The Siren Songs of wealth; 10 reasons to tie yourself to the mast, and forget about the Joneses

“If we thought of life as a gift, we might not demand nearly as much from it. And if we lived more graciously, giving of ourselves more freely to the well-being of others, many of our personal concerns would disappear, and life would become easier for all.”
— Lowell Bennion

Thanksgiving has just come and passed, and the end of another year of “if only’s” is not so far from ending, and we are stuck on the same square as last year.  The problem with holidays is that they remind you that you are coming close to passing “go” again, but if your life is anything like mine, you do not get to collect $200.  In fact, if you’re like me, we’re both still stuck on Vermont Avenue, or worse.  Reflecting on what we have to be grateful for this year, it’s easy to get distracted by the failures, the color of your square, the conspicuous absence of cash and a house (forget about a small red handful), but it makes me feel better when I think about the real measure of happiness, according to the people who quantify it.

According to Dr. Tony Delamothe, in an article for the British Medical Journal in 2007, levels of income in developing countries show very little correlation with an increase in happiness over the last 50 years.  What does this mean?

“Researchers believe that it’s relative income, rather than absolute income, that matters to people. However well we’re doing, there’s always someone else doing better. The pleasure of paying off the mortgage on one’s modest abode is neutralised by news that a 19 year old footballer is erecting a neo-Georgian mansion, complete with indoor swimming pool, three car garage, and cinema. As we realise one set of aspirations, it seems we immediately trade up to a more expensive set, to which we transfer our hopes for happiness.Thanksgiving dinner

As Samuel Johnson noted: “Life is a progress from want to want, not from enjoyment to enjoyment. (Demamothe, 2007).”  This is simply a fancy iteration of keeping up with the Joneses.  We miss the forest for the trees.

Who can’t relate to this?  Denmark is consistently rated as one of the happiest place on earth-and one factor attributed to this happiness is the relative income equity among its citizens.  When you think about Delamothe’s observation, if peels a layer off an important truth about all the manufactured wants of our time.  They distract us from what we DO have, and rob us of happiness.  If we could figure out how to block out the noise of what other people have more of and do better than us, we would be able to more fully enjoy our own lives. Americans live in a time of extremes between wealth and poverty; the idea that someone else can get rich off inventing  garden burgers or lotteries or novels about wizards drives the rest of us down crazy bunny trails, believing if we could just invent the right product, or write the right book (this is my particular treadmill), or scratch the right ticket-everything would be perfect.  But the other important fact that Delamothe’s research revealed is that-in the end, it wouldn’t matter! A fascinating conclusion was made by Delamothe’s research, which he summarizes this way:

“Given the choice between winning the lottery and being left permanently disabled by injury, everyone would take the money. Yet a year after either of these events, people apparently return to their previous levels of happiness.”

I’m fascinated by this thought.  All of us going through life thinking “If only X happened, then I’d finally be happy,” are probably wrong.  I mean, not me of course-I KNOW I’d be happier, but the general population;)  But here’s the real news.  Perhaps you are like me in more ways than one; maybe you’re stuck on Vermont Avenue, but don’t realize you’ve already won the lottery?

1.) Do you make a decent living wage? According to one source, the global median income is $1,225 a year.  My family currently exists on an income that is considered poverty level in the US, and yet we FAR exceed this dismal number, and my bet is you do too.  Think about this: “The poorest five per cent of Americans earn on average the same as the richest five per cent of Indians” (Gye, 2012).

2.) Do you have children? The issue of infertility is so prominent in our generation, that I doubt you need a statistic to be aware of it.  But, if you have never experienced it, I doubt you can understand the gift you have received if you had children the “natural” way.  Perhaps you are thinking that even people with problems conceiving can solve them with money, but even *if* you have the $20,000 required to go through an adoption or fertility treatment, and even *if* you’re successful, it doesn’t erase the heartache that accompanies the process.

3.) Are your children healthy? 27 -28 percent of children in developing countries are estimated to be underweight or stunted. And indoor air pollution kills 1.5 million people each year.  Half of these numbers account for children. 1.4 million children die each year from access to safe drinking water and lack of sanitation. (Shah, 2010).  When we or our children breathe clean air, drink clean water and have ready access to sanitary conditions, we’re already richer than many in the world.

