20 Years of Buy Nothing

November 27, 2011

Have you heard of Kalle Lasn?

Twenty years ago, this former advertising executive decided to put his talents toward promoting a different message: don’t buy stuff.  This year marked the 20th Anniversary of Buy Nothing Day, which Mr. Lasn and those who have joined his cause place on what is usually the biggest shopping day of the year: Black Friday, or the day after Thanksgiving, or that extra day you get off to make a long weekend, which most employers refer to as “in lieu of Veteran’s Day.”  Which leads me to another question, if you weren’t buying nothing, did you take time out of your shopping to thank a Veteran for their service to our country?

I first heard about “Buy Nothing Day” from a small group of do-gooders in my childhood congregation.  Around my junior year of high school that church started opening its doors to people who wanted to step out of the rat race of Christmas shopping the day after Thanksgiving. I remember even then, as a teenager and perhaps the height of my consumerist aptitude, feeling a profound relief that someone was saying “Don’t Buy” in the midst of all the “you must buy in order to have a merry Christmas, you must buy to let your loved ones know they are your loved ones.”  That day at church, the parishioners and their friends would gather to talk, perhaps make some crafts for gifts, bake cookies, have a nice lunch together, and think about the Western World’s penchant for over consumption.

In the decade plus since my first introduction to Buy Nothing Day, I have researched the founder and the non-profit he is connected to “Adbusters.”  Thanks to the increased accessibility to information, I’ve been able to get perhaps a broader view of each year’s efforts.  For instance, Kalle Lasn was also one of the main minds behind the recent Occupy Wall Street protests.  This year’s Buy Nothing Movement has a new tagline: Occupy Christmas.  Though I still applaud those who are performing in demonstrations or simply participating in this effort by buying less, overall I feel they have a better chance of bring down banks than stopping the average American from mindless consumption.

Ten years ago, it seemed that you heard about Christmas being over-commercialized as often as you heard Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.  Today, even more emphasis has been placed on the GDP and the media’s treatment of “the economy” makes you feel like you are being unpatriotic if you spend less than you are able.  Black Friday has stretched itself so sales actually begin on the night of Thanksgiving.  Many stores don’t even bother to close.  Sarah Josepha Hale, the woman who worked so hard for the establishment of a “genteel” holiday that celebrated hearth and home must be crying somewhere.

BTW, did you know that FDR tried to change the date of Thanksgiving to increase the holiday shopping season?  Do you know how he did that – by making Thanksgiving the second-to-last Thursday in November 1930, rather than the last.  There was public outcry and the next year our sacred holiday was put back in it’s proper place – the last Thursday of November.  And, in the decades since, we’ve found peace with having Christmas sales posters alongside our Halloween candy.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that in eighty years such a cultural shift could occur.  However, it still surprises me of how naive I am of other’s feelings about “stuff” that you may chose to buy.

One of my most fascinating classes in college was a course called “Material Culture.”  The course objective was to look at objects from our culture and others through various perspectives to examine conscious and unconscious messages that they hold.  Because of a long history and a very generous financial aid program, the College attracted a very diverse population of women from different racial, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, so it was a great opportunity to be exposed to many different ideas.  As wonderful as it was for me to attend classes with students dressed in African garb and to hear strange accents from all over the world, the most eye-opening experience I had in the class was a discussion with a woman from the to me strange place called New York City.

On that particular day, someone brought up the linguistic distinction between want and need.  This spurred the most heated debate of the semester.  When does something become a necessity?  When do we need an item, rather than want it?  However we got to that point in the discussion I do not remember, but one of these woman of my generation made the statement that she needed her $300 pair of shoes.  The class was almost evenly divided.  Was it possible to need such an extravagant item?  Nothing could convince the woman who made the comment that it was in actuality a want…she had been made to think it was a need.

