Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas Magic

The Ghost of Christmas Past

I remember being a wide-eyed child, mystified by the magic of the Christmas season and losing myself in the overwhelming sensory experiences.  The glowing TV brought animated holiday specials into my living room where I sat with the sugary remnants of cookies still clinging to my teeth and the smell of fresh pine from a brightly-lit tree hanging in the air.  The anticipation, seeing that empty spot beneath the tree and wondering what colorful packages Santa Claus would leave behind, would leave butterflies in my stomach as I lay awake in the darkness of my room, peering out the window hoping to catch the telltale glow of Rudolph's nose in the cold winter sky.

As I slowly grew older, the magic began to wear off.  Driving out in the snow to pick out the perfect Christmas tree was no longer met with the excited passion that it once was, nor was decorating it.  No longer did I rely on the innocent dreams of Santa Claus to get me through those long nights before Christmas morning; rather, I would hope to get everything on the list I drew up for my mom.  I eventually stopped watching for Rudolph, and I no longer had the Pavlovian response to the sound of bells that I used to when I was convinced it was the sound of Santa's sleigh.

In my most recent years, Christmas has meant very little beyond driving back to my hometown and eating dinner with my family.  It went from magic and innocence to forced obligations and consumer guilt.  It was a gradual decline nearly 26 years in the making.  This year, however, is different.

The Practice Christmas

This year is my practice Christmas.  It's our first holiday season together in our new home, our last Christmas together before our baby arrives.  Compelled by this overwhelming urge to create a traditional base on which to build our celebrations for years to come, this Grinch heart grew three sizes and decided to celebrate Christmas again.

Our tree reaches the ceiling, decorated in bright lights of multiple shapes, sizes and colors and glittering, shining bulbs; the Nativity scene I remember from my childhood has a place of honor in my living room surrounded by pine garland and poinsettias.  Four stockings hang from the chimney, two red and two green, beneath a bough of pine, candles and a candy jar full of red and green M&Ms.  The kitchen and the bathrooms all have holiday-themed hand soaps, and random Christmas trinkets decorate the first level of our house.

Wanting desperately to draw on my own cultural background for traditions, I contemplated baking Polish favorites, but marathon baking isn't one of the traditions I'm quite ready for yet.  Gingerbread was on the docket, but I had to take into consideration the traditions of the rest of my family:  I can't bring cookies to our Christmas Eve celebration because I've tried that before and no one eats them, as they're all used to my grandmother's sweets spread and any deviation from the norm is sacrilege, and on Christmas day, the palate of my almost-five-year-old twin cousins is more suited to the Rice Krispies treats* and cake balls I decided to make.

This year, Americans will spend an average of $741.00 on gifts.  On Black Friday alone, the 212 million eager consumers that flooded retail establishments looking for bargains spent an average of $365.34 to a total estimated tune of $45 billion... in one day.  This is one tradition we shirked this year, and I hope we can continue to limit ourselves in the future so the true meaning of Christmas isn't lost in the bowels of the economy as it so often is.

We'll see how well I can keep that promise when my little girl starts staying awake at night to watch the sky for Rudolph like another little girl I used to know.

*I made traditional marshmallow squares, and a nice seasonal minty chocolate variation, as well!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Another Frivolous McDonald's Lawsuit

Personal Responsibility:  Sue Whoever You Want, You Still Won't Get It

In 1992, Stella Liebeck burned herself on McDonald's coffee.  The 79-year-old from New Mexico had the coffee sitting between her thighs when she removed the lid to add cream and sugar.  When she removed the lid, she spilled the coffee on her lap and received extensive scalding burns.  She sued McDonald's because their coffee was "too hot."

In August of 2002, the Pelman family of New York sued McDonald's for not disclosing their nutritional information plainly and clearly and causing their daughters to become obese.  Jazlyn Bradley, a 19-yr-old involved in the lawsuit, said that her regular diet included an Egg McMuffin in the mornings and a Big Mac meal at dinner.  Ashley Pelman had a taste for Happy Meals, and ate them three to four times a week.  Despite the obvious detriment to anyone's health that burgers and deep-fried potatoes cause, Bradley's father claimed "I always believed McDonald's was healthy for my children."

