Friday, June 26, 2009

The Michael Jackson Post

I've been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be understood by another person. When I was younger, the Great Dream was to find someone who understood every part of me, without me having to communicate it (which made me an excellent girlfriend at age 14, I'm quite sure). It took me years to tame the excitement I'd feel when someone would say something that made me feel utterly understood, like finally I'd found a truly kindred spirit. A cute boy would have been ideal, but really, anyone would have been fine. It was a big lure of online relationships at first--I remember reading a post on a bulletin board about how this woman gagged every time she brushed a certain quadrant of her teeth, and how she thought it was linked to some sort of psychological trigger, and I thought, Omigod, someone ELSE thinks that and omigod I've totally found my Other. She wasn't my Other. Nor was the woman who talked about "the sadness you feel in your arms," or any guy I've gone out with, no matter the quality of our 2 a.m. lights-out pillow talk, hands held, bodies swaddled in each other, hearts open. The best I could hope for was those moments in which you hear someone, or they hear you, and you know that the other person, in that moment, in that context, really does understand.

And now, I'm fine with that. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote that because no person can ever be truly known by another, "A good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his or her solitude." I'm unmarried, but I've found a guardian of my solitude; in my close friends, I've found still more. We get each other, in part because we get that neither of us will be wholly "gotten" by the other--not because of our failings but because of our humanness. The parts of me that my guardians don't get, I look to affirm in, say, literature. Or good movies, or family, either through their "getting" it too or through their intrinsic understanding of my history. Or posts on bulletin boards, or a stranger at a party who says one comment that I haven't heard before except in my own mind. There are plenty of people who echo my inner voice: There are many who are creative but hampered by lack of direction; dilettantes but wanting to be more; natural optimists with depressive tendencies. I've never had to fear being, well, un-understood. And the parts of myself that I haven't heard anyone else "get"? I keep them dear to myself, usually not out of shame--occasionally, sure--but more often because secrets are precious; because the murky, unknowable parts keep us from being a string of personality DNA, jigsaw puzzles of other people.

I can't imagine--really, cannot imagine--what it would be like to be in a world in which the number of people who understand fundamental things about you is infinitesimally small. Because you're famous--wildly famous--because the world watched your self-hatred morph and expand the way I watched my neighbor boy grow up from four-year-old to a young man whose voice changed last summer. Because your predilections are immoral, criminal, yet your status allows you to shield yourself from getting the kind of help you would need to reconcile those desires with your similarly true desires to do the right thing. Because we all know about your family; because your pill problem is on the front page; because you are loved and hated in equal measures; because the mere whisper of your presence brings electricity.

So you meet a certain cache of people who understand what it's like to be wildly famous. You find people who are self-proclaimed freaks, and buy skeletons of the freaks who can't speak with you about what it was like for them. You find children who understand what it's like to lose a childhood; you find children who, you think, can give that back to you. You find beautiful, troubled people, and try to collect them. But even then, you are too big for them.

Michael Jackson was so large that his death prompted not a reaction of sadness but of--not quite humor, but of archness. I wasn't cracking jokes or anything, but his death immediately became a ludicrous event. My best friend was late to meet me for dinner. "Sorry, I got caught up at work," she said. "Don't lie; you were composing yourself after mourning for Michael," I said. And we laughed.

His death came up a few times over dinner. And finally, she casually said what we say of sick old people and dogs: He's out of his misery now. And instead of it sounding like a cliche, something you say to excuse a possibly sad event, it was the absolute truth. I was never a crazed fan; I liked him like we all did, no more. I've talked about the tragedy of Michael Jackson before--how can you not, in order to keep the mix of fame beyond fame and awful acts against children from being just overwhelmingly depressing--but it wasn't until I connected him with Rilke that I saw that perhaps his biggest tragedy was that he was given both too much solitude and never, ever enough. He needed a guardian too.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Give Me Snickers Or Give Me Death

Food manufacturers are, according to the head of the FDA, manipulating foods to make them taste so good that you can't help but want more. Their tactics include: hitting a "bliss point" of fats, salt, and sugar (the FDA head, Dr. David Kessler, cites a Snickers bar and the way it melts in your mouth while still providing crunch); not overdoing any of the pleasure points so as to avoid creating consumer overwhelm; designing foods with layers of taste to engage our brains. Companies "design food for irresistibility... It's been part of their business plans."

