Saturday, November 22, 2008

Retail Therapy Gone Bad

Can one be a socialist and also love shopping? More pressingly, can I be a socialist and continue to love shopping?

Before I answer, allow me to explain why I'm suddenly asking these questions. Until this particular point in life, I have taken great comfort in shopping. The women in my family--generations of them--have led me to believe, by example, that New Shiny Things make Everything better. This Everything can be anything: a burst of low self-esteem, a hard day at work/school, and/or miscellaneous personal catastrophes. Buying clothing, in particular, is a great comfort: when shit goes bad, my forebears argue, retreat into the material. The simple beauty of textiles--even those crafted into mass-produced garments by underpaid sweatshop workers in economically bankrupt countries around the world--lifts the spirits, making life livable again. What can't you accomplish when you look and feel fabulous?

For years now, I've been aware of the many problematic aspects of everything I just wrote. Psychologically, shopping is a cop-out. The gratification is short-lived, and you're left with the same problems you started with, except now you have no money. Philosophically, the connections between gender and consumption are troubling: women feel better after buying girlie stuff because our culture has wired us to feel better when we look pretty, ie, when we meet mainly patriarchal, bourgeois expectations for our appearance and behavior. And corporations have made billions off of the female desire to conform, linking our psycho-social-sexual development to the market.

I've been aware of this, but I've accepted these contradictions with the ubiquitous cop-out of my generation: "At least I admit it." As I gaze longingly at retail displays, I think smugly, "At least I know what's really going on." Astonishingly, my academic approach to feminine consumption also allows me to feel superior to other female shoppers. Listening to their inane conversations in the fitting room, I sneer and snicker, meanwhile giving in to the same unaccountable desire for the skirt that is, in their words, "OMIGOD, just SO CUTE."

Yes, I have been a hypocrite. But I am so damn comfortable in my hypocrisy, I don't want to reconcile anything. I'd rather be shopping.

Or would I? The problem is, I don't really enjoy shopping anymore. I used to be able to shop in disgusting, florescently lit, suburban environs for hours without wanting to vomit. Now I can't even approach a mall or "towne center" without choking back the remnants of lunch. Why? Well, this brings me to yet another contradiction: shopping makes me hate the masses. Behavior in busy retail spaces--screaming children, price-grubbing, long lines, personal-space violations--makes me crazy. Today, Mike and I had to buy some things at the Waterfront, and it drove us to drink (which is always easy to do at retail centers--booze is always close by). It also drove my seminarian husband to blaspheme: "Jeezes fuck," Mike yelled as yet another cell-phone driver cut him off in the parking lot.

While Mike isn't a socialist per say, he and I both stick up for the masses, being products of their number. Shopping, however, makes us project the problems of capitalism onto the very people it victimizes. It's hard to remember to blame the system when every shopper in Target is annoying as hell.

But, at other times, I can clearly see the capitalist tableaux for what it is. About a month ago, Mike and I went to Ross Park Mall to buy a gift for his mom. It'd been a while since I'd ventured into a mall, and quite a bit longer since I'd indulged in "upscale shopping." Ross Park, we soon found out, had been upscaled: the petit-bourgeois women and girls of the North Hills--with their dazed men in tow--scampered eagerly in and out of Nordstrom, Louis Vuitton, and Tiffany's. Mike and I, genuinely afraid, retreated into JCPenney, where we quickly bought the gift. "Let's get the hell out of here," Mike said, nearly running toward the exit. Once in the car, we both agreed that we were disgusted at the vulgar display behind us. The excess, the naivete, the unsatiable desire for the material--it was all too much. But most of all, it was the unveiled truth of the spectacle that disturbed us. We're all so SCREWED by the illusion of material comfort. It's why we're all slaves to the items that give us this comfort--and why, in my opinion, Americans put up with bullshit like "trickle-down" economics, for-profit wars, and miscellanous government corruption. What does it matter, if you have the new Louis Vuitton it-bag?


To return to my question. Do I need to return to my question? I think the answer is quite clear. The love of shopping or the socialism has to go, because they can't--at least, for me--co-exist. And, at this point, it ain't gonna be the socialism. Once you look into the abyss, there's no turning back.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Losing my shit.

I am officially "losing my shit," as my friend Melissa would say. This election is far too abrasive for my delicate mental constitution.

Last night, Hot Metal held "Debate the Debate," a debate-watching discussion with actual rules such as "have respect" and "don't judge." I went to this debate and wound up losing my mind--also known as my "shit."

I probably shouldn't have gone, but I couldn't help myself: I'm a masochist when it comes to human stupidity. So I gathered with my politically diverse church-going friends, made small talk, ate a bunch of popcorn, and then promptly choked on it as I listened to Obama and McCain recite the same arguments they've been using for the last few months.