4.) Can you read this?  That means you are literate.  According to a 2012 UNESCO report, about 15 percent of adults in the world are illiterate.  And if you live in a community with a library, consider that the cherry on top.  I live in a community in South America with a pitiful library-and it’s not until you no longer have access to the treasure trove of free resources libraries afford in the US and Canada (and I’m sure many other developed countries) that you can appreciate them fully.  Literacy and a library promise that even if you have nothing, you have access to everything!

5.) Do you have shelter? The United Nation Commission on human rights (2005) reports that 100 million people worldwide are homeless. There are around 42 million displaced people (refugees) in the world (IRC).  Someone I love very much once spent 4 months living in a Bronco and taking showers on a public beach. It gave me a new appreciation for a warm, full length bed and my own bathroom.  Having any place to call home is a blessing. If you doubt it, try sleeping in your car for a night and going without your own bathroom for a few days. You won’t care much when you get back to your bed what the thread count of the sheets is.

6.) Do you have electricity? If you’ve ever had an outage, you realize how much you really do depend on it.  A quarter of the world lives with out it. (Shah, 2010)  So the next time you feel bummed because the electricity went out, try to appreciate that at least it will come back on!

7.) Do you have a friend? Someone to call when everything falls apart? When you lose your job, or shelter, or country? James Taylor wrote a beautiful song decades ago called “Fire and Rain.”  His lyrics say “winter, spring, summer or fall, all you have to do is call, and I’ll be there.”  Asking for help is not easy, but everybody needs it sometime.  When we have someone we can call on in any season, fire or rain, we are rich!

8.) Do you feel like you and your family are safe? If you can call the police and know they will help you, not hurt you, you are much better off than people living in many other countries.  One of the factors for happiness in the World Happiness report is living in a place without corruption, and trusting your community and government.  If you are a woman and you feel safe walking down the street where you want, wearing what you want, and know you can make a report against someone who harms you and get results, you won a lottery ticket when you were born into a culture that values you.

9.) Do you have, or did you have, parents who love and support you? This is the other side of the coin when it comes to infertility.  Some couples long for children, but more heartbreaking are the children that long for parents.  And more frightening is the knowledge that they are vulnerable to all kinds of exploitation.  If you were once a child who was safe and loved, you won the lottery when you were born.

10.) Do you have happy DNA?  This is the Jackpot!  Some people are born happy, and some have to work harder for it.

“Just as some people have to work harder than others to lose weight, some people must work harder at being happy. Research shows that we’re all born with a happiness “set point,” which is a genetically determined baseline for how happy (or grumpy) we are. But set point is only 50% of the
happiness equation, explains Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of California at Riverside and author of The How of Happiness. Another 10% is determined by circumstances, such as personal appearance and finances. That leaves 40% of happiness that is ours to affect through hard work and motivation.” (Evans, p. 41)).

I am pretty sure my set point for happiness came out pretty high. I am probably not working hard enough on the 40 percent I can control, but one more thing research tells us is that we must start with gratitude.  What I’m fascinated by is that circumstance only affects 10 percent of our happiness.  Which means a lot of us just ran out of an excuse to not be happy!

I have one theory about happiness, and it involves failure. Give up.  Stop trying to reach just one rung higher.  Stop trying to lose 1 more pound, or beat one more person.  But we are so conditioned  to always want *just* one more thing-especially when we look around and see that “everyone” else has so much more.  Because we’re STILL on the ladder, our little knuckles white with hanging on.  And by we, I mean you, of course;)  Because I fell right off your ladder, and caught another one on the way down.  My wish list is smugger, because there’s so much you have that I don’t.  You want a remodel?  I want a flushing toilet and a drawer that opens.  You want a nanny or some quiet time?  I want a baby and some noise.  You want a house?  I want furniture.  Not better, newer furniture.  Just furniture.  You want a spa day?  I want health care.  You want to eat out more? I want food in the fridge.

I need to work harder on remembering I already won a few lotteries.  I got happy DNA, a great family, electricity, and a full length bed.  I’m on the one year rebound-back to the original happiness set point.  What else could I ask for? (Except, of course, a library. A library with a Starbucks in it of course, and maybe a…)

Happy Thanks Giving!

List of References:

Delamothe, Tony. (2007).  Happiness. British Journal of Medicine. http://www.emjournalclub.com/uploads/Happiness.pdf (Nov. 24, 2012).

