Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Gift of Receiving

What will it be for your darling this year? A diamond necklace? A winter’s retreat to the Caribbean? A dual-bagged vacuum cleaner?

Visitors to The Dog House already know it had better not be the third choice. Someone is doing his—or probably her—best to make sure everyone knows that.

Our society is over-full of platitudes about giving: that this is the season for giving. That it is more blessed to give than to receive. Even the grinch IRS gets into the act, scheduling the end of December as the last chance to give—and be credited for it—in the tax year.

Frankly, I’m not sure those ideals work in our post-giving world. We really aren’t a giving society, anymore. After all, this is the Me generation grown up. Supercharged. On steroids. Remember: now, It’s All About Me.

And “Me” has never been about giving.

It’s all about receiving. Because, after all, I deserve it.

So we move into a culture where the gift-receiver has flexed her muscles, and won’t put up with those lowly gifts beneath her.

Those platitudes about giving worked a whole lot better in a different age. There was a time—of course, I don’t remember it personally—when a Christmas gift really meant something. I suspect it was a time when things were much more scarce than they are today, even though, in our economy, we think we have it bad.

I’m thinking of the classic Laura and Mary stories, the Little House on the Prairie series, where Pa headed into town one Dakota December day, because he had some business at the store. Weather was bad, probably the coldest winter in years, but the calendar reminded him he had to go.

“Go” meant walking there in those times, and somewhere along the way back home, a blizzard struck. Pa hid out in a cave (his only recourse in the face of possibly being frozen to death), and waited for the storm to end. The few groceries he had bought became his food for survival through those days.

Meanwhile, at home, Ma and the girls were certain the blizzard meant the end of Pa. No one could survive outside in a storm like that. Having the loss of a family member is certainly a greater loss than any financial poverty, and though Christmas was upon them, that possibility put their poor surroundings in perspective.

It was with these things in mind that, at the end of the storm with the homecoming of Pa, a surreal sense of miracle mixed with gift-that-no-money-could-buy put a hushed aura around that Christmas celebration. If I remember correctly, the Christmas gifts the children received were something like a penny, a stick of peppermint candy, an orange. Real treats for them, trivial tokens for us. But even for them, gifts brought into perspective by gratefulness for life regained.

In a time when, rather than merely spending money, people spent effort expressing—and meaning it—care for each other, giving took on a larger sense than it does today. Today, we don’t know how to receive, and that lack of knowing casts the giver in an entirely different light. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the meaning of the gift is ascribed by the receiver as much as it is by the giver. For every gift receiver who chooses to trash the gift given, we cheapen the meaning of giving entirely.

If we were all to truly experience deprivation, we would have much greater appreciation for gifts. Gifts used to signify items given that were not deserved, but bestowed out of the largesse (whether by finances or character) of the giver. No one now considers himself or herself to be undeserving. We demand our rights! But when we are full of our rights—full of ourselves—we can no longer receive gifts. We can only receive our due.

I certainly don’t want to wish hardship or deprivation on anyone. But I do wish a spirit of gratefulness on us all. Sometimes, though we don’t see it through our human capacity, God knows what we really need, and the blessing in disguise is the gratefulness we find when we pass through those difficult times we once felt merited our fist-shaking in the face of God.

He gave.

We must learn to receive.

Sometimes, the lesson is hard to grasp.

Friday, December 12, 2008

When It’s Too Late to Wait

Though ever the consummate procrastinator, I may this time have waited past the point of no return. I have had my many rounds of promising this or that when I get “A Round Tuit,” but my motto was never to be a spendthrift—even if what I was spending was the proverbial Tuit.

A month ago, I got my Tuit: biopsy showed cancer. Better hurry up and live while it still counted. I thought of all those must-do projects that lay in stacks in some by-passed corner. I thought of all the promises I had made myself, dreams that I wanted to fulfill, all but for the time still vibrant in my best of intentions. This announcement provided the Tuit, the time warning to get busy.

Did I? Of course not. Hard to break the habit now.

Even worse, had lots of difficulty facing up to facts, though I heartily deny that I’m in denial. Like rubbing a cat’s nose in its own unfortunate mess, I could barely shove my eyes-wide-open face into the new facts of my life. So, of course, the safest approach was to…procrastinate.

But now, on my way to see the second specialist, on my way to actually set the date for my point of no return, there really isn’t much time to play. If there’s ever anything worth doing, now is the time to do it.

I’ve heard people remind others that we all have a death sentence on our heads. Usually, I hear that at funerals, and when we all get out in the daylight and chrysanthemum-free air, it’s so much easier to forget that fact. But it’s true; it’s just that we never think of it in those terms.

Though dismal, the reality of that idea can turn out to be a blessing. What focus! What super-charging of the ol’ Daytimer! It’s an idea that can provide power. Motivation.

Or just burn-out. The spark that fries.

