Tuesday, December 10, 2013

In Defense of Millennials

One effect of working for 25 years in an job dominated by twenty-somethings is that I keep getting older while my co-workers stay the same age. When I first entered the job force in my teens, I was a Gen Xer surrounded by older Gen Xers. In print, we were touted by the Boomers as cynical, hopeless, frustrated and unmotivated, over-educated, underemployed, and yes, selfish. Ah, but time is a great equalizer. We have grown from bored, philosophical convenience store clerks and angsty Nirvana concert-goers into a generation that is widely characterized as happy, free thinking, balanced, family oriented... and hard working. Yet Gen X seems to have forgotten that we were once on the offensive, and are ourselves leading the attack on the new kids, tearing them down in print articles with titles like The Millennial in the Basement and A Generation of Idle Trophy Kids.

The Millennials. Gen Y. The Trophy Kids. The Me-Me-Me Generation. The Selfies. Everyone feels like the most important person in the room. Paris Hilton, Lindsey Lohan, famously famous for being brats. Rhetorical articles cite analyses which conclude that Millennials are far less inclined to be civic minded, and more apt to possess a delusional sense of entitlement. They are hastening the end times through laziness and self-absorption! Word on the street is that 30 is the new 18, that Millennials are too self-involved, too entitled and too lazy to go out and work. They're waiting in their helicopter mamas' houses for the trophy to land in their laps, the way it did after every pee wee soccer tournament of their youth, regardless of performance. I've read multiple articles in the last weeks about the narcissism of an entire generation, and while I agree that it makes for amusing copy, and maybe it is true in the wealthy suburbs of the Big City, I can't agree that it has been my experience.

I am a Gen Xer surrounded by Gen Y and I can attest that, though it may sometimes come in response to a nip on the haunch from an Alpha, these puppies are as hard working as any I've seen. Also, I find them to be creative, industrious and very, very sweet. Maybe things are different on the coasts. Maybe what I'm seeing is the product of a lengthy lineage soaked in Mid-Western ethic. Nevertheless, I'm going to take a crack at unraveling the blanket of myth that 6 million twenty-somethings are sitting around their parents houses snapping pictures of themselves in $200.00 vintage jean jackets.

Millennials Think They're Special Because of All Those Trophies
Sure, some of them. But I thought I was special when I was twenty-five. I was smart and pretty and got a lot of validation from people about how smart and pretty I was. So I felt smart and pretty and special, and I'd never gotten a single trophy in my whole life. But I was special. Still am special (somewhat less smart and pretty, those decay a bit with age). So's everyone else. Everybody is special. Everyone is someone to somebody. Including Paris Hilton (maybe not her, actually). I suspect that the Millennials, more than any generation before them, are aware that everyone is special. After all, everybody got the same damn trophies. Sort of takes the luster off your own. The argument that we ruined 6 million kids with cheap plastic trophies is stupid. They didn't even keep them. They knew when they lost.

Millennials Are Not Civic Minded
And when we were twenty, we were all out crusading to save the world, right? I remember when I was twenty-one and I spent that summer campaigning for Prop Blahblahblah. Wait... No. I didn't do that. I occasionally wondered what I was going to do with my life (wasted time, I'm still a waitress) or which boy I was going to chase after (no matter, he got away). Semesters at school flew by so quickly and there was work and there were new bands to see and beers to try. It's even harder for these poor Gen Yers. We expect them to know which products are fair trade and what foods are sustainably sourced and then we make fun of them for not knowing about good wine!?

Jesus. Lighten up a little, man.

Do you understand the absolute mess that these guys have exposure to? They are painfully aware of the mess they're inheriting. We Gen Xers, with our breezy internet-free adolescence and early adulthood, we had to go out and buy magazines and newspapers if we wanted to know how fucked everything was. New kids would be like: what is this black shit all over my fingertips?? The Millennials are under a constant inundation of negative information. A barrage of ink-free headlines every day comes across their twitter feeds: drastic climate change, bloody conflict in countries that don't seem so far away anymore, daily murders in every city in America, massive food and water shortages, people doing horrible things to each other, environmental destruction at the hands of corporations... where exactly do we expect them to start? I'm sure many of them will get around to their own private crusades, just not necessarily in their mid-twenties.