In 2003, Judge Robert Sweet in New York threw out a case brought by Ceasar Barber which also blamed McDonald's (as well as Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Wendy's) for his poor health.  He claimed that because of their food, he, as well as others involved in this class-action suit, suffered from high cholesterol, coronary heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

These three examples of lawsuits brought against McDonald's and similar corporations showcase the scapegoating that overly litigious Americans with no sense of responsibility turn to when they have no one to blame but themselves.

You Can't Be Trusted

Fast-forward to 2010 when, surprise surprise, San Francisco essentially bans Happy Meals from being sold in the city.  Requiring meals that include toys to meet specific nutritional criteria, specifically having less than 600 calories (35% or less of which from fat) and less than 640 milligrams of sodium, half a cup of fruit or three-quarters cup of vegetables, puts McDonald's and other fast-food locations in quite a bind.

On the surface, it's a nice noble gesture to protect children from obesity and marketing.  But when you dig deeper, it's actually a government regulation to protect children from what San Francisco believes must be horribly inept parents.  It's actually quite offensive when you stop to think about it.  What they think they're saying is:  We don't trust corporations to the do the right thing.  What they're really saying is:  We don't trust you to make the right choice.  The illusion of freedom isn't very comforting.*

Frivolity, Thy Name is Lawsuit

And that brings us to that other titular frivolous lawsuit.  Apparently, McDonald's is such a powerful force in the life of Monet Parham of Sacramento, California, and her two children that she essentially needs a restraining order because she just can't function as long as McD's is in her life.  (As tempted as I am to draw a correlation between the fact that she works for the bankrupt state of California and is probably looking at a lay-off and the timing of her lawsuit, I won't...)

"We have to say no to our kids so many times and McDonald's makes that so much harder to do. I object to the fact that McDonald's is getting into my kids' heads without my permission and actually changing what my kids want to eat."  The lawsuit continues by suggesting that McDonald's is engaging in sleazy, illegal marketing techniques and that they have a responsibility to essentially parent your children.  They compare McDonald's to tobacco companies, the latter of which can't market to children.

Let's take this one step at a time:

Saying No.  Saying no is part of being a parent.  If McDonald's of all things is making that hard for you, your issue is much larger than a toy being sold together with a cheeseburger.

Marketing Without Permission.  Most people who are presented with McDonald's marketing experience it in their own homes on television.  When you plop your kid in front of a TV set, you give McDonald's, as well as a slew of other companies, permission to advertise to your child.  It is your responsibility to monitor what they come into contact with, not the advertiser.

Sleazy, Illegal Marketing Techniques.  They equate what McDonald's is doing what tobacco companies are not allowed to do.  Fast food isn't illegal; smoking under the age of 18 is.  I shouldn't even need to clarify how completely different these two things are and how one clearly isn't illegal.  Oh, unless you live in San Francisco, of course.

Corporations Parenting Your Children.  It's not their job.  That's your job.  If you don't want your child eating a Happy Meal, you don't drive them through McDonald's.  It's that simple.

It's Common Sense, People

You don't put a flimsy paper cup full of scalding hot coffee between your thighs and expect it to be stable. You don't eat cheeseburgers and deep-fried potatoes every day and assume you're going to be healthy.  You don't feed your kids food you don't want them to eat.

When will people stop blaming everyone else for their own shortcomings?  Do we all really need to be paid indecent sums of money for being incompetent at taking care of ourselves?

*Thankfully, and surprisingly (though maybe not surprisingly; California has a record of ignoring votes), Mayor Gavin Newsome vetoed the bill in November.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Sarah Palin's Caribou-boo?

Sarah Palin's Alaska

As if former Governor of Alaska and failed vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin's life wasn't already like a reality show unfolding before us in the news, she now adds to her repertoire of media showmanship an eight-episode travelogue on TLC that documents what is presented to us as typical Alaskan life.

