Pundits have already started wondering how long it will take Americans to get stupid after we emerge, someday, from our depressing recession. Stupid meaning spending beyond our means, particularly on non-essential consumer junk. Forgetting how hard it hurts when gas prices here are, oh, maybe 3/4 as high as they are in other industrialized countries. Hey, we've already started buying SUVs again. Truly, it boggles the mind.
I'm a shopper. Let's just get that out into the open. I have not the handy and admirable virtue, like CityMom, of being frugal, excessive or not. But I have cut down over the years, both because of competing monetary priorities, because quality over quantity is better for the planet, and because I'm irrationally picky, particularly about clothing (No pockets, except for jeans. But no blue jeans; only black or navy. No frills. No rounded necklines; v-neck only. No leather, as far as possible. It's exhausting.).
But shopping just sucks these days. It's scary to spend money at all, for one, and I don't think I'll forget these days. Even after our economy rights itself, I can't see going back to my old spendiness. Plus, I'm far too used to getting the deal to pay full price anymore. Less than 35% off? Nah. Pay for shipping? You gotta be kidding!
It also looks like the chain retailers have just stopped trying. At Banana Republic yesterday, the racks were crammed haphazardly; the spring lines - that tired nautical theme again - already marked down. I noticed for the first time the garish colors and ill-considered designs of the clothing. When we turn the spotlight more fully on our potential purchases, they're revealed as the crap they really are. "Go ahead, take two" one sign over piles of nondescript denim pants read. Two? Good heavens, why? I headed for the door. Sears was even more dismal, its bland items hanging limply and so cheap -- a Land's End parka for twenty-something bucks -- that they turned me off completely. If it's that cheap, it must not have been worth buying in the first place.
Over at J.Crew, the merchandise was still fetching and thoughtfully arranged; the salespeople still helpful. But $98 for a denim skirt? I might have rolled over in the past, if the item was a classic and absolutely perfect in every respect. But now I know that if I sit tight it will be marked down very soon.
I do worry that those purveyors of good-quality, reasonably priced items (like Hanna Andersson clothing for kids) will perish. I'd like to help them out. But I just can't bring myself to buy.
BurbMom wrote about why Obama makes her feel like a loser the other day, and sadly the feeling still persists a week after the inauguration, at least for me. He's not that much older than me or my husband, and I can't help asking why he is where he is and we are, well, where we are.
My mother bought the kids some socks at a discount store. Not in itself a unique occurrence; I think bulk clothing purchasing is part of the grandma job description. But these socks were special, I noticed while folding laundry. One pair said "Darling DIVA" and the other "Unavailable."
Unavailable? WTF?! Unless the socks are communicating that she's unavailable for a post in the Obama administration, or for dinner at Per Se, I'm taking them to mean she is not up for a date, or anything related to dating, including flirting or sex.
Of course she's available for none of these things. Without revealing her exact age, I can tell you that she's unable to write her name in cursive.
Now, when we allow things like "diva" or "princess" on our girls' apparel, we're just begging for trouble for ourselves. Of course your little darling is going to turn into a demanding monster. It's written all over her. Similarly, don't buy her a Bratz doll and then bitch when she asks for eyeshadow at the age of 10. ("What is it?" my daughter asked when she got a Bratz as a birthday present. She was five.)
But when we let them wear stuff in public that hints at sex or sexual maturity -- like makeup, nail polish, high-heeled baby booties, pageant gowns and junior cheerleader uniforms -- we're letting others view them as somehow ready for action, or at least a future fastie out of the gate. We might as well be the village yenta, hinting at bargain prices for our child brides. Buy early and save. All suitors welcome. Such a deal!
(Note: "What's up with..." is our new weekly column on the absurdities of modern life. Have a suggestion for a topic? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org).
Okay, I am probably going to get flamed for this one. (Anything about child safety can be testy, to be sure.) Understand that neurotic that I am, I place a huge value on safety. I researched the best carseats; I cut out cleaning chemicals in my household; I don't microwave food in plastic plates and bowls. In short, I am protective as hell. So why oh why are my hackles up about crawling helmets?
I must confess I had never considered the question before. As soon as I could grasp the concept, my attitude toward my own country has mainly centered on the question of how I could get the hell out of it. When you grow up in a semi-rural village, Pop. 100, where you have to brake suddenly to let the chickens cross the road, you're prone to fantasties of global wandering. Once exposed, I was forever vulnerable to the lure of the foreign; I have (and have had) jungle fever in almost every sense of the phrase.
Back to my national service soul-searching. Recyling, conserving energy, eating locally sometimes, voting, shopping, working for a worthy non-profit organization - I’ve covered some bases. Still, I’m not a model citizen, not by a long shot, I think. Not worthy of the Big O. Then my eyes fall on my kids. Bingo! My kids are my national service. Of course, I'm training them to recycle, to covet trinkets sparingly, and to question authority, except for mine. But more importantly, I hire a Chinese tutor twice a week, and the resulting language accumulcation has required enough effort, prodding and money to qualify as give-until-it-hurts.
