow. I’ve looked at myself more deeply. I’ve considered what trends in my past have shaped me into the person I became.

Even more so, though – most likely because of the recession looming over us – I’ve also spent a lot more time thinking practically about the conditions of real life for those who have substantially fewer financial resources to fall back on. That left me second-guessing a lot of the gift-giving possibilities at my disposal. Gift-giving with the poor child in mind is not the same as shopping for well-to-do kids. There’s a lot to think about.

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No Assholes!

Okay, I get that we live in a society that tends to encourage self-centered behaviour. It’s definitely a “me-first” culture. But I still find it pretty incredible that somebody had to write this book.

 

The No Asshole Rule

Image via Mindfulness Matters.

 

Shouldn’t it be something close to second nature to not be an asshole? I mean, isn’t that a main tenet of most  major religions – treat others as you would have them treat you? Granted, lots of people have moved away from organized religion in our society, but even the most hardcore atheist would concede that treating others how you would want to be treated is a pretty reasonable rule of thumb.

This isn’t a spiritual deficit. This is just plain lack of consideration. People aren’t taking the time or the thought-effort to be considerate of others. Emphasis on freedom, living for now, and the pursuit of happiness has led to a mentality that it’s just plain okay not to consider the impact of your choices on somebody else.

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Images Aren’t Real

I’m back from my vacation now, and I’ve got a lot of things I’d like to write about, but the first thing I want to point to is this site I found. Among many other things, Jezebel is crusading to keep unretouched images in the public eye, and they want you to understand why. It’s not to trash celebrities or to take famous people down a peg or two.

It’s to remind us that we’re not as unworthy as magazines, television, and the media in general would have us believing.

The basic idea: the more we’re exposed to the “before” images of celebrities looking like real people, the better we’ll each be equipped to remember that a celebrity doesn’t see her Cover Girl face when she looks in the mirror. She sees somebody pretty average, and it takes a lot of computer effects to create the “above-average” face needed to sell you whatever product the magazine is hawking.

And make no mistake, most magazines are selling something. If nothing else, they’re often selling you on the idea that you’re not good enough the way you are and buying some product will make you better.

Jennifer Aniston without makeup

How would you feel if you knew what Jennifer Aniston looked like before they Photoshopped her cover shot? Image via Jezebel.

For example: you look at Jennifer Aniston’s cover shot (above) and then you look at your own face in the mirror. Maybe you think to yourself, “Damn, I wish my skin was that vibrant and wrinkle-free”. Then you turn the page and what do you see? An ad for some sort of Olay skin cream promising to make your skin vibrant and wrinkle-free . . . like, say, Jennifer Aniston’s.

But check out that “before” shot from Jezebel. Even Jennifer Aniston doesn’t look vibrant and wrinkle-free without a lot of make-up, Photoshop, and other tricks of the trade that help her to attain the impossible standard of beauty we all see when we look at her. She’s not far above the rest of us ordinary mortals. She’s human, just like the rest of us.

And maybe if that’s true, it goes the other way too – the rest of us are beautiful, just like the famous women we idolize. Or, as Jezebel puts it:

Every day, a young woman somewhere sees one of these overly polished pictures for the first time…and has no idea that they’re not real. [. . .] What the girl does know is that the pictures show What Is Beautiful. She thinks they are reality. And maybe she doesn’t have someone in her life to point out that this is complete and utter bullsh*t. So we’ll do that, and we’ll do it over and over again just to make sure that everyone knows what’s up.

And as long as they keep making that point, I’ll keep passing it on. Why? Because I wouldn’t want my niece, my daughter, my sister, or my friend to think that if she doesn’t look like a Photoshopped picture all the time, she must not be beautiful.

A Little Piece of Spiritual Awareness

I wrote yesterday about the cool reviews for Eat Pray Love and the possibility that viewers won’t be sympathetic to a character who takes a year-long unpaid jaunt to Eurasia while they’re stuck in the midst of a recession. As predicted, a few people told me “read the book and then you’ll understand”, but all I really claimed to do was blog on my own impressions. My impression? It might be inspiring to watch Julia Roberts find enlightenment on another continent, but it’ll probably leave most viewers with the impression that enlightenment is far beyond the reach of anybody who can’t afford the requisite spiritual jump-start of long-distance travel.

But it turns out that even somebody who can’t afford an Eat Pray Love vacation can get a little piece of Elizabeth Gilbert’s spiritual awakening for themselves, the same way kids get a piece of their favourite Disney Princess in McDonald’s Happy Meals or giant nerds like me got a piece of The Lord of the Rings mythos by collecting plastic bobbleheads shaped like Gollum. Witness the wide range of merchandise aimed at women just like Elizabeth, only not likely to make it to Bali any time soon:

  • The Republic of Tea offers a premium brew for Eat Pray Love fans, featuring cinnamon and blood orange.
  • World Market shoppers can decorate their homes with a collection of exotic accents allegedly inspired by the movie and its locations, from teapots to Tibetan prayer flags.
  • Fans who are also fashionistas can show their love by dressing in the embroidered-silk Eat Pray Love fashion line by Sue Wong.
  • And while they’re at it, why not accessorize with Eat Pray Love jewelry from Dogeared?
  • A tie-in fragrance line offers you the chance to represent yourself with one of three aromas inspired by Gilbert’s travels: sugary-smelling ‘Eat’, warm and spicy ‘Pray’, or tropical-floral ‘Love’.
  • If you’ve been saving your pennies, you may be able to afford a package tour to invoke the Eat Pray Love journey, if not in its original year-long form.

