It was a radio, then t.v show that started in the 40’s and ran for over 20 years; Queen for a Day. Also called the ‘Cinderella show’, it featured four women sitting in front of a studio audience while Jack Bailey summarized each of their personal struggles with a poetic, mildly sexist, lilt. The audience would clap to indicate which personal struggle they felt was most deserving of help, compassion and magical solutions to all their problems. The winner was transported to a throne and showered with an embarrassment of over the top riches. As for the women whose stories weren’t tragic enough; troubled wonder. Referred to as the first reality show, companies were willing to pay $4000 a minute, the cost of a new home, to advertise in their commercial spots. American t.v was teaching people a dis-empowering but profitable way to get our basic needs met: very important persecuted. Unless you’re among the world’s wealthiest 1% and own 40% of the control it might be otherwise tough to “make life easier”. We’re given the illusion of two choices; hard earned success or hard earned failure but only one comes with “a real thrilling reign and lunch at the deluxe Knickerbocker Hotel”. Aside from being rescued by the gods of MGM and public humiliation, how do we heat our place or get educational aids for our disabled son?
In graduate school one of my jobs was folding sweatshirts at a shop in Harvard Square. I took the T from Bunker Hill, four blocks from our apartment. One night a pregnant lady got shot on the train before mine. The Somerville skyline seemed friendly because of the Schrafft tower but the rats living under the highway across from the Mt. Vernon pub indicated otherwise. Schraftt is a historical chocolate factory. Something about the neon-pink clock-face felt like a marker or metaphor for the pursuit of a sweet life, ironically juxtaposed adjacent to Good Times, the arcade sports bar where my boyfriend worked. Cocaine, Red Sox, grilled cheese. The good life and good times have vastly different definitions depending on your bank account and appetite. We made happy memories in Boston but initially I’d dreaded the process of living in the city. I knew how to handle myself but wasn’t up for the challenge. I wanted to be done with tenement housing and the hypervigillence it took to walk, sometimes run home. I guess I pictured school as a kind of marathon with an oasis of protection waiting across an imaginary finish line. Am I good enough yet? It was really about safety. The world kept saying almost. I was in my twenties but still hadn’t learned how to drive a car. Everything in me said quit, but there was no where and nothing to quit to. My mom and stepdad had moved to the south to start married life with in and out laws. The tiny liberal arts college where I’d planned on staying another year, closed. Colleges do that when administrators embezzle multi-million dollar endowments masked as construction projects leaving tenured faculty and students broke and homeless. We went out with a fight but it was the first time in my adult life I’d felt the full force, open-handed slap of privilege. Someone’s power and greed had leveled an entire community. There’d be zero repercussion. I’d experienced bad things before but I thought it was because I was stupid and worthless. Now I saw it happening to good people for no good reason; what did it take to be safe in the world? As a joke my friends gave me a helmet to wear on highway drives. I’m either sensitive or not immune to complex trauma; probably a universal truth but I think we’re given a different impression. Suck it up buttercup. Can I borrow your straw? Our Pride chapter organized protests. We chanted blatant, resounding truth as a unified body vibrating 300 year old buildings so loudly, we woke up ghosts. The living would not yield. Our awakened mass was no match for the power of money. You can scream facts at the top of your lungs till the cows come home but if you don’t have mainstream wealth you’re mute. Mainstream wealth isn’t limited to the almighty dollar. From what I can tell it’s a secret club involving patio furniture, different rooms for different activities and maybe extreme sports. I’m still trying to figure it out.
At first I thought it was amazing to even apply to school, as if that alone were limited to some other, more special kind of person. I used to think the same thing about shopping at Whole Foods, like an alarm might go off if I went in. The question of personal worth and value kept popping up and seemed to be based on appearance. I thought there was some intrinsic betterness living inside people who had certain things or abilities; longer fingers, smoother feet, visible confidence, regular dentist appointments. Society’s labels had nothing to do with character so then, going to college just felt like some expensive chore to afford a certain amount of alrightness; an armor against various dangers. Instead there’s an unspoken code that says you must pay this much to ride this ride. The cost of admission doesn’t come with proprietary info on navigating the culture of privilege. I don’t get it is a different sentiment from I can’t even. My family had no clue what the acronym FAFSA stood for, so I forged required signatures. Income? Poor. That part was financial fact. Father’s income? I was told to write unknown. A forgivable technicality. Regardless, I’m paying my debt. In America and certain religions, you pay your way out of or into classifications of access, protection and rank. Kind of like assigned seating. How well do you know the bride and groom? That’s how close you get to sit to the cake. We’re taught that grace, grit and gratitude are the true vehicles of ascension but if you want to eat well, be warm and sleep in your own dry bed, get after it. Bonus points for enthusiasm.
The first day of college I felt misplaced. At the end of freshman year those who identified as Fighting Squirrels, our mostly vegetarian pacifistic mascot, stayed and everyone else transferred to what they considered “a better school”, like dating a person because you think they’ll get you somewhere. Graduate school was a lesson in gild by association. I was starting to understand that some people purchasing advanced degrees would get to run companies and make important decisions based on unchallenged assumptions simply because their great, great grandfather made a good business decision two hundred years ago. The rest of us would get a statement of interest, as in the best interest of Sallie Mae. I walked out of the entrance interview crying. My mom was waiting for me at Pizzeria Uno down the street. To her credit, she was with me at the threshold of both school acceptance processes, probably to ensure her swift kick punted me in what she thought was the right direction. Why are you crying? I know I got in. Foot the bill, ok. Fit the bill, not exactly?
