Saturday, January 25, 2014

What's Wrong with Seattle, Alaska, and the US Olympic Team's New Sweaters?

I took this morning off and stayed in bed and read the first half of Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette, a book that hovers between trashy and deliciously arch.  Junk food with substance.   Bernadette lives in an abandoned girls reform school in the Queen Anne section of Seattle.  Her husband is a Microsoft star.  Since both my kids spent a fair amount of time in Seattle - and my daughter still lives there - I rationalized this book would fill in some gaps in my understanding of the Emerald City.

Here's Bernadette:
"As much as I try not to engage people at the grocery checkout, I couldn't resist one day when I overheard one refer to Seattle as "cosmopolitan."  Encouraged, I asked, "Really?"  She said, Sure, Seattle is full of people from all over.  "Like where?"  Her answer, "Alaska.  I have  ton of friends from Alaska."  Whoomp, there it is." (p. 132)

Bernadette's neighbor is having a social event and wants her garden perfect, which means getting rid of the blackberry tendrils in her yard.  She calls the guy who had exterminated them recently to come back.  Sorry, he says, those come from your neighbor's (Bernadette's) yard.  Since she doesn't get along with Bernadette, she tries to get him to come over when Bernadette is not home and do the deed.  This book is fiction.  But I know Bernadette's neighbor.

And when I finally got out of bed and looked at the Anchorage Daily News, there was a NY Times story about 'the hideous Christmas sweaters' that Ralph Lauren designed for the US Olympic team headed to Sochi.

Why do people have such strong opinions about what other people do or say or look like?  I know that sounds almost like a naive question, but since we are faced with a seemingly unlimited supply of snark, shouldn't we do more than just accept it as 'the way things are"?  Or figure out how to convert it to usable energy?

This isn't going to be an exhaustive treatise, but at least, let's start with these three examples.

Seattle and Alaska.  Bernadette engineered the move to Seattle after her LA venture went bad.  When Microsoft bought her husband's company, she took the opportunity to escape LA to Seattle.  And when she realizes she doesn't fit in Seattle, it turns out her husband fits perfectly in the corporate playground Bill Gates built.  So there she is.

Her snark bubbles up from the suppressed anger about living in Seattle (and the unresolved LA venture.)   She's more of an introvert and an artist and not very tolerant of superficiality and status.  She's a serious person who has pursued what felt right without conforming to what the world expected of her.  I'd say her snark comes from living in a world that doesn't work for her.  She's impatient with people who (act as though they) love Seattle and, I guess Alaska, in her mind, is Seattle cubed.

The neighbor who's willing to trespass and, in her mind I'm sure, help to clean up Bernadette's unruly blackberries, isn't that different.   Blackberries are the bane of people who need to control.  They symbolize all that is wrong with the world.  Her image of perfection is destroyed by these pesky weeds that spread like some uncontrollable alien creature.  Bernadette is neglectful in not controlling them.  It's almost like a constantly barking dog.  In her mind, trespassing to cut the blackberries is no different from throwing dog biscuits over the fence to quiet the barking dog.  But deep down, she knows what she's doing is wrong, so when she's caught, she attacks.

I think both those examples deal with aesthetics and feeling out of control.  Seattle doesn't match Bernadette's aesthetics for a comfortable place to live and she feels caught there.  Her rants about all the five street intersections in Seattle are not that different from her neighbor's concern with the blackberries.   And in both cases, the problems grate them, in part because they don't have the power to control their environments to put their lives in synch.

And surely the Olympic sweaters are also about aesthetics.  They just don't match some people's notion of what looks good.  Or, turned around, they match the detractors idea of schlock.  Does it matter?  To the extent that the Olympic team represents all Americans, I guess all Americans have a right to express their opinions.

Actually, when I checked online, I found out that the Olympic sweaters are on sale at the Ralph Lauren website for $595.  I'm guessing the snarky NY Times article is just part of the whole Olympic marketing campaign to get people to be aware of the sweaters and other outfits so they will buy them.  I'll have to look at how much Lauren paid the Olympics to get to use the athletes as models on their websites.  (How long will it take for the Olympics to die of their excess?)

But is any of this worth getting all worked up about?  I like Bernadette's advice to the daughter after a confrontation with the neighbor and the daughter gets upset.
"She just held up her hand in my direction.  "It's not worth it."
And ultimately, my concern about people throwing verbal darts at others, goes back to the story of the angry boy I found and posted back in 2007, whose father made him pound a nail into the fence for every tantrum he had.  And then when he finally got over the tantrums, he had him pull a nail out each day he went without a tantrum.  When all the nails were out, the father points to one of the holes left in the fence and says:
When you say things in anger, they leave a scar just like this one. You can put a knife in a man and draw it out, it won't matter how many times you say 'I'm sorry', the wound is still there." 
That old post does find Buddhist uses for anger too.


  1. In addition to being super ugly, they violate flag code. I vote for no more RL products in the Olympics. It's disgusting that they cost $598.

  2. Anon, I don't mean to give you a bad time. You've done what everyone does. And I don't disagree with you. But did anything I wrote here about snark and insults make any impression on you at all? I'm just asking out of curiosity.

  3. Anon gave me that perfect moment of a laugh followed by a punch to the gut. But maybe not.

    As to your post, though, I came to understand how very important fashion is to some by people I've come to know in London, an world-class fashion design centre. And like any highly independent art zone, its creators, producers and buyers are a highly motivated lot. It matters to them, what people wear. A whole hell of a lot, actually. They fret over what people consider wearable, usable and rubbish as you would who is elected to decide public policy.

    Perhaps it could be compared to a person more attracted to an Apple product because of its design, than say a brutish PC. That's fashion sense. Our ignorance doesn't lessen its aethestic importance in our lives any more than some find poetry a silly use of perfectly good words. They miss the point, don't they?

    As can, and too frequently does, snark. To get to your point.

    1. Jacob, I'm not knocking aesthetics. A lot of this blog highlights things I see that appeal to my taste. But , I also recognize that fashion is a learned aesthetic. I learned, for instance, to like Thai music and Chinese opera. Beautiful and ugly are in the eye of the beholder. To some extent anyway. When it comes to the human face, it seems attractiveness is hard wired into human genes so that certain facial characteristics are seen by most people as beautiful. But life experiences modify that too.

      I guess one quest here is to understand the different reasons people are snarky, nasty, and downright evil, to other people. Figuring that out gives us the key to how we might mitigate that behavior, particularly where it is destructive.

  4. I went and reread your 2007 post. Thank you for those thoughts. They mean as much today as when I first read them.

    As to our matter at hand, I would think that snark is really rather a brad than a nail -- a hole, but a bit smaller one.


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