Panem et Circenses: In defense of the Pop Spectacle

•February 1, 2015 • Leave a Comment

It’s Super Bowl Sunday. I’m not much into the NFL (I prefer college ball), but I tend to tune in every year because I enjoy the spectacle. Because let’s face it, that’s what it is. For diehard NFL fans, I imagine it feels more like what the Stanley Cup playoffs or March Madness do for me, but for the vast majority of viewers, it’s really just about the pageantry. The commercials. The halftime show.

It’s that last one that prompts me to write. I’ve seen chatter on my social media feeds about the actual game and even more about how the commercials are downers (being that I’m streaming it online, I get a limited variety of commercials, so I can’t really comment). It wasn’t until halftime, though that the claws really came out.

You’d think that somehow it was a shock to people that the Super Bowl organizers decided to go with someone who can put on a spectacle at halftime. Katy Perry was just not up to some posters’ standards: “She’s hiding her lack of talent behind lights and costumes,” “I’d rather see someone just perform music,” “What’s with the dancing sharks?”

Meanwhile, I watched it and thought: This is exactly what a Super Bowl halftime show should be.

That giant mechanical tiger? That was flippin sweet. The stage made to look like it was rippling, tilting, and changing shape? Wicked cool. Pyro and flying platforms. Quality guest appearances. And yes, the dancing sharks. It was all fun and over the top. A vocal group of my social media contacts may not have appreciated it, but I’m happy to see Rolling Stone and others did.

This isn’t the forum for subtlety. This is a game for which the lowest ticket price is $800. The LOWEST. A mere 30 seconds of air time will cost an advertiser $4.5 million. There are weeks of commentary, TV specials, and concerts. Millions of people will be tuning in around the world for a sport that is essentially only played in America. Parties are planned months in advance just for this night. This isn’t Woodstock, people, it’s the Roman Coliseum.

I tend to think the disgruntled posts come from two phenomena: a low tolerance for that which we do not immediately enjoy (another post for another time, I think) and a fear of losing credibility over liking the musical equivalent of a popcorn movie.

So, maybe Katy Perry isn’t the world’s best singer (I happen to think she’s pretty damn good and incredibly entertaining, but I also don’t dispute there are better voices out there), but let’s not discount the value of showmanship. The musicians who endure—either in the form of long careers or in our memories—do so for two reasons: talent or spectacle. There are those enduring acts we worship for their gift of songwriting and performing (The Beatles/Paul McCartney) and others more for their particular talent for putting on a show (Kiss). Some manage to deliver both (Bruno Mars—seriously, listen to that man sing and try to argue with me).

I think we somehow have made talent and spectacle mutually exclusive. Although it may be more difficult to have and maintain pure musical talent, it also takes  a great deal of talent to put on a show. There is no less value in appreciating someone’s ability to entertain you with the right amount of razzle dazzle than there is in appreciating their voice. You know why Justin Timberlake was the one member of  NSYNC to have a successful solo career? It’s not because he had the best voice (that was JC—again, listen to him and try to dispute me), it’s because he has a good voice AND knows how to put on a show. I can’t help but appreciate that.

As a reformed music snob, it took me a while to get to this point. I spent a lot of time despising acts simply because they were too popular or—god forbid—manufactured or overly showy.  I musically came of age with the rise of grunge. I embraced the culture, which valued authenticity above all. So when I found myself sometime in the late 1990s humming along to the Backstreet Boys, I was horrified. I hid it. I lived in denial. Until I couldn’t stand it anymore and just bought the damn CD. I played the crap out of it. I bought a ticket to their concert, and had the time of my life. So I went again on the next tour, and had an even better time. It took me a while to figure out how to reconcile my flannel shirts and Doc Martens with my Teen Beat pullout posters. And then I realized: grunge and alternative culture was against labels and categories and confining yourself to a box. Yet, in my quest to be the epitome of “whatever,” I spent more time crafting an image of alternative-ness than I did just enjoying what I love. It wasn’t a betrayal of the culture to like pop music, it was perhaps the truest embodiment of it.

