Bluegrass as Metaphor


I’ve become obsessed with this song, “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”, performed here by Patty Loveless.

The lyrics speak of the suffering of the life dependent on coal mining.  It explores the irony of a life spent working a job that is killing you — that your financial survival depends on work that makes your survival impossible.

Loveless herself was born in Kentucky, and her father was a coal miner who eventually died of black lung disease.  She knows the geographic territory as well as the emotional territory that this songs travels.  Her version gives the song a stronger bluegrass sensibility, with its instrumentation and bluegrass harmonies.  The song was written by Nashville resident, Darrell Scott, whose own version of the song strips it down a bit, so that it’s poetry is experienced more strongly.  Here he is performing it as part of one of the absolute best gatherings of musicians ever, the Transatlantic Sessions.


The lyrics land us right smack in the middle of a very particular landscape and reality:

In the deep dark hills of eastern Kentucky
That’s the place where I trace my bloodline
And it’s there I read on a hillside gravestone
You will never leave Harlan alive

The deep shadows and shortened days of eastern Kentucky also serve as metaphor: we know right away that this is a place where a person hungers for light.  In hard times, no matter where we are living, our souls hunger for light, and for a sense of hope.  And, no matter who we are, and where our own bloodlines originate, most of us come from those deep, dark places of struggle, and have in our own blood that hunger of finding something better.  But the last line of the first stanza issues its warning, “You’ll never leave Harlan alive.”

Where the sun comes up about ten in the morning
And the sun goes down about three in the day
And you fill your cup with whatever bitter brew you’re drinking
And you spend your life just thinkin’ of how to get away.

We all spend our lives dreaming of escape, of better times and better places, just as the family members in the song:

Oh, my granddad’s dad walked down
Katahrins Mountain
And he asked Tillie Helton to be his bride
Said, won’t you walk with me out of the mouth
Of this holler
Or we’ll never leave Harlan alive

That dream of liberation coupled with a sense of desperation, fueled by the hope that new love provides, can sometimes be enough to propel us out of the old situation and into the unknown.  But the song doesn’t give us a happy ending.  These people don’t walk out of the mountains and take up residence at the seaside where they run a tiny cottage restaurant and offer fishing tours.  They don’t buy tickets for a ocean liner and land in sunny Portugal.  Why?  Because as much as we all thirst for freedom, we are prisoners of our own limited imaginations.  How far is too far to go?  Often, the question is, instead, how far turns out to be not far enough?

In the song, the escapees barely left – moving to farmland in Kentucky instead of traveling until the world looked entirely, ecstatically different.  So, of course, the troubles come and, because proximity to what is familiar exists, there comes the scurrying back to the evils we know.

But the times got hard and tobacco wasn’t selling
And ole granddad knew what he’d do to survive
He went and dug for Harlan coal
And sent the money back to granny
But he never left Harlan alive

I think the reason I am obsessed with this song, and the reason I cry every time I hear it, is because it speaks an archetypal truth.  We are all in Harlan; we are all prisoners of our own sorrows, being exploited and used by those who feed off others.  And maybe, to expand this thought even further, “Harlan” is just a metaphor for life in general — no one gets out alive, and no one is immune from suffering.  The dreams that our lives offer — dreams of love, of escape, of success — all end in the silence of the grave.

Okay, wait a minute, you are probably thinking by now — isn’t this blog called “Good Times Manifesto”?  Isn’t this a place where ideas about finding joy in hard times are discussed?  What the hell is all this about dreams ending in the silence of the grave?  What is uplifting about that?

Let me explain.  First, the pure, raw beauty of this song is, somehow, uplifting.  The fact that a man like Darrell Scott can write a song that throbs with suffering, but compose it in such a way that the suffering is glowing with a kind of celestial light — that is uplifting. The fact that voices sing this song, and combine in harmonies that cause your heart to swell in your chest and your mind to feel electrified — that is uplifting.  I think this song speaks not only of the very specific truths of the people of a coal mining region of Kentucky, but speaks of the archetypal truths of humanity.  It’s important to remember the 1) we can make beauty out of sorrow — and that this ability to work a creative miracle is one of the most miraculous things about being human; and 2) we are all in this together.  None of us get out of this world alive.  That’s the whole point.  So we might as well make some beauty while we are here.

