The Benson and Hedges Bias

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My Honda CR-V in opal sage metallic

I am inclined to reflect on the past, and I have uncovered a benefit to looking backward: detecting bias. My recent post about Columbia House helped me identify another irrational preference. I considered how 70’s and 80’s magazine advertisements led me to imagine being grown up and smoking a particular luxury cigarette brand. When I looked at my car today, I realized that I had chosen a vehicle in the same color as that brand, Benson and Hedges Menthol. Thirty odd years after first seeing those cigarette ads and being awed by the luxury and minor hedonism shown in them, I still gravitate toward the color of that product.

When I picked out my car a couple years ago, I looked at its metallic sage green paint and thought it showed a bit of grace and indulgence against the chaos of this life. That’s the same thing I thought about Benson and Hedges Menthol back in the 70’s! I’d imagine smoking them on a penthouse balcony, safe from all the bustle on the city streets below.

That bias is fairly benign, setting aside that I did become a smoker. My taste for pale green did not lead me to exclude people or opportunities. When I painted rooms that color, I wasn’t letting that bias guide me at the ballot box, for instance.

Some biases can be self defeating, such as my presumption that I would be forever rotund. In the penthouse daydream of my youth, I’d picture myself as a semi-plump woman trying her best to look like Sheena Easton in pumps and a slimming black pant suit. I wore the self defeat of that I-will-always-be-fat bias every I went on many yo-yo diets. People have asked me how I memorized the calorie content of so many foods, and I tell them this information comes naturally to a person who has been on as many diets as Oprah has.

After I had surrendered completely to this problem, I had the lucky accident of delerium that showed me what I’d look like if I were a supermodel. This image of me without the extra weight busted that bias, and my weight was reasonable for the first time at age 40 (actually for the first time since I imagined that I’d grow up to be a heavy woman).

What you truly believe will come to pass. Once I reached the sometimes cold, hard reality of adulthood, I assumed that facing some adversity meant that I would always struggle. I would never prosper. Circumstance dared me to do better. I didn’t think I’d ever own a car that runs, let alone drive a CR-V the color of Benson and Hedges Menthol.

I’m also glad my youth gave me opportunities for biases that sweeten my perspective. When I was in grade school, I had a dear friend whose parents had a wall display full of political buttons of the past. The one I held most dear was the button that proclaimed, “Remember Harvey Milk.” I feel blessed that I learned about him when I was so young.

As the election approaches, I will take the time to learn more about the candidates, sniffing out what they really stand for as opposed to the biases they might be wearing to promote an empty brand image.

Eight or Twelve for a Penny: Columbia House Memories

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Some of my Columbia House bounty . . . I wish I could claim the cheesier titles were unsolicited selections of the month, but, alas, I cannot.

When I was a kid, I’d look over magazines and the Sunday paper, noting the trappings of what I’d imagine would make a perfect adult life. The lighter side of me would dream of building a country estate based on model homes depicted in the real estate ads. I’d imagine driving home up a winding lane in a MG convertible, wearing some smart outfit from Penney’s in a mail-order only color, eager to set up the filet mignon for dinner. The part of me that secretly rooted for Darth Vader plotted what kind of vices I’d choose in later days, so I also dreamed of owning a penthouse where I’d smoke Benson and Hedges and sip Riunite while listening to a hoarde of albums from the Columbia Record and Tape Club.

I was able to forego the indulgence of nicotine and alcohol for several more years, but I fell prey to Columbia House as soon as I felt I could write my address as well as an adult would. When I was 12, I taped a penny to the order form, checked off the box that declared I was at least 18 years old and waited for my box of tunes. By the time I actually smoked a Benson and Hedges (which tasted like minty dust instead of something worthy of Remington Steele, by the way), I had signed up for the deal four times, at least once under an assumed name. I was able to pay for these tapes and CD’s first with allowance money and later with minimum wage pay until the recoil of this scheme would hit me: the forgotten selection of the month billed at full retail. A collection agency pursued my alias by the time I was 14.

This scheme did not portend a life of crime. I did an online search on this topic and discovered that this scam was so widespread that the company factored such losses into its business model.

I will close this post with a few links to some articles on Columbia House:

Tiny House and the Decline of Leisure

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A 500 sq ft house in my town that predates the Tiny House movement by about 80 years

This weekend I read an exquisite article on the decline of free time by Stephanie Buck entitled “Our parents discovered leisure. We killed it.” In this essay, Buck reasons that the rise of hobby-based careers has eroded the peace we once enjoyed through pursuing leisure activities. Now that some people have made a living through their hobbies, there is a pressure to make a profit from such activities.

I am part of Generation X, and this article helped me make sense of several culture changes I’ve witnessed over the years. Back in my day, some of us went through a Peter Pan phase of sorts in which we hoped to eke out a living by writing novels or releasing albums on indie labels like Sub Pop. I don’t remember hearing that anyone was hoping to throw over a profession like teaching or engineering to sell cupcakes or fusion tacos for a living, yet these sort of dreams are widespread now. I think the Tiny House movement is related to the decline of true leisure, too. Let’s downsize to the point where one can leave a disliked job and live off a monetized hobby, and that hobby could be selling the story of building and living in as super small house.

