Archive for January, 2009

A Succinct Explication

There seems to be a concerted effort on the part of many of those complicit in the current economic debacle, they and their political running dogs, to shift the blame off and onto the impersonal forces of market dynamics, or to the government’s “irresponsible” encouragement of home-ownership or to the well-documented sleaze of Bill Clinton. Forget about it. 

The following is the final paragraph in a lengthy piece that appears in the February 12, 2009, edition of The New York Review of Books titled, “How We Were Ruined & What We Can Do,” by Jeff Madrick, editor of Challenge Magazine, Visiting Professor at Cooper Union, and Senior Fellow at the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis at The New School. 

“This is, as many economists now concur, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Financial market participants created a financial bubble of tragic proportions in pursuit of personal gain. But the deeper cause was a determination among people with political and economic power to minimize the use of government to oversee the financial markets and to guard against natural excess. If solutions are to be found, the nation requires robust and pragmatic use of government, free of laissez-faire cant and undue influence from the vested interests that have irresponsibly controlled the economy for too long.” 

Couldn’t say it better myself. I did try; See The Compost Heap, “Whadda I Know About Economics?”  Posted July 28, 2008. Apparently just enough.

Bless Us Oh Lord And These Thy Gifts…

freedomfromwant1On finding myself alone at a mealtime, I’d reach for something to read while eating. It was multi-tasking, something I still considered a virtue. Too often after a mealtime spent reading, I could barely recall what I had eaten. 

As a child in Catholic school, I had been taught the Graces Before and After Meals, prayers that were rarely if ever said in the absence of clergy. On a day last year, alone in the house, and ready to tuck into one of my ample lunches, I rooted the recent mail for the latest New Yorker or New York Review of Books. To my surprise, an obvious and disconcerting reality entered my mind.  Despite my best efforts not to think about such things, I found I was facing one of my own “inconvenient truths;” there were at that moment, millions of people all around the world for whom hunger was more than a marginal urge, for whom eating was more than a function of choices. 

Unable to banish or deny the realization that there is actual widespread starvation in the world, that there were really children stunted by malnutrition, I fell back upon that long-remembered prayer, “Bless of Oh Lord for these thy gifts, which we are about to receive, through thy bounty, through Christ our Lord, Amen.” I put aside my intended mealtime reading material before starting my lunch. It wasn’t much, but it was a start. 

In the course of my life, I may have skipped a meal now and then. There were the Lenten observances and the days of fast and abstinence during my far off childhood. And even those, in our marginally observant family, were far from rigorous, and always open to the most liberal of interpretations.  But among the far too many things I’d chosen to ignore was an unquestioned assumption that I held an entitlement to eat whenever and whatever I choose. 

Being human is, of necessity, to live within the context of history. In this time and this place, we’ve been led to believe that we’ve been granted a unique dispensation from the flow of history. Solidly, if newly, middle-class in what still feels like the first of first world countries, I do not have to look very far back in my own family; three, four generations at most, to find more sobering attitudes toward the prospects of securing one’s next meal. 

I’ve no personal documentation, nor do I need any, to assert that my Irish peasant ancestors faced periods of absolute need, of hunger and exposure, experiences utterly removed from my own experience. My father spoke of his illiterate and penniless parents emigrating here from the barren West of Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century. My mother’s people, more assimilated, deracinated might be the better word, laid claims to being in this country at the time of the Civil War. Only recently was I able to parse that assertion into the probability of their being what were called at that time, “Famine Irish,” a term that carries its own horrific story. 

Never having known genuine scarcity, most of us have come to accept plenitude as our due. The very idea of “normal” presumes an unwarranted and illusory sense of permanence, an exemption from the too often dire consequences of history. It no longer seems necessary to sanctify the routine acts that are the basis of our sustenance, of our very existence. Once a year on the fourth Thursday in November, somewhere amid images of Pilgrims and Indians, we collectively participate in ritual expressions of gratitude for our bounty. For most of us, that’s about it. With my ancestral history as a personal context, the tuna salad sandwich on my plate began to take on sacral qualities, not something to be taken absent-mindedly with the day’s Op-Ed page. 

I can no longer read while eating. Instead, I do my best to focus on my every mouthful of food, be it a bowl of cereal, a fast food sandwich or a holiday dinner. Within my small   insight lies the possibility of ever more openings to gratitude, and within those, a hope that such revelations will encourage a more generous, more active charity on my part, particularly toward those who would find my need for distractions at mealtime beyond  imagining. 

“Essentialism,” Whatever It Is

images-1Over lunch today, glazing the eyes of my wife, I went on at length, as I am usually wont to do, this time on the subject of Shredded Wheat and my tendencies toward what I’ve come to call “Essentialism.”  That’s not to be confused with Puritanism or self-denial. Essentialism to me is an internal paradigm, a mode of moving towards something like a backpacker’s vision of life, which is to say, never carrying anything you don’t really need, but also not doing without the things you feel are essential to living life on your own terms. 

Why then Shredded Wheat? Shredded Wheat because it would seem to me that our current world of half-mile-long breakfast cereal aisles has come to define inessentiality. Who needs to wander among endless boxes of overpriced, over-processed things like Chocolate-Covered Sugar Bombs trying to decide what to eat for a Tuesday morning breakfast? It can also mean choosing $32 Converse sneakers instead of entering the universe of Nike or Foot Locker stores to ponder hundreds of models of what are essentially, sneakers. A durable pair of Levi’s will outlast any of the nearly indistinguishable “designer jeans.” I mean, the damned things started out as work pants for farmers. And maybe add $8 J.C. Penny T-shirts to the list. 

All of the above is probably a result staying up too late or having heard Delbert McClinton’s “Too Much Stuff,” or more likely it’s a reflection of the idea that decadence is not about orgies and corruptions, but about having too many choices in matters of trivial concern. It’s the trivialization of  allowing yourself to agonize  over  the marginal variations in jeans or shoes, or the anxieties of confronting an infinity of rug patterns or kitchen cabinets. Does any of this stuff ever do anything to genuinely enhance anybody’s life? 

I would like to keep moving toward that state of mind where I can free myself, as much as possible, from the mindlessness of the consumerism that’s become the end-all/be-all of our culture. That ideal of course is predicated on keeping my 120g iPod, and having access to NHL games on cable. Then again, my efforts toward a life of “Essentialism” as I call it, may prove entirely irrelevant, given the good work already done by those altruistic financial geniuses responsible for the ongoing collapse of the American economy. There’s a high possibility we may be heading into a future where for too many of us, frivolous spending choices may be but distant memories, and a life of “Essentialism” no longer a matter of choice.