Saturday, December 27, 2008

Little conundrummer boy

This year I banned Christmas music from the household. However, I have ventured outside these past few weeks and into stores, where the only song that ever seemed to be playing was "Little Drummer Boy." It was never the same version twice--at least I don't think so--and I see on Wikipedia that there are over 200 recorded versions of this exceedingly virulent earworm.

So here's what I've been wondering:

Does the playing of "Little Drummer Boy" in stores over and over and over subtly undermine the capitalist enterprise? The song, as you will recall, is about a "poor boy" who visits the baby Jesus, but has "no gifts to bring"--at least none "fit to give a king." In desperation (?) he plays a little number on his drum and the baby Jesus smiles at him. So this could suggest that material gifts are not necessary, and never were necessary, at Christmas. The wise men weren't so wise to haul that gold and frankincense and myrrh across the sands after all. The boy gives of himself by sharing his special (and perhaps only) talent, which is all Jesus really asks.

On the other hand, perhaps the drummer boy only gets a pass because, as he explains to the linguistically adept newborn, he is a "poor boy too." If he weren't poor, he would have been expected to cough up something nice in a gold or a myrrh. Each according to his means, in other words, which could be a nod to either communism or pre-easy-credit capitalism. But if he hadn't pleaded poverty, would Jesus have been pissed at getting a drum solo when he expected something he could melt down and sell later on?

So what's the message of this song, and how is the message affected by hearing it on a Muzak program amid the glare of fluorescent lights and the whir of hysterical consumption? As we shop along to its insidious thrum, do we think, wow, I'm glad I'm not so poor as to be reduced to playing a drum. I can offer the finest gifts--or I ought to, anyway. Maybe I haven't spent enough on Aunt Martha. OR--what the hell am I doing here? All this junk I'm buying just reifies, and further complicates, the family psychodrama that blows into town like a storm system every year. By god, we need to simplify our lives! I'm putting this chafing dish back! Aunt Martha will understand, if I just explain it in exactly the right words...

Certainly if the song is meant to be subversive, it isn't working. Merchants see it as no threat. Or perhaps the constant repetition is what robs it of its power.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Barack is down

OK, I took the Obama widget off the site. I suppose he has all the money he needs anyway. I'm still glad he's going to be president, and I'm even more glad we didn't get the alternative. Can you imagine McCain, let alone SP, "handling" the auto bailout, the economy in general, global warming...can you even imagine them handling the transition? The bizarre cabinet appointees popping up like a George Romero version of Whack-a-mole? I suspect it would have been an even more unsettling holiday season than it has been.

But. The Rick Warren invocation is unforgivable. Not only for all the reasons that thousands of bloggers have already mentioned. But because it fucks up the inauguration for us. This was supposed to be our--progressives'--moment to celebrate so many victories against considerable odds. Now the whole thing feels icky. I am not even sure I want to watch, whereas at one point I was seriously considering trying to go to DC for the event. Warren is Pat Robertson in a fat-and-younger suit. It is sickening that 1) there is assumed to be such a position as "America's preacher," which must be filled now that Billy he dead? I forget... and, anyway, 2) Rick Warren is, by fiat, that preacher. If we must have a cartoon balloon hovering over the country to represent our values, how about Underdog from the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade?

Monday, December 15, 2008

When in doubt, cook

I can't remember a holiday season that I've felt more bleak about. Clearly it's the economy (and one is now more compelled than ever to add: Stupid!). We assembled the tree yesterday, and I flat-out refused to have Christmas music playing during the ritual. And honestly I only agreed to the tree for the sake of the cats, who like to sleep under it, and in past years have put aside their mutual hostility to actually snuggle under its fire-retardant boughs...

On the other hand, we had a lovely dinner with friends last weekend, for which I made the vegan moussaka from Veganomicon. That one's a definite keeper, and the pine-nut cream sauce more than makes up for the absence of cheese. And this weekend I made bread from scratch! I don't believe I have ever done that before--meaning real bread, with the damp towel and the kneading and the waiting around. The recipe was from this month's Vegetarian Times, which offers several good-looking recipes, most of which seem veganizable. I made the rye, which turned out great. I've been looking for bread recipes after the repeated failure of the extra-fast, no-knead recipe from the NYT. Could have been me, no doubt, but this thing was a brick, twice.