"Sarah Palin's Alaska" set a network record when it debuted to an audience of five million.  The second episode wasn't so lucky, seeing a whopping forty percent of viewers turn away.  Not only does the show have to compete with Sunday Night Football, but it also competes with the general anti-Palin atmosphere that hangs over a large portion of the American audience.  With their curiosity sated, people just stopped watching, except those in the "over 57" age bracket, who now make up most of the 3 million people who still watch the show.

Admittedly, the show is boring.  There is no real discernible plot, nothing that carries one episode to the next, and the gaping holes left where there should be charm, character and warmth are instead stuffed with dramatically dragged-out family interactions and what look like stock aerial shots of Alaska's unique landscape.  Throw in a political quip here and there, a moment or two of real human emotion and Sarah's constantly impeccable "prom hair" (as Sarah's daughter, Bristol, puts it in one episode) and the show is pretty much what you expect it to be.


The largest animal rights organization in the world with over two million members, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is a media machine in its own right.  Boasting a sizable repertoire of celebrity supporters and a nearly $35 million dollar budget, they manage to reach hundreds of thousands if not millions of people a year with various campaigns, advertising and through their members' personal outreach.

Ingrid Newkirk, founder and president of PETA, combines mainstream guilt with radical activism nearly seamlessly, preaching that "animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, or use for entertainment" and aligning with radical terrorist groups like the Animal Liberation Front while simultaneously marketing her ideas to children with wide-eyed cartoons and internet games.

The Clash

Because of Sarah Palin's penchant for putting animals in her sights, PETA has put Palin in theirs.  Referring to her in 2008 as the "moose-hunting, fur-wearing, pro-aerial-wolf-gunning governor of Alaska," PETA pretty much marked her as the enemy and while never really attacking her politics, she has been fair game for ridicule ever since.

Take, for instance, the most recent episode of "Sarah Palin's Alaska."  Sarah and her father travel to the arctic circle to hunt caribou, a large game animal used as a food source for many Alaskans.  Despite several fumbling attempts behind the trigger and a few errant bullets, Sarah manages to proudly bag one.

This same scene happens nearly 22,000 times a year in Alaska when families who have limited access to grocery stores, and therefore limited opportunity to partake in the $142 billion-a-year meat market, make the perilous trek to the frigid northernmost reaches of the state to put true free-range, organic food on the table.  You'd think an organization committed to ending the cruel practices involved in factory farming would be able to appreciate, at the very least, that the animals hunted for food aren't treated cruelly at all in their lives until that final day.

However, PETA's Vice President Dan Mathews released this statement yesterday:

"Sarah seems to think that resorting to violence and blood and guts may lure people into watching her boring show, but the ratings remain as dead as the poor animals she shoots."

You could easily rephrase this to read:

"PETA seems to think that resorting to nudity and celebrity endorsement may lure people into joining their ranks, but their membership still consists of less people than those who watch Sarah Palin's Alaska."

Marketing to the carnal side of humanity, whether sexual or violent, isn't new and to attack another for utilizing a similar technique is a textbook example of hypocrisy.

Frankly, PETA is out of touch with the reality that exists between New York City and San Francisco, in spirit if not in geography.  People have hunted to sustain themselves since time immemorial, and while many of us now have access to chewy blocks of tofu at our local Whole Foods Market (many of whom still don't eat it), this just isn't an option for others.  At trying to deny reality and keep its followers in a shadow of idealistic ignorance, PETA excels.

Sarah Palin, of course, has her own faults that could (and have and continue to) fill entire blogs if one was so inclined.  However, in this respect I have to commend her for giving people a glimpse of a life in a harsh land that they might not otherwise see, regardless of what it entails.     

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Facebook Phenomenon

Raising Awareness - A Half-Assed Approach to Curing the World's Ills

White.  Not that it's any of your business.
Yellow... but it wasn't when I bought it!
Black and lacy.  Rawr!
Non-existent.  Woooooot!

