Tag Archives: charity

‘Tis the Season for…Conspicuous Consumption

Black Friday, the American phenomenon of greatly slashed prices just after the holiday celebrating the Giving of Thanks, has come to Canada. Fortunately, we do seem to be somewhat more civilized than some of our neighbours to the south. News coverage of the Eaton Centre, which opened its doors at six in the morning for the big event, showed a few dozen empty-handed people sauntering through nearly empty mall space. Meanwhile, in the great US of A, thousands of people breached store entrances before they were fully opened, grabbing stock from shelves, pummelling each other, being forcibly subdued by security, and scrambling for goods as if it was world’s end. But we’re not talking food here; we’re not talking about the necessities of life. We’re talking electronics, TVs and games; that fifth pair of boots or twelfth pair of shoes; that fiftieth towel or toy. adbusters_everything-is-fine-keep-shoppingMarking the beginning of holiday buying, ‘tis indeed the season for conspicuous consumption, and a day I prefer to avoid stores.

In some jurisdictions, the day also marks Buy Nothing Day (BND), conceived by Vancouver comic artist Ted Dave “To return the purchasing power of the marketplace to the consumer.” The notion was subsequently promoted by Ad Busters magazine, with events like a Zombie Walk, in which “The cheerful dead wander around malls, marveling at the blank, comatose expressions on the faces of shoppers” and Whirl Mart, in which “You and nine of your closest friends silently drive your shopping carts around in a long, inexplicable conga line without ever actually buying anything.” In 2011, Adbusters Media Foundation’s production manager, Lauren Bercovitch, started the Occupy Christmas movement, encouraging people to rethink their consumer habits to consider “Being ecologically aware, socially aware, culturally aware, environmentally aware…”

Choosing to participate in BND or to Occupy Christmas doesn’t mean becoming a Scrooge or the Grinch; this is, after all, and regardless of religious affiliation, a season of giving and celebration. Occupying Christmas means thinking about choice, rather than engaging blindly in consumerism, and that might still mean going to the mall for the latest Xbox release, but it doesn’t have to. Zenta 2013For me, it means making gifts. Sometimes I’ve made food items, like baked goods or homemade soups and sauces. This year, I’m trying my hand at hand soaps and bath bombs. Although I don’t have a lot of free time right now, I’ve started working on a sweater for my little nephew; knitting is quietly meditative on these long evenings and something it’s easy to pick up and put down as time allows. I may also buy some locally crafted items (I have a lot of crafty friends). The one place I do spend money this season is on charitable donations made in family members’ names. This is my way of recognizing that, although it’s fun to give and get presents, most of us lead pretty privileged lives and don’t really need very much. For me, this is a season of quiet reflection and celebrating with friends—things money can’t buy.

© Catherine Jenkins 2013

Jan – Feb 05

A couple of years ago, I remember becoming quite aware of the erosion of the middle-class, how the populace was rapidly dividing into haves and have-nots with not much in between. As that’s where I’ve generally resided, it was quite startling to realize that, as an artist in a society where artists are undervalued, I was rapidly sinking into the class of have-nots. Although I continue to struggle with this, things have been improving and so perhaps I’ve become a little less conscious of this division.

What I’ve noticed more recently, is the erosion of the middle ground, how the populace is rapidly becoming polarized either on the extreme right or the extreme left with not much in between. The 2004 American election is a prime example; the country’s virtually split down the middle, with those on the extreme right bearing arms and those on the extreme left moving north to Canada.

I’ve also noticed an increasing number of vegetarian restaurants, organic foods on the shelves of grocery store chains and not only blue, but now green boxes on curbs, while at the same time hearing news about the ban on Canadian beef, the safety of genetically altered food products and the amount of waste North Americans create and percentage of energy we consume.

As I say, there seems to be a profound polarization, but mostly, I’ve felt really proud to be Canadian this past Christmas season. Canadians gave record amounts to charitable causes instead of subscribing to the typical consumerism that predominantly American businesses shove down our throats. And maybe it was just me avoiding the malls, but I even felt that stores had less Christmas paraphernalia for sale. Many Canadians also chucked their artificial Christmas trees in favour of the traditional live tree and some (like myself) bought potted trees, which hopefully will survive for many Christmases to come. My apartment building got on the bandwagon by installing new water-reduction toilets, shower heads and faucets, just in time for the holidays. I think my sense that I’m on the same wavelength as many other Canadians, has made me feel less marginalized in other ways.