Don’t get me wrong: I have my opinions on those in the musical world. I’d rather live in a Taylor Swift-free world, and I constantly wonder how someone with the mind-blowing talent of Tony Lucca still toils in relative obscurity. But I appreciate what each musician brings to the world of music. Take Swifty, for example. I dislike her voice and I find her less-than-genuine as a person (this could be a whole separate blog post, so I’ll leave it at that), but I find that when I hear covers of her songs, I rather enjoy them. I appreciate her contributions as a songwriter, but I’d still rather have Tony swimming in record sale royalties than her.

Everyone has their preferences. There’s nothing wrong with that. But I think we miss out on a lot of enjoyment by not allowing ourselves to appreciate a little musical popcorn now and then (or at the very least, just saying “meh” and moving on). Everything has a time and a place. The Super Bowl halftime show? That was a place to hear Katy Perry roar.

Dr. Stardust, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bowie

•January 8, 2015 • Leave a Comment

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If someone were to write my biography, it could easily be divided in chapters according to my obsessions. Some come and go quickly, others resurface after a period of dormancy. A special few never really go away completely. Regardless, where some people may be able to simply enjoy a musician, actor, historical figure/era, or movie, I become consumed by them. I study liner notes, memorize lines, and read every interview and biographical note I can find. “Fan” doesn’t seem like quite strong enough a word once I’ve become wrapped up in something. In the words of Mandella, beleaguered BFF to the cantankerous Kat in 10 Things I Hate About You, I’m “more than a fan, we’re involved.

As of Saturday, I am involved with David Bowie.

This statement comes as a bit of a shock to me, even as I sit here wearing a t-shirt with the Thin White Duke’s face plastered across the front and having listened to a freshly downloaded copy of his latest 59-song career retrospective compilation constantly through the week. Teenage Me would never have uttered such a statement, and telling her that 30-Something Me would someday declare allegiance to Ziggy Stardust would have been met with disbelief and maybe even some disappointment.

Bowie has been a certifiable icon for the entirety of my existence. It’s not as if I was somehow unaware of him until now. For the first half of my life, Bowie existed simply as fact of life.  He was there, creating music, showing up on MTV, popping up on the radio and silver screen from time to time.  On some level, I suppose, I appreciated his contribution to music and pop culture, but didn’t really spend much time considering him or his impact. But sometime in the 90s, as my teenage self struggled to navigate what I decided was cool, I was forced to swear allegiance for or against Bowie.

As a dedicated alternateen of the grunge persuasion, Bowie was among the godfathers of influence I was expected to worship along with the idols of the day. But love of Bowie came with rules: You had to like 70s Bowie. “Space Oddity,” “Life on Mars?” “Diamond Dogs“—these were acceptable songs. Because who could admit to liking Mick Jagger duet “Dancing in the Street” in all its silliness along with Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails? Kurt Cobain chose to cover “The Man Who Sold the World” on Unplugged, after all, not “Modern Love.” But this that’s where the problem lay: I didn’t like 70s Bowie. Even with my newfound love, it’s still not my favorite era. I like 80s Bowie. “Let’s Dance.” (Put on your red shoes and dance the blues!) “Fashion.” (Turn to the left!) “Magic Dance.” (You remind me of the babe!) Yes, please.

Rather than fake a love for “acceptable” early-era Bowie, I chose instead to say that I hated him. It was perhaps, on some level, a subconscious effort to be even edgier than the edgy crowd I strove to be a part of. When “Little Wonder” started popping up on my favorite alternative station alongside the new Bush and Soundgarden tracks, I wrote it off as a desperate attempt by a washed-up star to sound like what the kids were listening to now and remain relevant. (I was totally on board with the Alexander McQueen-designed Union Jack jacket Bowie donned on the cover of 1997 album Earthling, however. I have also since come around to “Little Wonder” and other 90s Bowie songs.)

What I failed to recognize is that, really, Bowie never stopped being relevant. I just wasn’t secure enough realize it.