Millennials Can't Face Adulthood
The image of the hipster evading the work force, compiling his Spotify playlist while surrounded by PBR cans in the posh basement apartment beneath his mom's kitchen is one of the more common projections of the recent articles I've read that criticize Millennials. I haven't met this guy. I guess he just stays there in the basement. The twenty-somethings that I work with do just that. They work. Some of them work damn hard. Some of them work damn hard while they're still in school. Some of them work damn hard and then play damn hard the rest of the time. Yeah, maybe some of them don't work all that hard, but I'd say the proportion is perfectly relative to the co-workers of my twenties.

First, consider that the job market is way, way softer than it was in the 90s, a decade that saw the unemployment rate drop to 4%. Today we're supposed to be grateful to see it at 7%. These kids are stepping out on the street with their (sometimes very expensive) diplomas in hand and looking around at a work force that can't make room for all of them. I've watched many of them step way, way outside the box, starting their own ventures, scraping to capitalize on their talent and potential in a market that doesn't cushion them from cold reality. I've seen them keep their heads down and work hard.

Also consider that the parenting fads that dominated these kids childhoods encouraged parents to hold their hands and provide non-stop cheerleading at every freaking milestone, no matter how mundane. I read a lot of parenting books when my oldest kids (who are themselves at the tail end of the Millennial age range) were little, and they all pushed for parenting that would set my kids up for academic success, priming them to feel confident through academic achievement. There's nothing wrong with that, but academic success doesn't necessarily translate to life skillz, and there's a lot to learn outside the classroom. I ditched most of those books and followed my own maternal compass, which told me that I don't care how well they perform on tests. I just want them to find an author or two that they love. And I don't care if they perform at the top of their second grade class, but I want them to tie their shoes by themselves. And I don't care if they get into an ivy league school, but I do want them to be able to be able to write a paper and do a load of laundry in the same 24 hour period without having a breakdown from having so much to do. Because guess what? Someday, even if they're fucking rocket scientists, they are going to come home to a stack of bills and field trip permission slips and a bathroom floor full of wet towels and a refrigerator that is emitting a strange odor from one of the two dozen containers of leftovers in there (hint: start with the broccoli) and they're going to have to know how to handle that shit. It's my job to teach them how, and I can't do that with flashcards.

Anyway, there was a whole movement of suburban parents who weren't worried about all that in the 90s. They were like, put your baby in this Bjorn and don't put it down until it goes to college. And then in 2012 some of those kids were like, oh shit, I got great grades, but there are no jobs for people who majored in Bards of the Renaissance at Fancy Pants U, and I don't know how to do anything. Can I trade this Adderall for some Zoloft? I'll be in the basement if anyone calls.

If that scenario is playing out by the millions, as we're led to believe by hysterical Millennial-bashing journalists (psst, it's not), if twenty-somethings are taking their moms along to job interviews and seeking medication for depression and anxiety because they can't handle conflict or wash a plate or think for themselves outside a scantron, then it is the fault of well-intended but seriously misguided childhood development publications of the 90s. (My best advice is to go ahead and take the straps off the Bjorn now and teach them how to do laundry. They're probably more capable than they know.)

But I don't see it. I work with Millennials who handle multiple responsibilities without melting down. They work, some have two or three jobs, some go to school, some occasionally volunteer, and most of them still find time to get scandalously wasted and laid with decent frequency... from what I hear.

Millennials Are Obsessed With Themselves
(SO WHAT? They're pretty. Let them be.)

A couple months ago I held a baby food and diaper drive for the local assistance center. Millennials showed up with packs of diapers and cans of formula by the score. To my knowledge, none of them took a selfie on my porch of themselves making a donation. They quietly dropped off dozens of contributions for people they will never meet, and who will never be able to thank them personally or give them a trophy. That's not self-obsession. That's concern for hungry babies. For a generation of people who only care about themselves, I see an awful lot of Millennials encouraging and validating others. And not just Oh My Gawd, I loooove that headband... They ask me about my kids, my this and that, where I've been, what I saw there... things that have nothing at all to do with them.

