Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Cigarettes and SHAMpain.

You can't spend any time in Las Vegas without becoming acutely* aware that Sin City is one of the last refuges for that dying American breed known as the Unrepentant Smoker. It's not just that lots of people in Vegas smoke—there remain many cities like that, all the more so as one recedes from either coast—but that they smoke with an impunity that you rarely see anymore except in, well, places like Vegas. (Haven't been to Atlantic City in a while; I imagine it's equally true there. Although, AC exists in close proximity to a number of major urban hubs, like New York, that have banned most indoor smoking. That may have a mitigating effect.) I mean to say that Las Vegans smoke with an in-your-face gusto that's true to the term: They'll take a soulful, exaggerated, James Dean-style drag, savor the carcinogens for a moment, then spew the fumes back out with no apparent regard for whether said fumes have been propelled in anyone's particular direction.

In short, they smoke in a way that says: "This is our town, pal. Deal with it."

Some casinos have made a token nod to healthful living by setting aside small ghettos for non-smokers, and much is made of the newer casinos' state-of-the-art air-handling systems. BFD. The overall atmosphere remains literally and figuratively noxious. If you're an asthmatic, as I am, you can handle it for maybe 20 minutes. Which, then again, is about all it takes for me to blow my allotted $20 in gambling reserves anyway.


One final dispatch from Vegas that I present in further support of my book's subtitle**: While awaiting my appointment for computer time in the (very nice and, thankfully, smoke-free) library off Sahara Boulevard, I was reading over a woman's shoulder and noticed that she was intent upon a site offering advice about "how to dress your kids." Intrigued, I later Googled the term and found that "how to dress your kids" generates 8.7 million hits; that's almost as large a number of Web citations as the phrase "how to diet," which yields 9.6 million.

How to dress your kids. Have we become so helpless, so bereft of resources within our own minds, that we're dependent on others to tell us what clothes to put on our children? This lack of confidence in the ideas that we generate internally is, to my mind, a direct outgrowth of conditioning inflicted upon us by the self-help industry.

There's even a YouTube video that purports to teach adults "how to dress so you don't embarrass your kids." (OK, it's a bit tongue-in-cheek. But still.) And while one supposes that this site, about dressing your kids "for success," means well, I confess that I can't read it without cringing. I kid you not, I ache physically when I see people giving themselves to this thinking (which goes hand-in-hand with that whole mentality that has millions of urban parents angling to get their kids into the "right" preschool). To me, sites like this may be the best argument yet for school uniforms, because what we're doing here—intentionally or not—is reinforcing an ethos wherein kids are judged (and judge each other) by the way they look. And even though some of the 8.7 million sites alluded to above are speaking to my basic point—that you shouldn't fall into the trap of worrying about how you dress your kids—that still leaves me wondering why we need someone else to tell us this!

I have an idea: Rather than talking about dressing kids for success, why not let this be the generation where we begin dismantling that entire you-are-what-you-wear mythology that has children thinking they need to own the "right" clothes. Maybe then little girls won't grow up into big girls who simply can't live without those "darling" $500 shoes with the red soles. Maybe then inner-city teens will stop killing each other for their sneakers. Of course, that would require some cooperation from the likes of Nike as well as the major NBA stars who aren't content with the millions they get paid in salary. But it's just a thought.

More to the point: What happened to the concept of Self in this bizarre latter-day notion of self-help? Regrettably, this was an area I didn't explore very much in SHAM, because my editor felt we were getting quite airy enough as it was—but think about the philosophical implications of needing help in such areas as dressing. It implies that the Self is not really a true self at all; rather, it's more like something you must recast in someone else's image in order to conform with millions of other supposed selves. If everyone reads the same books and sings the same mantras and follows the same principles, then in the end you don't have any true selves. You have one mass, universal personality. You have a cult of the collective.

That kind of advice is not self-help. It's self-abandonment.

* as well as bronchially, if you're asthmatic, as I am.
** which, for the record, is How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless. Or, if you're reading this in the UK or Down Under, How the Gurus of the Self-Help Movement Make Us Helpless.


Anonymous said...

Cough... cough... (waving the smoke away from face). This must have been a young mother, Steve. Because as any mother of children older than 4 would tell you, the question "how to dress your kids" is answered, very decisively at that, by the kids themselves as soon as their verbal skills allow it.