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Trying Not to Let American Food Kill Me

It has been a few months of high-intensity life changes, followed by some serious over-work focusing on building and restructuring some of the programs in my arts organization, Hidden River Arts.   This also included launching an expanded new awards program, and building out our blog to keep up with all the new activities.

I had been looking forward to an exciting adventure – a trip to Italy with my daughter, where we would visit Florence, Orvieto and Rome, as a time to seriously relax and restore my energy.  Boy was I ever wrong (more on that in a forthcoming blog.)  While it was a wonderful trip in many ways, one thing it was NOT was restorative.  The travel, the intense schedule of sites and activities we wanted to include in our days — it was exhausting.

So, once I got home, I was dealing with even greater exhaustion, and then bronchitis.  So I’ve spent the last week and a half in what I call a Spa Staycation — staying close to home, catching up on reading, exercise, a little self-care.  A lot of self-care.

One of the things I’ve been doing is reading and watching documentaries about food.  For year, I have had my university my students watch Food, Inc.  I have been gratified by their response and about just how many of these teenagers started to make some serious changes in their diets.  I began watching other films in order to supplement what we were doing in class, and have found a few that are really helpful.  “Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead” is about how the average diet is killing us.  The answer here is a plant-based diet, and juice fasting — and the results were remarkable.  I also watched Forks over Knives, which again supported the plant-based diet over the animal protein and dairy product diet so many Americans eat.  Since there were a lot of medical statistics provided in this film, it helped to make it clear just how seriously ill we are as a nation, and how directly linked our diabetes epidemic, obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease and other disorders are to the highly processed foods, the chemicals, hormones and antibiotics that are in the meat, poultry and dairy we eat.

Finally, I watched Engine 2, which offers some very helpful advice on just how to shift away from our habitual eating into the plant-based diets that are clearly so much more healthy.

My past attempts at eating a vegetarian diet, or an even more dramatic vegan diet, have met with failure.  I may try again.  But for now, what I’m doing is a kind of Middle Way diet that is largely plant-based, with a few days each week including animal protein.  The additional challenges are cutting way down on sugars and salts.  I’m not a big junk food fan, but I do have a dangerous sweet tooth.  So, while I can go months without Doritos, I barely go a day without craving dessert.

Then, there are the stores we frequent.  Today, I went to a drug store around the corner from my home, to pick up a few things.  While I was there, I walked through their “food” aisle.  LOTS of nuts — almost all of which were heavily doused with salt.  Many of which were also slathered with sugar or honey, or “honey-cinnamon”.  I found ONE bag of plain almonds, where the ingredients just read “almonds”.  One.  On the other side of the aisle, there were canned foods – most of which were laden with salt, sugar, and in some cases a bunch of other chemicals, including thickeners made of the dreaded wheat.  Soups?  Same thing.  I found ONE can of lentil soup that had lentils, water, some vegetables and salt…..but it listed “artificial flavorings” — which could be just about anything.  Then there were rows and rows of cookies and crackers.  Chips.  Pretzels.  Two rows of cereals, all of which were sugar-laden.  Even the so-called “healthy” cereals like Special K are filled with sugar.  Even something that should be simple – like Rice Krispies, is filled with sugar.   Wheat Belly, a website that discusses the problems with the wheat products in our country actually had a blog  about the cereals of America.

Shopping for healthy food means having access to grocery stores that carry lots of healthier options: organic foods, no salt foods, etc.   It also means cooking.  Michael Pollan says that you can cut out an enormous amount of the chemicals, additives, salts and sugars in your diet if you simply cook your meals from scratch more regularly.  I agree, and have determined to make a return to cooking part of this new phase of my life.  When my children lived at home, I cooked every single day.  But now that they are grown and I live a more solitary lifestyle, cooking for myself feels like chore.  At one point, I was working on a cookbook.  I think I might just pick that up again.  I’ll let you know on these pages how that unfolds.

Finally, contributing to our health issues in the U.S. is a sedentary lifestyle.  Not enough walking or exercise.  Too many hours of sitting.  I’ve written about my own yoga practice on these pages, but I’ll also be writing about my exploration of workouts that can be done at home, since gyms are both expensive and difficult to actually GO to.  How many people join gyms and never show up to use the membership?  I’ve always found it a lot easier to show up in front of my TV screen and workout at home.  I don’t believe in sweating in public.