After years of more indifference since I shed my alternative-only music snobbery in the early 2000s, Bowie suddenly forced his way into my life again. The “David Bowie Is…” exhibit began its only U.S. run in my adopted hometown of Chicago this fall. Living multiple states away now, I made note of the fact, but didn’t give it much consideration. “That would probably be pretty cool,” I thought, more as a museum nerd than as a music fan. But then my bestie went and spoke of it as if it were a religious experience. I swooned over the merchandise available on the museum website. So, I thought, maybe I’d try to check it out when I returned to Chicago for New Year’s. As luck (good and bad) would have it, that was the exhibit’s final weekend at the Museum of Contemporary Art. By the grace of the music gods, I was able to snag a ticket due to fabulous mix of wonderful friends, changed plans, museum membership privileges, and the providence of bringing it up at just the right time.

So, on a chilly Chicago evening, I found myself mounting the steps to the museum, getting increasingly excited when I was frankly still not sure I would even properly appreciate what I was about to see. Time and maturity had brought me to the conclusion that, no, I didn’t hate Bowie, but did I really love him enough to be accompanying three genuinely geeked fans?

About 5 steps into the exhibit, I could confidently say: Yes, yes I do.

I

Love

David Bowie

But perhaps not for the reasons most people do or the reasons I expected I might, if I were to ever come around. As devoted a music fan as I am and as much as I do finally realize I appreciate Bowie’s music (and probably on some level have all along), what I truly love and appreciate about him is his status as an artist and an icon.

Part of what struck me is that his reach is so wide and diverse that you could virtually see the spawn of his influence that have surfaced through the breadth of his career while viewing the relics of his public life. Without Bowie, there would be no Gaga, no Panic! at the Disco, and, let’s face it, no Nirvana. At least not the way we know those and countless other acts to be. Seeing that he was also influenced by things that have influenced me—the 1927 Fritz Lang film Metropolis, in particular—gave me an even deeper appreciation and made me feel connected in some small way to a man I’d so long tried to reject.

I realized, too, while touring the exhibit that the wonderful thing about him is there is a Bowie for everyone. You don’t have to love each of his personas and sounds, or even love them all equally. Bowie moved on from one to the other, and so can you. But, beginning in an era that valued authenticity and simplicity in the presentation of music, Bowie chose to create entire fictional worlds around his music.  You have to appreciate the balls that took. His creativity could simply not be contained in one dimension, so he expanded it out into every conceivable dimension he could.

This is perhaps what I love best about Bowie. Each of us adopts different personas for different aspects of our lives: work self, home self, family self, self with this set of friends, self with a different set of friends, drunk self. They are all constructs of varying levels, but each has at least a little bit of us within the persona. I don’t pretend to know what the real David Robert Jones is like, but I have to believe that there is at least some of him in Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, and even Jareth the Goblin King. Bowie has shown us—for roughly five decades now—that our personalities need not be contained in a single manifestation. We can be anyone we want to be and still be ourselves.

I struggled with that idea for a long time. Never one to truly fit in, I often wondered if there was something wrong with me for not being able to easily conform, or later when I embraced my quirkiness, if it was somehow a betrayal to myself to adopt a different self if the situation suited it.  I have long aimed to be uniquely myself at all times, but I now recognize that sometimes that is a matter of degree. It may be just that I know my tattoos are there, even if hidden under layers of a business suit. But that is not any less authentic to “me” than when I’m sporting my ruby slippers and tiaras. It is why I can be equally comfortable in a leather studded cuff and motorcycle jacket at one concert, and a tank top and cowboy hat at another. I like to dress for the occasion, whatever it may be.

Through that prism, I suppose it is a bit easier to see why the exhibit roused in me a bit of a religious fervor. I went expecting to see some pieces of rock iconography, what I got was an epiphany. Without realizing it, I’d been following the Bowie model for some time now, and there before me among the handwritten lyrics, costumes, and videos was something I hadn’t expected: reassurance. I’m far from the first, only, or most innovative to follow Bowie’s lead in some way or another. But nearly 30 studio albums, dozens of acting roles, countless works of visual art in multiple forms, and the status of being revered by millions tends to show that I could have picked far worse to emulate, even unknowingly.

