Window shopping

Even more evening wear

Yes, there’s yet another dress in the window at Miranda’s Verandah, giving me something snazzy to share (belatedly) for last week’s Photo Friday challenge, Dusk. For even though it looks like the dead of night in this photo, it was only 5:00 pm when I shot it, darkness falling earlier and earlier these days.

Three square meals

On the eve of America’s national holiday devoted to (over)eating, here’s a word in favor of moderation. Although we might, on Thanksgiving, skip breakfast and lunch in order to enjoy one really big meal, on all the other days of the year, it’s best to enjoy three square meals, even if all three of those squares are chocolate.

This divided chocolate bar, which I spotted at Borders while choosing a 2009 day-planner yesterday, reminds me of the one I spotted in Portsmouth, NH over a year ago. Whereas that chocolate bar was all about promoting marital happiness, this one is all about getting one’s own hungers fed: mine, mine, mine!

More evening wear

I wonder what Frank’s daughters think about the latest piece of evening wear on display at Miranda’s Verandah.

Evening wear

We’ve reached that time of year in Keene when it’s dark by 5pm, so on a late afternoon dog-walk downtown, the only things to photograph are shop windows glowing with well-lit evening wear.

Mannequins and reflections

The moment I saw today’s Photo Friday theme, “Sharp,” I started humming ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man.” What better excuse to revisit the sharp-dressed mannequins from a Christmas Day walk down Boston’s boutique-studded Newbury Street, which I blogged last December. Enjoy!


I’m re-discovering this semester a simple formula for my personal health and serenity: WWW, the letters that represent my time-tested but oft-neglected morning ritual of waking, walking, and writing.

Shop window tiger with jewelry

It sounds simple enough: in order for me to stay happy and sane, I need to structure my schedule so I wake up early enough to walk Reggie and then write in my journal before tackling the day’s other tasks. Not only does this routine sound simple enough, it’s one I discovered over four years ago, when the demands of teaching, dissertation-finishing, blogging, and life in general were enough to drive even the most faithful walker mad. Back then, I learned from experience that a regular diet of dog-walks and journal-writing kept me sane. But even though I know full well that the simple recipe for my own personal happiness boils down to three simple letters, so many other things intervene. When you have classes to prep, papers to read, and emails to answer, life seems so much more complicated than the simple practice of “WWW.”

Window shopping

In a previous lifetime when I attended a nondenominational evangelical church whose Sunday services lasted most of the day, the minister used to remind us from the pulpit that “preparation for worship starts the night before.” If you want to be awake, showered, and dressed in time for morning service, you need to be mindful of that intention on Saturday night, when the temptation to stay up late can destroy even the best laid plans. This semester, I’ve been making a conscious effort to be both in bed and asleep by midnight so getting up early isn’t a huge difficulty. Thanks to the two and a half years I lived in a Zen Center, getting up at 5am or even earlier isn’t a completely foreign concept: you can, I’ve learned, train yourself to be an early bird rather than a night owl…but you can’t (I’ve also learned) be both.

Window shopping

Although having a dog guarantees I’ll walk sometime during the day, I really do prefer to walk “almost first thing” in the morning, when there’s barely enough light to see the sidewalk ahead of me. At that hour, my body feels fresh and invigorated; at that hour, it feels good to be awake, outside, and moving. When you walk “almost first thing” in the morning, when it’s still lingering dark, you can pretend you’re the only one for miles around who’s awake and stirring. The streets, shop-windows, and lamp-lit shadows are all yours, with no need to share. When you start your day with even a short walk, you have something to write about when you come home, sit down to today’s oatmeal, and then write today’s pages over tea. When you start your day with even a short walk, it’s even easier to come home after a solid day’s teaching, take the dog for a second stroll, and feel your workday has been beautifully bookmarked, the life of the mind fueled by the moving of one’s feet.

The three Ws of waking, walking, and writing are in no way fancy, but for me, they’re a simple equation that adds up to a good, productive day. In the pursuit of the elusive W called Wellness, it ultimately comes down to two other Ws: Whatever Works.

Mall from above

Last weekend, a bit bored and looking for something to do on a hot and intermittently stormy Sunday afternoon, J and I went walking at the Natick Collection, the first time we’d ever gone to a mall together.

Mannequin with reflection

It had been some three years, J figured, since he’d been to a mall: J’s consumer tastes are simple, and when he needs things, he tends to shop online. I go to malls rarely and typically only to window-shop, shopping malls offering a conspicuous projection of our society and the things it holds dear. Malls, like stores of all kinds, are great places to go image-shopping for signs of abundance, so both J and I arrived at the Natick with point-and-shoot cameras discreetly hidden, photography being forbidden there.