Okay, some of them talk about themselves a whole lot, but again, not disproportionate to the norm.

Every generation looks upon the next with an air of suspicion: What if they screw it up? Oh God, I just know they're going to screw it all up. It's hard to let go. Between the lines of every essay that talks trash on Millennials is:  I'm stomping my feet, I don't want to pass the torch of youth and vigor on to those dim-witted clods in tight pants who listen to such stupid music. Take heart, Gen X. They said that about us, too. It makes us sound like a bunch of cranky-pants old people, you complaining about 6 million kids like that. It's not constructive, you shouting Get Off My Lawn! in The Boston Herald. We're not exactly washed up. I agree that youth is wasted on the wrong people. Hindsight being what it is, my own youth was squandered on a wishy-washy redhead who might have forseen the consequences of rising corporate globalization if she hadn't been so self involved. But I wouldn't take that away from her. And I won't attempt to strip it from the Me Kids, either. We were once the Me Kids, we just didn't have camera phones to prove it.

In conclusion, I think that I should have a trophy for no reason, since I never got one. A golden trophy. With my own face on it, except without the wrinkles. A golden trophy engraved with my face if my face had no wrinkles. And just go ahead and fill it up with good wine.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Prodigal Son Test

"Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you." Thank you, Joseph Heller. Catch-22 has always been a favorite of mine.

Just as true is this: "Your mind is working at its best when you're being paranoid. You explore every avenue and possibility of your situation at high speed and with total clarity."  That's Bansky. I would only add that a paranoid mindset under the influence of a couple glasses of red wine heightens my clarity to near brilliance, sharpens my mind like a perfectly cut diamond. Rather, that is what the wine tells me.

Bansky also said "We can't do anything to change the world until capitalism crumbles. In the meantime we should all go shopping to console ourselves," which brings us to today's Buttered Toast.

Today the American Legislative Exchange Council began a three day conference to discuss their agenda for 2014. If you don't know, ALEC is a conservative think tank whose gig operates under the auspices of furthering free-market policies while undermining public services... like education. Really, though, they're about maximizing corporate profit, and would like nothing more than the end of and/or privatization of public services... like education. Last April I wrote a piece titled Calling All Kansans!  In that post I discussed the introduction of a bill in the Kansas House which sought to prohibit state funds for any sustainable development. That asinine bill was predictably tossed out, but the fact that it was proposed at all (by an ALEC affiliated representative who chairs the House Energy and Environment Committee) was enough to raise more than one eyebrow about the influence ALEC has on our legislators. ALEC drafts "model legislation," then presses to see it into law.

Because they are "consultants" and don't identify themselves as a lobby, they are not taxed due to their 501(c)(3) charitable status. But make no mistake, ALEC is a lobby. A very powerful lobby. (Interesting side note: ALEC does so much actual lobbying that they've caught the attention of the IRS, and are in the process of setting up a sister organization called the Jeffersonian Project which would be classified 501(c)(4)...social welfare organization, to protect their money. If that don't beat the band! A group that is dead set on influencing policy that will disenfranchise millions of workers, unravel labor unions, defund public education, eliminate environmental regulations and redirect tax dollars in favor of billionaires and wealthy corporations: a social welfare organization.)

ALEC is Koch funded, and their primary objective is to wrestle power out of the hands of voters by influencing elections at the state level. Once they have their lackeys in place, they act as "consultants" to shape the face of legislation, state by state. Republican lawmakers seem to be the most common recipients of their wise direction. Weird, I know. Current members include Ted Cruz and Paul Ryan, who share matching lettermen jackets with alumni John Boehner and Scott Walker. Actually, I heard Paul Ryan had to borrow Boehner's jacket for the conference today because he mistakenly grabbed the wrong GTL bag when he left the 24 Hour Fitness before his flight. When he got to the hotel and unzipped it, he couldn't find his ALEC jacket, his Percocet or his copy of Atlas Shrugged anywhere. He borrowed Boehner's jacket, but he had to settle for some crappy Xanax from the front desk clerk.