From my point of view on the fence right now, I tend to wobble in the direction of down. It’s not that uplifting, I know, but I think of all the things that I really would love to do that will probably never get done.

The price of procrastination, after all, was not really just a Round Tuit. You can’t pay the price until you spend the money.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Modern-Day Nellie Bly

When I was a kid, one of my favorite stories was a Scholastic Books paperback about the conquests of Elizabeth Jane Cochran Seaman of Pittsburgh, better known in The Big Apple as Nellie Bly.

Starting her journalist career by invitation in the 1880s following a fiery retort to an editorial in the Pittsburgh Dispatch, she centered her early investigative work on the plight of the working woman in the city’s factories. Unusual for a woman of those times, she served a six-month stint as foreign correspondent in Mexico. But she is best known, at least as far as my childhood memories of this particular book reach, as the stealth reporter whose undercover work in New York City asylums resulted not only in spectacular narrative for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World but in actual change: launching a Grand Jury investigation into the scandal and, ultimately, a decision to fund an increase of nearly one million dollars to the Department of Public Charities and Corrections budget for the specific cause of improved care of the insane.

There is a new Nellie Bly on the loose. She is facing a giant of today's political ideology: the one ushered in by those whose process she is following. The giant is Planned Parenthood, the icon of the “rights” of abortion. And like the Nellie Bly of over one hundred years ago, she is learning to play the part of the victim to see life through that victim’s eye. The hundred little slipping details that most of us are too busy to know, to notice, to admit, Lila Rose is shoving in our faces in a way that can’t be ignored: it is not right to cover up child abuse or disregard for state laws, all in the overarching need to uphold “rights.”

Social activists can bring about change. If change means moving from what is currently acceptable to what is not yet “politically correct,” then those our culture currently lauds as social activists are no longer truly activists, but place markers and cheerleaders for what already is the dominant ideology. A real counter-culture activist must, by definition, be infiltrating that which is established with those ideas and practices that are not currently acceptable.

Current social activists label themselves as such, according to their organization’s content, assuming that the work of activism will always yield the same, favored ideology. Yet activism refers to action taken, inferring process, not content. And the process is thus ideologically neutral.

Though the dominant culture (those who claim “Social Activist” status) does not admit this, there is an example of the new activist in their midst—in opposition to their ideology, to be sure, else not able to claim activist status by process in their unilateral, post-partisan world. While activism was awarded accolades when performed by their own operatives, now that the opposite ideology takes hold of the process, why does the content disqualify them from recognition? They, too, are activists.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Twitter: Stream of Consciousness Comes of (Electronic) Age

In case this three-part diatribe seems to cast Twitter in a malevolent role, that is not really my intention. I just can’t get my head around its usefulness as an application. Useful for college buds, perhaps, but what about everyone else?

It all comes down to what one defines as useful. Here’s a neutral assessment: “Twitter is a publishing platform with a 140 character limit and no comments. You’re in control of what you post, so why is it any more invasive or transparent [than any blog]?" (from a reader’s comment to another blog). Evidently, the blogger had in mind the usefulness of being invisible, and the commenting reader had in mind some opposite utility.

What if I’m not on that axis? My polar opposites at this point are usefulness in advancing my agenda, or at least not detracting from my ability to produce. I am not one of those geniuses who can walk and chew gum simultaneously. I cannot concurrently think and listen to music. I can’t even get torqued by a blip in an argument and instantaneously hurl the perfect retort in my opponent’s face. I have to take time to think about things. A lot of time. Uninterrupted time. In my mind, input and outgo must travel a one-lane treacherous mountain pass on the time-sharing honor system.

My foggy-headed persona’s user interface can’t grapple with the constant flow of Tweets throughout the bulk of a productive day. I need quietude. Reflection.

I know: how antiquated. Yep, that’s me. But I’m not alone. (Hey, quietude doesn’t necessarily mean solitude.) One social media writer noted, “Twitter is a constant pulse product, meaning it can really sap your attention span.” Someone else admitted: “Another drawback is distraction. Twitter is a notorious time waster, it is addictive, and it is always on. To this I would drawn an analogy of the modern inbox - it is never off.”

Can you become “addicted” to something that is designed to make life better for you? Do the constant tweets of inane activity converging on one’s cell phone (or computer screen) truly spell out a message that makes anything better? Do we need yet another utility to sift through the aggregated data to extract anything useful? Or is this just the celebritizing of the common man, a chance for every unknown to build a PR platform to support that yet-to-happen 15 minutes of fame?

Some may care to know the daily food choices of the rich and famous, or their choice of shoe color this evening, or who they are @-ing. To me, it all just seems like so much stream-of-consciousness of people known by mostly no one, in a desperate attempt at electronic self-assurance that surely someone really cares.