See, I'm thinking that their language abilities will help us all be globally aware and competitive. In most countries schools start kids cramming on other languages straight away in primary school; here, 92% of kids go without ever learning one. Obama has mentioned this; on one campaign stop last summer, he said the lack of foreign language skills was costing the U.S. in the global marketplace. “Everybody should be bilingual, or everybody should be trilingual,” he said.
Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world. It's already the second most-used on the Internet, and will also be increasingly prevalent in scholarly journals and big-cheese conferences as the Chinese take further strides in science and tech innovation. (Also, when the Chinese land on our shores to claim what’s mostly theirs, my kids will know how to say, “Take me to your leader,” in perfect Mandarin.)
Now, learning a language is hard, unless you’re lucky enough to land a plummy book contract about your unusually messy divorce and can hack around in Italy for a few months and then blather about it. But it’s not that hard to travel, even cheaply, and the benefits are the same: A little exposure, some worldly know-how, and insight into how those foreign folks think.
So let’s get the hell out of here! See the world; take our measure; pick up fun bits from different lifestyles (like how much weight you lose when you eat only with chopsticks) and show everybody that we really are open-minded and friendly, particularly if we pick up a few greetings in the local language. Sure, plenty of folks still hate us, but the French at least may be more affable now that His Coolness is in charge. They love a class act. You’ll also get a big welcome in Kenya! Photos of Antalyla, Turkey: Lynn Levine/Talking Turkey
So let’s get the hell out of here! See the world; take our measure; pick up fun bits from different lifestyles (like how much weight you lose when you eat only with chopsticks) and show everybody that we really are open-minded and friendly, particularly if we pick up a few greetings in the local language. Sure, plenty of folks still hate us, but the French at least may be more affable now that His Coolness is in charge. They love a class act. You’ll also get a big welcome in Kenya!
Photos of Antalyla, Turkey: Lynn Levine/Talking Turkey
So I'd been doing pretty well scalping off any extra fat from our household budget; these economic times, after all, call for financial plastic surgery. I managed to resist clicking on spam flooding my email box about gigantic sales; the department store coupons went straight to the recycling; the store windows in my neighborhood had gone unnoticed. That is, until my oldest and I found ourselves at an Aldo's of all places—not a place I'd ever bought anything from—struck by a particularly fine pair of black leather pumps.
There was plenty to cheer about in our new President's speech. I liked the line about just asking if government works, a fairly basic issue that needs to be addressed rather urgently, because it's barely limping along.
But there was something else he mentioned that actually got me on my feet, that for the first time in a long, long time brought me into our national fold. It was this line:
"For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers."
As a member of that often forgotten, reviled and little-understood group, the non-believers, I am profoundly thankful to be included. It seems to so rarely happen. To those who might accuse me of overreacting, I say: It's a tough thing to be an atheist living in this country, where a full 92% of folks believe in a universal spirit (even one in five who called themselves atheist.) Eighty percent even believe in miracles. No wonder people look at me funny when they find out I'm an atheist.
And imagine, when you so firmly do not believe in something, to be asked to bow your head or listen to it or repeat an ode to it in many public and private settings, and to hear your kids have to pay lip service to it, too. Again and again, you hear your elected leaders constantly refer to this something and plead to it in what, in my humble and constitutionally-backed opinion, should be utterly secular settings. Even Obama mentioned that equality and freedoms are god-given; I must dissent. These are basic human rights.
But I'm not criticizing. We have bigger fish to fry in this country. Today, I'm just happy to have a place at the table.
Photo: Todd Heiser/The New York Times
Was chatting about tomorrow's undoubtedly tear-provoking events with CityMom, when she brought up something that got me all worked up even more. She and a friend had been discussing Obama's staff members, and how young they all are. Mid-30s, mainly, and many of them younger than we are. The man himself only has a couple of years on my partner, a factoid he has already glumly noted (the partner, not Obama).
Age is not the sticking point here. It's that, well, they are where they are, and I'm picking up Legos and trying not to blow my latest freelance gig, for a boss who is younger than I am. They're always younger than I am now.
So, how come I'm not a star player in the new administration, or even somebody's boss, dammit? I did all the right things. Showed talent at an early age: Check. Attended fancy professional graduate program: Check.Racked up experience with every major network, and some newspapers, too: Check.
But there's that little thing called life that intervenes. My messy life, to be exact. Sidetracking into advertising because, hell, I thought it would be fun. Taking some time off to (cough) find myself on the West Coast and then go gallivanting overseas. Eloping and, later, having kids, and making the fatal career mistake of moving to the 'burbs, a hefty commuting distance away from any major newsroom. Maybe I was scared to try too hard, or just plain indecisive. I don't have time or money to see a shrink, so we'll never know.
Perhaps Obama's staff members didn't let life intervene. Maybe they were really, really focused, and didn't trollop down every brightly lit new path just because the old one had proven tough going, a trait I'm starting to see is perhaps key to nabbing the plummy roles.