But there’s always more we could do to make our lives more authentic, more conscious, throughout the year; things we can do on a daily basis to in some small way change the world and bring it closer to our personal ideal. For instance, simplifying our lives by simplifying our living environment, recycling or discarding unnecessary stuff. This is something I’m continually working toward, but I still have a way to go. And I’ve realized that when one has a plethora of interests, there’s a tendency to accumulate a plethora of stuff, however, I believe I can reduce quite a bit without losing my trademark clutteredness and I know I’ll feel a lot better for it.

Jeanette Winterson says, “What you eat is the most political thing you can do every day,” and she may be right. Buying locally grown food helps support your local economy. Buying organic helps support a healthier planet. Both enable you to eat fresher, healthier food you can feel good about. Personally, I find cooking, the act of preparing a meal, even if it’s just for myself, very uplifting, creative and calming. Although admittedly I wrestle with the cost issue (organic food in my neighborhood is usually three to four times the cost of mass produced pseudo-food I can buy at the chain grocery store), I keep reminding myself that the greater the demand, the more ready the supply will become and eventually costs should adjust somewhat. Also, you get what you pay for; do you want to consume cheap food if it’s laced with pesticides, raping the soil and keeping suppressed workers suppressed?

I try to buy environmentally friendly household products (i.e., toilet paper, cleansers, detergents, etc.) that aren’t animal tested. There seems to be enough of a market, that the cost of environmentally friendly products is often on par with commercial products from corporations I’d rather not support. Such products are often easier not only on the environment, but also on me and my cats. I recently read that one of the most revolutionary environmental statements one can make is to go back to using a cloth hanky. How many boxes of tissues do you go through in a year?

In my small home office, I generally print paper on both sides (an advantage of an ink jet over a laser printer) and use recycled paper and envelopes. When I’ve used my paper to maximum advantage, I shred it and put it out for further recycling. I wish offices of a more significant size would subscribe to such practices or at least make hefty donations to replanting trees. In some small way they should help make up for the tonnage of new, virgin forest products they go through every year.

With events in Asia at the end of 2004, enormous attention and aid have gone into that region. From reports coming back, at least some of the aid is getting to where it’s needed. It’s great to see the world pulling together in the wake of such a catastrophic natural event, even though there have been political rumblings of various sorts. Now I’m hearing reports that farmers want to return to farming, that fishermen want to return to the sea, but they still lack land, boats and housing. I hope that once the spotlight’s off, these people won’t be forgotten, that international relief efforts won’t cease once the primary crisis has passed. Aid will be required in this region for some time to come as survivors try to reclaim their lives. I hope you’ve made or will make whatever donation your finances allow to one of the many organizations supporting efforts in this region.

While natural disasters remind us that we aren’t really in control of everything, loss of habitat, usually caused by human ignorance, maliciousness or lack of caring, is the primary threat to many animal species. Again, if your finances allow, I urge you to find some way to support pro-animal causes. My personal choice for years has been the World Wildlife Fund (www.wwf.org internationally or www.wwf.ca in Canada). The presence of animals on the planet makes us more human, more conscious of our status as animals and more conscious of our need to take better care of the earth. At the moment and for quite some time to come, she’s the only planet we’ve got!

And I will continue to support the arts and artists through the various types of work I do and by buying books, attending performances, going to galleries, etc. Why? Because the arts are essential to a quality life, essential for interpreting the world, our emotions and thoughts. The arts are essential for communicating with other members of our species, for leaving something to future generations. Because without the arts, personally, I wouldn’t find life worth living.

Wishing you all a happy, healthy, prosperous 2005. I think this has the potential to be a truly great year.

Nov – Dec 2004

Ah yes. Once again ’tis the season for copious consumption, conspicuous overindulgence, capacious extremity in all things. We are, after all, a consumer society. We live to spend money, exist to make enough to pay off the post-celebratory bills.