The genius of naming the exhibit “David Bowie Is…” is that he is so many different things to so many different people. David Bowie is a musician, an artist, an icon. He is Ziggy, Aladdin, and Jareth.  He is a rock god, a performer, a symbol.

David Bowie is an inspiration.

And finally, I realize, he is one of mine.

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Pictured: Me, right, with the aforementioned bestie and the new man in my life. It’s ok, we’re in an open relationship.

Big Love

•June 6, 2011 • 2 Comments

One of my very favorite categories of TV shows is what I term quasi-documentary reality. I’m not much for story-line trainwreck reality shows–I’ve watched a little “Jersey Shore” out of curiosity, but it didn’t compel me. And except for competition-based reality shows (I LOVE “Top Chef”), I don’t seem to latch onto a continuing “reality” story so much. What I seem to latch onto are the shows that show me behavior that I just do not understand or teach me interesting tidbits of trivia I will store and use to crush my Trivial Pursuit opponents.

I find myself watching episode after episode of “Intervention” and “Hoarders.” Part of me, I suspect, revels in the fact that no matter how much of a hot mess I am on a daily basis, at least I am not that bad. On another vein of my reality habit, you will find “Parking Wars” (no matter how obvious, people never think they parked illegally), “Say Yes to the Dress” (seriously, people, buy a house or a car with that money), “Pawn Stars” and “Auction Kings” (the array of items people own, collect, and think are way more valuable than they are fascinates me). But one show that fascinates and surprises me (about myself) more than any of the others is “Sister Wives.” While it does follow the story of one (very nontraditional) family, I cannot turn away.

I admit I have actually not watched many episodes. I forget when it airs and, sadly, it does not have full episodes available online. Also, Adam can’t stand it, so my viewing opportunities are now even more limited. But while I initially tuned in because of the ick factor (Four wives! Ew!), I’ve found I am most fascinated by how normal the Browns are.

Initially, I was prepared to dislike the Browns. I expected to despise Kody and pity the wives. They must be passive, brainwashed lobotomy patients, I thought. Well, not really.

Kody is not the chauvinistic religious zealot I expected. He’s really quite the charming, regular guy. He seems like a nice guy I’d sit down and have a beer with. What takes me aback about him the most is that this average-looking guy with shaggy hair managed to attract not one, but four wives. But he genuinely loves each of his wives and all of his kids and wants to spend as much time as he can with all of them. Far from being the bible-thumping overlord, it seems that the wives often call the shots more than Kody. And though they are generally religious and base their lifestyle in their religion, faith plays a fairly minor role in their lives (at least as depicted on the show). You get much more self-righteous preaching from the Duggars (“19 Kids and Counting”) than you ever will from the Browns, and, frankly, the excessive breeding and rejection of the real world by the Duggars irritates and grosses me out far more than the Browns’ polygamy does.

The Brown women are all independent, strong, and generally normal, modern women. They just happen to share a husband with three other women. They admit to being jealous of having to share their husband’s attention, but all thoroughly love sharing their lives, homes, and parenting responsibilities with their sister wives. Each of the women grew up in polygamous households, so the lifestyle seems normal to them.  (I do wonder whether women who did not grow up in the lifestyle ever choose to enter it, but that’s a discussion for another time.) But the important thing is this: they all freely chose to be sister wives, and from what I’ve seen on the show, they all prefer their situation to monogamy.

This new season features the family uprooting abruptly to avoid an investigation that could possibly break up the family and result in jail time for Kody. On some level, I have little sympathy for the family–they know their lifestyle is illegal and yet they chose to display it to the world on television. But mostly, I feel bad for them. Their situation hurts no one–all involved chose to enter the lifestyle and their children are neither scarred or bothered by the situation. This is not like the isolationist, fundamentalist sects in which women wear clothing from another era and are forced to become child brides in incestuous, abusive unions. The Brown women have jobs, dress in modern clothing, and have just as much say–if not more–than Kody. Each wife cares for all the children as if they were all their own. The children seem to like having a large, energetic family. And except for all the bills and demands on his time, Kody doesn’t have much to complain about.

