The pleasure of beautiful things

Advice for the retail world:  make it an experience again.  Not the “rarified air” experience, like so many haute couture lines that opened retail shops in the recent past, designed by those who seem to think shopping should be like going to an art gallery, with the same high prices, cold air, and tomb like ambience lacking in any human presence (to their surprise, they lack the requisite robotic and emaciated shoppers as well).  No more the grab and go of malls either, or should I say teenager theme parks complete with heavy browed security to prevent those ever looming petty thefts and feared eruptions of violence.  These bastions of cheap consumerism, garish color and sound, and the worst edibles known to man, anchoring neighborhoods surrounded by big box stores, acres of asphalt, and exchange-name restaurants proffering the same fare trucked in every week are dying. The experience is run run run, acquire without thought, and keep going.  It is exhausting, boring, discomforting to observe and perversely, makes me both sad and glad to see it all go.  Change is difficult.  Atrophy limb by limb, week by week, while weeds peek up through the sea of black, and the workers left in stores that remain walk to the only source of sunlight, the front doors, and peer out. 

If retail is to have any presence in the future, re-examining what obtaining goods is about might be useful.  I do not intend to raise dairy cows, so I must procure dairy goods from suppliers (dairy farmers themselves, and I am lucky to be able to go to the farmers market or visit a local dairy if I choose) or the “middle men”, the grocers.  I can go to the Wal-Tar-K’s and pick up toothpaste, a tarp, and milk at the same time or I can go half a mile to a neighborhood grocery store; small, with a surprisingly wide variety of goods, cheerful and funny employees, and quirky promotions.  The experience of the latter is infinitely better, and the overall grocery bills the same. 

For other things, objects I do not buy on a regular basis, I had been retreating to the internet.  Shoes, clothes, and toys in the sizes, materials, and styles I wanted were available, even if the experience was the same as reading a catalog.  Then wide spread information theft arose, and already this year we have had our credit card company send us new cards because, they announced to us, our information had been “compromised” (read: stolen) by a retail merchant.  I am going back to cash, which helps me stay on a budget, and clearing out all my internet information.

I wonder about the pleasure of beautiful things.  Not only obtaining them, but observing them, seeing them, feeling them, and being surrounded by them in a retail space.  I suggested to our local Apple store manager that she put in a coffee station, as they already have the big circular bar to service patrons and Apple stores offer instructional chits that patrons can use at their leisure– go in and learn when you choose.  She replied that the mess would be horrifying.   She is a nasty old woman who is rude and condescending, and chalks up her lack of business to people not using her brand of machines.  She is a delusional idiot, like so many business managers at all levels.

If this contracting economy is teaching us anything, it is that the days of buying for buying sake is over.  Encouraging it any further is stupid, and the self-sufficiency and recycling of products (gardens, second hand stores, people learning to fix things) that is rising up is a good thing that may help us reformulate what it means to “have” anything at all.

Service, the idea that knowledgeable people with a good attitude can help you when you buy something, needs to come back.  Loyalty from consumers because a store backs up the things it sells (without hassle), because objects are easy to find, in stock, help is always ready, and provides the intangible social and informational resources buyers need (as we regularly experience at our local hardware store) all this should be valued again; not sheer loyalty for “brand” because it is marketed as chic, or used to be dependable, those superficial reasons of buzz, not truth. 

Spaces for social interaction need to be considered.  Think of department stores of mid-century, when there were comfortable places for people to rest, literally rest, have a coffee, or chat.  Also offering “public facilities” that had anterooms with mirrors and chairs (let’s add baby changing areas in ante-rooms of BOTH sexes too, with truly safe tables and disposal methods), a gateway between the intimate and the public.   Think spaces for truly examining items, not simply crammed together racks of confusion that dwarf individuals with claustrophobic environments.  Spaces organized with consideration for the process of appreciation and the ability of patrons to freely move, even two at a time are needed.  The old calculation of “items per square feet or inch” is useless to everyone but bean counters.

Think about spaces where light and sound could be calming, without feeling like generic elevator music; imagine spaces that encouraged patrons to be patrons, not just consumers.  Imagine learning to save and spend money on things you need, and to learn how to appreciate the things you want.  How to look, how to see- as John Berger has said.

Growing up I had an annual shopping trip with my grandmother.  She always made sure to teach me, to remark upon the quality of the items we saw.  Were the seams finished?  Was a blouse cut to a fit?  Were the sheets multi-thread?  Were the towels sized well?  Were the shoes leather, and sewn correctly?  With the raise of an eyebrow, she would dismiss much of what she saw.  A child of the depression, she knew it was not worth it to buy shoddy goods.  Even if it meant you only bought a pair of shoes rarely, you bought good shoes that fit, and clothes that would last, as well as appearing beautiful.