Or perhaps she was looking for tips on a specific dress code for special occasions -- I have done it myself, not sure what's quite proper for church, b-day parties, etc. (When my kids where young, that is; although, hmm, now, being independent and opinionated young men clad in customary rags, they return to mom for advice...Go figure.:)

Your points on self and self-presentation are interesting and I suspect will prompt various responses from bloggers. My own thoughts on it are all over the place, frankly, but when it comes to individuality and dress codes, they can be summed up in this pragmatic approach: On some occasions, we dress to express our individual self, on others, we choose to downplay it (and appropriately so). Knowing it is useful in life, I think, and does not diminish our individuality or self. In fact, it may underscore, among other things, our innate respect for others (e.g. showing up for a meeting with a client -- or anyone other than your significant other -- in torn jeans and a skimpy T-shirt may send all kinds of wrong messages to the client, not the least being that I don't care about his/her feelings caused by the impression I make on him or her).

But you also bring up much larger issues here and I too will be interested to see what others have to say.

P.S. I should also note that for kids, especially pre-teens and teens, dress codes are a huge part of their developing sense of self. with all kinds of implications here, some perhaps not so healthy. Try to tell a middle-schooler or high-schooler to dress according to your vision of what's right, and they will reciprocate with suicidal/homicidal gestures. You gotta look certain way to survive, apparently (or so my kids tell me).

P.S. 2.These shoes are darling.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if you realize it, but that last paragraph is a new book for you!

BTW, I expect you to cringe, but, eh:

Her Dinner With Phyllis Diller

I'm glad when I was a kid the only marketing done to us clothes-wise was PF Flyers, Keds, and Hush Puppies. (In-between the hyper-sugared cereal and Crackjack commercials!)

Steve Salerno said...

Elizabeth, of course your point is well-taken--but I guess my overriding point is, isn't there something inherently self-contradictory about the notion of "dress codes" being a "huge part of their developing sense of self..."?

Steve Salerno said...

Ahh, Mike, if only I could get the publishing world (and before that, my agent) to agree that all of the things that "are a new book for me" are, in fact, a new book for me...

Anonymous said...

"isn't there something inherently self-contradictory about the notion of "dress codes" being a "huge part of their developing sense of self..."?

Yes, Steve, absolutely. More on it later, time permitting, but now I have to ask a crucial question: Why do you gamble? Have you ever won anything?

Anonymous said...

"Self-abandonment" is right, Steve, and very well said! To backpedal a bit, I almost hate to say this, but someone told me last week that over 500,000 people had registered for the Oprah/Eckhart "webinar." Just FYI. And I agree with Elizabeth: Those are killer shoes.

Steve Salerno said...

Sigh. I give up, then. If even the people on this blog covet $500 shoes, there is no hope.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Steve, there is a difference between covet and admire. These are cute shoes. Do I covet them? No. Just making an observation (similarly with the picture of that stunning black dress you posted some days ago -- it's a damn fine dress, if I may say so myself; it does not mean that I covet it, simply acknowledge my admiration.)

Bottom line: Do not give up hope. :)

Anonymous said...

P.S. It's not a matter of price, either, but of style. Cute is, well, cute, regardless of price.

(But obviously there is no need, for anyone, to spend $500 on shoes, while one can find (cute) ones for $10. [And yes, one can.] However, at $500 a pair we are talking about status symbols more than utilitarian aspects of shoes -- and of course you know it!)

Steve Salerno said...

You know, Elizabeth, I must say I've been shocked at the reception to that dress on the part of females in particular, both on and off the blog. I'd have thought--being male and stupid and perhaps a bit conservative in that area--that women would've recoiled at the sight of that dress. Boy (or maybe girl), was I wrong! I would say the consensus was more along the lines of "where can I get me one!"

Anonymous said...

You were so wrong, girl! ;)

A lovely dress is a lovely dress is a lovely dress.

And us females know it.

It was a great dress, yes. But again, keep in mind, admiration does not automatically translate into a desire to possess it (for lots of practical and not so reasons).

To those who have the courage and means to buy (and opportunities to wear) it, I'd say why not. (Just be prepared for the consequences, summed up in Steve's title of his post there ;).

But using the dress as an example here, one could say that the woman wearing it certainly did not hesitate to make a statement about her self. Hmm...

Anonymous said...

OK, one more comment about that dress:

Obviously, it is not an attire one would wear to church or dinner with in-laws. Yes, I admit, the opportunities to dress this way are rather, shall we say, restricted by decency, good taste and other considerations.

But, honest to goodness, I'd rather have American women find inspiration on how to dress in that picture than continue with their standard uniform of sweats and sneakers (brrr...). (Sorry. Had to get this off my chest.)

And, in a way, this brings us back to your, Steve, main points on self-abandonment through dress codes.

Anonymous said...

Dress codes imposed by a school will not kill individuality.

Any red blooded kid who grew up in Catholic school would have found all kinds of ways to tweak the uniform, test the limits in all sorts of subtle ways.