So, stay tuned.  Sign up to follow the blog and let me know what your own experiences have been with making lifestyle, dietary and fitness changes.

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The Continued Food Revolution

There is a growing chorus of voices around the U.S., calling for change, demanding accountability of the corporations and financial institutions which have driven us to ruin.
One of the most hated companies in the country now is Monsanto, the enormous agri-business conglomerate that has bought its way into control of all three branches of our government.  All attempts by citizens to curb the damaging behavior of this company have been hard-fought: getting hormones and anti-biotics out of our food, forcing labeling of GMO products, reducing the amount of toxins in our food, stopping the many evils of factory farming.  Americans have suffered more defeat than victory.

But there are ways that people are fighting back.  Many people now boycott everything Monsanto makes.  There is a chart which offers information about the companies owned by Monsanto.  There is also an app called Buycott which allows you to scan products in a grocery store to find out just exactly what sort of behavior the company selling the product has been up to.

Communities and cities are getting involved.  Despite the pushback we’ve just suffered regarding a state’s rights to demand GMO labeling, we will continue to fight that battle, too.  In the meantime, cities like Seattle are creating Food Forests.  Other communities are looking toward examples, like that of communities in Russia, where small-scale, organic farms are feeding large numbers of people.

Where I live, in Philadelphia, the Occupy movement has remained active in many ways.  One way is by partnering with already-existent food activists to create community gardens, converting empty lots into green spaces where members of the neighborhoods come together to grow vegetables and fruits, to socialize, share recipes, build friendships.

On an individual level, we are making different choices in the food we purchase and put in our bodies, feed to our children.  On the community level we are reaching out to create more neighborhood gardens, to open our public spaces up to farmers’ markets and food fairs.  We’re doing it at the grassroots level – at the personal level.  Because this IS personal.  You can’t get much more personal than our health, our well-being, the very source of nourishment that provides life.  Please feel free to share what you know of other movements or activities in YOUR neighborhood.   The exchange of ideas helps to fuel our determination to take back control of our lives.

Posted in Dining, Recipes and Food, Health, Fitness, Holistic Living, Revolution | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Why Does America Practice Capitalist Yoga?

I recently read an article that called Americans to task for the way they approach “yoga”.   I was in complete harmony with what it had to say.  In fact, I’d long wondered at the way in which “yoga” was being practiced in the United States.

When I was 13, back in the late 60s, I bought a book called YOGA FOR AMERICANS, and taught myself yoga — alone in my bedroom, doing the asanas with only the advice of Indra Devi, the author of the book. Yoga was an unknown practice back then in Pennsylvania — Californians were probably already practicing yoga more often, but not the people livings in the cookie-cutter-developments of suburban Philadelphia. I remember being briefly happy, but then horrified when, in the 1980s, yoga started getting popular in my area of the country. First, yoga classes were offered privately. Then they started being offered at gyms. Then, yoga studios began to open. Now, don’t misunderstand, I have nothing against the more wide-spread practice of yoga. But, often, what was being taught, as far as I’m concerned, was not traditional yoga. “Hot yoga”, “aerobic yoga”, “yoga dance”…….I had already been practicing yoga for nearly fifteen years when this yoga craze began in my part of the country. My yoga was a very slow, meditative yoga. Holding various positions for extended periods of time, doing intentional breathwork – that was my yoga. I also did aerobics and weight training – but they were separate workouts. I could not accept a practice that called itself yoga that included rapid movement from one asana to another, in a kind of demented gymnastics workout.

Neither could I accept what America did to yoga. Marketing exploded: yoga mats, yoga “bricks” and other equipment, yoga videotapes, yoga books, yoga magazines, more yoga books, yoga clothing, yoga jewelry, CDs of music for yoga, or yoga chanting….even yoga “food”.

Yoga means “yoke”. It is a practice, the central intention of which is to connect the body, mind and spirit of the practitioner. What does that have to do with a yoga wardrobe, or your new patchouli-scented yoga mat?

I did my yoga in old, loose fitting clothing, often the same clothing that I’d worn for years. I never required new outfits for my yoga practice. I couldn’t align this focus on acquisition with a practice that was supposed to offer balance and release. It seemed to me that what was practiced in America was Neoliberal Yoga. It was about achievement, acquisition and perceived superiority. There was a Social Darwinist flavor to it – not only in the competitive nature of the yoga performance itself – who can do the most outrageously difficult asana “flow” with lightning speed, but in the sense that if you can’t afford the classes, the clothes, the food, the books, DVDs, CDs and the luxury yoga retreats, then you didn’t really have the right to practice yoga.