I made the claim that you could only need something that met your physiological needs.  Hence, you may want the Nike’s, but a non-brand name will likely fit your needs.  Our professor, hoping to encourage more dialogue, asked me what one should do with the $100 difference on these two brands of shoes, if the shopper in question did indeed have unlimited buying power.  I did not give much thought before I answered with a shrug, “give it to charity.”  My response was met with a chorus of ostentatious groans.

The majority of my class obviously felt like George Costanza when it came to charitable giving.  Remember the “Human Fund” from Seinfeld? In one particular episode, the character of George receives a card stating that a donation has been made in his name to a children’s charity.  “Don’t you see how wrong that is!”  George exclaims.  “I gave him Yankee tickets, he gave me a card that said I’m giving your gift to someone else!”  He goes on to protest gift-giving should be an eye for an eye.  Is that what we all secretly believe now?

Today, if you Google Buy Nothing Day or Kale Lasn, you will get some articles that share his background as well as his efforts with Occupy Wall Street and Buy Nothing Day.  Very few of these are from the big-media outlets who may give a brief mention, but are much more likely to be reporting on sales figures as if they were the best or only measure of our country’s well-being.  Thanks to the many online article that allow readers to “post a comment” you may also see many people accusing him of being a hypocrite or worse attributes.  Some are general, some point to a specific statement or action that seems to prove him a hypocrite.

I’ve been thinking about how often we like to “disprove” someone’s message by pointing to something about their character or their past.  As if the truth or words is absolutely linked to the person who says them, rather than truth and positive being able to reside in the mouth of even the most horrible human being.  That will probably turn into another blog…


I Think I Sold My Soul to Twitter

November 20, 2011

This week I did something that for years I considered unthinkable:  I opened my own Twitter account.

Though the media loves to talk about all the ways that tweets might change the world, I don’t think it will ever be the only driving force shaping our society.  Even though there have been studies that this new technology is already changing the structure of our brains, I believe people will continue to need human-to-human in the real world connections.

As a reformed English major, I take a certain pride in the fact that I still like to communicate in full sentences.  If my first tweet taught me anything, it’s that my sentences tend to be VERY full in their first iterations.  And, if writing this blog has taught me anything, it’s that I take quite a while to get to anything resembling a point in my communication.  But, the world is changing, and I realized that many of the people I admire are saying things in 144 characters or less.  I didn’t want to miss out on what was being shared.

And, because I am at heart an extreme extrovert trapped in a introvert’s low esteem, I knew I’d end up tweeting myself.  Of course, if you’ve read any of my previous blogs you know I don’t have any trouble talking about myself and what’s going on in my life.  But, I was challenged by the space constraints of this new-to-me social media. I know I will find it hard to adapt to shorthands.  As it is, I prefer to write “funny” to “lol.”

Twitter also leaves little to no room for caveats.  And caveats are my modus operand i.  Ask anyone who ever was kind enough to sit through one of my sermons: I always have to explain myself or offer an aside to the opposing viewpoint.  So perhaps Twitter is an opportunity to grow spiritually.  It will force me to express only one thought at a time. This would be such a stretch for me that maybe it would allow me to achieve some deeper knowledge of myself through perhaps the most shallow of communication methods.

For now, however, it’s just been a place where I can find things to laugh about.  I have only subscribed to a few celebrities’ feeds, and they have been full of sarcastic humor – my favorite kind.

Lately, I’ve been joking that my best friend is Craig Ferguson – we’ve just never met.  Ferguson makes me laugh on a daily basis and I’m constantly amazed by how much we have in common.  I even finish his sentences in a somewhat disturbingly regular amount considering he doesn’t even know who I am – unless he pays an unrealistic amount of attention to the subscribers of his Twitter feed. He was the number one reason I opened that Twitter account, because he talks about “the Tweetie,” as he calls it on his late night talk show that my husband and I watch almost religiously.

It’s an unfortunate part of my personality that I’ve always found it easier to express my appreciation for celebrities than I am able to form real connections with the people I share my “in-real-life” with.  I’ve been that way as long as I can remember, and believe me it’s something I’m trying to change.  But, while I struggle to keep and maintain relationships, it’s oh so tempting and cheaply rewarding to take the little peek into the minds of people I admire from afar.