Of course, I had to live through my own young adulthood.  I squandered cash on stylish, but foolish items.  I learned.  I also learned that a terrific, barely used black wool swing coat that fit as if it were made for me, although made thirty years ago (and I checked the thread- it was well made and had not deteriorated) was one of the best things I ever bought, for five dollars.  A vicuna over-coat here, a vintage skirt there.  Quality fell out of favor as resale became a mark of shame.  No more.  There is great pleasure in beautiful things, in quality, and the experience of learning about them.  Retail, take note. 

This all points to a more local point of view.  Locally or regionally made and produced items, lower shipping costs, higher dependability, less production and consumption for a cycle of “throw away”, and responsibility to the deeply interconnected nature of commerce is necessary.  To have buyers, those buyers must be employed.  To have service, workers must make fair wages with life sustaining benefits of time and insurance.  The cries that objects will be too expensive if we do this are lies. There are trade offs in where expenses go, and, as we are learning the hard way, no manager or administrator (read: CEO.  They are only titled managers at best, nothing more) is worth the outrageous salaries they are often paid.  There are plenty of bright, energetic, dedicated people of all ages willing to work hard for fair wages who can run companies.

Also, encouraging farmers to grow such things as industrial hemp (no THC), and other fibers, and milling them regionally actually SAVES money.  The whole fast buck lie is falling down, and only those who want to steal the last pennies off the corpse are the ones screaming that any other model of capitalism is socialism or “worse”.  It is a complete lack of imagination, a lack of responsibility, and a lack of honesty that drives them; all this, and fear.  I have compassion for the fear, we are all afraid of change, the unknown.  I have no tolerance for the hatred, the thefts, and the willful ignorance that slows down progressive change for the better.  The hateful rants of the fearful greedy is a position not only immoral, it is ugly.  If beauty is truth, and truth beauty, then maybe we all ought to do a lot more thinking, and talking, about what truth is right now.  The pleasure of beautiful things will only come when we know that they are truly beautiful, worthy, and have the time to consider them wisely.

I am too lazy for that

Ok. I admit it.  I watch Battlestar Galactica (the new one) on the net after it posts every week.  With my husband.  After the kids are in bed.  It is a delicious, silly treat.  Somewhat akin to reading fiction in bed as a child, with the flashlight (dad did not encourage me to read fiction, he said it was junk).  But like the Star Trek fans of old, there are people who make costumes, go to conferences to meet actors and discuss plots, and in general show a high degree of focus and energy on these things that it makes me shake my head.  Live and let live, but I am just too lazy to do that.

I also read about how pro-anorexia and bulimia sites have ballooned on the net, in all languages thinkable.  I looked at some of these sites, trying to understand what goes on in these peoples (not just female anymore) heads, hearts, and bodies.  Aside from feeling very sad, because there is a grain of truth in the sentiments that each site echoes about how women (and men, particularly young men) are valued, I also thought:  I am too lazy to do that.  The discipline and obsession required to pursue those sorts of eating disorders is just not something I could pull off.  In addition, I like cheese too much.  And bread.  Really good bread.  And fruit, fresh fruit. . .and garden vegetables. . .and grilled meat. . .and pasta, tossed with fresh tomatoes and mozzarella, or clam sauce. . .mmmmmm. 

Ok, I digress.

Digressing is not focusing, I tell myself. I realized with many tears last week that as creative as I can be in problem solving, I am just too lazy to really get crazy about anything.  Even when I was dating, I couldn’t get too worked up about anyone who wasn’t more obsessed with me than I was with them.  I usually became friends with the people I dated, because I was just too lazy to do anything else.  Being angry takes way too much energy, and there seems to always be something more interesting to think about.  Now don’t get me wrong.  I can be stubborn when it comes to gross levels of injustice, and inconsolable when it comes to issues of profound evil.  Yet going over the edge about anything, especially daily habits, seems like a lot of work.  It takes enough effort to keep a level of structure in my life that keeps the recyclables going out every week, the floor picked up, laundry done, family fed, my mind and the garden reasonably cultivated, and so forth.  To simply stave off chaos requires a lot of work.

I tried being a vegetarian for a while when I was younger (and single) because good meat was expensive, and I wasn’t very good at cooking it.  It didn’t last long.  My mother used to tell me with a high degree of irritation in her voice that I “always fell into things”.  I think what she meant was that I wasn’t disciplined enough to choose and chase any particular activity, and that all the mistakes I made were not particularly by choice, but due to ignorance and laziness.  You can imagine, it frustrated her greatly.  It frustrates me now, to think about all the opportunities blown, the paths not taken. 