I managed to secure a copy of the agenda for this week's ALEC conference. I didn't have time to make a copy, but today's itinerary went something like:

8:00 - Breakfast banquet with blahbity-blah from a middle-aged, pasty white keynote speaker

11:30 - Head circumference measurement and fittings for hooded cloaks

1:15 - Announcement of the raffle winner who gets to disembowel the virgin at the TGIFridays midnight sacrifice (I heard Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson bought 2,000 tickets. Dude is into the freaky stuff.)

There was also time allotted to introduce The Prodigal Son Project.

Hey, I was just yanking your chains about that stuff. Not the Paul Ryan gym bag stuff, that really happened. But I don't think they really have cloaks* or virgin sacrifices. The Prodigal Son Project, however, is real... and that's really what they're calling it. On the list of Prodigal Sons are the names of dozens of corporations who have suspended contributions to ALEC and in other ways distanced themselves from the organization. (*they probably do have cloaks)

Their reasons may vary, but it appears that ALEC experienced a sharp decline in corporate financial support and private membership following the George Zimmerman trial last year. One of ALEC's legislative models is the stand-your-ground law that got an armed man off the hook for shooting an unarmed teenager. Amid a flurry of public outrage surrounding Trayvon Martin's death, several companies discontinued their support of ALEC. I'm not supposing a definite correlation, maybe times was just tough for Pepsi and McDonald's and Walmart, but since those companies all reported growth in 2012... well...

So the Prodigal Son Project is ALEC's effort to reinstate relationships with the companies who have distanced themselves in the wake of a horrific incident that brought ALEC sponsored legislation, specifically that of gun owners' rights to shoot unarmed kids and Alzheimer's afflicted septuagenarians (if they can prove that they felt a little squeamish before they pulled the trigger) into a national spotlight. Corporations don't want to risk losing the support of our consumer dollars due to their affiliation with an organization that is associated with shady, closed door deals between lobbyists and lawmakers.

They are shrewd and clever and deliberate and cunning and truly harbor abhorrent selfishness, but I sense that they are at a point of weakness. The truth is that ALEC, which experienced a 17% rate of growth in 2011, saw a 3% drop in 2012 and another 9% in 2013. The first bits of sand are shaking out of the mortar, and I think they're pretty freaked out. Why else would they draft a form letter for all the attendees of this week's conference to take home, to fill in the blanks, and to beg for money from corporations who have dropped out? The letter, which asks for support for ALEC's State Reimbursement Fund, asserts that this fund "helps legislators understand the impact that state and national policies have on our businesses." In Marmalade Megspeak: this is the money we use to buy elections. Here's the kicker: they are targeting a group of businesses that you and I have tremendous influence over. Holler, bitchez... we got the dollerz, bitchez! And guess what? I can write a letter, too. And so can you. In fact, I can write a letter, right here, right now, and you can copy and paste that shit into an email and send it to every company on their list. And if we all did that, it would be a straight up kick in Chuck Koch's dentures.

Of course I believe that the best way to fight big business influence on government is by spending our money locally, with small businesses. A mere two days ago, I railed against the corporate takeover of Christmas and announced my boycott. For me, of all people, to encourage communication in the form of a Thank You to big business... well, I realize the perceived hypocrisy therein. I don't really care how I look. My ego is not at stake here.

Further, I'm not asking you to actually go out and spend your dollars with these people, I'm just asking you to tell them that you support their abstinence from corrupting the legislative process.

Here is the list of companies on the Prodigal Son Project list:

Arizona Public Service
American Traffic
Blue Cross Blue Shield
Yum! Brands
Procter and Gamble
Scantron Corporation
Scantron Corporation
Johnson & Johnson
Dell Computers
John Deere
CVS Caremark
Hewlett Packard
Best Buy
Express Scripts/Medco
General Electric
Western Union
Wells Fargo
Bank of America
Bristol Myers Squibb
Brown-Foreman Company
Publix Supermarkets
Conoco Phillips

I was going to compile all their email addresses for you, but most of them have a site you have to visit first and enter your name and email, because they're corporate people and they make everything too complicated. Besides, like I said, I've had some wine, and I don't want to screw it up and give you the address for the wrong pharmaceutical company. That would be embarrassing. I have a reputation for precision. But I wrote a quick note to each of them and it only took me a little over an hour to paste the following statement onto all of their pages:

Thank you for discontinuing your financial support of the American Legislative Exchange Council. It was wise of you to recognize that ALEC was using your donations to influence elections and affect legislation. I agree with you that is a poor business model to contribute to organizations that manipulate the American political process. I will continue to support your business as long as you are not affiliated with ALEC. 

