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November 2011

Post image for November is the new December

I was curious how bad things had gotten in the Christmas shopping world, so I conducted an anthropological experiment which ended when I was asked to leave the store by a senior dishwasher salesman.

This year, Canadians — or at least the people who sell them things — have openly embraced the dubious American phenomenon known as Black Friday, even though our Thanksgiving happens on a Monday in October.

Up here our consumer culture isn’t really that different than it is south of us, it’s just a little more self-conscious and toned down. Canadians would be embarrassed to buy, for example, a velvet-and-rhinestone painting of a waterfall at a truck stop, or a five-pound pack of Nibs. And so it’s not on offer up here. I kind of like that, and I guess that’s why the widely-welcomed invasion of Black Friday left me a little uneasy at first. I liked our Canadian consumer self-consciousness while it lasted.

Maybe it’s not so bad. It’s a symbiotic relationship that was bound to happen. Retailers are always looking for The Sale, and customers are always looking for The Deal. Black Friday is a day when both parties are guaranteed to get what they’re looking for with no shame implied on the part of either, and I guess there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a little like what happens when the fleet comes into port and the local seaside establishments turn on their red lights.

This exchange is happening all the time, but Christmas is when the retailers really want to get the turnstiles spinning. There’s nothing terribly clever about the way they market their clothes and perfumes and phones, certainly nothing more clever than the now-ancient custom of pricing an item at $9.99 instead of ten dollars.

They don’t need to be clever, because both parties come to the table willing. And maybe that’s why it’s all so absurd. We’re so used to waif-proportioned mannequins and plastic Santa Villages that their ridiculousness is almost transparent to us.

So that’s why I went to the mall with my Nikon this weekend. The plan was to take images of the decked halls and gay apparel, then go do something in real life like read a book or walk in the park, and then look at the photos later when I’ve detoxed from the mall air, and see how silly it all really is.

The whole Christmas mall menagerie is so silly that it can barely offend anymore. It doesn’t warrant a serious condemnation, and being hard-nosed about it is a little like picketing a WWE event to convince showgoers that it isn’t real wrestling. More than anything I wanted to be entertained, and I was.

What fascinates me in particular are the images and displays that retailers use to lubricate this mass-transaction and get us in the mood. Fake boughs of holly hung with no hint of irony or kitch. Sterile plastic trees with wrapped empty boxes beneath them. White, flaky fuzz sprayed on window-corners by the canload, meant to remind us of some Charles Dickens book we know about but have never read.  Read More

Post image for Why should you be “forced” to help someone else?

I’m sick. I don’t get sick much. Somehow I still don’t quite believe I will ever get really sick but the statistics say there is a 100% chance I will die of something. So that means it’s either a violent end, or one day I get really sick.

Statistics also say over 70% of my readers are American, and some other statistics say that one-seventh of them do not have health insurance.

I’m making this statistic up, but for those without health coverage, probably a good 50% of their fellow Americans believe that their lack of health insurance is deserved. If they get sick they deserve no medical attention, because they didn’t tend their own garden well enough.

In America, you’re free to seek and acquire everything you need. Somehow, many people think this means the same as: if you don’t have everything you need, then you don’t deserve everything you need. No health insurance? Didn’t work hard enough. Simple.

My sinuses are blocking some of my brain right now so maybe I’m oversimpifying it, but isn’t that the basic philosophy, for many, many people?

The population contains two hundred million self-professed followers of Christ and most of them believe that it is absurd to pay a dime for someone else to see a doctor.

Makes me think of a joke:

How many Ayn Rand objectivists does it take to screw in a light bulb?

None. The market will sort it out.

I generally don’t talk about single political issues here. And I’m not right now. This post isn’t about health care. Or Capitalism. It’s about something way bigger, as always.  Read More

Post image for Two methods for dealing with negative people

A recurring question I get from readers is, “How do you deal with negative people?” I’ve never directly written about it because I’m not always sure whether they’re asking how *I* deal with negative people, or how one ought to deal with negative people. I can only tell you how I do it.

There are actually two ways I deal with negative people.

Method 1

When someone makes a needless negative comment, I feel a spike of contempt somewhere in my lungs, and my eyes probably narrow for a second. I give a terse answer, if one is required. My mind says to the person, “Why do you have to be such a dick about it?” but I don’t actually say that.

