Archive for September, 2008

On Money: Why there might still be a tomorrow

September 30, 2008

Despite today’s screaming banner headlines in the NYTimes and the Wall Street Journal, the “bailout bust” may not be the end of the world as we know it:

According to the venerable and highly visible Lou Dobbs (at cnn.com) —

Economist after economist, with whom I’ve spoken, CEOs, they acknowledge that there are far better ways to deal with the issues confronting our financial system than this bailout. And it’s absolutely obscenely irresponsible of House Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi, Treasury Secretary [Henry] Paulson, President Bush, Sen. Harry Reid, the leader of the Senate; for these people to be clucking about like hysterical — so hysterically. It really must stop…

[The Republican and Democratic leadership] don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re trying to ram this thing down the people’s throats and Congress. And those House Republicans and House Democrats who voted against this bailout deserve a great, great expression of thanks from the American people. Absolutely.

And, at the end of trading today, the Dow had regained nearly two-thirds of yesterday’s historic losses. So go figure. Somebody with money out there seems to think there’s something to invest in, even if it’s only Warren Buffett.

Sigh… What to do, what to do. From the vantage point out here in Dusty Corner, it doesn’t look like there’s a single “safe” place to put your money (including under the mattress). Some friends and fellow blogsters are obsessively consulting their portfolios, figuring out down to the decimal point just how much they’ve lost over the last few days, but that seems pretty masochistic to me. (But then, I refuse to weigh myself every day, too. Why should a mere number determine how I’m going to feel about myself?)

Anybody remember the old Garry Moore Show, which existed if for no other reason than to give the world Jonathan Winters and Carol Burnett? I remember as a kid watching a “Wonderful Year” segment featuring a then-unknown actress-singer singing a bluesy “Happy Days Are Here Again” while using her diamond earrings to pay for champagne. The year they were celebrating? Sometime around 1929. The singer? Barbra Streisand.

I kind of feel that way, but there’s a precedent for that. A few years ago, I got a really scary medical diagnosis, a largely untreatable condition that could turn fatal. (Too hard to explain. Some other time.)

I remember the doctor — who had the personality of a piece of cardboard — patting me on the shoulder on the way out of his office. I walked to and got in my car, called The Spouse and blubbered the results to him, and then had a good cry. And then — I dried my tears, put on my seatbelt and GOT ON WITH MY LIFE. Short of taking to my bed for the duration, which sounded boring, there was nothing else to be done. And, so far, I’m fine.

So break out the champagne. I still have a few diamonds left. My life remains whole and good. This too shall pass.

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Tender mercies

September 29, 2008

At this most peculiar moment in time when the sky is indeed falling, I am best comforted by some of the small, tender mercies of my life:

The crisp tart-sweet taste of an apple from the basket given to me by a neighbor yesterday, a bit of a Sabbath blessing. The gesture is doubly sweet — and tart — because her son is dying, yet she took time to pick and deliver them to me, and thanked me for the opportunity to share.

The red and gold still visible in the foothills this late in the season. Our fall colors are usually nearly gone by now, but some quirk in this year’s precipitation made them linger. As my Buddhist friend once observed, “Autumn is my surest evidence that dying can be beautiful.”

The beautiful, alert face and bright eyes of my granddaughter, who I admire every time I pick up my iPhone. She’s the wallpaper. Hello, precious. I hope that, with patience and lots of love, we can outfit you for what’s ahead.

The riotous splendor of the flower beds at work and in my pots at home. Having survived the worst of the summer’s heat, they are frantically blooming, as if they know of the cold ahead. I’ll soon repot the geraniums and bring them inside, where they’ll continue blooming all winter in my south-facing kitchen window. It’s one of my favorite autumn rituals, because it captures and keeps a bit of the summer’s splendor.

Emily Dickenson’s “certain slant of light” that, as it continues south, moves over my kitchen and bedroom, illuminating the dust motes and dappling the quilts and tabletops. It won’t reach the “cathedral tunes” stage for a few months, so it is merely melancholy.