And I have to admit, what drives me craziest is how much some of this stuff appeals to me!  Haven’t I been looking for meditation bells since I started studying mindfulness? Wouldn’t it be neat to have one of these compass-shaped charm bracelets? Or a meditation wrap?

Let’s be honest – right now, I’m not blogging. I’m Christmas-shopping. For myself.

These are meaningful spiritual symbols for some people. For others, they’re movie tie-ins. They’re a way to tie in to a fad . . . but they also represent a real spiritual desire that the movie is tapping into. Elizabeth Gilbert found fulfillment and discovered who she really was by going on this fantastic journey. You can never do that . . . but maybe if you wear ‘Pray’ fragrance or drink the Eat Pray Love tea, you can at least have a little bit of that experience, a little bit of that fulfillment.

Ultimately, I can’t help feeling as if the Eat Pray Love movie logo cheapens the search for meaning. And yet, at the same time, could it also be a compass for some women who might not otherwise connect with these paths to spiritual fulfillment? It could, but I fear that we live in a society that tries to collapse long processes into shorter time frames. If Julia Roberts can find peace and enlightenment in a two-hour movie, shouldn’t I be able to manage it?I want to embrace the movie as a signpost on the path to enlightenment, but I’m worried about how easy it is for us to mistake a signpost for the final destination.

Years of serious meditation practice is too much work. I’ll by an OM bracelet instead.

Enlightenment For Spoiled Rich Ladies

Theatrical poster for "Eat, Pray, Love" featuring Julia Roberts.

Image courtesy of Empire Movies.

Full disclosure: I haven’t read Eat, Pray, Love, and I haven’t seen the movie either. I was becoming vaguely interested in it because of the religious angle, and I thought I might check out the book (no pun intended . . . well, maybe just a little) for that reason. I like yoga and meditation and honest spiritual reflection, all of which seem like key ingredients in Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir. It seems like this would be a bandwagon I’d just be dying to hop on.

But I’m not exactly jumping.

And when you think about it, it’s not too hard to understand why I can’t get myself too worked up about Liz Gilbert’s spiritual struggles as depicted in the movie. In a time of recession, when money is a nightmare-inducing stressor for far too many families, it’s hard to feel much more than resentment for somebody who goes into her travel agent’s office and plans a year’s vacation just because she wants to marvel at something.

Hey, lady, I’d marvel at finding a job somewhere other than Burger King. Don’t you realize how good you’ve got it? (Hint: If you can afford to plan a year-long vacation in exotic locales, you’ve got it pretty good. There must be more than a little cash coming in to bankroll that kind of self-exploration.)

Julia Roberts in "Eat, Pray, Love"

If you can't afford your own private Indian swami, then spiritual enlightenment is not for you. Image courtesy of The Moxie Bee.

Caitlin Kelly, a fellow WordPress blogger, complains of the sexism lurking behind bad reviews in a post called “‘Eat, Pray, Love’: Why A Woman Seeking Solo Joy Pisses Everyone Off”. According to her analysis, the sour grapes are all about society’s reaction to a free-spirited woman who decides she doesn’t need a man or a baby to be happy. If men have the freedom to explore the world, she argues, then so should women. And she’s right. If that’s our Lizzie’s path, more power to her.

But, speaking for myself, I’m not pissed off about “a woman seeking solo joy”, as Kelly insists. I’m pissed off because if I want to seek joy, solo or otherwise, I’m limited by my (dwindling, anemic) bank account. If joy isn’t within short driving distance of where I live, I’m not going to find it. Not everyone can jet to Italy, India, and Indonesia for a year-long voyage of self-discovery. And maybe something’s been lost in translation from book to movie, but based on the reviews I’ve read, it seems like the movie doesn’t have much to say about self-discovery for women who can’t afford the kind of big-scale travel Liz Gilbert takes on in Eat, Pray, Love.

Lee Ferguson of CBC.ca diagnoses the movie’s main money-making strategy: “It pays lip service to female empowerment, while using more calculated means — James Franco! Food porn! Exotic locales! — to lure hungry women viewers into multiplex seats.” Andrea Gronvall of the Chicago Reader goes one step further: “only hard-core fans of Oprah’s BFF will be able to stomach this navel-gazing tripe, which posits ‘me-first’ consumerism as the road to happiness.” In other words, what started off looking like an encouraging movie about finding empowerment and knowing thyself rapidly becomes a pie-in-the-sky fantasy.

No wonder it’s not finding the warm reception it undoubtedly expected. Seeing Julia Roberts’ character fly to Italy to have a relationship with her pizza just reminds me that I can’t even responsibly order in Little Caesar’s. And in fact, I should probably be feeling guilty that I bought this movie ticket in the first place, and God help me if I splurged on a Coke and popcorn.

There are those who will argue that it’s not fair for me to comment if I haven’t seen the movie. They’re probably right. I’m relying primarily on the opinions of others, but also on the way I feel when that trailer comes on TV. I see that “go for it!” attitude splashed all over the screen and wonder, would I be enlightened if I had no commitments and no obligations and the financial wherewithal to catch the next plane to Dharamsala? Somehow bailing out on everybody who might possibly rely on your presence doesn’t seem like a reliable path to self-discovery.

But more than that, I resent the implication that finding myself could be just one credit card swipe away . . . and that it doesn’t belong to the people who can’t afford to pay for it.

Enlightenment should be for everybody.

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