Imagine the weight of these words if we all said them, and especially if we all meant them. Even if you only have time to send a message to one of them. Or maybe one a day? If these companies hear from consumers that we will take our dollars away if they fail the Prodigal Son Test and resume sponsorship of ALEC, I think we can motivate them to keep their distance. I know it's a hassle, but I really think it can work. So tell your friends. Tell everyone. Even your laziest friend. Your laziest friend can send an email.

Now go get em! Then go shopping.

Shop til you Drop -Bansky

Monday, December 2, 2013

My War On Christmas

I am declaring War On Christmas this year. Finally!

I’ve been leaning this way for a long time, albeit non commitally and without a proper label, but this year I’m resolute. I am launching rockets of indignant abstinence at toy corporations, dropping bombs of boycott on every cheaply produced hunk of plastic crap that the advertising machine tells my kids they need. I don’t care how well it was engineered, I don’t care if it promises that my kids will be more brilliant and creative (pfft...as if!) as a result of playing with it. Any product that was manufactured by an unfairly treated worker before it was shipped to a corporate chain to be stocked and sold by another poorly compensated worker is no gift at all, and is in fact a blight on the real notion of Christmas. The same goes for clothes, shoes, candy… you get the gist. My gift to my family and friends this year is to carefully research every gift that I purchase, to find out where it came from, who made it, and how well that person was compensated for their effort. I don’t want to sound preachy. I don’t want to alienate anyone who has not resolved themselves to the same choices. Of course I hope you’ll join me once you’ve heard me out, but I’ll love you all the same if you don’t. No soapbox, I’m just going to present my position and why I’ve come to this conclusion, and why I think it matters.

It’s no secret, I’m not a religious person. On the spectrum of complete atheist to devout follower of one deity or another, I fall somewhere in the territory of hopeful agnostic. Mostly, I’m hopeful that said deities, should they prove to exist, have a plausible Plan B to this human experiment. I guess I sort of doubt the viability of Plan A, because I read too much Noam Chomsky to be persuaded that it is going to work out well. But even if it can’t, or won’t, I really think it’s lovely here, and I’m attached to a lot of folks, so I’m eager to do what I can to improve and prolong the experience for all of us if possible. That’s not just about me, my family, my friends, my beloved. I feel it for everyone. There are times, often in the middle of a busy restaurant when I should be focused on some important task like fetching wine or toast, when I catch myself in the midst of the human melee and feel entirely connected to it. For a brief moment I see every person around me as a former infant who will die someday, and I feel genuine love for them. This results in a slight existential crisis that resolves itself as soon as someone pisses me off.

It’s the love that’s brought about my War On Christmas. If I understand the fable correctly, Christmas was supposed to be about the collective, right? Like, “hey whole entire world, rejoice, a savior is born unto us!” or something of the sort. Then some people were like, Cool, and some people were like, Nuh-Uh. But regardless of one’s position on the implications of Jesus’s birth, whether or not you believe he was the savior, none of it was about plastic. None of it was about promoting a consumer climate that undermined the collective and made the whole day about corporate profits.

Seriously, you guys, where did this come from?

That's a hot pink wallet with a big rhinestone cross on it. I see these everywhere lately. Isn’t that the symbol of your Jesus’s sacrifice for all mankind? Jesus, who walked around with no shoes on his feet and talked to people about love and compassion? You keep your money in that? I once saw an air freshener featuring Jesus in a crown of thorns, his eyes cast skyward in agony just above the words New Car Smell, and I thought that was pretty tacky, but this wallet thing is really gross! I have every confidence that the people who buy these mean well, they mean to share the gospel as they feel is their calling, but dude... this is about as prominent a symbol of the corporate manipulation of feeble-minded consumers as they come. I think for a long time the invisible wire between mysticism and consumerism went un-illuminated. I won’t venture a guess as to which end is holding up the other, but the two have become connected in such a way that no one is embarrassed by the symbol of sacrifice (by way of excruciatingly painful death) in gaudy rhinestones on, of all things, a fucking wallet. And we aren’t embarrassed either, at the atrocities played out against our neighbors for the sake of a toy that will be cast to the bottom of the toybox by New Year’s Day.