I see some of this in my eldest son.  He is very easy going; some call him “happy go lucky” (not to be confused with Holly Go Lightly, at least I hope not).  He did not cry for the first year of his life, but would do this strange grunty thing when he was upset.  We used to call him the growly bear with chicken hair (he had very blonde, wispy, unruly hair that stuck out everywhere).  He is usually a very sunny child, and many people remark upon it.  He has developed an impish, rebellious side though and for that I am grateful (even if it sets me off from time to time).  But usually, he is an easy to please, happy, go-with-the-flow sort of little guy.  The down side is that he too can be manipulated, and coerced into things he would rather not do, and sometimes be the butt of a cruel child’s joke.  He does not understand it when this happens, and neither do I.  As I said, it takes way too much energy to be mean, and there are so many better things to do.  

Husband disagrees with me as I read this to him.  He lists all the times I stay up until three to finish a book, or “go like a terrier down a rabbit hole” when doing research and trying to find out about a subject.  I tell him this is not obsession.  I say this is not the same thing at all as the comi-con fans, the eating-disorder women, the muscle heads, the political wonks, the bunny boilers, the rebel flag wearing gun-nuts, or any assortment of folks that do not fill the role of “hobbyist”, or even earnest endeavor, but rather something quite a bit more, something bordering on the crazy, something that requires a large amount of energy, time, and not a drop of laziness. 

I think one of the core trusts we have in this country, the comfort, is knowing that no matter how crazy anyone seems to be, how different, how engaged in things utterly alien to some, that these things usually are not truly harmful and usually are not really obsessive.  Even differences that are core to our identity do not usually cause harm, and do not fit the term obsessive, but rather descriptive. 

In general, I think we have all come to trust that one of the things about living in the U.S. is that we are our own worst enemies.  If our government at all levels manages to keep infrastructure going, and stays out of our personal lives above that line of actual harm (not theoretical, an important distinction when dealing with religious nuts who want fascist reforms), if the economics of this country allow for most to work for livable wages under conditions that are both fair and encourage good work, creates considerations for those who can’t contribute in traditional ways, and the greater good is achieved not by excluding others, but by trying to work that complex space of “liberty and justice for all” (the under god part was tacked on very recently by the way, and nothing the Heritage Foundation says or does actually encourages any part of the liberty and justice part, no matter how much they wish to copy-right the verses)— well, then we do as we can and as we like.  This lays the foundation for the best R&D imaginable (with good education and funding) because it opens up the realm of the imagination, and experience.   We trust that people can make costumes for themselves, role play; collect rocks, books, cooking utensils, baby shoes or nail clippers; that people can have organizations that are specially formed for the discussion of these interests, and can lose themselves in these activities.  We trust the utter craziness of this social experiment we live within, and shrug when we see the array of parades and web sites for every damned thing imaginable.  It is when we forget that this is an important part of our lives, when we try to suppress or actively harm people who are different, that we lose.  Because as we do this to others, so can it be done to us. 

I should not have to repeat but I will: this is not to say there should be no baselines of law established.  But those baselines should restrict those who do actual harm, and do more encouraging of actual liberty.  Economic coercion of individuals and groups is not acceptable either, because in practice (as we currently see) it does the same thing as suppressive laws, and not nearly enough economic support for liberty and fraternity, or general social good (I will not even go into the financial support of corporations as individuals, one of the most insane definitions ever made in financial law).

It takes an enormous amount of front-end energy to set systems to do good, and an even larger amount of energy to suppress, harm, and manipulate after the fact.  Some say not being engaged in this process at all is the position of apathy, or laziness; and that this leads inevitably to chaos.  Also, most will angrily add, this requires that others become obsessed, “do all the work”.   That Hen making the bread story meant to teach children sort of thing.   Oh, in all things entertainment related, being lazy is fine- encouraged even.  But when it comes to being a citizen participation is essential.  I do not disagree.  But participation and obsession are two different things.  I’ll participate to establish those golden means all at once necessary as well as unattainable.  I know this requires a constant level of knowledge and action.  But I can’t get obsessed. Eternal vigilance may be the price of liberty as Milton Friedman posited.  But can one be vigilant and jubilant as well?  Can we take care of our daily lives with some degree of finesse, attend to the greater good, and still have time for Battlestar Galactica?  I hope so.  Because if not, be afraid.  Be afraid for us all.  Because most of us, most of us are just too lazy for that.