I think the Tiny House movement does have value, but I also believe it’s strange that people are pressured into monetizing that experience by blogging about it, etc. Tiny House is crucial because in that movement we finally have an antidote for something we call McMansion here in the U.S., where people built 4000+ square foot homes based on mass-marketed building plans just because they could afford to do so. I think of McMansion as the terminal point of the conspicuous consumption of the late 20th century. Other signs of this sort of consumption were skin-tight Sergio Valenti jeans, watches with solid gold wrist bands and sports cars like the Mazda Miata that had little muscle under their hoods.

Someone needed to stop this mania for buying more and more just to show others one could afford to buy those things. While it is regrettable that there is now an expectation that one should profit financially from a hobby, at least we are moving away from the trend of consumption and spending as a measure of success. It is possible that my grandparents’ generation (born in the 1920’s) had it best in striking a balance between work, leisure and consumption. I think of my paternal grandpa in particular. He worked on the railroad, never drove a car and helped raise five children in a 846 square foot house. His hobby was carpentry, and he used that hobby not for profit but to help furnish his home and give gifts. When I look at the bookshelf he built for me and my siblings, I hope I live to see an era where his sort of life would be considered a great success.

The Script

When I was a student at Duke, I would hear intriguing things in passing, such as the weary looking fellow on the student bus recounting how he’d written a twenty page term paper in the hospital as he recovered from a collapsed lung. Another time I overheard a letter read aloud from a recent graduate who claimed that he’d been busy “translating the works of Martin Heidegger, planning a trip to Cameroon and writing a play in the middle of which the audience seizes the script and rushes the stage.”

In the intervening years, the thought of a play that opens the possibility of an audience coup has captured my imagination. It looks as if we are moving ever closer to the audience taking over the script of art, entertainment and even politics. The first hint was the spread of reality television, wherein the audience saw that so-called unscripted dramas could wield as much influence as the scripted dramas doled out by the usual Hollywood tastemakers. It didn’t take long for viewers to smell the insincerity and see that these unscripted shows were contrived, but I think that these shows have endured in popularity in part because they feature some improvisation of a select few who were once just part of the audience. Fans can still hold the hope of auditioning for an opportunity to write part of the script of a favorite show. For instance, knowing that it would not be impossible to win a reality competition series gives the audience more power than they had in earlier days of television, which suggested few aspirations aside from achieving the socioeconomic status of families portrayed in shows.

With the spread of social media, the line between the audience and the authors/producers has blurred so much that it can be difficult to distinguish between the two at times. I would guess that the audience still doesn’t have as much power as it seems. For example, the internet still talks about television more than television talks about the internet.

As for politics, I’ve seen more power shifted to the audience this year than in previous elections. Bernie Sanders’s supporters changed some of the script that is the Democratic Party Platform. Donald Trump seized the GOP script and rushed the stage all the way to the Republican nomination.

 

 

When the Heart Rules the Mind

GTR_(GTR_album_-_cover_art)I think it is possible that the human mind has a finite capacity for trivia and that this mind of mine approached its data limit long ago. My memory is so littered with things I recall seeing on early MTV or hearing on Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 that I am challenged in trying to commit more recent pop culture to memory. Perhaps this issue reflects a subconscious vote on quality rather than a deficit in my memory. If given the choice between learning the current Billboard charts and remembering that Prince helped write “Stand Back” by Stevie Nicks, I would choose Prince and Stevie every time.

Now that I am well into my 40’s, I worry that some of songs that rotated through my list of favorites over the years could be lost to the advance of time. What if I am one of the last people left that loved a particular song? I often think that the story of each of our lives is a dying language and that each of us should preserve that language by passing on our stories. The soundtrack of each life is a dying language of sorts, too.

One song that I loved and could be lost to time is “When the Heart Rules the Mind” by GTR. I can remember being thirteen years old and watching Alan Hunter introduce the world premiere of the video. Mom was watching with me and suggested that we record the video on VHS, despite that we hadn’t heard the song before. Since there was no such thing as video on demand in households back in the mid-80’s, my mom, my sister and I were in the habit of keeping a tape queued in the VCR to capture good music videos. It was like creating a 6 hour long mix tape of song videos and concert specials. My mom took the time to catalog all of these mega mixes, which ranks among one of the many reasons I believe that God smiled upon me by choosing my mom for me. “When the Heart Rules the Mind” was the first song on one of those VHS tapes, and she and I watched that clip many times, individually and together.

