the lament of a latent activist
(Sarah’s 1997 holiday rant)
My name is on the mailing lists of several mail-order catalog companies. I probably got on the list for Pottery Barn because of my subscription to the New York Times, or Tweeds because someone sent me a mail-order gift from them for my birthday one time. I’m not sure why, but I get their catalogs, along with Eddie Bauer, Levenger, Victoria’s Secret, and many other clothing and home furnishing mail order companies. Especially now that its the holiday season I get a new one almost every day. I come home and my mail box is crammed with glossy pictures of unusually gaunt models wearing cardigans in colors like ox blood, moss, and citrus ($45.99 each), or of other people’s homes featuring furnishings such as the 6-foot “cathedral” wind chime with symphonic sound (“Kenny G’s percussionist plays one”, only $139.95).
I’m aware of the marketing research that goes into these specifically targeted mailings. Within my demographic, zip code, age range, and gender category, these companies know my probable salary range and even what my tastes will likely be. What these mail-order companies don’t know is that I am more inclined to throw the catalogs right in the recycling bin, if they are indeed made of recyclable material. I know better than to think “well, hmm, I may actually want something in here, and who knows, it may not be so outrageously priced, and it can’t really hurt to look anyway.” I have made that mistake many times before, and I learned my lesson. The only thing that leafing through those catalogs does is inform me that my home is not complete without an heirloom-quality hand-carved cedar trunk ($395), and that my wardrobe absolutely must include that basil-colored denim jacket ($150).
I know better than to even bother looking at the catalogs because I understand that capitalism makes you feel empty. You spend the best hours of your day at a job you don’t care that much about, so you come home at the end of the day, energy spent, uninspired to do anything interesting to fulfill any creative need in yourself. So, to numb yourself you turn on the TV, or read the newspaper, or look at catalogs with glossy pictures, passively letting Sears convince you that you need a new refrigerator in order to feel fulfilled. We are bombarded with commercials and billboards and newspaper ads for sales at Macy’s. When I pay attention to them, the ads make me forget that I am outraged when I see homeless people everyday when I go to lunch, or that my vegetables are grown with chemicals and pesticides. Advertisers want me to focus on my need for a $175 Italian calfskin wastebasket rather than on the fact that the United States still spends billions a year on weapons development. Most of the time I can sustain my awareness of how the system works, knowing intellectually that I do not need a $50 leather mousepad to feel like a whole person.
But its the holiday season, and I begin to see those glossy catalogs in my peripheral vision. Even with my personal ritual of throwing them in the recycling pile, affirming my choice of a simple life-style, I feel a tug. My justification is that I need gift ideas, so with that in mind, I give in to temptation and fish them out of the recycling bin. They probably can’t be recycled anyway.
What I am ashamed to admit, even to myself, is that my darkest secret desire is to get ideas of gifts for me. I need to find the perfect tie tack for Dad ($20.00) to go with the Dilbert Christmas tie I want to get for him, but don’t I need a mahogany remote-control organizer ($65.00)? My middle-class existence has afforded me the belief that I have the right to own these fabulous objects, and not only that, but that I must be truly miserable and deprived without them. These thoughts don’t exactly go through my head in that way as I thumb through the catalogs, but I certainly feel an emotion, a dearth, an emptiness in my heart because I lack “barrister” glass-front sectional bookcases at $189 a section (plus $89 for the legs and $119 for the “crown”). Besides, focusing on that lack makes me forget that I am outraged that Pete Wilson wants the University of California to deny health and housing benefits to the gay and lesbian partners of its employees. Why get upset about the fact that I am one ineffective person, alone, small against the huge backdrop of this issue, when I can contemplate what to get for my nieces for Christmas and fantasize about a $65 dental floss dispenser for me.
I am dismayed at my own emotional reaction to this feeling of deprivation in my life. To be completely honest, when it is not Christmas I still have difficulty resisting that consumer impulse. It effects me profoundly even when I go shopping for underwear. This is how it goes: I am going to Target and I am only going in to buy Fruit of the Looms, and maybe some socks; I come out of the store with a shopping cart containing a couple of T-shirts, a new hair conditioner, a rolling pin, some new kitchen towels, a box of 300 Q-tips, and a CD tower made of plywood that I have to assemble myself when I get home. This is what happens when I am using restraint.
Part of me believes that resistance is futile, but I also feel revulsion at my own reaction of want and need when faced with these objects of desire/disgust. I say to myself “do the advertisers for this stuff really think we’re morons and will pay money for that?” And I will pay money myself, get that momentary consumer high, and go back to my unfulfilled life and feel sorry for myself, or maybe go watch TV, indulging myself in passively allowing the Fox Network to distance me from my own feelings and thoughts. I despair because somewhere deep down inside myself, I have given up hope and I participate in this world as if I have no idea how garbage production is affecting the environment, as if I am oblivious to the reality of domestic abuse, as if I truly believe that anything I might do to show my outrage at these things wouldn’t matter anyway. I am disheartened because I start to believe that I don’t have any responsibility to solve the effects of greenhouse gasses.
During the holiday season it is especially hard to resist the consumer temptation, and I feel myself getting sucked into the cyclone of commercialism and family obligation, what I have convinced myself is the desire to show love to those near and dear to me with gifts, gestures of my undying affection. I know that I am not the only person in the world to feel isolation at Christmas, to feel the urge to fill up the void with mulled cider and ginger bread cookies, to suddenly feel an urgent need for a pine tree in my living room strewn with tinsel and shiny ornaments. Even as I dread the onset of the commercial hype, my heart warms at the thought of baking short bread in the shape of reindeer and sleighs, or inviting friends over to enjoy cocktails in front of the Yule Log video.
I swear to myself every year that I am not going to let it suck me in, but I recall a cartoon I saw once depicting fat lady outside of a candy store, caught in a wind tunnel, as if the door to the store is a big vacuum cleaner. She is desperately holding to a parking meter while her hair, dress, and purse, her whole body is horizontal with the ground as the force of desire pulls her in against her will. For me this illustrates quite fittingly the contradiction of the pull of consumer culture against the better judgment of the human conscience. That fat lady is me at Christmas, resisting with all my strength the pull of the holiday vortex where my personality would be lost in the deluge of manufactured desire.