And yet, something keeps calling me to check this phenomenon out. There has got to be some powerful use for the novelty. Could it be so addictive that, having not even tried it yet, I am already hooked?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Twitter: Interpersonal Pointillism

I trawled around the internet to see what I could find about Twitter. What makes it click? I have a hard time relating to the need to know which fellow student skipped class on account of a massive hangover. I need to find a connection between my take on reality and the technology’s ability to deliver.

The annoyance of the incessant drivel is the major put-off. Other people don’t see it that way, though. Well, at first, they did. Then, the patter seemed to take on a comforting presence, roughly akin to two people doing two different things but in the same room, “for company”—if we were together, I could then hear you sigh when you got to that sad part in the book I told you was a must-read…and you could hear me smack my fist in my palm when I got to that reader’s comment that I just read on your blog.

Somehow, “Same Planet, Different Worlds” is not as cozy a thought to me as it is to Tweeple.

So, knowing what one’s friends are doing throughout the day—keep in mind, many Tweeple have upwards of 180 “friends” they are “following”—gives a person a sense of closeness and awareness about all those associates that would not have been otherwise achieved. I guess that makes Twitter the interpersonal networking equivalent of portraiture by pointillism.

OK, admittedly, that could be used for good, according to some comments I found, like: “I’ve seen plenty of posts of someone doing a walk for hunger or a collection for diabetes. Twitter allows people to use their friend lists to propagate that information faster, and try to draw more direct help down to a problem.” Despite the Tweeple risk, it is beneficial to get involved for good and to encourage others to get with it, too. Who else would you influence, if not your friends?

Friends-in-tow social activism isn’t the only use, and in this way, Twitter mirrors social-networking icons of lower-tech past generations. Think breakroom gossip. “Twitter might just be the electronic, distributed water cooler of lore.” I guess it all comes down to information: what kind, how to use it, who to share it with.

I’m not sure I really want to reconstruct a portrait of each of my friends and family members, one point--one tweet--at a time. Sounds too tedious. I already know them pretty well, anyhow. Or maybe that’s just what I think.

Monday, December 8, 2008

People, Sheeple, Tweeple

There have been many generations whose members proclaim their fierce individuality while all the time belying their group indebtedness. My own first foray into social consciousness was awash with propaganda insisting I was part of the Age of the Ubiquitous Teenager. While everyone was convinced of the necessity of individualism during my high school years, a quick glance at the uniform of the generation assured me it was otherwise. If we were so individualistic, why the strict adherence to the same jeans-and-T-shirt routine?

That became my first inkling that there is a difference between the terms “persons” and “people.”

Somewhere down the line in my education in sociology, I heard someone mention the term, “sheeple.” That, catchy as it might be, was an organizer’s slur of those who follow blindly, “ignorant” as sheep. Of course, the individualist part of my personhood bristles at the suggestion that I might be no more than mere animal. But perhaps it is true that humans tend, in one degree or another, to be highly sensitized to what others around them are doing and saying. Needing the dependence.

However, social as we may be, I can’t think of a good excuse why people lend themselves to being so malleable, so persuadable, so un-individual as to fluidly transpose into whatever shape some outside force dictates. But they do. Think of advertising. Think of celebrity worship. Think of listening to the dominant media during the last election season. Think of Twitter.

Think of Twitter?

Basically, Twitter is “a service for friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?” For the average joe, that melts down into the following type of “tweets”:

Tweet 1: to the kitchen to make me a sammich.

Tweet 2: Turkey again…ugh.

Tweet 3: Can’t do it. Anyone hungry?

That’s right. I needed to know that Joe was making a sandwich right now. I needed to know that he’s sick and tired of turkey. (Isn’t everyone right about now?) And I couldn’t have come up with the idea on my own to go out to eat without his prompt. I would have been clueless otherwise. The direct route, calling (or texting or whatever) and saying, “Hey, wanna meet at Quizno’s for a bite to eat?” would be too…aggressive?

And does everyone need to know about Joe’s sandwich? With the obvious drone, I don’t see much ingenuity broadcast over this medium yet. Maybe it’s the circles I run in. Maybe it’s the early adapters’ conundrum: neat trick, but what do you do with this toy? (Ever gotten one of those pricey phone calls from 35,000 feet: “Hey, honey, bet you can’t guess where I am?!”)

There are people smart enough to maximize the power of this tool. Supposedly, it was the new wave for this year’s election: Twitter is to O as Blogs were to not-W. Non-profs use it for organizing, fundraising, tag-teaming. Tech workplaces thrive on it, supposedly. And the dedicated are vigilant against commercial encroachment.

How can that be? Would a simple celeb tweet influence all “friends” to rush out and buy that same product? Some people think so. The chatter is incessant. Think of the multiplied sales possible with endless iterations of social links. Think of the capacity for brainlessness that unquestioning compliance presents.

Every generation seems to have a uniform hiding behind their fa├žade of independence. Our times are no different. Forget sheeple. Introducing: Tweeple.
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