In seasons past, I’ve presented a book list at this time of obligatory gift-giving. If one is to give a gift, I believe a book is a valuable gift to give. A book comments on the commitment the giver has to the givee, shows a genuine interest in the givee’s passions, activities, growth and entertainment. A book creates a lasting bond between the giver and the givee. Both my parents have books they have lovingly cherished for decades, remembering not only a favoured poem or passage, but also that the book was given by Granny or bought for school at some sacrifice. Books have an intrinsic value. If you must buy gifts, buy books.

But this year, I’m heading in a different direction. I live in a city where consumers seem to discard usable furniture, clothing, objects and food with ease. I live on a continent where mass consumerism shouts from billboards, televisions, the Internet, magazines. I live in a place where we are valued for what we consume, where overconsumption keeps the economy rolling, where frugality is viewed with distain as some kind of peasant suffering.

When I review my Christmas list, no one on it is particularly suffering. They all have roofs over their heads and food in their bellies. They have clothes on their backs and books on their shelves. And generally, they have much, much more besides. Most of their wishes, their desires for specific objects have also already been fulfilled. Really, what do they need that I could give them?

So this year, I’m changing strategies. Money I would normally spend on gifts for people who don’t really need them, whose homes are already cluttered with stuff, is instead going to charity. I’m looking for worthy causes in their neighbourhoods or in Canada or around the world so I can give a little money to something worthwhile, to someone who will genuinely appreciate it because they have so little, to something that will help make the world a better place. I’ll send cards telling people on my list who I’ve donated to in their name and I hope they’ll understand.

I urge you to do something similar. Just think, if all the money we’re expected to spend at Christmas was streamed into something of genuine value, something that really mattered, what a difference we could make. Happy Holidays to all and loving wishes for a peaceful New Year.

© Catherine Jenkins 2004

Jan – Feb 2004

A few days after Christmas, I made the trudge to the grocery store to restock essentials. Halfway there, I heard a man shout, “Somebody call the police!” As I continued down the block, I saw four men beside the church, two standing, arms crossed, while two others scuffled on the sidewalk. Again, the cry, “Somebody call the police!” came from one of the men on the ground. I quickened my pace, mentally locating the closest pay phone. As I came closer, that I realized the two large men watching wore badges on their vests and were store security, that of the two on the ground, the one on top, the one using excessive force, was plainclothes security, and that the man I couldn’t see clearly, the one whose face was being pushed into the concrete, the one yelling for the police, was presumably a shoplifter.

I continued into the grocery store, not sure what to do. Should I ask the store to call the police? Surely they’d already heard the man’s cries. Then it dawned on me that, given the proximity, the security crew was probably from the grocery store.

One of the cashiers loudly bragged that she’d alerted security. Apparently this rather rough-looking individual had come in, looked suspicious, picked up a box of crackers, considered paying for them, than bolted out the door. The cashier laughed and self-righteously stated, “Theft is theft.”

And me, I’m thinking, this doesn’t sound like the act of a career shoplifter. I said to the cashier, “He must’ve been pretty desperate.” My reaction caught her off guard. She hadn’t considered need. I added, “It’s a shame, because there’s a food bank a block away,” which she turned into, “So, there’s really no excuse.” And all I can think is that she’s never gone hungry. Motivation for the crime? Desperation, possibly mental imbalance, possibly desire to be caught to get in out of the cold (remember that short story?).

As I leave the store, I notice six police cars have arrived to arrest the fugitive. They’re parked at odd angles in every direction, like something out of a Hollywood movie. Good to know that if you holler for the cops in this city, they’ll come. But all this because a street person stole a box of crackers?

In the commercial extravagance of the season, we shouldn’t forget that it’s also a time of charity. And just because Christmas has passed, doesn’t mean we should forget. People less fortunate than ourselves exist year-round, even when we don’t want to acknowledge them. I was raised to believe that our society takes care of those who, for whatever reason, aren’t capable of taking care of themselves. But when I see the numbers of people on the street, many with mental or physical illnesses, I know it’s not true, because it takes so much money.

I check the weather and see that for another night, the temperature’s dropping below –20C. Any morning I expect the first news report of the homeless freezing to death in the night. And yet, I’m inside my warm apartment, and from my balcony, I can see the lights glowing through the dark in the empty, heated buildings of the financial district. Surely we can all do a little better, help a little more, not just at Christmas, but throughout the year.

© Catherine Jenkins, 2004