Often, the public faces of unpopular or different ideas and behaviors are not the best representatives.  It is because these representatives lean to the unsavory that the things they stand for continue to be unpopular and hard to defend. (I fully support the right to assisted suicide, but Dr. Kevorkian, rest his soul, was not always the ideal mascot.) Polygamy, however, seems to have ideal ambassadors in the Browns. They demand neither that you accept their lifestyle nor adopt it. They do not preach. They do not mistreat one another. They simply want to be allowed to live their lives as they choose. And so long as no one is hurt in the process, I say let them.

And I’ll watch every moment of it.

Musings from the ER

•June 5, 2011 • Leave a Comment

I think I’m going to declare this the Summer of the Hot Mess.

What I had hoped and expected to be a fun and easy three months has started off with nonstop projects, rough adjustments, and a series of ailments.

At this very moment, I’m sitting in the ER at Rush University Medical Center, watching my IV-attached boyfriend try to rest in a hospital bed. He texted just about an hour into his shift today to say he was coming home and that he was pretty sure he had a kidney stone. The last time he had this lovely condition, we were 12+ hours apart and I sat helpless in my apartment wondering when the next flight to Fargo might be.

Today, at least, I could be there for him. The problem today, however, is that I am battling both a nasty head cold and being frightfully behind in my research assistant work. I cannot say I have been the most patient and loving nurse today. (Although I give myself props for giving him a beer mid-day, which both acted as a diuretic and a fantastic relaxing agent.) Still, when he paced around the apartment at 6, still in pain, it seemed this illness had gone above my paygrade.

And here we are. My duties now consist of tucking him in and rehanging his IV bag each time he returns from another bathroom run, texting both his and my mother updates, and flagging down nurses when necessary. I feel so completely useless, and so horrible for wishing we could just get out of here already so I can stop being cold, tired, and hungry. But even though he told me earlier that I should go home and get some sleep, I can’t bear to leave. Being at home wondering what’s happening to him back at the hospital would be even less comforting than this green plastic chair my butt has come to know so well.

The great moving-in-together adventure has not gone as smoothly as either of us had hoped. Adam is finding that things as simple as coming home from work in the rain and making a grocery run aren’t so simple when your commute involves a train and two short walks and the grocery store is a 15-min walk with a “hobo cart” from home. He even had the misfortune of being on the Red Line when the train shorted and smoked, causing a slight panic and a reroute of the train from subway to L tracks.

As for me, sharing my space has turned out to be more difficult than I anticipated. Though I didn’t expect everything to continue to go exactly my way, and I did expect to help Adam get his things settled, I didn’t expect that I would be doing most of the work for a grumpy boyfriend. After resisting multiple urges to throw him off the balcony, I finally managed to express my concerns in a way that didn’t completely resemble nagging.

Still, I never regretted the move. Even at my most frustrated, my thoughts didn’t go to regret, but to how to fix things. After a year and a half of long distance, I wasn’t about to let laundry and dirty dishes get in the way of finally getting to be with Adam every day.

The last week seems to have signaled the turning point. I’m starting to settle into both my summer jobs and Adam is adapting to Chicago life quite well. We’ve established some regular activities and are beginning to make the most of the city around us. There are still adjustments to make, things to make room for, and routines to be established. But we’re getting there.

So I keep watch over him from my green plastic chair. And though I have done relatively little to help today, I know what I have done is be there for him. And though he’s been a frustrating and grumpy new roommate to deal with these first few weeks, I can’t say I regret the decision to live together at all. So I will watch the IV drip, and listen to his breathing in the hopes he’s fallen asleep, and adjust his blankets. I will sit here in the frigid ER room, dreaming of Sarpino’s pizza and wondering if they’d deliver here. I will adjust his gown so he’s not flashing everyone as he goes to the bathroom. And I will refuse to go home until he does. Because, even after the rough start we’ve had as live-ins, I know this for sure:

He would do the same for me.