So, yes, it has an elitist quality, the powerful smell of superiority on display. In short, I say that American Neoliberal Yoga is a sort of anti-yoga.

As the article pointed out, in these classes and retreats, you look out over a sea of white bodies – few Indians, at least a few of whom should know more about the practice of yoga, I would think, given that it is a practice originating in India. You also see few to no black bodies in the yoga classes. Why might that be? Again, I suspect it has to do with the perceived white elitism of the American yoga culture. It also has to do with the miserable truth that, in America, wealth is not only concentrated in the hands of the very few, but it is concentrated in the white hands of the very few.

Anyway, my suggestion is that we ignore all the high-priced classes and equipment and outfits. Getting back to the philosophy and goals of yoga would be step one.

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Where Have I Been?

It has been my intention to write here regularly about all the “Good Times” possibilities that we can discover or create in our day to day lives — especially in difficult times when finding joy is harder to do. But it’s been a while since I have written here.

I know that this has been a very difficult few years for most people.  I have worked in education and the arts — two occupations with their own special kinds of misery, often tied to low wages, frequent joblessness, high stress and dissatisfaction.  But I don’t really know anyone, no matter what their occupation, who hasn’t been hit both economically and emotionally since the Wall Street meltdown of 2008.  It’s a decade now since the economy had its enormous collapse — and many years before that, thanks to the “market driven” capitalism often called neoliberalism, that so many have been struggling.  Despite the media and the government assurances that the economy has righted itself and things are on the upswing, there is little to be happy about.  Most people I talk to know we’re being fed lies, since they are living the realities.

Then, of course, there was the miserable election cycle that dragged on for what felt like years, and ended in a situation many of us would like NOT to believe is reality.  We are certainly living in the very late stages of a dying empire, where our leaders are insane, where greed and barbarism control the decisions of those in power, and where the boiling rage of the people threatens to blow sky high on any given day.  The last days of Rome, the last days of Versailles.  We’ve seen it all before.

So, isn’t this exactly what the Good Times Manifesto blog was meant for?  I’d say yes. Therefore, I plan to begin posting a bit more regularly.  I’m happy to hear from all of you, as well, in regard to the ways you are finding to keep your heads above the dark water.

GTM’s mission has always been to bring discussion about the beauty of life, the aesthetics, the celebratory, the joyous.  So, future posts will be about those things — about food, about lifestyle, about art, about happiness, about fitness, about travel, about discovery, about health and well-being.

And, lest you think I’ve been held captive in a fetid basement these last few years, I can assure you that I’ve been out there in the world, practicing what I preach.  Lots of projects – an activist film project, working on several novels, writing and directing several plays, a return to professional singing, moving my life from a giant suburban home to a small walk-up apartment and reducing my footprint, celebrating the 20th anniversary of my arts organization, growing my small press, running a robust arts internship program, plus doing my university teaching.  It has been busy-ness and not captivity that has kept these pages silent.  But no more.   I finally walked away from my university teaching in last August.  There is no time like now to start exploring the Good Times Manifesto, as I begin to build this next stage of my own life.

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Surprised by 9th Street

IMG_1953For far too long, my life has been over-booked, over-planned, over-scheduled.  I rarely have a day that isn’t at least partially planned, with a “to do” list, and a series of jobs I want to accomplish.  I end most days feeling like a failure because I make lists that are too long to finish in a week, and then expect myself to do everything by dinnertime.

But this week, there were a series of experiences that simply landed, plop! in the middle of my over-planned schedule.  Two beloved young friends are getting married this weekend, and I decided – and this is also entirely unlike me – to spend a day shopping for a new dress, makeup — whatever felt right as I prepared to go to this wedding.  I hate clothes shopping.  I mean, hate, clothes shopping.  I have clothes in my closet from when I was in high school, I actually have a dress hanging in the closet that I wore to the First Quaker City Rock Festival at the Spectrum here in Philadelphia.  (Lineup:  Moby Grape, The Chambers Brothers, Big Brother and the Holding Company – with Janis, Vanilla Fudge and……Buddy Guy.) My closet looks like a vintage clothing store.

