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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

An American Tragedy

Last week, we celebrated my nephew's eleventh birthday. It was a relaxed affair, with burgers and fries and the sugary-goodness of birthday cake. It reminded me of the birthday parties I had as a little girl - modest events with just the immediate family, and an odd cousin or two. Back then, the birthday cake was homemade and the presents, while never expensive, were memorable. There were favorite Barbie Dolls and pocket-sized, die-cast metal Matchbox cars to add to my collection. The weeks leading up to my birthday were the longest weeks of my life, but the actual birthday seemed always to race by me in a feverish blur that was no doubt fueled by the twin ecstasies of birthday cake AND presents. I was thinking about those times as I watched my nephew open each of his own 11-year-old gifts - each a new treasure.

One of those treasures was a portable electronic gaming system, and from the first few seconds that he spied the box's telltale logo, his face was resplendent with joy. He was so possessed by this possession, this thing so desired. But desires don't retail so cheaply, and this particular one came with a triple-digit price tag. For a family of modest means, this was truly a thing to be treasured. For a little boy from a family of modest means, this was a thing to be shared, a thing to be shown off, and that was when the unthinkable happened.

This treasure was stolen, and suddenly a little boy and his family are thrown into a tailspin.

Listening to my mother over the telephone relaying the details, her voice hollowed out and thin, I, at first, was only half-listening - your nephew went to school Monday...your sister told him not to take it to school...his brother noticed he had it in the car...came home crying...your sister went to the principal this morning...$300...so upset.

This incident brings up all sorts of issues, from obeying your parents, to teaching children how to be responsible, and the on-going debate over appropriate gifts for children. And any of these issues would be worthy of a good blogging, but I'm most curious if my nephew's short-lived relationship with this thing will have an everlasting effect on his psyche. Will this gaming system become his Rosebud? Will my 105-year-old nephew's last words be, "Nintendo"? And how is it that for all of the toys and games that we've given him over the years - toys that he's played with and forgotten about - that this one with which he has spent the least amount of time with is the one for which he grieves? Will this thing define him? Will his parents no longer trust him with things that they value? Will he feel unworthy for an innocent mistake? And will he ever believe the truth, that he will always be worth more than some thing whose worth is measured in dollars? I'm just saying.



Sunday, September 25, 2011

A Nation of Hoarders

As I left my house Saturday morning, I noticed dozens of people picking through mountains of stuff assembled on various tables scattered along a sidewalk. It was my neighborhood's annual yard sale, and, judging by the large number of cars and trucks parked on either side of the street, this year's was a success. I've never had the urge to stop by yard sales, which is a pity as this was the third or fourth yard sale I'd passed this week. At one yard sale, we saw a woman practically skipping down a suburban Virginia street with a colossal 60-roll package of toilet tissue. You would have thought she'd just bought a Tom Ford-era Gucci dress in her size for a nickel!!

Maybe it's the recession that's fueling the yard sale craze. With consumer credit in a curious place, that buyer's rush has to be satisfied some way, so why not with a slightly used $3 denim jacket from Old Navy that you picked up from a stranger in their driveway?? But, really, this urge to have and to hold can become dangerous and obsessive. The Target stores have reported that their launch of a mid-priced line of housewares and apparel by Italian fashion house Missoni has resulted in a rash of buyers snapping up the items in bulk, cleaning out entire store inventories, and then reselling these items with a stiff mark-up on online auction sites like eBay. This takes the house-flipping concept to a new low!!

And what about couponing sites like Groupon?? That's great that you can get parachuting lessons for $15 instead of $115, and a $20 bag of groceries for $10 from your favorite whole foods store, and dinner for two for $30, but does anyone ever ask themselves, "do I really need this?" Why are we so consumed with consuming?

I guess, then, it's little wonder why the reality show, "Hoarders" has become so popular. While the cameras roll, we see living rooms piled waist-high with newspapers, kitchens overwhelmed by dirty pots and pans, whole bedrooms packed to the gills with clothing and trash, and, in the midst of it all, a person and their story of loss and loneliness. They stuff more and more and more things into their homes in an attempt to fill the emotional void. Some of them confront this crisis and clean up their act, but some will not, either way, it doesn't matter because the American TV-viewing public loves "Hoarders." Maybe it's good, old-fashioned schadenfreude that makes the show's fans tune in, but I think it's a lurking feeling that we have more in common with the hoarders than we're comfortable admitting. We want it, and we want it NOW, and we want it ALL!

You'd think we'd learned our lessons about the dangers of unfettered appetites, what with the now-global economic crisis, but I guess not. We still want and we still buy, only now, instead of plunking down our credit card at a pricey department store, we throw down cash for another's trash and claim it as treasure, and we don't even use it! How sad is that?? Hoarders take no pleasure in all that they've accumulated. They feel compulsion but not joy. Maybe joy is something that we all could use - real joy at our connections to each other instead of to another thing. I'm just saying:)