Thursday, March 17, 2011

It All Comes Back to Hitler

A friend of mine recently introduced me to Godwin's Law, which states that any online discussion will invariably lead to Nazis or Hitler. Once you're aware of the Law, I promise you will start to notice it everywhere. To wit....

I have, for the better part of my life, been convinced that I was supposed to be British. As evidence: my obsession with the royal family, my love of Jane Austen, and my preference for stiff upper lips versus touchy-feely Oprah-style self confession.

Now David Lebovitz has me thinking I might be French. Frankly, the notion had never occurred to me. I don't consider myself particularly rude. I'm definitely not uber-fashionable (I'm wearing sweats and slippers as I type, quel horror!). And I don't get Jerry Lewis.

But in his book, The Sweet Life in Paris, Lebovitz more than once calls out the French for a decidedly non-American quirk: they don't believe in customer service. Tres magnifique!

These are my people.

During college, I worked at a department store to earn extra spending money. Compared to, say, working at a nuclear power plant in Japan, it was not a particularly onerous job, though I definitely thought it was. My personal pet peeve: customers entering my orbit anywhere within a half hour of closing time, when I had pretty much already counted out my register. I was scheduled until 9 p.m., not 9:15, people.

Our company's motto was "We want what you want," which was emblazoned on buttons we were all supposed to wear. I made up my own slogan, which I shared with my pal Tom, who worked in Men's while I was ghettoized in Children's: "We don't give a damn what you want."

The thing is, customers and management operated under the delusion that employees (dressed up as "associates") were there to serve them. Wrong. We were there to pass a set amount of time in order to collect a certain amount of money, nothing more. Whether we waited on 30 people or 3, our salary was the same. Personally, when I was slotted into the early morning shift, I made it a goal to see if I could get through the day without a single sale (busying myself rearranging the sock wall). If a customer came in with a return and put me in the red, so much the better.

Apparently the French are like-minded and I was all set to celebrate my newfound heritage with a croissant and a rendition of La Marseillaise when Lebovitz noted another Gallic trait: these people refuse to wait their turn in line. Egads!

This I could not abide. I am a big fan of rules, even unwritten ones, and I like people to follow them. Order is everything.

"You would like Germany," my brother said.

That's funny, because I am German. Or, to be more precise, a good number of my ancestors hail from Deutschland.

But nobody wants to be German. As a people, they're not as fun as the Irish, as chic as the French, or as romantic as the Italians. They're hard-working nose-to-the-grindstone folks who are obsessed with recycling, but they also damn near annihilated the world. Twice.

It's hard to wear your German heritage with pride. Sure, you can strap on some leiderhosen and act a fool, but in the backs of people's minds, they will always think, "Nazi" or "holocaust."

My neighborhood used to be Chicago's German enclave and there's still a residue of German influence, specifically an annual Oktoberfest parade. We ran into an old neighbor during last year's festivities. "My Jewish friends won't even come here," he told us. "They think this is so offensive."

Never mind that most of the people participating in the parade were born in the U.S. or after WWII. When it comes to Germans, it's guilt by association with Hitler.

Viva la France!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

We Need More Jennifer Egans

Jennifer Egan, you just won the National Book Critics Circle Award! Where are you going next?

"To the Harold Washington Library!"

Fresh off the honor for her highly innovative
A Visit From the Goon Squad (a prize many felt was destined to go to Jonathan Franzen), Egan appeared at Columbia College's Story Week in Chicago.

While not addressing the surprise win directly, Egan did note: "There's a cultural expectation that our most adventurous books will come from men. I was aware of feeling that I might be overreaching. There was the sense, 'Am I allowed to do this?'"

She was and she did, but a number of her fellow female authors seems to have denied themselves the same permission.

For the past year or so, I've been reviewing books for
Booklist. Maybe the editor there has me pigeonholed into reading works from a specific genre, but it seems like all the female authors I've been assigned write about one topic and one topic only: relationships. A popular sub-topic: marital infidelity.

I'm not saying this isn't fertile ground for a novel--heck, even Franzen thought so--I'm just saying there's a whole wide world of other material out there that women shouldn't leave to the guys to explore.