While the original video is full of mullets, Miami Vice style suits in tasteful British colors and somewhat ill-advised choreography, some aspects of the music itself stand the test of time, especially Steve Howe’s guitar solos. I recall that this band was a cross between a super group and a side project, since they supplemented the marquee guitarists (Hackett and Howe) with seasoned session players.  The band name GTR seems to imply that they were not a super group, for it seems that the band names of super groups are usually a collection of surnames, like Emerson Lake and Palmer, or an Americana-themed name, such as Damn Yankees or Traveling Wilburys.

Short of buying airtime to broadcast this song, I have done my part to buy it some more time in our collective pop culture consciousness. While this song may sound a bit contrived and a touch cheesy, I haven’t heard anything on Top 40 radio in decades that is on par with this tune. Back in 1986, this song reached 14 on the Billboard Hot 100. Nowadays thirteen year olds would not hear anything of this quality unless they dared to venture from the mainstream, and I’d guess that journey would likely lead to oldies rather than current songs.

Celebrity and Politics

I don’t like seeing celebrities endorsing or campaigning for political candidates. While I understand that entertainers have the right to promote political agendas just as the rest of us do, I do not care to know their party affiliations. The synergy of fame and politics must seem irresistible to both sides. The celebrity gets free publicity while the politician gets to piggyback on the “brand” of the celebrity. The goal may be to enrich the reach of both, but I think the effect has become the opposite. I can’t be the only one who is fed up with this phenomenon.

I am a lifelong Democrat, but I have not once trusted a celebrity endorsement of a Democrat candidate. It flies in the face of reason that the super-wealthy would expose themselves to higher taxes for the greater good of us all. The rich can afford to donate to whatever causes are important to them, and they are better able to enrich charities when they pay lower taxes. The involvement of celebrities in liberal politics just gives fodder to conspiracy theories that there is a so-called Liberal Elite. It looks genuine to no one.

Conservative politics has its fair share of celebrities as well, but this is fraught with its own problems. There is a cultural price to be paid for a celebrity who espouses conservatism, and then these folks are upheld as saints for the cause and ammunition against groups whose interest the right does not support. Now that I think of it, this last problem is shared by liberals too. I hate seeing memes with a celebrity picture and quote that insults the other side, no matter which side is the target. We do not need the words of celebrities to enforce our opinions. They are authorities on nothing but the experience of fame itself.

I want to see less celebrities in politics, unless they are serious enough to run for office. However, it is also not a good thing when someone runs a campaign powered by fame. Now I must give some credit to Ronald Reagan. He is the only celebrity I can think of whose rise in politics was grounded in experience and was true to his own interest.

The Fashion Fiasco of 1987

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By the time of my ninth grade Christmas, my parents had long given up the ghost of my belief in Santa and let me put a limited wish list on layaway at a discount department store. I chose four Beatles albums, some sensible tops and a pair of pleated plaid trousers. This was at the height of the high, tiny waisted pants era, and I was at my most vulnerable to the influence of teen fashion magazines like Sassy and Seventeen. Relying on my own taste alone, I had previously bought a hideous intarsia sweater that had the words “Ski Bunny!” knitted in black on a yellow background, so I was up for trying the styles promoted by such magazines. They had touted plaid britches as a back-to-school necessity, and it didn’t matter so much to me that I’d be four months late to that trend by Christmas.

I now doubt that anyone but a mannequin had a body suited for those pants, but at the time I felt that they were a mandatory indictment of my shape, one I deserved if I wanted to partake of future trends. Family legend has it that I was born shaped like an accordian. This isn’t entirely false. After losing considerable amounts of weight, I still look a bit like an accordian but with fewer folds.

The waist on the plaid pants was so small I had to choose a pair two sizes larger than usual, making me look as if I were wearing loud pantaloons. After opening them on Christmas morning, I wore them only three times. The first two times it seemed as if people were trying to see me without seeing the pants. I revisited the experience of being seen-yet-not-seen a few years ago when I went grocery shopping in a pair of Stewie lounge pants.

Dryer shrinkage had doomed the plaid pants by the third time I wore them. After struggling to button them, I sat down on the stairs at home to wait for my sister to finish getting ready for school. This was a day we were free from wearing our school uniforms, and all such days were an opportunity to show our fashion sense and flair for maximum big hair. All of the hair spray in the air made me sneeze, and the recoil of that sneeze ripped the button from my pants. As the button ricocheted off two walls, I was spared the infamy of having worn those absurd pants to school. I had already given others enough fodder for embarrassing nostalgia by wearing “Ski Bunny!” for class picture day and for my dateless appearance at that year’s Homecoming dance.

I have been relatively immune to fashion in the intervening years. Every year has an absurd, ill-fitting trend. Even though I have worn every size from 4 to 24 over the years, I still have not had the dimensions for easily finding clothes that fit well. I don’t know who the industry has in mind when their ever shifting sizes are created. I used to think that I had a hard time finding flattering clothes because I was overweight, but I’ve had the same problem at a healthy weight. I have the best luck buying clothes at thrift stores, finding nearly new apparel that didn’t fit someone else well enough.