Obama wearily defended himself yet again against McCain's groundless accusations concerning his "terrorist" pals; McCain smugly continued to accuse him. "Joe Plumber" was addressed earnestly by McCain and ironically by Obama. Fingers were pointed; buzz words words sufficiently obscured meaningless, empty campaign promises.

This was all nauseating, but I didn't lose my shit until McCain defended Palin by claiming she understood "special needs" families! It was a pathetically emotional plea that has very little to do with the office of the vice presidency and how Palin is or is not fit for it. So, of course this means "Joe Plumber" or "Joe Six-Pack" must have loved every minute of it.

When McCain stared into the camera and addressed this anonymous Joe, I realized how this seemingly offensive ploy was working rhetorically. Joe's an American myth: the noble, hardworking, family-oriented American man who likes "straight talk" over beer and chicken wings. There are probably a lot of white suburban and rural men who'd fit this stereotype, at least on the surface. They're the type of person that urban professionals sneer at, that blacks eye warily, that Europeans regard as the stereotypical American. Joe, by the standards of the rest of America--minorities, women, youth, professional whites--is hardly exemplary; in fact, he's kind of an oaf. So why is McCain talking to him?

Well, because McCain IS Joe--with money. And there's a sizeable segment of middle America--Joes and their wives--who think Joe/McCain is a stand-up guy.

There were a few Joes at the debate last night, and they made me lose my shit out loud. I kind of yelled at them when they said they STILL didn't think global warming is real, when they sneered at the idea of voluntary taxation, and finally (and most explosively) when one of them said he found McCain's accusations that Obama had hung around with terrorists convincing.

Joe, why must you be so dense?

I tried to keep what little of my shit remained, but it was too late. I just HAD to bring up Sarah Palin so that I could point out her many legitimate failings, including being found guilty of abuse of power in Alaska just recently. And that's when I irrevocably lost my shit.

Now I will be known as the outspoken liberal. This has its pros and cons. It's good to have loud liberal voices in American churches--most of them are so ignorantly, blindly conservative. And I want people to know where I stand, why I think liberal values are so important. But I don't want to be the crazy ranter who shuts down dialogue and encourages polarity.

Did I become the crazy ranter? I don't think so. I DO wish I had kept an even tone. Desperate times, though, result in desperate measures, and sometimes my "shit" becomes negligible.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


I have several friends whose parents have remarried despicable people. Many of these unfortunate friends have unflattering names for these people, all of them appropriate, but my favorite term by far is "stepmonster." This is what my friend Lacy calls her father's second wife, who is crazy. And mean. And, well, monstrous.

As of this past Sunday, I too have a "stepmonster." His name is Vince, and in my personal opinion, he sucks. Since I've already detailed why this is the case in a highly self-indulgent previous post, I'll spare you the rant. I will, however, add more evidence: when I told him I wanted to try to be civil and keep our family as functional as possible, he turned to my mom and said, "See, I told you: She's a little teapot and just needed to blow off a little steam."

Oh, the rage. I told him to beware The Rage of the Teapot (which should be the title of a mock-gothic novel, btw).

So, as I was saying, I have a stepmonster who has given my mom his name and will now begin ruining the rest of her life. But, I also have a stepsister who isn't a stepmonster at all. In fact, she may be my doppelganger. (Which might make her a monster to others, but not to me.)

She showed up at the wedding in jeans and a black t-shirt. She's much taller than me and looks like a gypsy, with dark, kohl-rimmed eyes and long black hair. She had an ironic smile and said she was just "trying to behave."

I liked her right away.

Later, she told me that she didn't meet her dad, my stepmonster, until she was twenty. Now, she talks to him on the phone about once a year. She said, warily, that she hopes my mom will be happy. It occurred to me that she might hate her father as much as I do. Or more.

The similaries continued to add up. She made a lot of bitchy, mean comments. For instance, when she saw one of our overgrown Italian cousins wearing a trendy fedora, she said, "Who invited K-Fed?" Like me, she's a vegetarian, and like me, she likes to rant about excessive cell phone usage. Like me, she likes to paint, but unlike me, she's actually really good and sells her stuff at festivals.

I would totally be friends with her. But I feel shy. Maybe my mom is her "stepmonster." Maybe she thinks I'm a stepmonster, too. God.

But, the thing is, I would love to have a sibling to share my angst. And she seems like she's very good at angst.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The answer is NO.

Today, as I innocently walked down my street, just yards from my own front door, my SOCKS were solicited by a self-proclaimed foot-fetishist in a passing pick-up truck.

Yep. That happened.

A blue pick-up truck stopped in the middle of my street, and the driver rolled down the passenger window and beckoned me toward him. He was an average-looking young man, twenty-ish, and I assumed he was going to ask me for directions, as this happens pretty regularly.