Take the two most recent books I've reviewed (both due out this summer): One is about a woman's break-up with her long-time boyfriend and subsequent whirlwind romance with and marriage to her rebound guy. The other is about a wildly dysfunctional summer camp, a misfit counselor, and a tragic act of shocking violence. Guess which book is by a female author.

I realize I'm making a sweeping generalization here, and of course there are exceptions. Hilary Mantel picked up a slew of accolades for Wolf Hall, which had nothing to do with Men from Mars and Women from Venus and everything to do with Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell.

More of that please.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Why Skyrocketing Gas Prices Are a Good Thing

I'll admit, I'm freaked out about growing older. If I spot a gray hair, I pluck it (alas, half the time it turns out to be a golden highlight). If there's a moisturizer that markets itself as age-defying, I buy it. If I had the money, I don't even like to think about what I'd do with collagen.

As much as I focus on the physical--I'm also working on my balance and strength-building--it's the financial aspect of my senior years that has me more than a little worried.

"I hope you kids have as much fun in your retirement as we're having in ours," my dad says, while he blows through my inheritance. Never mind that half his money came from his father, who never met a nickel he didn't like to hoard.

I see lots of cat food in my future.

So the other day, Dave and I decided to get our financial house in order. We met with a bona fide investment adviser--he worked in a bank and wore a tie--and tried to look smart and moderately interested as he talked about things like IRAs and annual yields and bond exposure.

He recommended a few mutual funds that might perform well for us. I hated to tell him that, frankly, us sinking our money into anything is a near certain guarantee it will tank overnight: I'm pretty sure we're the only people who didn't make money hand over fist in the late '90s; the original owners of our condo realized a 50% profit in 2 years and we...well, I don't have to tell you about the real estate climate. The only stock I ever owned outright was in a newspaper company. Hah, joke's on me.

Still, as The Adviser scrolled through his charts and graphs, it was hard not to swoon over funds that with past-year growth in the 20% range were as attractive as George Clooney in a tuxedo (forget 5-year averages of 3%, which are like George Clooney in a beard and fat suit). We could be rich! So long cat food and pass the caviar.

The thing is, as we delved deeper into our potential holdings, we found where the money was being made. While most of the funds were incredibly diversified, with rarely more than 5% invested in any one sector, almost all had oil at the top of their list.

"It's a good time to be in oil," The Adviser joked with a dorky guffaw that suggested why he'd been banished to an outlying branch of this particular financial institution rather than afforded a corner office at central headquarters.

So here was a conundrum. Did we want to be in oil?

Ethically, no. I believe in global warming. I take public transportation. We recycle. And I'm pretty sure that if America weren't so dependent on oil, our government could afford to fund things like health care for all its citizens instead of a war in Iraq.

But financially? Dave and I need to make money. We need for Wall Street--which I totally despise for having cost a good number of my friends and family their jobs--to go gangbusters. We need this because Americans are expected to pay for their retirement years through ever increasing gains in the stock market as opposed to a more reliable safety net. Like, say, a pension.

Pension has, of late, become a dirty word. It's what those fat cat union employees collect while the rest of us muddle through with our vastly depleted 401 (k)s. What I don't understand is why, instead of being angry at--and let's be truthful, jealous of--these individuals, we don't demand the same benefit. Why, instead of asking the corporations that profit from our labor to invest in our retirement, are we expected to invest in them?

I remember back in the '80s when my dad lost his pension--the owners of his company looked at that big pile of cash and decided they'd like to have it for themselves. I was in junior high or high school at the time, so I had bigger concerns, like curling my hair, but I was profoundly aware of the stress this produced in our household. Suddenly my dad didn't have to just worry about paying the mortgage and putting food on the table and doling out allowances to four greedy kids, he had to worry about paying for all those things 50 years down the road. Subtracting the allowances and adding golf course fees.

He began saving like a fiend. Every expense became a catastrophe. Every school fee, every doctor's appointment, every bottle of contact lens solution felt like we were dooming mom and dad to the poorhouse. Meanwhile, his boss indulged his hobby of Civil War reenactments.

So, yea for the demise of pensions.

Which brings us back to The Adviser and our debate about oil. The thing is, my grandpa lived to be 98. If I inherited those genes--along with his sweet tooth and short stature--my nest egg needs to be feathered for a really long haul. "How much is enough?" Dave asks.

We're going into oil.