A phone call from my husband, and another from a friend, just to check in. Am I all right?

So I’m checking in. Are you all right? I hope you have a tender mercy or two to tide you over right now.

Thrifting: My clothes take a Caribbean vacation

September 26, 2008

Who knew? Apparently trading in secondhand clothing is big business outside of the U.S.:

When thrifty shoppers in Boston and Miami pick through secondhand shirts at local Salvation Army outlets or estate sales, they are as likely to meet Haitians as hipsters. Some of the immigrants will simply be collecting clothes to mail back to family in Port-au-Prince, but others are part of a large global network trading in used American goods.

The demand for pepe — used materials of all kinds from overseas — is huge in places like Haiti, which has developed its own sort of raggedy capitalism:

Pepe is sold on virtually every street corner in Haiti, yet it isn’t a free-for-all. Some vendors purchase goods by the bales for resale. Usually they have an agreement with an American charity shop, which sorts the items before making the sale. (Coats, for example, go to countries with colder climates.) Other dealers rely on relatives and friends in the United States and run off-the-books enterprises. One person combs the thrift stores for certain items, and another returns to Haiti several times a year to make the exchange. Some sellers specialize in a certain kinds of goods—just soccer jerseys, just sneakers, just bikinis.

Although I knew that my local charity shop ships items overseas to other benevolent outlets, I had no idea that some of my old tee-shirts and skirts might be being restyled for a Caribbean market. It has occurred to me that, were I more clever with my sewing machine — which sits covered with clothes-to-be-mended somewhere in the laundry room — I might be able to give some of my cast-offs a second life.

Instead, like my mother-in-law, I stack the old Singer with tattered clothes until the pile gets so high — and then I bundle them off to Goodwill. The road to my closet is paved with good intentions.

If you’re interested, a pair of New York filmmakers has recently released a documentary, Secondhand (Pepe), describing the path your shoes take from your closet to the streets of Port-au-Prince.

David Foster Wallace on worshipping

September 24, 2008

I’ve only read writer David Foster Wallace around the edges, mostly in newspaper articles and book extracts, but the tributes published in the wake of his recent suicide, at age 46, have made me want to hear more. The Wall Street Journal has published a version of a Kenyon College commencement speech he gave in 2005 that is really mind-bending in its simple power. In it, he decries what he calls “default-setting” thinking, in which we place ourselves at the center of the universe and therefore at odds with just about everyone and everything else:

[I]f you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars — compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship…

Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. [Emphasis mine.]

If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings.

We’re now harvesting the grapes of wrath for a decade or more of worshipping money and power on an unprecedented level, and the entire nation is in danger of being “eaten alive” by it. And the saviors who are coming forward sound suspiciously like the charlatans who got us in this mess in the first place.

Wallace knows, or knew. He knew that, in light of such huge forces over which we have so little influence, we have only our personal freedom to exercise:

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

That “infinite thing” we have lost may be our very selves, or our futures, or our children’s futures.

Update: Wallace’s family talks about his last days.

Project Goodwill: Thrifting hits Washington runways

September 22, 2008

It just had to happen: As Congress and the White House grapple with solutions to the biggest financial meltdown since 1929, big-spending Washingtonians have discovered what we common folk in the hinterlands have known for years: There are bargains to be had at your nearby Goodwill. The Washington Post’s report — complete with a photo gallery — on a runway show at the French Embassy describes an event-for-our-times that, while it didn’t have Heidi Klum, was turning heads — and changing minds:

[W]ell-heeled Washingtonians were discovering that it’s still possible to look fabulous without a Wall Street severance package, a realization that’s sinking in across the country.

Goodwill has seen a 6 percent jump in sales nationwide as the economy has worsened in the past year. A recent survey of about 200 thrift stores found that more than half enjoyed sales jumps averaging 30 percent…

About 70 outfits, pulled from local Goodwill stores by Alexandria designer Tu-Anh Nguyen, were shown on the runway. Then they were returned to racks and wheeled out of the dressing rooms.