Evans, Julie. (2009). Come on, Get Happy! Curves Magazine. http://toddkashdan.com/Diane2009_Happy.pdf (Nov. 24, 2012).

Gye, Hugo. (2012). We Are the 1%. Mail Online http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2082385/We-1–You-need-34k-income-global-elite–half-worlds-richest-live-U-S.html (Nov. 24, 2012).

International Rescue Committe (IRC). (no date). http://www.rescue.org/refugees. (Nov. 24, 2012).

John, Richard Layard and Jeffrey Sachs, eds. World Happiness Report. http://www.earth.columbia.edu/sitefiles/file/Sachs%20Writing/2012/World%20Happiness%20Report.pdf. (Nov. 24, 2012).

Shah, Anup.  (2010) Poverty Facts and Stats. Global Issues. http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats. (Nov. 24, 2012).

Reality isn’t limited to the price of Tomatoes and Eggs

A week or so ago, I wrote a post about the less than stellar “Snow White & the Huntsman,” and Hollywood’s failure to bring us a well done film about Snow White.  However, I was thinking today about a marvelous book that translated surprisingly well to a film, because it was a book about scent-a theme as difficult to translate into visuals as  it is to translate to words.  This book, if you haven’t read it, is one of the few I’ve ever read that has stayed with me.  It is an incredible, beautiful, lush, macabre, dark, sensuous book.  (Am I gushing?) And that is sensuous in the sensory sense of the word, not the sexy sense-which is MUCH harder to do.  That anyone successfully made a film, and not only a film, but a film that captured a world as thickly layered and eerie as the book is a minor miracle.  The poster is a good preview for the beauty of the film.

Film Poster

I teach ESL, and we are currently doing a unit on the five senses-which is always a favorite for me. It is probably what made me think of Perfume.  I read it a decade ago as an undergrad student in a class on magical realism.  And of all the classes I have taken, this was about my favorite.  It introduced me to the genre that made South American literature popular internationally, and really, I think, made fairy tales for adults mainstream.  If you remember Like Water for Chocolate or Casa de Espiritus, you know what I’m talking about.   I was fascinated by these books (not so much the movies), in part because they represent a departure from the cynicism of our post modern culture. Chocolate, although not by a South American author, is another marvelous version of the genre you likely know, and was made into a beautiful film that conjures flavor the way Perfume does scent.   My first exposure to one of the great writers of this genre, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, was reading his short story “The Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.”  When discussing Garcia Marquez and his work , friend Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza once made the comment that:

“The way you treat reality in your books…has been called magical realism. I have the feeling your European readers (and we can add, North Americans) are usually aware of the magic of your stories but fail to see the reality behind it…’ ‘This is surely because their rationalism prevents them seeing that reality isn’t limited to the price of tomatoes and eggs. (Wikipedia, as cited in Mendoza & Marquez, 1983) “

We are currently living in a moment that values fantasy- vampires and fairy tales being in vogue.  But the fantasy that is currently popular has zero realism-it is escapism.  Magical Realism is a different kind of fantasy, and I think takes on a different meaning for North Americans than South Americans. I live on South America  and cynicism is not in vogue here; there is room for wonder.  I ride everyday past an old man I suspect to be 150, who sits on a corner wearing 8 layers of clothing in an armchair that I swear has grown roots.  If he had enormous wings under all those layers, I wouldn’t be terribly amazed.  Homelessness is not a novelty anywhere, but to see it so firmly planted in the middle of daily life, and almost whimsical, is something that belongs to this continent.  People here live closer to life.  There is no air conditioning or life insurance.  There are small fridges and broken streets, and time for tea.  People hang out in the cemetery like we hang out in Starbucks, visiting their loved ones.  If you go to the open air market, you will see babies laying all day in grocery carts like they’re play pens, and dogs in places where you couldn’t go without a shirt in the US.  There are fewer codes here.  Sleep all day, stay up all night, eat nothing but bread or nothing but butter, and no one blinks an eye.  The air is less sanitized.  There is more of a margin for magic.