So, anyway, buying a dress for this wedding shows how much I adore the couple getting married.  I went to my car – which had been sitting in the parking lot for a month, since I’ve been working on several big writing projects and not traveling much.  The left rear tire was almost entirely flat.  The right rear tire was low.  What to do?

I drove on it.  Took the car to 11th Street Auto — which by the way is the BEST garage to go to if you live in Center City.  I love those guys.  Diagnosis:  dry rot.  “If you don’t drive the car much, and let it sit for long periods, this is going to happen,” Frank, the owner told me.  So – the first unexpected thing of the week, and not a very welcome one — I needed two new tires.  They filled me up with air for the shopping trip, but ordered two tires so that I wouldn’t have a blow out driving to the wedding on Saturday.  (Yes, I did shop.  I survived.  Even found a nice dress.)

But here’s the good thing that happened when my plans for the week got shot full of holes – when I brought the car back to replace the tires, I wandered around that part of the city, waiting for them to do the job.  I walked down Christian Street, looking for someplace to grab a sandwich or something, so that I could eat and write while I was waiting — because, you know, God forbid I shouldn’t WORK.  What I found instead was 9th and Christian – and then the entire stretch of 9th Street, where the stores and street vendors were amazing. The Italian Market!   I hadn’t been to 9th Street since I was about 8 years old, staying with my great aunt.  She drove us into South Philly to meet up with her sister-in-law, Lena, who lived at 9th and Wilder.  We wandered the markets of 9th Street, and, being a little suburban kid from Marple Township (think split level developments, something like the development in “Edward Scissorhands”),  I had never seen anything like it.  Back then, pretty much all of 9th Street (as far as I remember) was Italian.  Now, there are Italian, Hispanic and Vietnamese storekeepers,.  There are what we used to call 5 & 10 cent stores when I was a kid.  There were butchers and poulterers, produce stands, sneakers stores, a book and record store, kitchenwares, cheese stores, spice shops, pasta stores, a florist, coffee shops, pizza shops.  I met a woman from Tennessee who was there with her son.  She told me, “I buy everything I can here and take it back with me to Tennessee, including the bacon!”  That has to be some sort of Southern blasphemy, right?…buying your pork products in Philadelphia?

Fante's on 9th Street - Great kitchenwares store!

Fante’s on 9th Street – Great kitchenwares store!

So…on this first accidental visit to 9th Street, I went to Fante’s, the kitchenwares store, which has an incredible supply of cooking tools and products – and a wonderful, friendly staff.  I got a great lesson in the differences between pasta machines – and I’m going to go back and buy one.  For this trip, I bought a simple ravioli-making set, just like the one my late mother-in-law used to use.

I shopped in Claudios, an amazing store filled with everything from fresh-made pasta, to charcuterie, cheeses, to pickled vegetables and olives, to a variety of olive oils, pestos, and other sauces.  They sell wine.  I bought some gnocchi and 2 lbs of spinach tagliatelle — plus a 2 lb jar of Pesto Genovese.




And then… the Italian Pastry store – Isgro’s, where I bought a key lime tart, a baba-rum pastry (soaked in rum and honey and stuffed with Italian cream), and a Marzapane eclair.  And, no, I won’t eat them all at once…but yes, I am going to eat them.

The pastry store was a little price-y – but certainly not out of line with what you would pay for a high-quality Italian pastry in a restaurant.  Probably a few dollars less. (And believe me, these are high-quality Italian pastries!) Claudio’s wasn’t out of line for its prices of high-quality pasta and pesto, either.  The cheese prices looked to be in line with what I see in grocery stores, and they were really high-quality.

The ravioli-making set was $17.  It’ll last a lifetime, or two.  Maybe more.

One thing to keep in mind if you are planning to shop here:  many of the stores are cash only.  The vendors are almost entirely cash only.  Some of the restaurants only take cash.  Fante’s, Claudio’s, DiBrunos took credit cards.  But be aware that you might need cash when you head to 9th Street.

