Monday, March 31, 2008

Press three for a list of the ways technology has not improved our lives

My cell phone had run out of juice, so I had no way of knowing whether the person for whom I waited half an hour had called me to say she would be late or simply couldn’t make it. I was waiting, primed to tell her all about my bad day. A collection agency has repeatedly been calling me for the past two months looking for my husband, who unfortunately has a common name. So he is occasionally mixed up with others who share his name, though not necessarily his habit of paying bills on time. Last time a mix-up happened, we ended up with a free subscription to an art museum. This time we, or I should say I, have been the less than happy recipient of persistent phone calls to a phone listed in my name only looking for a deadbeat who shares my husband’s name.

Since my husband and I pay our bills on time, I’ve never had an up close and impersonal encounter with a bill collector. If it weren’t so unpleasant, I might feel sorry for the people who do that sort of work. As it stands, however, I do feel irked about the following, and please listen carefully, as our menu of annoyances is long and has recently changed:

Being called once a week by an automated dialing program (“Hel-lo! I’d like to speak to Will-ee-um the Five Hundred Nel-son! If-you-are Will-ee-um the Five Hundred Nel-son, press one!”)

Hearing a bizarrely perky electronic voice ask for my husband by a bizarre nickname (“the Five Hundred”?) that isn’t his, a nickname I can’t be entirely sure of because the bizarre electronic voice isn’t entirely clear (Is there anybody out there whose nickname really is “The Five Hundred?” They’re looking for you, pal, and they’re not the type to give up.)

Not being given an option to say the collection agency is making a mistake (“Press sixteen if we have the wrong household and this deadbeat doesn’t live here”)

Not being believed after I press option 1, even though I am not “The 500” deadbeat, to tell them they are making a mistake

Being asked for my husband’s birth date, the last four digits of his social security number, the other telephone number our household uses, and the quality of our marital relationship (“Are you still married to him? Why don’t you ask him why he’s using your telephone number?”)

Being told that I need my husband’s permission to discuss the details of what the collection agency is calling about (“Hel-lo! We’re calling your phone repeatedly to reach your husband even though we never asked your permission! Press one if you think this is absurdly sexist! Press two if you think this might be harassment!”)

Having to spend time online reviewing my husband’s credit history, itself a tediously detailed tour that stretches back for years (“Gosh, what the heck did I buy in March 2004 that cost that much?”) and includes credit cards you no longer use, plus several chances to refuse offers from three different credit bureaus for newsletters you don’t want that will give you advice on financial sobriety

Finding a mistake and having to open lots of pop-up windows to figure out how to correct it and praying I don’t close the wrong window since I can only see my credit history for free once a year

Not having the computer hooked up to the printer so I can print out the credit histories (because there’s an annoying incompatibility between my laptop and printer that I have unsuccessfully tried for weeks to resolve)

Has anything like this ever happened to you? If so, press one if you resolved it; press two if you think technology is a hassle; press three if you know where Will-ee-um the 500 is.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

I’m with him

The last time I can remember tears coming to my eyes about an American public event is 1986, when the Challenger shuttle exploded. It happened again this week, though, as I read the remarks of Sen. Barack Obama on race in America. Once again, I felt American.

Obama made me proud to be American, and his speech is not at all about how wonderful it is to be American. Obama acknowledges with eloquence that we got problems here, race problems, and have had them for centuries, since before the Mayflower. It’s a terrible history, and my temptation is to conjure up some of those crimes, in order to validate my white liberal guilt ticket once more.

But there’s more. The more is hope – as in the audacity of hope, the title of Obama’s popular book, a title he got from a sermon by his former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright. (I incidentally wish we could hear as many references to the sermon that originated the book as we have to Wright’s sermons that have discomfitted white people.) I don’t think of hope as na├»ve, or white, or black, or even Christian. I think of it as divine, necessary and definitely not cheap.

It’s only with hope that I can feel the energy necessary to tackle the difficult conversations needed if we as Americans are to acknowledge the burden of our racist history and how it is more or less present today – more present for those who feel disadvantaged by it, including those white people driven by resentment of perceived preferences based on race. Obama very rightly said that white people don’t experience white privilege, especially if they relate to the immigrant experience, which is one of hard work, not birthright privilege. That’s my own family’s frame of reference. I watched the Reagan coalition get built in my household of origin, as my working-class Polish-American father grew old, grew fearful that he would lose what security his hard work had provided, and grew into a Reagan Republican. Resentful white people can’t be guilt tripped about white privilege, and so the raising of consciousness about white privilege hasn’t exactly attracted them in Kansas, or anyplace else where people will vote their interests and these days their resentments.