To which I say, no shit? As opposed to the food companies that create foods that don't taste good, in order to get you to consume less of them?

Listen, I'm all for companies taking responsibility for agitating addictive behaviors in order to exploit the public. (See also: the tobacco industry.) But there is a huge difference between a company manipulating data about their product (or hiding said data, or creating marketing terms that imply something the product isn't) and manipulating the product to make it, well, better. I'm glad to see legislation passed to ban the marketing of "light" cigarettes; I was steamed when it came out that low-fat frozen dessert CremaLita was a flat-out lie. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about the anti-McDonald's crusade--I hate that McDonald's has become a go-to meal option for so much of America, but it's not like most people get a triple-decker with fries because they think it's the most nutritious option available to them. Still, I see the point of the crusade: In a lot of communities, especially poor communities where the immediate stress relief of a milkshake is a helluva lot more appealing than a spinach salad, McDonald's is a social center; by keeping their nutritional data hidden, they're doing a public health disservice. Fine.

But to accuse companies like Mars (which makes Snickers) of "manipulating" products so that they taste good is flat-out ridiculous. I'm well aware of the ways that sugar acts upon the nervous system, creating an addictive pattern of sorts--and the high-fructose corn syrup found in these products raises this pattern to a new level. But sugar is not crack, as much as some people would like to have you believe, and junk food is designed to taste good, and that's not manipulation--that's the nature of junk food.

America's food landscape is outrageous--of this I have no doubt. But I recently spent six weeks in Vietnam. And you know what they have in stores there? Candy bars, and boxes of cookies, and loads of candy. Coffee is consumed there with sweetened condensed milk, making our milk-and-sugar habit seem downright pure. Vietnam is a poor country, so people can't afford to gorge themselves on cookies, but that's not all of the equation. Americans are fat because we take emotional refuge in our excess; it's how we express both the pride and ennui that being the first of the first-world nations brings. Companies might exploit this tendency, but they are not creating it. I guess I'm coming down on the libertarian side of junk-food regulation at last.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

8 Days a Week

I've worked in personal finance magazines for about six months now. And in that six months, my guardianship of my own personal finances has swelled--if not in quality, in quantity. I check my bank balances more frequently even when I know nothing has changed; I peruse my decimated 401(k) account; I idly poke around to find favorable money market rates. I'm not doing anything that differently than I did before working in personal finance mags. I'm not even thinking that differently about my finances--I've never been an out-of-control spender, nor miserly, and my interest in investing in anything beyond the rudiments is roughly equivalent to my interest in, say, bass fishing.

The difference is that I'm thinking more frequently. Money has been added to the treadmill of mundane questions that take up space in my mind: what am I doing tonight; what will I eat for dinner; should I go for a run later; what's my bank balance. It only made sense--I was suddenly reading about IRAs and financial solvency all day long, for my job. During my breaks from reading, my mind didn't easily make the switch to reading the headlines or composing an e-mail--it needed a transition, and checking my own financial solvency provided it.

A few months into this, on a day when I was checking my checking account balance for the third time that day, it hit me: If my new gig brought about a sudden uptick in my financial self-awareness, what had ten years in women's magazines done to me? A decade of reading about "loving your body" next to diet tips; of the assumption that whether to pain ourselves for beauty is not the question, but rather how much; of staying within the comfortable universe padded by birth control and makeup removers and 12 blouses I needed now.

Granted, what brought me into personal finance publishing was being unexpectedly laid off--hardly an event that brings out my financial devil-may-care side. And it wasn't like I had no idea that working in women's magazines had done a number on my head. But I didn't realize how insidious the damage could be until then. As a feminist I consciously strained against several tenets of women's magazines; I read relationship columns with a wry eye and treated beauty pieces as foreign-language copy as much as I could. But that's just it: as much as I could wasn't ever going to be enough to truly shield me from absorbing the messages I read all day long.

Hmm, could I get therapy bills for body dysmorphia covered under workman's comp?