I certainly plan to go back.  It was fun.  It was full of life.  It was a great place to find good food and nice people.  This is not news to most people who live in downtown Philadelphia — almost everyone has at least heard of 9th Street, or “the Italian Market”.  But if, like me, you haven’t explored it, you should absolutely plan to go.  I’d say try a weekday rather than weekend, when it is probably packed with people.  A weekday, late morning, was a perfect time.  There were plenty of people, but nothing was crowded.  People lounged at outdoor tables at the coffee shops and restaurants.  Shopkeepers struck up conversations with you.  People stopped on the sidewalk and talked.  There was even a group of young artists from Moore who were sitting on the sidewalk sketching the street scenes, as eager to capture the great feeling here as I was!

More than anything, this surprise adventure reminded me of something important: don’t overplan.  Let life happen.  Make room for the surprises – because even the annoying ones (tires with dry rot) might lead to some wonderful ones (ravioli-making equipment and Italian pastry.)

I was reminded recently that Italians have a phrase: dolce far niente, which means the pleasure of doing nothing…or delicious idleness.  Try it.  Some of the best things might happen in those unplanned moments.






Posted in Community, Dining, Recipes and Food | Tagged , , , , , , ,

Try a Stopping Spree

I’ve never been a shopper; it’s simply not in my dna. There is a story that was told often in my family, about a day when my great aunt took me shopping to a Woolworths, the old five and dime chain store, and told me to buy anything I wanted – it was my 5th birthday. I protested over and over, saying I didn’t want anything, didn’t need anything, that I was uncomfortable looking around and feeling pressure that I had to buy something. But my aunt persisted. I eventually, because she kept insisting, wandered around the store and picked out a little Santa Claus mug, because my birthday was about a month before Christmas, and some of the merchandise was already out in the store. My great aunt was horrified that this was the only thing I wanted, urging me to pick something else. I refused — and I didn’t even want the mug. End result: we left the store with my little Santa mug, and my aunt was not satisfied. The story continues that on my younger sister’s birthday, the same aunt took my sister to the same store, and said the same thing, “Pick anything you want.”

My sister asked, “Can I get a wagon?”

“Of course!” our aunt answered.

So my sister got the wagon and proceeded to go up and down all the aisles filling it, until it was piled so high that nothing more would fit. The sense in my family, as they repeated this story, was that my sister knew how to do it right.  No matter how many times I heard this story, and was the butt of their jokes, I never felt that I was wrong.  This story is not only good at illustrating the difference between two sisters — but it is a story illustrative of my consumerist family, and of the culture in which we live. The fact that this sort of mad ecstatic shopping lunacy is what is considered normal in the U.S. is something that has always baffled me – the decades we’ve spent traveling to the mall as if we’re going on pilgrimmage – there is nothing about that which has ever made sense to me.

I hate shopping. I don’t like malls. I don’t like buying things that aren’t absolutely necessary. I don’t understand why people find it so hard to break the shopping habit. Maybe to another’s mind, I live too simply – many of my clothes are 30 years old – big old sweatshirts, sweaters, etc. Why do I need more? When they wear thin, if I can mend them, I do. If not, then I simply thank the clothing for the many years of service — and find a way to turn it into a cleaning rag, or something else useful.

I own furniture that is really good — solid wood furniture that will last many lifetimes beyond my own. So why buy new furniture? Why redecorate? The same thing is true with kitchenware, with cars, etc.  I have cookware that I have owned since I set up my own apartment when I was 17. I have a car that is over 15 years old. I don’t see any reason not to keep it.

I just don’t understand how, as a culture, we run ourselves into this ridiculous situation where credit cards are holding us captive – we are struggling against debt, yet keep incurring it. We just passed another Black Friday and, as usual, people were acting like animals, lining up at doors of stores that opened at 6 am, trampling each other to shop. What does this add to the quality of life?

If you have to buy essentials, fine. I buy lightbulbs. Batteries.  Pens. Paper. Food, of course. I buy what is absolutely necessary by way of toiletries — if I need to buy anything else, I will buy from a thrift store, I’ll look for used stuff. Or I’ll repair things – I just spent a few hundred dollars repairing four pairs of very good boots – I took them to a local business – a local shoe repair person – and I was happy to write the check to him, and to pick up those boots and wear them again.