It’s important to remember that J and I went to the Natick not because we were in the market to buy anything but because we were bored. Walking around a bustling mall after we’d weathered the usual parking lot traffic jams, I remembered why so many of my high school peers in Ohio frequented the malls there: on a humdrum Friday night or weekend afternoon, there wasn’t much else to do. Boston, of course, offers more social stimulus than Columbus ever did, but the suburbs around Boston aren’t necessarily any more exciting than those in the flatlands. On a hot and intermittently stormy Sunday afternoon, we all were hanging out at the Natick, it seemed, for lack of anything better to do.

Sunglasses with self-portrait

I mention this because as J and I strolled without purpose, shooting surreptitious shots here and there, it occurred to me that malls are designed around the concept of consumer boredom. The goal of a mall, after all, is to display goods in an alluring fashion for people passing by; the goal of a mall is to sell you something you didn’t even know you needed. As I’ve noted before, “a well-designed shopping mall encourages consumers to see, desire, and ultimately possess an ever-alluring array of goods. How many times have you gone ‘window shopping’ and ended up buying something you didn’t know you needed until you saw it?” Entering a mall with the goal of buying a belt, you might leave with a belt, sweater, designer handbag, and pair of shoes. You weren’t aware, entering the place, that you needed or even wanted such things, but seeing them displayed in a bright and beckoning way in a setting that caters to consumer boredom, you bought them because they offered a momentary sensation of excitement and novelty: something different to brighten the predictable sameness you’d strode in with.

Atrium architecture

Is it sheer coincidence that both economies and persons suffer “depression,” and is it pure accident that shopping is seen by some as being a cure for both? I know full well the impulse toward retail therapy and have, on occasion, indulged in it myself. But unlike at least some of the folks we saw hanging out at the Natick Collection last weekend, I don’t carry credit card balances, my occasional bursts of “therapy” remaining within the bounds of what I can pay for without incurring debt. Considering buying as one way of escaping boredom, it occurred to me last weekend that the “economic stimulus” checks the IRS is currently sending to some American consumers have an intriguing double meaning. The financial pay-outs that were designed to provide stimulus to the American economy might also provide bored consumers with stimulation from the economy, the temporary thrill of indulging in several hundred dollars’ worth of government-financed retail therapy being an interesting way for some American consumers to spend an otherwise boring Sunday afternoon.

Ad, reflection, window

It’s suggestive that time and money are two things we spend: both time and money are precious, and both can be either wasted if poorly spent or invested toward future gain if spent well. On a boring Sunday afternoon, it’s easy to be prodigal with both money and time, spending without thinking that which you’d saved for a rainy day. Isn’t it interesting, then, that “interest” bears both emotional and economic meanings, referring simultaneously to the financial pay-off you receive for saving rather than spending and the novel allure that leads a bored consumer to buy things she doesn’t need? On an otherwise humdrum Sunday, a new sweater might seem “interesting,” and so on a humdrum Sunday, it might be difficult to save (with interest) rather than spend. But if you have enough interest in the things you already own, there’s little need for something new.

The road oft taken?

I’m long accustomed to the spirit of saving that gets me through my summer paucity of paychecks, and one secret I’ve discovered is the cultivation of an intentional interest in the things I already possess. During the fall, winter, and first half of spring, full-time teaching provides a regular income; in the summer, I cobble together the dribs and drabs of a living by teaching part-time here and there. Summer is when I notice others’ consumer habits because I, for the most part, am not one of their number; summer is when I make due with what I already have rather than shopping for something new, going to libraries instead of bookstores, for instance, or walking outside where the sights are free. I’ve written before about the spiritual benefits of boredom and the conscious cultivation of simple pleasures; it occurs to me that the intentional practice of “growing interest” in the same old things you consider precious has a financial benefit as well. Isn’t this “growing of interest,” after all, the essence of ordinary hoarding in both its literal and figurative sense?

Experience Natick Collection

When I first started teaching, I felt deprived and poor during these lean and hungry summer months, but more recently, I’ve come to appreciate the thrift they inspire. There’s a difference, I think, between starving and fasting, the latter implying an intentionality of purpose that makes doing without seem dignified and even ennobling: its own kind of spiritual sustenance. One theory of weight loss argues that mindful eating is more helpful than deprivation-based dieting: once a person cultivates a mindset of appreciating every well-savored bite rather than dividing the edible world into healthful foods that “should” be eaten and guilty pleasures that “should” be shunned, that person will eat less and better food with greater and more lasting satisfaction. I suggest a parallel practice of “mindful ownership” might lead to a greater yield of high-interest living, the act of intentionally cherishing one’s possessions resulting in a robust reservoir of material satisfaction: a personal economy that doesn’t need the “stimulus” of retail novelty.

