Monday, January 7, 2008

The Car is a Man: On the Gender of Automobiles

This is actually a comment I did some months back (with some edits), on this post, but I think it is an interesting question. Do we instinctively apply gender to the industry around us, and what does that gender application mean to us, especially women? Is it a man's world? How long can one survive in machine city? And how important have our machines become that they have taken on the life of a human, or at least an animal ("my car died" "she's having trouble with her engine" "Gotta get her oil changed") and why are we always calling cars shes?

I have a drawing of mine on my wall of a red car. Next to the red car, in childish script, are the words "the car is a man." My parents came to visit my NY apartment some months ago, and my father looked at it and said, "the car is a man?" in way of looking for an explanation. I looked at my father and shrugged.

The truth is the thought came to me as if a message from god on a walk home to my apartment in Manhattan one summer night. I was crossing at a red light, thinking about how much faith I had in the driver who was stopped there, how one could choose to step on the gas and I would be at their mercy. True, if I survived I could sue them and make a pretty penny, but I was overwhelmed in that moment by the trust I was placing in this driver--HE wasn't going to do that to me. I couldn't see him as I passed in front of his car and it wasn't until I was stepping safely onto the other curb that I glanced back to look at him. HE was a SHE, and at that moment I thought, yeah, sure, the driver is a woman, but the car is a man. I have never figured out whether that statement--the car is a man--was global, or specific to this incident, but I think about it a lot. There are a lot of cars here in Manhattan, and some trucks too, and I don't know the gender of most of them. It takes an intimacy (placing your life in a car's hands by driving it, riding in it, walking in front of it) to know a car like that.

In New York, the car is a stranger; an ever-present, loud stranger, of indiscriminate gender. The people here a much the same.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Stuff, can't live with it, can't throw it out

Two years ago at a dinner party, some friends and I were having an impassioned conversation on what we could do to improve conditions in our country. I stated at that dinner party, to the great dismay of my friends, that the most patriotic thing one could do at this moment in time, is to buy second hand. I have made a life of, and often considered making a career of, thrift. My friend Amy and I toyed with the idea of a TV show on how you can create the latest looks, not at Macy's or Bloomingdale's, or Nordstroms, and not even at Filene's, but at your local thrift stores. Imagine my shock, when I was chosen to pose for a piece in Lucky magazine. That day I was wearing many of my thrift store finds, so I thought they liked my look. I went to the shoot, though, only to find that they wanted nothing to do with my thriftiness, and instead dressed me to the nines in clothes I could never afford--wait, I thought they wanted me for my innovative style? Nope, turns out I was just a dummy, a placeholder for REALLY expensive things.

And I knew that other gals like me, who get paid decently, but not well enough to afford all the things they put me in, will read that magazine, and maybe even feel a little behind because, hey, that girl can afford those clothes, why can't I? Trust me gals, better to be wanting than to be a dress up doll for overrated advertising (a.k.a., fashion magazines).

But, I digress, verily. Let's forget for a moment the feeling of inadequacy that modern advertising, and now ALL the media rely on, and get back to buying second hand. Two years after my statement, a friend of mine directed me to this video called The Story of Stuff.

It is a shocking tour through the journey of the stuff we buy. The little cartoon images of people working around the clock to buy the things they are working around the clock to make, gives you a keen insight into the hamster wheel we are all on. But who is going to stop this hamster wheel? What, pray tell, can we do about it? Because, if we join the Reverend Billy, and The Church of Stop Shopping, won't we take bread from the hands of our fellow down-and-outers? People will be quick to blame you for taking the jobs of the little man, because we all know that when profits are down, the CEO's salary is not.