I am glad I am from the generation that grew up on Lees, Levis, Keds. I went through the LA public schools, back in the mid Sixties to late Seventies, and unless my memory is failing me, I dont remember it being so miserably expensive to function as a teenager. You didnt need to buy or display nearly as much SHIT as I see today.

We got along fine without cell phones. The biggest deal was the year we transitioned from using slide rules to using the first electronic pocket calculators. It was 1974, and that was the year you found out you'd be dead meat in chemistry and physics class if you didnt get your hands on either a Texas Intruments or Hewlett Packard calculator.

And, speaking as a girl, I can report that even in our junior high school, there was a common sense code that the kids knew and understood--there were school clothes and 'date clothes'. A girl was only supposed to wear 'date clothes' when off campus, going out with a guy---if she wore that kind of stuff at school, classmates frowned on it.

It may be that my generation was the last one whose parents knew how to pass on a coherant code of behavior---wear black at funerals, wear business attire if called in for jury duty or on a job interview, address people by their proper titled until they invited you to address them by first name.

And, when in a coversation with someone, pay attention only to them. Dont multi-task.

Ditto for driving.

(Slow shake of the head)

Anonymous said...

This isnt quite related to dress, but it is another parenting topic that comes up frequently these days (consult Craigslist parenting forum if you dont believe this)

...parents asking 'How do I make meals my child will eat?'

Easy. The take it or leave it diet. If they're hungry, they will eat it, and if not hungry enough, they will not.

Another bit of Stone Age wisdom that has mostly been forgotten.

I was an overnight guest at a wealthy household and the mom had ask her two school aged sons twice even three times to pick up their stuff...she was trying to get the kitchen cleared for Thanksgiving.

If Id blown my mother off that way, my ass would have been grass. I was allowed to clutter up my own room, but public areas...that was not allowed.

Anonymous said...

I'm between roasting pork and peeling beans, so thought I'd sneak another post here. First, I gotta say that "dress your kids for success" is just a ridiculous (and in some ways abhorrent) idea. Personally, I do not know any parents who'd follow it, but I hear that they exist. Most of the parents I know are too busy trying to get their kids to dress, period.

Going back to my earlier remark on fashion woes of teens and pre-teens: This experimentation in dress codes (if that's what it is) is part of growing up and deciding what's me and what's not -- so, I'd say, a normal part of self-development. And there are stages in the process, e.g. middle-school is the time when peer acceptance is paramount (and I'd say indeed necessary for survival, if not physical, then socio-emotional), so one adopts a dress code of the group with which one identifies oneself (geeks, goths, preppies, etc.) From my experience as a mother, this (and beginning of high school) is the most oppressive time when it comes to the imperative to look (and act) like others.

But then we step out of school and into the adult world, and, well, things are not that much different. One would think that as adults, we can be more independent and discerning in our choices. But one would be wrong. I mentioned already the homogeneous look of American women. (The reason I focus on women is because it is in women's fashion that we can find the greatest variety of styles and their interpretations.) Again, to wax semi-nostalgically, when I came to the US in 1987, I was stunned and bewildered by the way women looked here. It was the era of the "working girls" (not that kind) with big shoulder pads, big hair (so many mullets, sigh) and athletic shoes worn with professional-looking suits and coats (that last trend does not seem to die away, unfortunately). Walking on the streets of Chicago, I could have sworn that these women were cloned from the same template -- and one that did not make any sense, aesthetically speaking. To this day, we can see the mandatory trends continue, sans shoulder pads and mullets, as in the sweats + sneakers combo for all life occasions, for example. Talk about self-abandonment.

But in a way, this lack of individuality expressed in a compulsory, it seems, non-descript attire, is also what characterizes life in America in general: our food, our culture, even our physical surroundings. Look at the landscape around you: The same malls, same fast food restaurants, same bland and safe and uninspiring architecture.

You know, there are two pretend layers of life in the US: one is the glittery and cut-throat for profit with skyscrapers and money dripping from all corners, and the other the homogeneous, bland, without character or distinction that happens to encompass a majority of Americans. The bland aspires to the glittery one, or it is told to do so (look at those shoes and that dress as status symbols) and centers all its efforts on entering it. This, I suppose, is what the so-called American dream, in its most common version, is all about, is it not? (I am being purposely provocative here.)

But both layers are false and destructive, leaving its inhabitants alienated from themselves and each other. Yes, Steve, I agree that it is self-abandonment in the name of the collective.

For an alien in your midst, observing this phenomenon poses an interesting question: If Americans are as free as they believe themselves to be, why do they spend so much time and effort trying to look and be like others? (We are told that this is what happens only in communism or other forms of so-called totalitarian societies. Well...)