Falling leaves & birch trunks

Thoreau, who wasn’t much of a spender, talked a great deal about economy, seeing it as the heart of intentional living. Economy, after all, is nothing more than the keeping of one’s material household, and what in the world is there that’s more holy than housekeeping? The counting and care of things one holds dear is the essence of responsible stewardship, and careless living bears a fiscal as well as spiritual cost. When asked by newer practitioners how they might tell whether their meditation is “working,” I’m sometimes tempted to ask, “Are your financial affairs in order?” Although enlightenment bears no price tag, living carelessly or beyond one’s means is a surefire sign of spiritual malaise, for if you can’t manage your fiscal affairs right now, how will you manage the precious gift of ecstasy when it comes?

Faux shop windows

Last weekend, J and I spent nothing during time we spent strolling at the Natick Collection, taking with us nothing but the surreptitious pictures we’d shot. And yesterday, when my economic stimulus check arrived, I immediately endorsed it to deposit in the bank, where it will remain for a truly rainy day. Saving is what hoarders do, and in the personal accounting of what I hold dear, there is no need for economic stimulation.

Click here for the full photo set of illicit images I pilfered from the photography-free Natick Collection. Enjoy!

Drink your karma away...

Forget about attaining the Zen of cleanliness or peace of mind in a gumball. If you’re too broke to buy good karma, apparently you can drink your bad karma away with a six-pack of Buddhist beer.

Not a fair-weather fan

This dismal picture says all you need to know about the mood in New England after this weekend’s Super Bowl loss. Today in Keene, we’re weathering the second straight day of mostly on-again, sometimes off-again wintry mix; tonight, we’re supposed to get a messy brew of sleet, freezing rain, and between six and eight inches of snow. That means tomorrow, dejected Patriots fans will have to slog, slide, or four-wheel-drive through a treacherous parfait of winter precipitation: snow on top of ice on top of slush. Tasty!

Sunny citrus

This morning on my way to do this week’s errands before the slush sets in, I spotted one woman wearing what looked to be a brand-new Patriots ball-cap. Was she a newbie fan lured by this season’s spell of eighteen straight wins? Or did she buy her new hat at deep discount after Sunday’s Super Bowl loss made those eighteen straight wins a moot point? Mediocrity is easy: simply be consistent in your attempt to be so-so, and an occasional bout of brilliance won’t gild your halo too convincingly. But perfection’s a bitch. Eighteen straight wins don’t mean a thing if you can’t finish the Big One. And so this week, this season’s crop of Patriots converts are learning the hard way what longtime Boston sports fans already knew: no matter how much we love them in good times and in bad, our beloved boys have a way of breaking our hearts in the end.

fresh organic

This resigned familiarity with heartbreak, after all, is what defines a true Boston sports fan. When I first watched Still We Believe when it debuted in the spring of 2004, before the Red Sox finally broke their infamous World Series curse, I couldn’t help but wonder what people outside New England would think about the insane mood swings of the die-hard fans featured in the film, which follows the Red Sox’ heartbreaking 2003 season. Could anyone but a long-suffering Sox fan understand that the fans in the film were extreme but not exaggerated?

Yes, Boston sports fans have a hard time trusting even the biggest lead, knowing as we do how easy it is to lose it all in the ninth. Yes, Boston sports fans can and do turn on a dime, lamenting today that our team “sucks” because it lost a game and boasting tomorrow that “we’ll win the championship, baby” because we won a single game. One of my favorite “characters” in Still We Believe–a fan by the name of Angry Bill–nearly convinces himself he’s having a heart attack because of the intense conniption fits his favorite team inspires. “It’s OVAH,” he explains in a quintessential Boston accent after swearing off, again, his favorite team after a particularly painful loss. “O-V-A. Ovah!” The very essence of Boston sports fanaticism is loving your team so much, you can’t stand to look at them after they’ve dashed your hopes…again. To any other fan, these wild mood swings seem crazy: it’s only a game, after all. But to fans of New England teams, the agony of defeat always lurks right alongside the thrill of victory, and we have the mood swings and almost-ulcers to show for it.

