Shopaholic!


Edward G. Nilges, “Aphrodite”, photo of Louvre sculpture with ink/pencil copy inset, October 2004

Sophie Kinsella’s novel Shopaholic is only a bit dated and funny as hell, a nice relaxing read on the MTR and Lamma ferry.

By the same rule that people generally say their ex wife or ex husband had major character defects, people will tell you they used to be in megadebt, never that they are in debt now. But my ex wife didn’t have major character defects, and I am in debt NOW. I didn’t buy dresses and shoes, of course, but the problem in Hong Kong is that English books are overpriced. I am now the proud owner of yet another Library of Alexandria as seen in the picture of me in my special shorts (which I don’t have to buy at an overpriced shop).

We don’t want to reveal what my fat pal Adorno calls the secret contour of our weakness relative to Lacan’s Big Other, which for the younger generation seems to have become capitaliismus. Nowhere is it implied in Kinsella’s novel that the heroine was the victim of predatory lending.

People in their early twenties, who in my day were living on the beach in Thailand, have to become “financial journalists” in London to pay student loans and credit card balances. My kid demonstrated against predatory lending to college students and hates debt, but still has to worry about loans, as far as I know. Of course, he takes after his Mom and is super organized so maybe he’s cleared the debt. He’s good.

The heroine’s job is uncreative and meaningless which has become the default for jobs today. It wasn’t in the 1960s world of Mad Men. Actually writing ad copy is hard, especially if you have to dictate it and get it typed. And art direction involved all sorts of Eleusinian mysteries such as “zip a tone” to add shading which are now completely out of date.

Of course, you can get into the mysteries of Photoshop, but one gets the sense in most jobs that such adventurous creativity is strictly optional or a negative once “procedures” have been decided upon. In Kinsella’s heroine’s case, really interesting financial journalism (say for the Economist) seems to involve an Oxbridge or Ivy League education which the heroine does not have, but the actual demand is for “journalists” to go to conferences, drink, and take press packs packed with bullshit.

My experience was pretty much the same in software, and writing about software. My book “Build Your Own .Net Language and Compiler” was published in 2004 by a small house in Berkeley, but this startup, which was incubated by Springer, has now been folded into Springer, and I do not think Springer’s editors would have been as patient (or as competent) as my editor at Apress.

Instead, just as in Kinsella’s heroine’s case, the business is probably bifurcated into superstar “top” authors who are able to be creative as long as they are so in a predictable way, and authors from whom nothing much is expected.

This lack of meaning on the job makes people shop to fill the hole. I joined Rainier Bank in Seattle in 1986 because they said they wanted someone to write a business rules compiler, but after I started, I realized that my actual supervisor wanted to do anything but manage such a risky effort.

Instead, he wanted us to produce a series of “white papers” about how great things would be. I’ll never forget the silly way in which he would draw pictures in the air relating concepts such as “reusability” and “data driven”, not knowing of course a damn thing and an early victim of downsizing.

To put on a nice suit to walk through beautiful downtown Seattle to this became physically painful in short order. It did not help that this was when I met my very first homeless mother and child on the way to work: such sights had not been seen before 1986.

I’d go out at lunch, flush with cash, to Eddie Bauer and the then new Starbuck’s to spend money. We spend money to fill the hole.

A complete grand history of my total experience in the computer field, leaving nothing out now that I’ve left it, would make a nice if to some wearisome addition to this blog, but now is not the time.

We all love the heroine of Shopaholic and forget what Oscar Wilde said in The Ballad of Reading Gaol: each man kills the thing he loves. Her sweet vulnerability, lacking creative outlets on her job, expresses itself in shopping. Her real-life counterpart doesn’t get a TV job. Instead, she becomes my “Sara” in my poem “Sarabande”:

Sara lost everything in the fall
Like dead leaves,
So she now plays on the street
With a box that is set out so neat
She’s a one man band
Making her last stand
With a sarabande
She pawned her wedding band
Long ago in a foreign land
So this is Sara’s last dance
This, her Chinaman’s chance.

Edward G. Nilges 19 Sep 2009.

On her “hero’s journey”, Kinsella’s heroine meets essentially Hugh Grant and Colin Firth, for while she’s no Elizabeth Bennett, all British novels these days written primarily for women seem to be lifted from Jane Austen.

But how far have we really progressed from Regency days when a woman of “good family” could not inherit land and had to land, instead, a husband, and today, when so many people are enslaved to debt?

Oh yes, and I also went to Paris…three times. Air France has such good deals! And you at least fly over such storybook locations! Karakorum! The Tarim Basin! And then you become the Minotaur of the Louvre if you’re weird like me, copying the Greek sculptures and helping the Senegalese guards say ne touchez pas les Grisbe to the ignorant tourists!

The first two times were wonderful, but the third was a disaster. Paris was freezing in June, and the 5me Arondissement was haunted by mediaeval ghosts as well as by Starbuck’s and McDonald’s. I’d gone a third time against the better angels of my nature because my son had refused to see me and, like so many Shopaholics, I buy things and experiences to fill the sadness.