Actually I feel a little less bleak just having written the above. When in doubt, cook, or write about it, I guess.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

What is money?

This is a question I've had for a number of years, and it's even more baffling now. I am beginning to gather that one reason for the current financial crisis is that no one really knows. Perhaps everyone is beginning to realize that money is a species of mass delusion like religion--only worse, because questioning it brings about real and immediate consequences.

I remember being taught, as a little kid, that every coin or dollar bill I had represented an amount of gold in Fort Knox. If I wanted to, I could show up at the Fort and demand my bit of gold in exchange for my currency. The system was designed to save our backs; otherwise we'd all have to drag around sacks of gold and the most wealthy would end up horribly crippled--who wanted that? It all made good sense, and I happily did my part as a consumer for many years, a little gold nimbus hovering in the back of my mind every time I performed the ritual of exchange. Apparently, though, none of this has been true for quite some time, and the only people who want it to be true are right-wing, tin-foil-hatted survivalists.

The gold standard is problematic for a couple of reasons I can think of. One--mining gold is terrible for the earth and for the people who do it. Two--what's really so great about gold? It's pretty, it's malleable, it's hard to get (see One, above)--but so what? There are other pretty objects, as different civilizations have shown by trading in beads, shells, etc. So is the issue beauty combined with rarity? But if rarity, or difficulty in attaining (which may be, in fact, the same thing), means *doing damage* in order to attain, what's the value there? In one way or another, we have to pay for that damage.

OK, so back to what money is now. If it represents the combined value of all goods and services produced in this country (and in the world, too, I guess), that seems to be a tautology: money is worth what we buy with it. There are goods we don't buy, services we don't use. In any case, we're back to mass delusion. Now, we're all deciding that Hummers, for instance, aren't valuable after all. What happens if the concept of value starts getting radically separated from the material world? Can we monetize time, for instance, in a way that would support our current economic system? Or is that just another form of barter--if I give you five hundred hours of my time for a Prius, does that just mean I'm doing something I'd rather not be doing during that time, like working? And how do I prove I've worked, if you weren't there to watch me--by giving you the money? Is there no escaping the material world? Does value always entail some form of money?

Some economist on Marketplace last week finally raised this question, and said something to the effect that money is now nothing but numbers on screens. Because of all these complicated financial instruments (like derivatives), no one knows what the numbers really represent. The problem is, in a nutshell, that everyone has started wondering. And the powers that be want us to just shut up and stop asking questions--don't even think the questions, or you are sinning and there will be consequences. The system will crash and you will be poor.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Oh, my goodness, gracious

What you can buy off the Internet!

The poetry of Donald Rumsfeld, set to music!

Speaking of air travel

In general I am not a happy flyer--as my Pindeldyboz story attests. (The story is otherwise completely fictional! I assure you! Except for the witch thing; that actually happened, though not quite in the same way.) Flying back from Ohio last Sunday was, however, rather interesting. We usually fly direct, but this time that particular flight was $1000 apiece (for coach!). So we went through Houston. On the first leg, Cleveland to Houston, I was the picture of misery. Stuck in the middle seat on a relentlessly bumpy flight--and nothing but whiteness outside. But the flight from Houston to SFO was almost lovely. We flew over New Mexico, where there was a bluish haze over the mountains, and that kind of gold New Mexico light. Then we flew up the California coast as the sun was setting. We saw everything from the Central Valley, which was under a fog blanket that looked just like snow, to the ocean, which was glassy. The sunset was brilliantly striped, like a Gap sweater. Best of all we were in bulkhead seats, with plenty of legroom, and the ride up there--I had forgotten this--is much smoother. It was like being in first class, without the assholes.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Thought for the holiday season

Put your own mask on first before assisting other passengers.