Produce-section flowers

I think there’s a connection between the emotional roller-coaster that is Boston sports fanaticism and the mostly on-again, sometimes off-again drama of New England weather. If you live in a place that is consistently mild and mostly sunny, you can afford a certain sangfroid when the athletic going gets tough. But if spectator sports are your source of solace and distraction during a season that consistently spits sleet, slush, and snow in your face, you’ll respond with appropriately meteorologic moods when things go bad. If you don’t like the mood in New England, just wait a minute, for it will change…with the weather, with the scoreboard, or with the league standings. In a region that spends half the year wondering when winter will be over, you have to excuse the locals if we occasionally get all Seasonal Affective on you. It comes with the territory.

Valentine's Day cakes

So today, I tried to lift my slush-sagged spirits by heading to the grocery store for a spot of color, as I’ve done before. Earlier in the week, after hearing several of my students discussing the Super Bowl, I announced that there would be NO MORE TALK of this past weekend’s tragedy. “It’s OVAH!” was my official response to Brady and the Boys; still smarting from the disappointment of daring to believe an 18-0 record would culminate in a Super Bowl win, I didn’t want to hear any mentions of the game that dashed those hopes. What kind of masochist wants a play-by-play of heartache?

Today, it wasn’t too painful to see the occasional Patriots logo on the back of a Jeep or a brand-new Pats hat on the head of a female passerby, and I even smiled a bit at the cheerful innocence of freshly baked Valentine’s cakes. On Monday morning when I tossed my Patriots sweatshirt in the laundry, I vowed not to wear it again until next fall, knowing that in time my heart will soften and I’ll be ready to give Brady and the Boys a second chance after we spend a season or so apart. In the meantime, I hold out hope for the Celtics, I still love those consistently mediocre Bruins, and I am counting the days until Red Sox pitchers and catchers report to spring training. At least it will be another couple of months before the next season-ending heartbreak.

Sniff & shoot

One way to celebrate a holiday is by condemning those who celebrate differently than you do. On Christmas day J and I drove Reggie and Melony the beagle into downtown Boston, where we left the car at a Back Bay parking meter and took a several-hour stroll down Boylston and Newbury Streets. J and I wanted to see the sights and snap photos; Reggie and Melony wanted to sniff and pee. To each her or his own, right?

No sooner did J and I pass Copley Square on Boylston Street than we encountered a slow-moving truck emblazoned with Christian condemnations. "Christians in the Bible never celebrated Christmas," block letters on the truck proclaimed. "How can you honor Jesus with lies about Santa Claus, flying reindeer, and drunken parties?" To drive the point home, this Hellfire-Mobile had a loudspeaker with which the driver preached his message of condemnation to passing pedestrians. Why greet random strangers with a friendly "Merry Christmas" when you can shout "You're going to hell" instead?

You all are going to hell

Christians in the Bible never drove trucks with loudspeakers and damning slogans stenciled on the sides. How can you honor Jesus with drive-by words of hate? J and I have been around separate segments of the evangelical block: whereas I was raised Catholic and was “born again” as a college undergraduate, J was raised Catholic and became a Baptist as an adult living and working in Georgia. Currently, neither one of us attends church, but we aren’t antithetical to Christianity, either; we just don’t drive around with Christian slogans emblazoned for all to see. If choosing to take a quiet walk with your dog and digicam constitutes a damnable offense–if what God wants His followers to do instead is drive around yelling at people–then I guess J and I should get ready for a warmer climate. Let it be done to me, Lord, as you say.

Luckily, not all of the characters J and I encountered on our Christmas dog-walk were as “colorful” as the Drive-by Christian. Instead, some of the most tolerant folks we encountered were themselves plastic.

Mannequins and reflections

One claim I often hear around the holidays–one shared by Christians and non- alike–is that Christmas is too commercial. I guess it’s fitting, then, that J and I spent a good part of our afternoon shooting dummies who were born to be shot: the empty-eyed mannequins who peer with aloof gazes through the reflective windows of the boutiques on Boston’s upscale Newbury Street.

Mannequins and reflections

If you’re looking for an embodiment of Everything Wrong with Commercialized Christmas, a Newbury Street mannequin would be a likely candidate. Empty-headed, a mannequin exists only to be an object of desire; displaying the wares of modern consumer culture, a mannequin is the poster-child of style over substance.

Mannequins and reflections

Mannequins, after all, are created to reflect what we as consumers presumably crave. According to mannequins, we prefer our icons skinny and bloodlessly white, their limbs inconceivably slender. Attenuation, it seems, is what catches our attention; judging from mannequins, we want to hang the clothes we seek from sleekly skeletal forms who are ghostly and ethereal.