Well, I don't have an answer yet, but I can tell you this much. We need to stop living in denial of the slavery of stuff. Which leads me to my utter annoyance with the media and the mind control game that has been played on us for many years now. If you think this is just the way human kind is, think again. This mentality, though easy to create, has nevertheless, been created. Let me give you two examples of people who have directed our economy this way:

1. Victor Lebow: He was a retail analyst in the 1950s. I am not sure, but I imagine that Victor Lebow was one of the first retail analysts, because there was a time when marketing a product meant marketing the product. Our current marketing aim, is to market the need, not the product. Let's take for example, an advertisement for an antidepressant. I don't know about you, but every time I see one of these, I think, "Oh, maybe I DO need that. Life is hard, and I can't always seem to keep upbeat. Perhaps that little blob of a guy with the cloud over his head is right. I am depressed." Well, our friend Victor Lebow said it pretty succinctly, when he put it like this:

"Our enormously productive economy ... demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption.... we need things consumed, burned up, replaced, and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate."

In other other words, we need to make sure that the consumers can keep up with the manufacturing. We must keep this hamster wheel spinning. It is very important that we, the people, believe we need all the things these guys have us spinning our wheels to make, in order to make more money, in order to buy more stuff. Hamster wheel. Need I say more?

No, but I will.

2. Interesting marketing guy #2, the invention of mind control. If you haven't seen this, make sure you watch it. This is the tale of Edward Bernays, the American nephew of Sigmund Freud, who is considered the father of marketing as we know it. Check this video out. Suffice it to say that almost all the work Freud was doing to CURE human misery, was later used by his nephew to CONTROL human misery, and direct the consumer to the store, or the ballet, or the whatever it was they called Edward Bernays to sell.

Watch this BBC documentary The Century of the Self for a quick lesson on Freud's id, uh, I mean nephew.

Point is, we need to wake up a bit. Perhaps not shopping seems harsh or drastic. Perhaps it may seem to some like these uppity folks are trying to take away their one joy in life. But, I am telling you that you were made to believe that consuming things was your only shot at joy. This was and is the intention of marketers. Stop watching T.V. for one week (episodes of The Wire excluded, as it is art not T.V.), stop reading newspapers and magazines (listen to NPR and read trusted blogs for the news, watch YouTube for presidential debates), and just experiment, just see how you feel about yourself when one week is through. I hope that after the anxiety about what to do with your time passes, you will feel like you are enough, like you are complete without these shoes or that purse, without this gadget or that. Like you are okay as you are, and the medicine, vacation, gym equipment, or subscription will not fix everything. Like some of it is nice, and some of it is important, but not all of it.

Try it, see what happens...

Friday, January 4, 2008


So, I don't just write blogs, I write stories, too. Most of them are in process, or waiting to be published elsewhere, so they remain, unsharable. Here, though, is a bit for you to bite into.

When I watched him eat a peach I felt disgusted. He ate the peach as if it did not want to be eaten, as if he ate it against its will. As if he were raping it. And the juices of the fruit reflected off his broad chin as they dripped onto the white linen button down that he would now expect me to wash for him. I don't know when I became his housewife. I don't know when he became this peach rapist. I don't know when we became this couple.

We had met five years ago. We were young artist types. I say artist types because neither of us is an artist. I would be if I could, but, well, I ain't so talented in that arena. When we were married we were that couple, you know the progressive arty couple. I didn't really care if he cheated on me. I just wanted that image, the image of us as a unit, of him on my arm. I wanted to have a baby.

Now staring at him I know my mother was right. I was too young. He was too irresponsible. In fact I couldn't even stand to look at him. Especially not while he ate that peach.

"I want a divorce"

The statement just exited my mouth. It wasn't even as if I had moved my lips and tongue to create the pieces of the sound. It was as if the statement, with a volition of its own, merely pushed the door of my mouth open and walked into the fresh air. My hand rose to my mouth as if I had burped. It was an expulsion of air.

"Really?" he looked kind of excited, ducked his head and put his hand under it as he lost a piece of peach. He slurped to try and catch it.

As the juice dripped down his beard, I knew I had made the right decision. I think I was smiling. I was smiling at never having to kiss that mouth again, never having to smell that musty beard, never having to wash those clothes, never having to watch him eat fruit again.