Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Sutra of the Crushed Volvo: Stuff, anxiety, and community

I got an important reminder today that at least where the country’s economic crisis is concerned, it’s really mostly just about stuff.

The reminder came in the form of a very large limb, about two feet in diameter, projecting out over my driveway from an ancient horse chestnut tree. The limb suddenly decided it had been hanging around long enough, and it just broke off, unannounced, and landed on top of my car....

A thing like this can be pretty depressing, but after a cold beer I got to thinking, “Heck, it’s just a car.” ...

And so it is with our economic crisis. Homes are plummeting in value, jobs are being lost (magazines I have depended on for assignments have been folding or cutting back their freelance budgets). But most people have places to turn to—relatives, churches, friends, food stamps. Losing a house to foreclosure can seem like a tragedy, but it’s not terminal cancer. It’s stuff. Renting isn’t the end of the world.

What makes our national crisis seem so terrible is that so many people have been so focused on their wealth, their possessions and their standard of living, we’ve stopped thinking of ourselves as part of a community. We see a house in foreclosure in the neighborhood, and we don’t think, “How terrible. I wonder if those people need help.” We just drive on by and go home to watch TV....

This all might seem a far cry from having a tree take out your old car, but my point is simply that a lot of what causes people to freak out these days in America is our fetishism of material goods. And a lot of our anxiety about the current crisis has to do with our loss of any sense of community.

blog it

May I remember that life is about love, relationship, forgiveness, compassion, and community.

Not stuff.

In praise of Golden Boy Peanuts

Occasionally I'll hear a catchy song that celebrates the wondrous ordinariness of life, a stellar example being the song "Gold Boy Peanuts" by the Mountain Goats. Apropos of nothing, I found the chorus bouncing around in my head a few minutes ago,
there are no pan asian supermarkets down in hell
so you can't buy golden boy peanuts
there are no pan asian supermarkets down in hell
so you can't buy golden boy peanuts
and decided I wanted to hear the actual song, rather than just my mental reconstruction. A few Google searches later, and I'm still without the song (which is no real bother--I have the original Object Lessons:Songs about Products EP at home), but as a consolation I stumbled across this wonderful description of the song and its lyrics:

The Golden Boy peanut becomes the main attraction on the flashy streets of heaven. It is the reason for life—that elusive thing everyone searches for and few find. Don’t squeeze life for meaning anymore. Take a jaunt to your local pan-Asian supermarket and it can be yours for a low, low price.

The peanut seems like a good choice for ultimate meaning. Unassuming, nutritive, delicious. Why not? I’m not sure that life is best captured by the moments of high drama and intrigue. A huge percentage of it is occupied by thinking about food, staring at walls, and laughing senselessly. Why not valorize these small experiences over the scarce moments of capital-letter life (Bravery, Courage, Love, and the like)? Maybe we wouldn’t be in such a stressful hurry to do something Meaningful if we valued peanuts (literally and metaphorically).

In “Golden Boy,” The Mountain Goats cordially invite us to remember these wonderful little details of a day, to exalt and worship them. Do so and your heart will fill with lovely minutia until it overflows and spills red confetti on the dirty back of a winter street.

"There are no pan-Asian supermarkets down in hell."