From what I’ve witnessed so far, the difference between Twitter and facebook is that you don’t have to be “friends” you can follow and have a one-sided relationship.  You can be follow what someone else writes/thinks/tweets, but they don’t have to be bothered by what is on your mind.  Is that the modern way?  Have we given into our voyeuristic side of the species, and didn’t anyone notice? Are we all just sending twittering at each other, rather than communicating with each other?

And do any of these tweets actually mean anything?  The written word has always power.  That’s why people still try to ban books.  But, what about today when “publishing” is as simple as touching a few keys – and voila anyone in the world can see what’s on your mind.  Hypothetically, of course.

The reality is that just because anyone CAN read your thoughts out there on the Internet, the vast majority of people will never stumble upon your little corner of the cyber universe.  In fact, we may be communicating with far fewer people than fifty years ago when the poor deprived homo sapiens were literally tied to technology that could transmit your voice across the country, but demanded you were attached to a particular device and that the person who was to receive your message was in a precise place and willing to pick up an identical device.

What does this have to do with religion?  Well, I believe more and more that religion is just another word for trying to connect.  If technology is the way we chose to connect, I think it is important to examine how that connection changes us.  Who do we chose to connect to?  How do we keep those connections going?  What happens when a connection breaks?

Hold that thought, I think I may have another Tweet from Craig…

Remembering Ben

November 12, 2011

I inherited an unfortunate superstition from my grandmother, who often said that death comes in three’s.  Though I have since rejected many of the beliefs that she practiced – taking communion or going to confession, for example – the triad of death theory has stuck with me.

Actually, I have modified it over the years to believe that death comes in four or five.  Even when I was a girl it was that way.  The first news of someone close to our family passing away would come, and my grandmother would tense.  Mostly of grief, but I could tell it was also her fear and anticipation of what may come next. Who of the many people she would care about would pass away soon, and how would the news come?

So, like any kind of negativity, when you’re looking for it or paying more attention, it seemed that word what could be counted as death’s two and three come quickly.  A casual friend’s aunt, a coworker’s mother-in-law.  “Good,” my Nana would say, “we’re done now.” And she would dutifully say her prayers for these acquaintances, perhaps even more fervently for the guilt she felt for being relieved at the news of their passing.

And, then, when our guards were down, something else would happen.

So when I received a phone call from my minister on Thursday, most of me thought it would be some mundane news of a fundraiser or some upcoming vote for our congregation.  But, in my heart I knew I was making the same facial expression that my grandmother would make when she readied herself for heartbreaking.  The “oh, I knew it wasn’t going to be that easy” face.

The story my minister called to share could not have been more different than the news of the young man who died in an accident earlier this month.  She had called to tell me that Ben, an older man I had known for over a decade, had passed away after a long fight with a disease he had mostly kept quiet from his friends in our congregation. Rather than a great shock on what should have been a normal day of many years left to live, this death was emotionally and spiritual planned for by the deceased.

Grief is grief.  No matter how long someone lives, those who love them and are left behind wish it was longer.  But, even at the same moment I grieved for the loss of this wonderful person, I was comforted by the details my minister shared with me because he had the chance to prepare not only for himself, but his loved ones.

He had died at home after some weeks of hospice. Being an extremely thoughtful and spiritual man, he had prepared a letter for his family to read after he passed.  I of course don’t know the details, but am certain no matter the words the content was love and hope for their futures.  He asked that they sing one of his favorite hymns as they faced the time ahead of them without their beloved husband, father, and friend.

It’s a hymn that we often sang at my church, and is one of my favorites, too.  I will probably always think of Ben when I hear it now.

What more could anyone ask for, whether you are the one leaving life behind, or the person that must say goodbye and keep living?