Royally excited

•April 27, 2011 • Leave a Comment

A scene from the early morning rehearsal for the Royal Weddin... on Twitpic

(Pictured above, Wednesday morning rehearsal in London for the Royal Wedding. Follow updates on the event from Clarence House on Twitter.)

Lately, it seems, it’s the popular thing to say you either don’t care or are really sick of hearing about the Royal Wedding. (Yes, I did just capitalize that.) I say, go ahead and don’t care, but if you really don’t care, why do you need to comment about it? Sick of it? Change the channel, flip the page, click on another story. No one’s forcing this on you. Let those of us who are excited enjoy it. Go be Debby Downer amongst yourselves.

That being said, I’m completely freaking excited about this wedding. I’m unabashedly, as Frasier Crane once labeled himself, an anglophile. I don’t know precisely when it started, but at least since junior high, I desperately wanted to visit the UK. And not just that, I wanted to be British. I perfected my British accent, watched Hugh Grant movies religiously, and devised elaborate day dreams about my awesome British life.

In the summer between my junior and senior years of undergrad, I finally got to realize my dream: I studied abroad in the UK and Ireland for six weeks. (I would be linking you to scanned photos from that trip but am currently kicking myself because I forgot to bring my gimungous scrapbook home from Michigan this weekend.) It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, without doubt. But perhaps the best part was that we landed in London mere days before 4-day national holiday that was the Queen’s 50th Jubilee.  (Her anniversary of being on the throne.)

Days of concerts, fireworks, parades, and unfettered royal worship. It was fabulous. Five years after Princess Diana’s death, many of the wounds caused by the Royal Family’s reaction to that Paris car crash seemed to have healed. Maybe the country just really wanted a reason to party. Either way, it was quite the London welcome to 17 college-age American girls.

Now nearly nine years after that trip, London, and the rest of the UK, is gearing up for another serious bash. And I would do just about anything to be there. But alas, I am smack in the middle of finals and seriously lacking in funds, so I shall have to tune in from my couch. And tune in I shall, even though it means I’ll be rolling out of bed around 3:30 a.m. Chicago time.

I’ve heard the argument that there’s no good reason for Americans to be all hot and bothered about this. These are, after all, not our sovereigns. We fought so we wouldn’t have monarchs. But that’s precisely why I think I and many other Americans are so obsessed with the Royals. It’s exciting largely because we have nothing to compare. We might have inaugurations, but they have coronations. And sure, we have prominent weddings, but I don’t recall getting a national holiday for Chelsea Clinton’s nuptials, do you? And, of course, our tax dollars don’t fund the palaces and guards and lavish lifestyles, so it’s all fun and games on this side of the pond.

But, really, I think what captivates us is the fantasy and magic of it all. Much as we’d like to have moved on from the silly Disney ideals of our childhoods, part of many of us still wants the fairy tale. We know we will never have a fairy godmother, or a menagerie of talking animal friends, but there are still real live princesses. And in a little more than 24 hours, we will watch a commoner (although I have to laugh at this categorization of Kate, as she has more money than most of us will ever see in a lifetime, so it doesn’t exactly seem like a major status jump here) turn into a bona fide princess.

Is all this attention a little silly? Sure. Could attention and money be focused on more important things? Of course. But events like this don’t come around that often. Charles and Diana married four months before I was born, but watching it unfold in near real time on a TLC special earlier this week, I couldn’t help but get excited, even knowing how that particular fairy tale would end. In the intervening 30 years, the only similar thing, sadly, that has garnered the same level of global attention is Diana’s funeral. I awoke in the darkness to watch that, and I see no reason why I shouldn’t do the same for a happy event.

In times of trial, we often criticize lavish events as frivolous and wasteful. And yet, they often attract a great deal of interest. Like Queen Elizabeth’s wedding, during the strict rationing of post-WWII England, and Charles and Diana’s wedding, in the midst of a recession similar to the one we’re currently experiencing, this wedding comes at a time of unrest and unhappiness. Perhaps the money and attention paid to this wedding is better spent on other things, but I think something like this is important in times like these. We need a reminder that life is worth celebrating, and that tough times don’t stop the joyous parts of life.