Marquez himself said that  “I feel Latin American from whatever country, but I have never renounced the nostalgia of my homeland: Aracataca, to which I returned one day and discovered that between reality and nostalgia was the raw material for my work”, (on a billboard that marks his childhood home of Aracataca).  I think this is the magic of magical realism.  It reminds us of the “ordinary miracles” that we often fail to notice in our daily lives, and nothing is more magical than nostalgia.  It is why fairy tales will continue to resurge in popularity with the constancy of fashion trends.  Fairy tales, like perfume, are vials of our childhood, of all the possibilities we once believed in.  And magical realism is one way of returning as adults to remember.  It is what inspired me to write a series of books, revisiting fairy tales but couching them with more realistic details.  When I think about Snow White, I want to know why she ran away with Prince Charming.  I want a story I can believe, not (necessarily) on a rational level, but on an emotional level.  This is what Perfume did so well.  We are introduced to Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a psycopath, but not a monster.  Because we can understand him and his motives, and almost believe in his ability to extract perfume from people.  This is the power of the genre, and what makes it better than a fairy tale.  It opens the door to a world where we can imagine the impossible as possible.

Reference List

Apuleyo Mendoza, Plinio; García Márquez, Gabriel (1983), p. 35. The Fragrance of Guava, London: Verso,ISBN [[Special:BookSources/0-86091-965-2|0-86091-965-2]]

Snow White, with hair as black as brown?

There has recently been an influx of fairy tales, particularly new variations of Snow White, in both movie theaters and book stores. I think we can thank J.K. Rowling and Gregory Maguire for the current interest in both fantasy as a genre, and fairy tale adaptations in particular. I was buoyed when I saw the interest in fairy tales in generally, and a bit crushed when I realized they currently encompass multiple adaptations of Snow White, as I have spent the last three years writing my own adaptation. I was particularly slayed when I saw advertisements for Snow White and the Huntsman, with the gorgeous Charlize Theron as a well cast ice queen, and the lush imagery of black ravens scattering like ink on snow, the scarlet battle flags, and Charlize emerging from a bath like a white chocolate figurine. The contrasts of colors, red and black against white, as analogies for the protaganists are what make Snow White such a compelling subject. However, I was equally cheered and cheesed when I realized they were casting the single note Kristen Stewart as Snow White. Aggh!
I still wanted to be blown away, to be rocked by a vibrant, lush film, the way I was once years ago by Queen Margot, and then by Pan’s Labyrinth. I wanted to be exposed to creative and innovative imagery, and fleshed out characters, the way I was by Lord of the Rings. I wanted to care about the characters, and be moved by the beauty. Give me the magic of Ridley Scott’s Legend, the adventure of Willow, the romance of Room with a View. I know, I want too much! But did I have to be so dreadfully disappointed (and gleeful;) all at once? For goodness sake, I didn’t rent Twilight! All I could think was “pull your sleeve up bedroom eyes! Kick ass princess heroines do NOT let their sleeves drape come hither”ish”-WE did that when we were 10 and pretending to be seductive. Shouldn’t the movie reach beyond the yearnings of our 10 year old hearts? Didn’t it promise to in the ads?
The trailer promised so much; the movie delivered so little. I have been on a little Pinterest jag lately about posters from National Book day, and it brings me full circle to the origin of my little adventure in writing. I walked into a library (in Vancouver, BC) one day, and saw this gorgeous rendition of Snow White, by Jessie Wilcox Smith. And I became obsessed with it. The perfection of the colors and composition, in regard to the story. Of course Snow White would have had this inky, cloudy hair, and “just woke up from a nap” rosie cheeks. She was a child. This was a Snow White I would get on board with. She looks just like my eight year old did when she woke up. Why can’t the movies get it right? They didn’t even try to dye Kristen’s hair black, and let’s forget about pretending she holds a candle to Charlize Theron. Or, to my great dissatisfaction, Ginnifer Goodwin as a husband stealing, whiny Snow White? Nothing about her compels my sympathy or interest. Even Victoria Secret knows that when you pick an Angel, she needs to be someone women will relate to and like. If an underwear company can get it right, why can’t ABC? Sigh. And Disney just made it a parody. At least they delivered on the beauty. But it played more like a music video than a narrative. I want someone to deliver.

C.S. Lewis said “someday you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” I am definitely there! But now I’m writing them, so I can read them the way I want them. If you’re interested in reading it, I’ll be putting up a new chapter each week. If not, I will be on here posting about my other passions-films, art and books. Hope we can be friends! (Let’s begin the way many great friendships do-by basing it on our mutual contempt for Kristen Stewart. If you’re not feeling it, I may not be your cup o’ tea!) Thanks for stopping by!

-Kate