But, as Kinsella’s heroine says, it’s an investment! The books empower me as a tutor and my visits to the Louvre recharged me as an artist. The problem being that tutors tute without reading, as I’ve read, cover to cover, Loveland’s “[British] Constitutional Law, Administratve Law, and Human Rights” ($351.00 Hong Kong, Commercial Press), Wilson’s “Europe’s Tragedy: A History of the Thirty Year’s War” ($320.00, Dymock’s), Herring’s “From Colony to Superpower: US Foreign Relations Since 1776” (Amazon, USD 35.00).

Or most of the piece de resistance, The Princeton Companion to Mathematics, punching in at $961.00 Hong Kong and 123.00 USD at Commercial Press … and this baby will NOT help me prep students on SAT math…quite the opposite, if you use standard formal methods on the SAT math test you crash and burn. I learned much more from the books on law and history: from the Princeton Companion to Mathematics, I learned that I don’t have a snowball’s chance of contributing to mathematics.

But, “The Princeton Companion to American Politics”, clocking in at 299.00 HKD from again, the dear old Commercial Press on the Hennessy Road in Causeway Bay, was most illuminating. And I think I bought it on sale, because the Chinese people in Hong Kong need constant encouragement, unlike us Americans, to use their HSBC Visa cards: their well-honed instinct is to put it behind the Door God or under the Floor God for a rainy day, so HSBC is always authorizing 50% discounts if you use Visa in shops.

Well, it is true that this knowledge transfer makes me the life of the party (well, some parties) now that I don’t drink, because I find that I can prattle on engagingly with a variety of posh chaps in a variety of fields. I also had this experience when working at Princeton, and running into New York City to be sure to pay New York’s city and state sales taxes on books in the Big Apple, and help Albany and Gracie Mansion balance the books.

So it’s “six of one, half dozen of the other”: in Hong Kong I’m not getting book bargains as I would in the USA, but I’m not paying sales tax. People are being constantly told, in the absence of welfare and unemployment, to be smart and shrewd cookies and shoppers and to be ever clipping coupons or shaving coins, devil if I know. But Kinsella’s heroine knows prices for luxury goods like the back of her hand, and it does her no good.

The rich would prefer that her middling ilk, with her boring parents in the Midlands, which I guess is sort of like British Cleveland, dress in sack-cloth and ashes

Chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon

which was of course Duke Theseus’ plan for Hermia at the beginnning of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

But as American poet Emily Dickinson wrote,

The heart asks pleasure first,
And then, excuse from pain;
And then, those little anodynes
That deaden suffering,
And then, to go to sleep;
And then, if it should be
The will of its Inquisitor,
The liberty to die.

That is, redemption would be reconciliation of the childhood desire to let all the bunnies free with the patriarch who wishes to eat them. We root for the heroine of Shopaholic because there’s a part of us that wants “it” all. This part got full run of the American economy despite the hostility of people like my father who rightfully groaned, like Titurel in Parsifal, from their gravitas that it would trash the house and the earth to get all that “stuff”…while quietly making sure that they had a lot of “stuff” including those ridiculous 1960 Cadillacs.

Their own growing materialism, their use of a relatively primitive consumerism, whether in West Germany to avoid facing up to the Nazi past, or in my parent’s case dealing with their experience of the war, was something that made their homilies quite hollow.

We have to discover as I have recently (eg., not nearly soon enough) that we can spend entire days without spending a cent. Not seeking bargains, not saving coupons, none of those nasty, wearisome, and to me lower middle class activities. If you run and work out you look smashing in almost anything, and if you Paint, then all you need are art supplies…and when I returned to art I discovered that art supplies are much much cheaper than they were, relative to the overall cost of living, in the 1960s.

Painting means when you wake up and are not too self-critical, your newest version of your current work greets you as would a new purchase, but you don’t have to worry about the credit limit.

If I got a MacArthur Genius Grant, the IRS and the dear old Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank would take a goodly chunk, and there’s something about ripping off time to do art and to write from a real job that makes your art more authentic.

My ears still burn with the shame I felt over money when I was first married to the girl of my dreams. It seemed at the time that the Chicago Loop, the business jerks, while being so collectively approving of my aggressive and heterosexual conquest of a tall good looking female, were, after we tied the knot, anxious that I stay in my place in the class system of money.

Therefore, we (the shining ones) had to listen to “experts” on life insurance and cars tell us what was what, and t was all bullshit. I’d like to find the guy who told us that the Ford Granada was a good investment (I ask you, really: as the Pennsylvania Dutch say, too soon old, too late schmart). I got that stinker because a new employer told me I had to have a car to be a computer consultant, and wound up driving to clients in Hoffman’s Mistake and points east. I added an 8 track player since it had no radio.

But all is forgiven, Ford Motor, for your Escort was a sweet little car. I’ve owned three, and the first had again, no radio, and all were manual transmission.

And as to “buy a house”, if I’d stayed with my wife and we in that house, it would be under water today. And not just a little. That horror would have been in the Marianas Trench given its major structural defects and thirty years of my mess. She deserved whatever she got for selling it, and I claimed not a dime.

Which is why I thank the gods, the fates, the rulers of men and their destinies for those moments in the Louvre copying Aphrodite and making her just a little less fat and a little more Sports Illustrated Swimsuit, and days like today, when I don’t have to deal with “the horror!”: money.

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