So scoff if you will, complain if you must. But don’t rain on my royal parade. I mean, really, don’t you think we all deserve a few moments of fantasy in our lives?

I do.

Extreme OCD

•April 19, 2011 • Leave a Comment

I think I have to stop watching “Extreme Couponing.”

I’ve only watched three or four episodes. It’s amazing what you can do with some clipping and careful planning. But more and more this show frustrates me to the point of potentially elevating my blood pressure. I respect the frugality of these shoppers. God knows, I could take a cue from them. But rather than use their couponing skills in the best possible way, they take it to an annoying extreme that seems more wasteful than laudably thrifty.

Many of these extreme couponers have a stockpile. They are excessively proud of these stockpiles. They have added special shelving in literally every room of their houses to hold all of the products they’ve amassed on their shopping excursions. Often there is a very specific organizational scheme by which the products with the most recent expiration date are displayed on the outside. Sure, this doesn’t sound bad. Until you start hearing the numbers. They’re usually in the neighborhood of 80 bottles of laundry detergent, 70 boxes of cereal, and hundreds of boxes of pasta. Often they will clear the shelves of a particular product at a store–not because they need that much, but because they have that many coupons. Forty bottles of mustard, 50 jars of pasta sauce, 17 cups of yogurt. Actual ability to consume the product in a reasonable amount of time is apparently not a consideration.

Judging solely on my TV-PhD earned from hours upon hours of watching television shows about people with obsessive disorders, I am fairly certain these shoppers have a very specialized form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. They hoard excessive amounts of food. They know the sale cycle of food at grocery stores (three months, apparently). Despite planning for hours, if not days, and knowing, to the penny, what their orders will amount to, as they watch the initial amount rise, they exhibit behavior that resembles a panic attack. When the total plummets, just as expected, they often do a victory dance and talk about the adrenaline rush they get. And none seem to have any desire to stop: “Even if I win the lottery, I am positive I will keep couponing.”

At least three of the women I’ve seen featured on the show began their extreme couponing after a job loss or other financial setback. Yet, they don’t put their talents to the benefits of others and share their newfound wealth. Do you need all 80 bottles of laundry detergent in your garage? Or 250 boxes of pasta? Not really (certainly not for a few years, and I’m sure you can replenish just fine). But you know who does? Food pantries and homeless shelters.

I have to wonder if these women ever consider retaining what they need for their families, with a reasonable stockpile (you know, like a month or so), and donating the rest of their vast quantities to the needy. I really want to believe that many of them do, but what I see on these shows doesn’t indicate that’s a typical case. One woman boasted that she had a year’s worth of groceries in her stockpile. If that wasn’t extreme enough, she spoke, starry-eyed, of passing her stockpile on to her children upon her death. Lord help me, I wanted to strangle this woman.

One man featured has enough deodorant to last an average adult 150 years. What, exactly, is the purpose of this? On the shopping trip featured on the show, he purchased another cart full. Please tell me why. I need to know. He also had a coupon for a free toothbrush. He literally filled a grocery cart with toothbrushes. His garage is piled floor to ceiling with soaps, shave gels, and lotions, among other products. What good is it doing anyone for this man to have the equivalent of a Sam’s Club in his garage? The only thing that kept me from going to Kentucky to bitch slap him was that he donates some of his haul to his church food pantry.

Only one person I’ve seen so far buys only what she actually needs. She doesn’t buy a ton of things just because it’s cheap or she has a good coupon. And if she wants more variety, she writes to the company asking for more coupons. Additionally, she teaches others how to coupon like she does. I like this woman. Her use of couponing is practical and lacks the frightening obsessive quality most of the others featured on this show exhibit.