My best girlfriend left the island after college to pursue her music career in California. She’s the kind of friend stitched to your heart for life who can call you out of the blue after months and you pick up wherever you left off. When we met she told me she thought I was a skinny, stuck up bitch because I was introverted and ‘pretty’. One day after school I was sitting on the floor waiting for a late bus. She came bounding around a corner, sat down next to me and started singing James Taylor’s You’ve Got a Friend. I burst into tears because that’s what hormonal teenaged girls do. It made us both laugh. We told each other our life stories over a first edition of Our Bodies Ourselves wrapped in a patchwork quilt her mom had made before she’d passed away. Our grandma’s bought us knitted flower sweaters from the same company; Shenanigans. We committed to dressing much cooler. I dare you to wear cut-off’s. There was also something about a mutual boy crush gone sideways. And we probably smoked pot out of some bone she found hiking. Eat this apple and you won’t smell when you go home. May, I’m freaking out!
She called me from San Diego; It’s a game, Liz. I’ve lost 15 lbs. and have no address. There’s no such thing as a day off. It’s not even about music anymore. While I was navigating academia she was writing albums, yet we traded similar stories of compromise and crossroads. When push came to shove I’m proud to say my friend chose integrity over selling out. She’s mastered the art of the humble hustle maybe to a fault, quietly working in a legendary shadow for well over a decade. Her career is inspiring to me but it’s not social sanctioned success; there’s only a handful of professions deemed special or great as part of maintaining an unspoken status quo. The by-product of which is this toxic triangulation of assessment and rank; bully, rescuer, victim. No one wants to be seen as a bully so narcissists disguised as saviors are running amuck, attracting unsuspecting codependents with magnetic magnanimity or some other attractive lie that holds a protective promise. Two vulnerabilities orbiting each other till there’s a celestial collision. The other Big Bang theory. There’s this one famous couple right now you might recognize, but I don’t want to maim names. Sustainable, legitimate autonomy appears out of reach at first. There’s a reason we stampede over each other striving for an imaginary infamy attempting to out-victim, out-bully or out-save the next headline-making angel, hero or martyr. I’ve mentioned it once or twice. It’s the candy everybody wants; LOVE. The foundation of non-violent societies is the eradication of falsely glorified achievement. There. I said it. The problem is falsely glorified achievement is the foundation of western civilization. Can I say that? It also goes by the name unearned privilege aka Social Norm. Hi Social Norm! How come no matter what we do it’s not enough even though you keep saying it will be? Social Norm tells us our value is derived from our degrees, the desk we sit behind or the things we buy at a department store. Why couldn’t those be experiences we can have rather than markers that define us? I almost forgot derriere, I hear bums are a hot commodity.
THE CULTURE OF NARCISSISM
excessive or erotic interest in oneself and one’s physical appearance.
PSYCHOLOGYextreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one’s own talents and a craving for admiration, as characterizing a personality type.PSYCHOANALYSISself-centeredness arising from failure to distinguish the self from external objects, either in very young babies or as a feature of mental disorder.
It was a distinct smell on hot days climbing the steps from the Red Line up to Harvard Square. Acid green spikes, wallet chains and social subversion. They took baggies of dog shit and rubbed it across the railings and rims of wrought iron trash barrels sending a subtle, creative message. Your fancy school is full of it. In the perceived absence of power, acceptance and control we resort to violence. Restricting access and replacing it with systems of exclusivity is dangerous. Peace is the exchange of labels born of ignorance and fear with compassionate understanding and trust that there’s enough love for everyone. The door to that building is never locked. Christopher Lasch wrote a big book in 1979 called The Culture of Narcissism. I could only bare to read parts of it. While it may be true we’ve continued to see a pattern of obsessive often destructive selfism have we ever stopped to ask or consider why? Jeanne Twinge wrote a more recent book on the same subject. I haven’t read that either but it seems unfair to diagnose a culture without acknowledging what we might be doing, intentionally or otherwise, to perpetuate the trend. For instance, maybe baby bumps weren’t meant to be status symbols or fish hooks. Admitting fault can be transformational if it’s served with apologies, forgiveness and change. Finding the why is like getting honey; we might get stung a couple of times while reaching for the truth but then, life is sweet. We have a tendency to focus on symptoms without defining a cause, often because of the risks involved with going in. I’m pen pals with a woman who keeps bees on the other side of the world. The more we write and share our experiences the more we discover parallel hurts, wants and needs. Sadly, Christopher died of a broken heart on Valentine’s Day at the age of 61.
The absence of love, safety and understanding creates a hunger, sometimes called the empty mirror. It’s hard to distinguish one’s self from objects or achievements if we’re invisible. When we feel invisible, we might try to go big or go homeless in an attempt to be some thing to someone usually as a way to have power or feel safe. It can become a fierce competition. If you took a snapshot of America in this very moment what you might see is each of us across a spectrum of those two extremes; like a family reunion photo on field day. Across the extremes is a game of social tug o’ war probably with a giant velvet rope. The big secret is: drop the rope. Cutting family ties sounds scary. Fighting is one way to stay connected and feel like we belong, but it takes alot of energy. Dropping the rope is how we say no to violence, dysfunction, addiction, fighting, ignorance, judgement, blame, shame, guilt and say yes to love, truth, forgiveness, freedom and peace. There’s room on my picnic blanket. We can be no-buddies.