Anonymous said...

Hey, Steve, you need to venture out into the Geekland portions of the Net. Trust me, $500 shoes would be deemed a laughably small amount of money to the Alpha Geeks who spend as much on tech in one year than two Mexican families in the U.S. probably take home in wages! I go to sites where people seemingly switch hardware every 2-3 months. It drives me crazy because I can't see how anyone can be productive doing that. I also personally consider it wasteful so have to stifle my eager-to-comment fingers.

It was in the early 80s -- when tech was much more expensive than today (desktop computer-wise) -- that I realized a home computer cost as much as *mink coat* (which to someone raised poor like me was always held up as a measure of wealth)!

Anonymous said...

Since Spitzer was brought up, did anyone else notice this in the sidebar of news here?

Dr. Laura Blames Spitzer's Wife

Anonymous said...

Anon, I love "the take it or leave it diet"! LOL. You're right; somehow it's worked for generations all over the globe, so there is no reason it should fail in the 21st century America.

Anonymous said...

I have often thought that future generations will look back at our era--in which the uniform is pretty much "jeans and" for men, women, and kids--as the most boring and unflattering fashion has ever known. And to think, the Sixties with its phenomenal flowering of arts, including fashion arts, isn't *that* far in the past. Even those of us who weren't around for it can appreciate the wild and gorgeous abandon (think Led Zeppelin or Jethro Tull or even Alice Cooper in full regalia). Where did it all go?!!

Cal said...

Regarding your next to last paragraph...sounds like the basis of religion to me.

Anonymous said...

Ohmigod Mike! Between "tossing out perfectly good men" and (if memory serves) the "high cheekbones and low brow ridges," it's too much to take in the same link! Are you sure you didn't link us to The Onion?!

Anonymous said...

Oh my, yes, Mike and Our Friend Ben, this is ... wow. So Dr. Laura. The clip makes a great bedtime viewing, with all the deranged comedy involved.

What's even more amazing than her own medieval exhortations there are the two nodding and agreeable heads accompanying her as experts, so pleased with themselves. Not a critical word, not against Dr. Laura, oh no.

This is ripe for "The Onion."

(And I love J. Linkins' punchline:
"The more you know!" LOL!)

P.S. Wait, hasn't Dr. Laura "tossed out (a few) perfectly good men" herself?

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth asked
"For an alien in your midst, observing this phenomenon poses an interesting question: If Americans are as free as they believe themselves to be, why do they spend so much time and effort trying to look and be like others? (We are told that this is what happens only in communism or other forms of so-called totalitarian societies. Well..."

This is the basic human condition of needing to belong. This topic has been touched on SHAM a few times. If one is different than others, one maybe seen as a threat and alienated. Alienation led to death for our ancestors so being different does not have a lot of biological merit. If you have been looking at the SHAM archives, you should be seeing some of these threads. Look at what happened to the great thinkers who questioned society, they generally were put to death. I give you Jesus, Socrates, and Seneca to name a few. Galileo changed his mind to be left alone and Einstein had many regrets. Of course if you make it funny, you might have better chances. There are a few comedians who fall under this distinction. Now I know you are speaking of fashion, but your question is bigger than that. I see conformity everywhere. I see it in higher learning institutions to get passing grades, to obtaining a mate, to ascending the corporate latter, and the list goes on. Being that I have been an outsider due to my thinking habits and observations, I can tell you it is not an easy road.
As to your questions about Americans, it our "choice" to act and look like each other. Our ability to "choose" is what makes us different and what we fight for.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Anon, for your response. You know, my question was meant to provoke, really, and indeed spur a discussion. You are absolutely right that I was not speaking of fashion only -- this is just an outward manifestation of a larger phenomenon.

I can see and imagine (and empathize with) all the reasons for which people "choose" to conform (if one can call it a conscious choice to begin with) -- and they are not that different in the US, Poland or Zimbabwe (ok, maybe they are different in Zimbabwe, I cannot know for certain :). I have actually written on this topic in various places myself, being a perpetual outsider and working with outsiders in my professional life. (Being nowhere has its benefits, you know.)

Your last two sentences, however, open another venue for a (serious) discussion. I hope to come back to it, but I would also love (even more so) to hear what others have to say (seems I ramble on my own way too much as it is).

Anonymous said...

>>>the "high cheekbones and low brow ridges,"

Yeah, my jaw dropped over that! What is she doing, bringing back a new form of phrenology?! It really makes me wonder how many people are walking around with *that* crap in their head and using it to judge other people! (Oh, don't get me started on all that "tall people" crap!)