The tony crowd then descended on the racks in a scene that almost resembled bridal-gown markdown day at Filene’s Basement. Hey, ladies, settle down! There’s plenty of good stuff out there, as I have observed previously. It just requires patience and a discriminating eye.

And for some, maybe swallowing some pride. I suspect there’s going to be a lot of that in the coming days.

My Life in Shoes: Character shoes

September 18, 2008

Okay, a True Confessions Moment:

There was a time in my life when I longed for a life on the stage. I had been singing ever since an enterprising elementary school teacher figured out that this chubby little third-grader could sing harmony and stuck me in the middle of the choir, where I stayed for nearly 50 years. I came to dance much later, taking all sorts of dance courses in college and loving my hours in a ratty, drafty second-floor ballet studio, doing plies to “The Long and Winding Road” and other pop songs played by a wild-haired pianist. (Sigh…)

Although my size and vocal range generally limited me to community theatre character roles like Cousin Nettie in “Carousel,” Aunt Eller in “Oklahoma” and Katisha in “The Mikado,” I did manage once to starve myself down to a size nine, thus making me eligible for a role in the chorus of “Guys and Dolls.”

It was heaven. Fish-net stockings, false eyelashes, tap pants and “Merry Widow” bustiers! Hot-pink satin, fake fur and pearls for an honest-to-gosh striptease in the “Take Back Your Mink” production number! (I LIVED for the moment each night when we’d literally make the audience gasp!)

And character shoes, of course, those sturdy, short-heeled, Mary Jane-like black leather shoes that lend themselves to all sorts of stage roles. Take them to the shoe repair shop and they easily become tap shoes. I wore out two pair during my short-lived career as a chorine.

I wish I still had a pair. And someplace sassy to wear them. Anybody seen my false eyelashes?

Excuse #4,561: My indoor plumbing is making me fat

September 17, 2008

Our friends at Freakonomics, one of my favorite sites, are always thinking:

Is it possible that the availability of good plumbing has contributed to our national weight gain? This may sound ludicrous, but think about it for just a moment. Very few people have to trek through the night to use an outhouse anymore; furthermore, restroom facilities are readily available just about everywhere — which means you don’t have to worry about getting rid of your waste, which frees you up to consume as much as you’d like.

This is certainly original. Could it also be the reason why there are such enormous toilet facilities at our local all-you-can-eat restaurants? (Not that I ever go to any of them, mind you. Um, the restaurants, I mean.)

Most of the respondents to the article agree — and I concur — that it is modern technology (including improvements in plumbing) that is the real problem: too much ease, too many sedentary distractions and too much available — and right tasty — food. It’s cheap and safe and plentiful — and there are even wonderful people out there who will bring it right to your doorstep!

But I do admit that, faced with a long drive across the barren desert, I rethink what I’m eating and drinking. The Spouse thinks a successful road trip is one with ABSOLUTELY NO STOPS.

(And now msmeta returns to logging in her daily caloric intake, which is probably why she has dieting on the brain. How many calories are there in a Snickers Bar? Okay, then, how about a piece of lint?)

Update: Freakonomics also has the best, most concise explanation of the current financial meltdown of any source I’ve read.

Why I look for and read all your posts

September 17, 2008

“When a friend speaks to me, whatever he says is interesting.”
— Jean Renoir (quoted in the New York Times, Sept. 28, 1969). Via.

Third World infertility: Helplessly horrified

September 16, 2008

Motherhood may be mostly behind me now, but the subject still has the power at times to make me want to weep. Newsweek has a story about the effects of childlessness on women in other countries, particularly the Third World:

“It is very, very difficult for people in the United States to deal with [infertility], and yet, when you go to other cultures, it’s even more devastating to people,” says Dr. David Adamson, president of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine and a board member of the International Federation of Fertility Societies. Worldwide, the World Health Organization says about one in 10 couples experiences difficulty conceiving a child at some point in their lives.