Obama is as much white as he is black, a recognition that doesn’t get articulated very often, though it underlies the sentiment that he’s not “black enough.” And so Obama gets to articulate what is needful for both the black and white communities because he belongs to both. “White community” is itself a phrase worth noting – far less used than “black community.” (Try Googling it.) “White” doesn’t get used as frequently because it is the default in our majority-white society. But white people don’t see it. I first understood it when taking part in Community Study Circles, a race-relations discussion group. I’m not holier than the rest of white society, but I have been privileged enough to begin having the conversations about race that our society needs to have. It works better than either sweeping race under the rug or nursing resentments, even if stoking resentments opportunistically fires up a certain segment of the voting public.

So I’m with Obama. I think his hope is both audacious and realistic. Also very American. The way forward is together, but the arc of history is mighty long as it bends toward justice. I pray I live long enough to see hope trump hate.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Poor Oprah

Critics have taken aim at her new reality show The Big Give as crass and exploitive, however well-intentioned. She’s under attack from a vocal wing of Christian conservatives, armed with computers and emails, who say that her newest book pick, A New Earth, is blasphemous and spiritually dangerous. And A Course in Miracles, being taught by Marianne Williamson on the XM Radio show Oprah and Friends, is even more spiritually pernicious.

On the other hand … Oprah has made a career and fortune out of making tasty lemonade out of unlikely lemons. So let’s look at it from another angle.

Oprah is everywhere. You can’t escape her: reality show on ABC-TV Sunday, The Oprah Winfrey Show same network everyday, web cast that reached 139 countries as half a million people log on Monday nights to listen to Oprah and a soft-spoken, non-mediagenic German guy who looks and sounds like a college professor talking about consciousness. Then there’s Oprah and Friends on the radio. O smiling at you from the green March cover of O the Oprah Magazine as you stand in the checkout line at the grocery store. O’s reading club badge on 3.5 million paperback copies of Tolle’s book.

We could also go not much farther back and talk about Oprah on the campaign trail in December, the January announcement of OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network. The Oprah Store, a retail outlet in Chicago, opened in early February near Oprah’s Harpo Studios.

There are at least two ways to look at this: Oprah is successful way beyond her dreams, as she might put it, or there’s no escape from her if you don’t want to buy her message. Some people seem to love to hate her, since Americans love it when idols fall even as we wait for the next one to survive the cut and make it to the top. Maybe at least some of us feel as strongly or ambivalently about Oprah as we might about America: big, well-intentioned, sometimes mistaken. Some have compared her stature to God, but the more apt comparison may be America, the land of big hearts and big bottoms, hard work and strong opinions, optimism and shrewdness, curiosity and consumerism, and stuff to eat, drink, read and think about.

Oprah is America, and she’s a black woman who doesn’t much resemble Uncle Sam. She’s certainly a face of America in the 136 countries around the world where her TV show is broadcast. Those who criticize her language about God and spirituality invariably forget that her worldwide viewing audience uses different names for God. Just as one size doesn’t fit all, one word doesn’t fit all. Tailoring for a worldwide mass audience is tough.

So is teaching. Oprah is often a didactic entertainer, giving us lessons she really wants us to get. So in an online classroom she can dispense with some of the conventions of entertainment, get away with looking at the camera and talking at an audience, and go ahead and ask really intelligent questions. Unlike many, Oprah has a lot of faith in people’s basic intelligence. She’s picked challenging books and authors like Tolstoy, Faulkner and now Tolle. You can’t say she’s not ambitious.

You also can’t say she does not learn from mistakes. She abandoned the Jerry Springer style, trash-TV talk show format in the middle 1990s and chose a more edifying, and profitable, path. She made author James Frey sit under her wrath on network TV and apologized for her earlier defense of the A Million Little Pieces author accused of fabrication. She has even made fun of some of her own mistakes. After all, recanting makes for more shows.

So, Oprah may stumble here and there. But a woman who believes in The Power of Now, author Tolle’s earlier book, knows that “now” constantly changes. A lot of us are staying tuned, though not necessarily to reality TV or esoteric spirituality books. In the meantime, pass the lemonade.

Monday, March 10, 2008

There will be blood

A little more, anyway, since I gave at the blood center for my birthday. The malingering of winter and the flu season are depleting supplies in many areas. It's not hard to do, either.

Monday, March 03, 2008

What I'm reading

The Namesake. By Jhumpa Lahiri.
This story of immigration, assimilation and cultural dislocation really drew me in. For Indian-Americans, it will be explicitly significant, but as a Polish-American whose father was raised abroad and who moved up the economic ladder and changed classes, I shared the where-do-I-belong disorientation. The conflicting pulls of loyalty, love, duty and desire are rendered with great subtlety. The seductions of the New York life called my name some decades ago. What's most remarkable is her ability to present characters with sympathy but not indulgence. Gogol's wife makes awful choices. The names change, but the immigrant story remains as fresh and relevant as it has in America for centuries, literally.