Thanks to Facebook and the tireless efforts of women across America typing fiercely on their keyboards to update their status with the color of their bra, breast cancer has been eradicated.  Okay, maybe not, but at least the Susan G. Komen Foundation and other breast cancer-related charities took in record numbers of donations.  Well, that's not entirely accurate.  Let's just say all those status updates, all those little black letters sent into cyberspace, at least raised awareness... of bras.

It's what I call the Facebook Phenomenon:  The ability of a social networking site to make otherwise apathetic people feel like they care about a cause and are doing something to help.  Every one of those little status updates makes one a member of A Movement, however brief and inefficient said movement is, and satisfies the ego temporarily.  "Raising awareness" is the typical phrase used to justify the lemming behavior of the Facebook activist.

Raising awareness can be an important first step toward advocacy of any kind, as you can't work to fix a problem you're unaware of.  However, "raising awareness" is only effective when it actually educates people and gives them a reason to care about the cause.  This never actually occurs in Facebook memes.

"Red polka dots zomg!!!!111!!!!!1!!" versus "Breast cancer is the most frequently diagnosed non-skin cancer in women.  The older you are, the higher your risk.  Be sure to schedule a mammogram!"  Guess which one the copy/paste messages sent to women encouraged them to post?

The breast cancer thing is gone and done with, left as quickly as it arrived.  It was fun for a little while.  It made a brief comeback when women were encouraged to post where they like to put their purse (which raised awareness of sexual innuendos and how perverted our friends can be, yet again missing the entire "breast cancer awareness" mark).  But where one fad takes leave, another must take it's place.  Let's now say hello to cartoon characters.  I mean, child abuse.

Another Facebook Failure

The basic status reads something like this:  "Help join the fight against child abuse!  Change your profile picture to your favorite cartoon from your childhood!  Copy and paste this status.  The goal is not to see a single human face through December 6."

Let's ignore the fact that Child Abuse Awareness month is April and that cartoons from my generation were primarily violent, which of course would be counter-productive.

Let's focus instead on how much time people spent Googling images of cartoon characters instead of Googling local child abuse advocacy groups; let's focus on how many conversations revolved around the merits of Ren & Stimpy and how cartoons have changed since we were young instead of how many conversations revolved around signs of abuse and who to call if you suspect someone you know is being abused.  Let's focus on the omission of facts and statistics, but the addition of several YouTube videos of cartoons from the 80s.

Today, Child Abuse.  Tomorrow... Who Knows?

The five-minute humanitarian on Facebook knows deep down that their efforts are accomplishing absolutely nothing.  Some of them are even embarrassed, changing their pictures so they're not left out but quickly justifying it with lame excuses when rational people question the merits of Facebook fads and their ability to actually make a difference.

Some of them are even more annoying, as this anonymous poster can illustrate quite well:  I think that it helps raise awareness to the cause and that people can make a difference. I have contributed, I have worked with children in an emergency abuse and neglect shelter, and I am now a CPS worker (how many people will hate me solely because of that?), and I still proudly put that as my status to raise awareness and inform others-the sense of nostalgia had not really crossed my mind.  In this case, this handy little fad gave this person a soap box upon which to stand and raise awareness of... well, herself.  I'd love to go on about the blatant ego stroking ("I expect to be hated for all my tireless efforts"; "Oh, I didn't even realize this hinted at nostalgia... ... ...") but that's a whole different blog.

So, the question is:  How many times can we replace the phrases "breast cancer" and "child abuse" with other issues before people realize that it really doesn't matter, and that they'll return to blissful ignorance once again when the Facebook updates run their courses?  How many people will be gung-ho about the temporarily-hot button issue for a week before returning to posting YouTube music videos and pictures of their pets?

If you didn't care before, posting a picture of Fred Flintstone or Jem isn't going to suddenly make you care now.  But of course, you care about everything, right?  Just need that little reminder once in a while to make sure everyone knows.  The Facebook Phenomenon will be there for you with the next fad, ready to pat you on the back and say, "You done good, kid."  I wonder what it will be.