So, yes, I guess that my way of looking at the world is very different, but I think it is a way that people should consider. One thing I discovered because of courses I teach, is the history of a man named Edward Bernays – the nephew of Sigmund Freud, and the father of PR in America. He used his uncle’s understanding of the subconscious desires that fuel some of our base human behavior – and he tapped into those so that he could create desire that would overcome our sense of need. Madison Avenue loved him and hired him to do just that. The Pentagon loved him, too. This is because, on one hand, he used manipulation of desires to cause people to buy, on the other side he was able to tap into primitive levels of fear to allow the Pentagon to create consent for wars we didn’t have to fight, to create fear in people so that they would believe they were in danger, to allow the government to do whatever it wanted.

But here is the thing: tapping into our unconscious emotions for purposes of manipulating them is something you can only get away until society is aware. Once you know what is being triggered, even if you feel those emotions getting stirred, the higher parts of the mind could resist. Of course, that is why, in my opinion, our public educational system is in terrible shape because those who manipulate the public don’t WANT people to use higher parts of their mind, but to be manipulated through base levels of emotions. People have been turned into animals and to reverse this is crucial. It all boils down to not falling victim to this kind of wickedness – so when I wear my 30 year old sweatshirt, or my ten year old rag socks, I feel good — I feel as though I’ve freed myself from this emotional manipulation.

The truth is that we don’t have to be in debt, we don’t have to be addicted to this cycle of buying, and that we can break free of the kind of mental and emotional manipulation that drives this rabid consumerist behavior. One of the most troubling things about Bernays using this method is that, for all we want to say about Freud, his goal was to make people less victimized by primitive desires, to make them aware of those urges in a way that allowed more control over such behavior. Bernays used his uncle’s research and writing to do the opposite – to create a society where people were victims of those who knew how to manipulate their primitive emotions.

A really wonderful video by Annie Leonard, called The Story of Stuff, sets out other reasons to be concerned about this consumerist system that fuels our economy and drives people into debt. In addition to what it does to individual fiscal insecurity, there are signs all along the cycle, from extraction, through production, distribution and ultimately to disposal, that prove it is terrible for our environment, and absolutely unsustainable.

I propose that, when you get the urge for a Shopping Spree, try a Stopping Spree instead. What does that mean? It means that you don’t shop.  You stop yourself.  Instead, take a trip to your own closet, and spend some time going through what is already hanging there. Pretend it is a shopping rack. Try on clothes you already have. Think of ways you can update the clothes already in your wardrobe. If you have things that you no longer wear for whatever reason, make a donation bundle and take that to a local thrift shop for donation. If you want to shop while you are there – fine. That money goes into charities, not to a clothing industry that uses the exploited labor of 12-year-old Cambodian girls in sweat shops.

If you must go out and wander stores — go local. Stay away from the mall, with its chain stores and underpaid employees, and travel to stores that are locally owned. When you buy from local businesses, a full 70% of the money you spend stays in your neighborhood. When you buy at a chain store, 70% leaves the neighborhood and heads to the HQ, where the profits are held by a very small number of people at the top of the labor chain.

Another thing: Carry NO credit cards, and only a small amount of cash. Don’t allow yourself to be tempted, because of that piece of plastic in your pocket, to buy things you don’t need and that you can probably ill-afford.

If you MUST shop because you are an addict, shift your shopping to other kinds of things as you work to wean yourself: buy a great bottle of wine, for instance, or go to a local grocer and buy some truly wonderful ingredients for a delicious dinner. Buy a great cookbook, and go home and have fun experimenting.

If you MUST take part in Black Friday — and this baffles me entirely, but I know I’m a strange duck in America – then buy for children who have nothing. Get in touch with local charities, and see what you can do to help families in desperate need. Most religious organizations – churches, synagogues, mosques, temples – have partnered with shelters and other organizations and would welcome your purchases and your assistance. And here is a thought — instead of a trip to the mall, make a trip to one of those shelters in order to lend a hand, and to meet the people who live there. You will be horrified to learn how many of them are veterans. How many are battered women, with their children, who had nowhere to go in order to get away from abuse. How many are suffering from mental conditions, who have no support.

If you must shop, if you must spend, shift what you do away from consuming on your own behalf, and consider spending some of your capital and your effort in areas of want and desperate need. More than anything, try out this Stopping Spree idea. You will be astonished at how you can spend your time when you are not in a mall. I’ll talk about more of those ideas on the next part of this blog – Stopping Spree, Part Two.

What are some of YOUR non-shopping past-times?  How have you stopped your own shopping addiction?  I welcome hearing from people, and will include your stories and suggestions in the second part of this blog.

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