All around us year-end lists are summing up our collective experiences in an orderly fashion, reminding us of the things we missed or challenging us to change our minds about what we didn't. The last dark day of December is not radically different from the new gray light of January 1st. We wear the same clothing, eat the same out of season foods and continue to seek out places to put the holiday gifts that have recently entered our lives.
I've been thinking a lot about Billy Wilder's 1950 film Sunset Boulevard lately. Gloria Swanson plays an aging silent film star who is trying to craft a comeback. A young and near destitute screenwriter stumbles into her life and she takes him under her wing; dressing him, housing him, and hoping for his love in return.
The butler (played by Erich Von Stroheim) is her former silent film director. In his devotion he attempts to construct an artificial reality that shields her from the success of talkies and the end of the silent era. Our heroine can't see she is outmoded and lives that fantasy even as it self-destructs. Some of her most famous lines ("I am big. Its the pictures that got small") ring with a freaky simultaneity as we end two thousand and great with an odd paradigm shift. The themes of obfuscation and denial, obsolescence and confusion: the similarities between this film and our present economic meanderings are staggering.
Fast forward 58 years and we, a nation of spenders, are running out of petty cash. This year something very different was added to the year end mix that hasn't been fully digested. What do we do about a lack of money? Not just a 'I get paid next Friday' lack of funds, but a 'hmmmm, perhaps we need to fully re-evaluate our lifestyle' kind of lack. For decades, December has been a make or break profit month for American retail. Some businesses make up to one third of their yearly figures in this holiday shopping period. But now that the whole idea of job security, an evergreen stock market, and safe savings has been re-fashioned, do we make a quick return to the Waltons era of hand made dolls and slingshots on the first night of Hannukah?
When I was a child the number of presents under the Christmas tree was always nearly half the height of the tree. My parents spent heavily on a credit card that they mistakenly empowered with the task of soothing emotional scars from their difficult childhoods. Christmas became a symbol of giving that signified how much you loved. Perhaps many children who grew up with post World War II and Baby Boomer parents received the present of excess to make up for loss. But now it is the excess that has created the loss. The loss of meaning except for a price tag, has created a culture of shopping as a hobby, shopping as a past time, shopping to show how much you shop!
How do we, as a nation, turn around the concept of giving? Can we emotionally re-instate its meaning, without crippling our economy? The notion of stimulating the American economy by shopping seems ludicrous when nearly every purchasable item has already sent our money abroad to be manufactured. As someone who has a relatively small economic footprint, I feel overwhelmed and uninterested with being held personally responsible for restoring our nations retail health. Although I would love to see manufacturing return locally...
It seems like a huge shift of ideals and outlook to imagine that we can be a nation without all that shopping. But think of all the free time we will have to listen to the radio!