I just have to wonder if it’s really saving anything when you’re buying more items than you will possibly ever be able to use. Rather than exhibiting the height of frugality, this seems to me to be a self-congratulatory form of conspicuous consumption. What started for many of these couponers as a way to deal with a financial setback has turned into an annoying way to say, “Look at how much crap I can buy and not pay for!”

I salute these shoppers for their ability to pay under $10 for $1,000+ worth of groceries. I would just be more willing to praise their efforts if they had more to show for it than a warehouse of wasted food.

The Value of the Value Judgment

•April 17, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Five years is not a long time. Until you’re suddenly roughly five years older than most of those around you. Then it feels like forever.

I’m what those in higher education like to call a “nontraditional student.” Rather than go directly into law school from undergrad, I took a little detour known as a journalism career.

When I graduated from Michigan State in 2003, I fully expected that my formal education was over. That didn’t exactly happen.  And although I was excited to start something new, going back to school was downright terrifying. The introductory paralegal class I took at the local community college while trying to decide if this law school thing was for me gave me a taste, but it really couldn’t prepare me being a full-time student again. I worried that six years of being out of practice would put me at a disadvantage. But after almost two years back in the student saddle, I’m beginning to think that, like the NBA, new graduates should have to wait (at least) a year before entering law school (or any advanced degree program, really).

While many of my classmates have the advantage of familiarity, my fellow “nontraditional students” and I have something they haven’t had the chance to gain–perspective.

I’m lucky that my perspective isn’t thrust upon me as it is with some of my classmates. I’m not married with kids, I’m not working full time and attending school part time. I’m not forced to decide between playing with my kids or getting that report done for work and reading all the cases for class the next day and still getting some sleep. Frankly, many of my choices not to be the most diligent student have more to do with my mental health and getting a good night’s sleep.

But just when I begin to wonder why I thought returning to school was a good idea, I look around and realize I’m in a much better position. As my classmates worry themselves into ulcers over every little thing, I’ve realized that at some point, worrying does me no good. Sure, I worry–more than I wish I did about things I wish I didn’t worry about. But time away from school has given me the wisdom to finally accept that everything cannot be the priority all the time.

When you’ve been in the artificial environment school creates for too long, you’re not forced to or even allowed to make value judgments. Every professor and teacher expects that you have done what they’ve assigned and they insist that the time management required is good practice for the “real world.”  All due respect to the fine lineup of instructors throughout my life, but that’s crap. In the real world, you have to make value judgments, because–guess what?–not everything is as important as everything else. Ideally, you’d like to get everything done and done well, but it’s just not going to happen. And while school provides you with the base knowledge needed for your career, and various hands-on experiences teach you some of the more practical elements, at no point does anyone teach you the value of the value judgment.

Advantage: “Real world.”

I’d like to say I’ve been calm, cool, and collected through my law school experience. Of course, that’s not true. But I also know that when it comes down to it, I’m worrying about what I should be worried about. I might not have a deep understanding of every case I’ve read for class, but you know what? I trust my instructors to help me through that. If they choose to use Socratic Method for abusive purposes instead of using it to make me think (which is what it should be used for), then it’s not worth my time to put in the effort. If I could learn everything I needed to know from reading my case books, why would they bother to hold classes? The same goes for my legal writing papers. Certainly, I aim to turn in quality work, but if I haven’t hit the mark completely, then my instructor will tell me what I did wrong. It’s called learning. That’s what I’m going into debt for.

So, when I’m staring down 100+ pages and a looming trial brief deadline, I have a few moments of panic. And then, usually with my boyfriend’s very helpful reminder to take “one thing at a time,” I take a deep breath and prioritize. Not everything gets done. I’m not proud of that, but it’s true. And I’m fine with that. Ultimately, I get what needs to be done done. What I don’t do is stay up all night reading. And I’m not spending the next day worried that I might not look like a legal genius in class. At this point and situation in my life, it’s not worth all the trouble.

Some day, when I have a family of my own and a job in the legal “real world,” there will be nights when I’m up all night doing work for my clients. I’m certain I will value tucking my children in at night over a few extra Zzzzs.

For right now, I think I’ll take the sleep.