Then once I’m out of their presence I tell stories in my head about how wrong they are, I play out imaginary confrontations, I might make a speech that nobody will hear. Or I think of what I should have said right then, George Costanza style. “Well the jerk store called, and…”

This kind of internal dialogue/monologue can go on until I’m interrupted by real life, but even then it sometimes resurfaces later. It sometimes makes the day a bad day.

With this method, the one thing I don’t do is do something. I do think a lot though. I think with great force and anger. I think up a storm, a real impressive one. I inventory my reasons for how right I am, several letters-to-the-editor’s worth. My body doesn’t do anything except maybe make involuntary faces. It’s possible my tongue moves, I don’t know.

In other words, the first of the two methods I have for dealing with negative people is to become one.

Method 2

It starts out the same: person says something negative, and I feel that contempt feeling, but for whatever reason it triggers a different thought process. I do feel the impulse to go on an internal tirade, but I don’t. Instead I find myself recognizing that the offensive party is having a bad day or a bad moment that could just as easily be happening to me. Even if they’re having a bad life, that could just as easily be happening to me too.

It’s not quite forgiveness, it’s more like, “Ah I’ve been there. Frustrated and unreasonable. Directing it at people who don’t deserve it.”

Even though my knee-jerk response is to stare daggers, I’m reminded that people get negative when they’re unconscious, in pain or trying to protect themselves from pain. All human activity can be boiled down to a combintion of seeking pleasure and avoiding suffering. Negativity tends to come from avoiding suffering, and if I’m being fair, it helps neither of us to blame them for it.

Pessimism shields people from despair because it keeps expectations low. Blame shields people from the threats of having to be responsible for a problem they don’t think should be happening. I have been caught up in both, at times today even.

When I use method two I end up feeling almost good towards the negative party. It’s a weird feeling if you’re not used to it. The pain of others suddenly becomes directly relevant to you, yet it remains theirs.  Read More

Post image for Why do you do what you don’t love?

When I arrived at the conservation office I was absurdly early, like I am for everything that’s important. At 9:30 a bus would take me and 39 others to a ferry, which would drop us at the beginning of the Milford Track. From there I’d hike four days through cavernous glacial valleys, living out of my backpack.

After a day of scrambling to get all the right supplies: quick-drying clothes, sandfly repellant, cooking gear, matches, and food that didn’t take up much space, I was ready. Just early.

I sat down on the grass next to another traveler. We had the typical backpacker exchange: names, home countries, and current destinations. He was a German, about 20, headed to the Kepler track.

Our customary exchange ran its course quickly and soon there didn’t seem to be anything else to say, so we just sat against our packs, enjoying the day. It was sunny, and especially quiet. Te Anau is a little town at the edge of the civilization, so there was no background drone of highway traffic. Nothing happening in the foreground either.

Neither of us had said anything in a minute or two, when he turned to me and asked with a straightforwardness that only a German could muster:

“So,” he said, “What are your dreams?”

Having met new people almost every single day of my trip, I had reflexive answers for almost every question a near-stranger could ask, but this one caught me off guard. Nothing came out.

It’s not that I didn’t know what I wanted in life. In fact I’ve got a life list, and I started trying to recall what was on it, but nothing was jumping out at me and I knew that after thinking about it so long, no answer I could give would be very convincing.

A few items from my bucket list were beginning to materialize: Learn my wines. Speak French fluently. Ride a Harley. These are things I want to do, but clearly none of them consume me enough that they’re right there in the foreground of my mind whenever somebody brings up the topic of dreams.

I was self-conscious about how I seemed to have to rake my brain for what should be more important than anything. I didn’t have a clear idea of my dreams, and I knew I was talking to somebody who did.

Finally I laughed and said I didn’t know.

“What are your dreams?” I asked.

“I want to have a boat and I want to go to Iceland.”

“In your boat?”

“No, my boat will not be that kind of boat. It is two different dreams.”

“Why did you come to New Zealand when you could have gone to Iceland first?”

“It is not the time. I am too young.”

I have 150 items on my bucket list. Looking at it, pretty much anyone could tease out a few values that are important to me. What I want is a life that embodies those values.

One of the items on my list was the thing I was there to do: hike the Milford Track. But I knew he was looking for a more definite, more resounding answer. Not just one of dozens of arbitrary items I want to get to, but the experience I couldn’t die without. The Milford is a truly unbelievable hike, but my interest in it didn’t exactly define me as a person. It only hinted at what did.  Read More

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