The engineering kit that I was considering as a gift for my five year old was made in China, most likely by a woman. She may not see her family, her mother and father, for weeks. She lives in the factory-town in a small dormatory where she falls asleep alone. Every day she wakes up and works in a room full of people like her. Each of them alone. She has no bargaining power, no rights. There is no collective voice, no union. Do I really want that in my daughter’s hands? Merry Christmas, and Fuck you, young lady who doesn't see her own kids so that I only had to spend $30 on a toy that you should have been paid $200 to make, but you probably only made about $3 that day.

The necklace I was looking at for my eleven year old is made of gold that was mined in Papua, by a national without an identity outside being an employee of the corporation that retains full control over his government. His country is not sovereign, they are owned by Freeport, a gold mining and manufacturing firm. Any protest, even peaceful protest, for safe working conditions and fair wages is met with incarceration. Do I really want that hanging around her neck? Merry Christmas and Tough Shit, 14 year old kid who had to go work in the mines because you were born into a country where your parents, indigenous people, have been marginalized to the point of near slavery.

I live in a town full of artisans. There is a musician, an artist, a crafter of something beautiful on every block. What a lovely gift that is for my sweet babies, to support this community of such abundant creativity. I bet if you look around your own town, your own neighborhood, you’ll find the same. I’m seeing this Christmas as an opportunity to be a part of the collective, rather than an excuse to undermine it.

Check this out:

My neighbor makes these! He harvests clay and molds these lovely creations and then fires them in a kiln he built his-fucking-self! I'm drinking a little brandy and cider out of this one right now. He makes cups and bowls and platters and the most lovely, utilitarian hand-potted stuff you can imagine. And we should all have them because they're super fun to use. (Seriously, if you want some of his stuff, let me know. Buy it, and I will ship it to you for free.)

And this:

A beautiful girl I work with makes these one-of-a-kind, gorgeous, hand-crafted earrings. And she's so cool that the cool probably gets into the leather and makes you cool when you put them on... I'll let you know. I can't think of a better gift than that for an eleven year old girl. There's a big sale this weekend in my town, and that cool girl and a lot of other cool girls are going to be there selling their handmade stuff for a fair price. I will be there with my dollars.

In a market driven economy, the consumer has, quite literally, all the power. The trouble comes in when corporate propaganda is disguised as harmless advertising and we are convinced that we need something that we don't. Then we put our powerful dollars directly into the pockets of the people who are influencing legislative policy to keep us from organizing as a collective. These same corporations are undoing labor unions and "persuading" our leaders to restructure the tax codes in their favor. And so it goes, round and round, most notably at Christmas, when we are too busy feeling nostalgic to pay attention to our dollars very carefully. Public relations didn't exist as a career until it was clear that the only way to control people in a non-dictatorial society was through mind-control. Now we have billions of dollars spent by corporations every year, researching our habits and playing to our weaknesses in an effort to squeeze every last cent. With the other hand they are squeezing every last breath of life from people in countries like China, Pakistan, India, Papua, who are mining and making the shit that keep us calm and quiet and make us feel like we own a little piece of the dream. Can't complain too much, after all, I do have an iPod...

This year those fuckers are not getting a dime from me. I can't think of a bigger gift for my kids than the ability to pay attention, to think critically, to question everything. I can't think of a better effort to make for them than to endeavor to bow out of the system that is designed to keep their voices quiet.

There will be presents. This year under the tree, they will find the fruits of artisans from our own community, whom I trust I have compensated fairly. There will be music and lessons in art and dance and sport, and candy and bright, pretty things, and we can talk about the birth of Jesus and the scared mama in the manger because there are still mamas giving birth in the dirt who don't have clean water or nutritious food, and no wise men are showing up with gifts and no angels are singing to the shepherds, and those women and babies deserve our attention. At the very least, they deserve our abstinence from a system that is keeping them poor. We are the collective.

And that is my War On Christmas.