In some developing countries, the consequences of infertility—which can include ostracism, physical abuse and even suicide—are heartbreaking. “If you are infertile in some cultures, you are less than a dog,” says Willem Ombelet of the Genk Institute for Fertility Technology in Belgium. Women are often uneducated, so their only identity comes from being moms. “It [infertility] is an issue of profound human suffering, particularly for women,” says Marcia Inhorn, professor of anthropology and international affairs at Yale University. “It’s a human-rights issue.”

The article reports that many infertile women in poor nations are shunned and banned from gatherings where they might “spread” their “affliction,” and even if the husband is the one who is infertile, the woman usually accepts the blame — and the ostracism. And, of course, Third World women have few recourses in treating infertility, which often has life-long consequences, since elderly childless women have no one to care for them and few other resources. Says Newsweek:

In the Hindu religion, a woman without a child, particularly a son, can’t go to heaven. Sons perform death rituals. Infertile couples worry that without a child, who will mourn for them and bury them? In China and Vietnam, the traditional belief is that the souls of childless people can’t easily rest. In India, the eldest son traditionally lights the funeral pyre. In Muslim cultures, the stigma follows childless women even after death: women without children aren’t always allowed to be buried in graveyards or sacred grounds

This article reminded me of the moment years ago when I stumbled across a little story in Time Magazine that reported on the estimated tens — and maybe hundreds — of millions of “missing” women in Middle and Far East populations due to abortion, infanticide and “honor” killings. I read and reread the article to make sure I wasn’t mistaking it. It was jaw-dropping.

What does one DO with information like that? I’m tired of being helplessly horrified by what I can’t fix or help. I’ve tried to teach my sons to respect and value women. I go out of my way to empower my female friends. I speak up for myself in the face of sexism and, when I can, for women who can’t. But, in the face of such monstrous discrimination and hatred, it seems so little.

That American culture could create a climate where Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin can be taken seriously should be seen as a victory, I suppose. But maybe the status quo is still just messin’ with us.

My Life in Shoes: Cork sandals

September 12, 2008

Okay, enough serious posts for awhile. Time for some crap. After a summer-long search in department stores and shoe shops throughout the United States and the United Kingdom (and even on eBay), I finally found a pair of cork sandals to replace the shabby pair I “retired” in London. (Cute, eh? And only $20 or so on sale! Thank you, Bandolino and Macy’s!)

“Big deal,” you say? Not so, shoe lovers! For, despite the wanton whims of fashion over the years, cork sandals have been one of the constants of my shoe wardrobe.

I remember spotting my first pair when I was a high school senior. There they were, in a bedroom slippers display at the top of the rattly old wooden escalator at The Major Department Store That Is No More of my childhood. Like most shoes at the time, they probably didn’t come in any size larger than a nine, but since they were slides, they could kindly accommodate my size ten feet. And I didn’t care if they were bedroom slippers. I wore them everywhere until they literally crumbled under my feet.

I’ve more or less had a pair somewhere in my closet ever since. The beauty of cork sandals is that they are made of, well, CORK, which over time will mold itself to your feet until you have the feel of a custom-made pair of shoes. The sensuous joy of sliding your foot into a shoe that will fit only YOU is absolutely decadent. I’ve always wanted to have a pair of handmade boots, but my cork mules will likely be the closest I ever get.

There’s precious little summer left in which to wear them, but I’ll trot them out as often as I can. I even freshened up the old pedicure to show them off!

So, to celebrate me and my perfect sandals, please go put on your favorite, most comfortable pair of shoes. NOW.

UPDATE: Oh, shoe lovers should not miss Bill Cunningham’s NYT photo essay on shoes at Fashion Week. Now I know how those girls manage to endure those four-inch heels!