"Excuse me, " he said with a strangely excited, flushed face. "This is really embarrassing, and really weird, but I have a foot fetish and I was wondering if I could buy your socks." His voice cracked, and he looked desperate. "I'll pay you ten, twenty bucks if you'll just give them to me."

I would have paid him more to describe the look on my face at that moment, which I'm sure was an ugly mixture of shock and outrage.

"No, that's weird," I replied stiffly, and practically ran toward my house, where I immediately related the exchange to Mike, whose mouth promptly dropped open.

And then, as usual, the attempts at analysis began. Here are a few theories we came up with to explain this deviant behavior:

1. It was a dare. He was pretty young; even though he seemed to be alone in the truck, a friend may have been hunkered down behind the seat, snickering. It was a pretty small truck, though.

2. He was conducting a sociological experiment, measuring public reactions to sexual deviance. Or how far women will go when asked. Mike pointed out, though, that it was too legally risky for an official study.

These theories are, as Mike pointed out, preferable to the idea that fetishists can prey upon complete strangers at will. But maybe that's what happened. A few months ago, my friend Jessica posted a photo of herself on her blog with bare feet in the background, and a foot fetishist from Spain left a comment praising her feet and offering her a free trip to Spain so he could see them in person.

Listen, I don't have anything against benign fetishists, i.e., people who keep their fetishes to themselves and consenting adults who share them. But, if they ask me, or Jessica, or other innocents, the answer is NO: we will not sell you our sweaty socks, nor will we allow you to caress our feet in Spain.

The answer is, and always will be, NO.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Jury's Out

Today I fulfilled a "very important" civic duty--or at least, I tried my best. Yes, I reported for jury duty. No, I didn't make today's cut. In fact, I was one of the first people to be dismissed.

There are two questions on the all-important juror questionnaire that I did not answer satisfactorily. When I was defending these answers, maybe I gave the prosecution a little too much lip. And so, I took my nine dollars and my juror discount card and went on my way. Actually, I went to Franktuary and had a veggie dog called "The Italy." It had fresh mozzarella, basil, and tomatoes on it. While consuming it, I tried to sort it all out. In the end, I mostly have questions, cynical ones.

Here's what happened.

I arrived at the Allegheny County Courthouse at 8:25. I proceeded to the third floor, to juror's quarters, so that I could promptly report for duty. A series of three rooms was filled with a cross-section of the local population: middle-aged soccer moms in tapered pants, rumpled young men who obviously did not understand "business casual," frightened looking young girls, etc. There was lot of bad clothes, bad hair, and stupid comments. 8:30, our report time, came and went, and we were all still waiting around, looking bleary and confused. The only preparation we'd had for jury duty at this point was the "summons" sent to us a few months before, and this prepared us only for our arrival time, location, attire, and acceptable use of electronic devices. Having already accomplished these things, we had nothing to do, and no idea what to expect.

There had been no instructions on the summons about what a juror actually does, or how the selection process works. But there had been a stiffly worded statement in an antiquated font that informed us how important serving as a juror is to the US judicial process. Serving as a juror, it informed us, ensured that citizens would be tried by their peers. And do you know what THAT means? That our government is run by the common people!

I ardently believe that democracy only works when "the people" can make informed decisions. Apparently, our judicial system disagrees, and believes that us commoners can decide another commoner's fate best when we have absolutely no fucking clue what we're doing.

Wait. Perhaps I'm being too judgmental. At 9:00, when we were finally led into the courtroom, given identifications tags, the questionnaire, and juror pens, we were offered free coffee and tea and given VERY explicit instructions for operating the coffee machine. It turns out that the new juror coffee machine was a bit unusual, and had just been broken the week before by a juror who failed to follow instructions properly. So, despite the fact that the instructions were posted on the wall by the machine, a cross, middle-aged admin with giant hair spent about 5 minutes explaining it. Then we were told how to get to the bathrooms, and not to venture outside the juror quarters. Then we had to fill out our questionnaire, and were left alone for about an hour to write out our names and answer 12 questions.

So, about those questions. One asked if you or anyone close to you had been accused of a crime. I had to circle yes, because two people "close to me" have been. Then, another question asked if you would be less likely to trust the testimony of a police officer because of his/her job title. First, I answered no. Then, I scratched that out, and answered yes.

Around 10:15, after much rustling in the front of the room, three attorneys walked in, along with two young black men, looking baby-faced and uncomfortable in too-big suits. As the jurors were put in order, the attorneys scrutinized us and took notes. I got the distinct impression that they were already deciding, based on appearance, who they wanted on the trial. Meanwhile, I was making my own snap judgments. The prosecutor, I decided, was a douchebag. He had an aloof, stony face, and didn't look anyone in the eye. One defense lawyer was just kind of a goof: he took his shoes off and tried to cheer up his client, who looked like he might cry and/or vomit at any time. The other lawyer, a distinguished black man in a formidable pin-striped suit, I felt some respect for: he maintained distance without being a snob. He was respectful to everyone.