Mannequins and reflections

Still, I can’t bring myself to dislike, much less condemn, the mannequins of Newbury Street. If we lived in a world where people bought only what they needed, families exchanged hand-made rather than store-bought gifts, and nothing was marketed, we’d certainly consume less…but where would we go window-shopping?

Mannequins and reflections

Just my fond memories of a Catholic childhood make it unnecessary for me to reject that part of my upbringing even if I don’t currently practice it, I harbor no ill will toward mannequins and the marketers who manage them. As a child, one of my favorite pre-holiday activities was leafing through the pages of department store catalogs, where I’d see all sorts of toys I’d dream of but never own. Why do we automatically assume that seeing an object of desire means we’ll necessarily acquire it?

Mannequins and reflections

Of the countless times I’ve gone window shopping on Newbury Street, I’ve actually bought things there only a handful of times and at a handful of stores. If anyone should be shouting condemnations here, these mannequins should ask me when I plan on paying them for the visual pleasure they have continually provided.

Mannequins and reflections

I have no doubt Christmas is too commercial…and yet, when I try to find flesh-and-body people to condemn for their overly consumerist ways, I can find no likely suspects. The flesh-and-blood people I know are simply trying to live their lives regardless of how “simple” I consider those lives to be.

Mannequins and reflections

Long before Christmas, an acquaintance privately criticized another who was buying a popular plastic toy for her son at a big-name toy store. “When my children were young,” my acquaintance explained, “I never shopped at Store X, and I certainly didn’t buy my children Toy Y.” Implied was an assumption that civilization is going to hell in a handbasket because some parents are buying brand-name toys like Barbies, Legos, and Transformers at big boxes like Toys R Us, Target, and Wal-Mart. If our children play with plastic toys bought from plastic stores, at what point will society itself become plastic?

Mannequins and reflections

And yet, I myself played with Barbies and Legos…and had Transformers existed and been on sale, Santa would have brought me those, too. Did my parents love me any less because they selected my mass-produced toys from the clearance tables at K-Mart? Is the world today cheaper, more disposable, and more materialistic because my blue-collar parents bought what they could afford where they could instead of giving me hand-made, free-traded, earthy-crunchy artisan wares bought from from independent sellers?

Mannequins and reflections

We live in a nation where you have the right to worship where you please or not at all, and you similarly have the right to proclaim your beliefs (religious or otherwise) from a slow-moving truck if you so please. To each her or his own, right? And yet, what troubled me about the acquaintance who prided herself for not buying Toy Y at Store X was her very pride: we each have the right to decide what, where, and whether we spend our cash, but isn’t it downright pharisaical to condemn another parent for her or his choices?

Mannequins and reflections

What bothers me about the “Christmas is too commercial” rant is how it, like a drive-by Christian’s sermon, is typically directed toward other folks. I can’t recall ever hearing a concerned citizen say “My family’s holiday is too commercial,” which is unusual considering the amount of credit card debt the “typical American” carries. Instead, the “Christmas is too commercial” spiel always seems to be directed toward other Americans, not me: the problem with society, this rant suggests, is that other parents are buying too many presents of the wrong kind from the wrong places. The source of this presumably pervasive problem, in other words, always seems to be that elusive wraith, Someone Else.

Mannequins and reflections

J and I didn’t set a price limit on the gifts we exchanged; we simply tried to find gifts we knew the other would like. For J’s birthday, I spent what some would deem Too Much on tickets to go to a New England Patriots game; for Christmas, J spent I-don’t-know-how-much to transform my dog into art. Was either gift Too Expensive, Too Commercial, Too Whatever?

Mannequins and reflections

In my mind, only J and I (and perhaps Jesus himself, if He’s keeping an eye on our checkbooks) can decide. As for me, I pay my credit card balances in full each month, but I love my friends who don’t; I occasionally shop at Target, Wal-Mart, and the like, but I love and respect those who choose otherwise. To each her or his own, right?

Mannequins and reflections

One way to celebrate a holiday is by condemning those who celebrate differently than you do, and the same applies to shopping. It’s easy to target the upscale shops of the world’s Newbury Streets as being the source of modern materialism; it’s easy to see and condemn folks who pay top dollar for designer clothes while the Politically Correct of the world choose overpriced organic veggies over name brands. When it comes to both shopping and salvation, maybe we all should see to our own souls rather than shouting about the sins of others. As the Bible itself teaches, it’s better to tend to the log in your own eye than sweating over the speck in another’s.

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