Perhaps what we all hope for is that our lives will have made a positive impact in some way.  Ben’s certainly did.  He had good friends as well as the family he loved.  Many of these friends he met while running used bookstores, where he’d have great discussions with his customers, whom he valued and respected.
And, in a conversation that took probably less than five minutes, Ben changed my life.

I had been serving as the Interim Minister at our congregation for probably a few months, and was still waiting for someone to say that I should be removed from the pulpit.  I had no training, and honestly, no business leading services except for the fact that my inherent curiosity about and love for UU theology and history meant I enjoyed researching and writing sermons.  But, all the time I was telling myself this year of transition for congregation was a brief foray into church leadership for me.  I would hold things together the best I could, and that would be the end of anything like ministry for me.

And then, during coffee hour, Ben pulled me aside and spoke to me in his plain but sincere way.  He made me look at myself and my future in an entirely different way.  He also made me realize something I was denying from my past.  The full effects of that conversation aren’t something I’m ready to blog about, yet.  But, I was changed by Ben’s words and they will probably always be with me.

His wife later shared that he had been uncertain whether to talk to me at all, and had debated writing a letter or saying nothing at all.  I’m so glad he followed his heart and shared the thoughts he had with me, even if it didn’t end with me enrolling in seminary as he may have wished for me.

If nothing else, his example taught me that when you have something positive to share about a person, it’s a gift to them as well as yourself to say it. Your words may not cause any radical change in their life. But why waste an opportunity to do something as minor as change a facial expression to a smile or look of surprise?

You never know who or when or how your life will be changed on any given day. But, you feel blessed when it is.  I feel blessed to have known Ben and to feel that I earned the respect of such a remarkable man.  And, had it not been for the existence of that small congregation we both belonged to, I might never have met him.  That’s something I’m feeling blessed for, too.

UUism and Tragedy

November 6, 2011

This week I received the sad news that an eighteen-year old friend of my congregation died in a car crash.

I did not know the young man well at all, but his family was part of my church when I was most involved there a few years ago.  Since we were throughout that time a “family”-sized congregation, I did feel close to the entire family, even if I only had a few conversations with the then pre-teenage boy and his sister.

So, what does a UU do when they learn of this kind of tragedy?  Of course, my heart went out to the family and I sent a note with my own remembrance of what a vibrant person the young man was.  Of course, I spent some time reflecting on the great loss both to the family and the larger community.

But, that’s as far as Unitarian-Universalism will get you. Our faith doesn’t offer answers like heaven to soothe the pain of a loss such as this.  It doesn’t give you prayers to say or even the social demand for a funeral with certain familiar rituals.  Once again, our chosen faith demands that we find a way to deal with being human with only the tools our humanity can give us.

We might hold memorial services and share stories of the person we’ve lost, but the family has not yet chosen to do so.  We might find a charitable organization to give to in lieu of sending flowers to a grand service. We might simply take a walk and reflect on how precious our own lives and all our loved ones are.  Or, we may sit in front of a computer typing away and staring at a bunch of words in an attempt to process this, and find that they all just seem wrong.

You can really beat yourself up just for your thoughts when you try to wrap your mind around a sudden tragedy like this.  So, rather than as long a blog as I might normally write, I’ll just share the thoughts that were most helpful to me.
It is a tribute to the human soul that even someone who was basically a stranger may miss any of us when we were gone.

I used to think other faiths do have an advantage over UU’s in their pre-set rituals and answers for death.  It is a comfort to have rituals to perform and answers ready if you can believe them.  But, over the years as I’ve lost people I cared about, I’ve begun to think we may have something even better.

We never expect anyone to be perfect when they are alive, so we need not deify them afterward.  That gives us so much more freedom to remember and keep them in our hearts as they were. It is the memories, both good, bad, or even a little strange that allow our spirits to live on. So when we lose someone, we can and should take each memory as a gift and try not to make it fit in what you are expected to feel about that person at that moment.

In that way, we can continue to love them as we should love and be loved: wholly and honestly.