Luckily, I was number 5. That meant I sat in the front row, just a few feet from the interview table. I made a lot of uncomfortable eye contact with a defense attorney and the plantiffs, especially the one closest to me, the one near tears. The charges were read, and it was to be a murder trial: the two boys were accused of shooting another guy to death in Homewood two years ago.

The interviews began, and I decided that my first impressions were correct. The first woman to be interviewed was a housewife in her sixties. The prosecutor spoke first, and his tone reminded me of a pre-school teacher speaking to a class of four-year-olds. The goofy defense lawyer was no better. The woman had answered "yes" to the family member question, and there was much discussion about this. She had also answered "yes" to a different question about police officers. The goofy lawyer asked her why she would be MORE inclined to trust a police officer's testimony because of his/her profession. She said, "Because police are on the side of the law."

Later, after I had been interviewed, I found out that she had been selected.

As I listened to her, I suddenly really wanted to be a juror on this trial. Because her answers sucked. SHE sucked. She wasn't smart, and even though a person close to her had seen the inside of the judicial system, she still believed in it. In the goodness, the moral rectitude, of police officers.

When I was four, I watched, hysterical, as police officers jumped out of an unmarked vehicle and
forced my dad into their car. Later, I saw the mess they made of our house when they searched for drugs, and heard that they had threatened to take my mom to prison. For sixteen years I visited my father in prison and had to put up with lazy, fat-assed officers throwing their tiny portion of power into my face.

But it isn't just that. I watch the supposedly objective news. I hear about the racism, the sexism, the violence. Recently, in Homestead, a cop was caught having an affair with a 14-year-old neighbor. In the city of Pittsburgh last year, several cops were accused of domestic abuse, and none of them convicted.

I began to think that maybe those questions were a joke. Does ANYONE still trust police officers?

Soon it was my turn. I approached the table, sat down. The goof started in on me, with the others looking on. And suddenly I got that evil look in my eye, the one I get every time a cop pulls me over on the highway. The devil-may-care look responsible for my 7 speeding tickets.

I was asked, three times, to explain the problematic answers. The goof said, "I don't mean to pry, but..." and I said, "By all means, pry." It was a bad start. He said, "All of this amuses you, doesn't it?"

"Yes." In a perverse way, yes it does.

I told him the bare facts about my dad. I told him I thought I'd still be able to make an objective decision. The plaintiffs were looking at me with large eyes. One of them almost smiled when I said, "Because of my experiences, I'm not naive. I think there are certainly some great cops out there, but I think there are some bad ones, too. I am certain that, on the stand, I am perfectly capable of seeing the difference."

Douchebag prosecutor pushed me over the line. He announced to me that my experiences with my father had been very "formative." I heard myself saying, "Yes, most childhood experiences are." When did I reach this level of sass? He then put words in my mouth, saying that I had mentioned that I was aware of corruption in the judicial system. I called him on semantics and said, "I wouldn't--and didn't--use the word corruption."

Soon after this I was thanked for my time and sent home. Or, more accurately, to Franktuary, where I stimulated the local economy by using my juror discount.

As I ate my veggie dog, I got offended. It began to occur to me that the whole juror thing was a spectacle, just a spectacle of democracy. Being a juror was about free coffee and lunch discounts and total cluelessness. Jury duty is not about democracy.

Here's why I believe this. The lawyers say they want people who can be completely unbiased, who can put their experiences and beliefs aside in order to be make the best decision. But who can do that? Most people think they can, but they can't. Experiences and beliefs are as much a part of us as blood and guts. We can't just suspend them. The problem is, only thoughtful people understand this. The man sitting next to me in the courtroom got it: he leaned over to me and told me so. And then he got dismissed. So, does this mean that the only people who will be selected for juries are those who think they can be unbiased? The unthoughtful and uncritical?

Also--and here's what gets me--saying that you would believe a police officer more than an average person does not make you unbiased. It simply biases you in favor of "the law," i.e, the prosecutor, who probably has an office in the same building as the police chief. The lady who was chosen and I both gave biased answers, but the prosecution liked hers better than mine. They aren't looking for the unbiased, but instead, the conveniently biased.

The fate of two young black guys from a Pittsburgh ghetto will be decided by people who think that police officers are honest, noble, and disinterested. Which means they probably have chosen to ignore the vexed relationship between cops and young black men such as these. Which probably means they won't pay a whole lot of attention to the complex social forces that may have caused these two young men to shoot another man like themselves. Or, the forces that have blamed them for a crime they didn't commit.

Innocent until proven guilty? Sorry folks, but probably not.