Saturday, September 20, 2008

Ask Grandma: Replying to a Big Spender

I read with interest the advice columnists. They are a form of girl gossip I never have been really in on. Each letter is a narrative, for sure, and I've always liked stories.

Today, my eye was arrested (there's a strange image) by Dear Abby, who died, I believe, and is now a brand belonging to Jeanne Phillips, an intriguing concept. Ask yourself, Could I, too, become a Brand, and thus someone could make money off me when I'm dead? Other questions would surely follow from this inquiry.

The poor woman whose letter is featured today wrote to ask how to reply to a "tacky" friend (her term) who always tells how much she spent on something. A shirt is the example given, giving me the opportunity to post this pretty picture, almost a color-field abstraction.

Faux Abby replies gleefully that you could try to make her feel guilty, envious, or miserable; or just "tell her the shirt is beautiful---but that wouldn't be as much fun." She seems to be serious. This is exactly why I avoid girl gossip. There is too often a meanness to it, which can be accounted for by women's incredible one-on-one competitiveness. If this statement surprises you, you can read more in Phyllis Chesler's book, Woman's Inhumanity to Woman, which documents some of the ample research on girl meanness.

A second possibility is that Abby is using irony in an attempt to shame the writer into acting polite. I came up with this thought, but am having trouble buying it. Suppose it is the case, though; shame is a dubious teaching strategy.

This kind of question is one Buddhist teachers do encounter: "ZenPerfect's measured behavior is driving me crazy." To this, a teacher may reply, "Sit with that," meaning, Ah, you have here an opportunity to learn something about yourself. Abby's student, Not a Spendthrift, might learn that she herself craves beautiful clothing or compliments, or that Big Spender taps her wrongheaded sense of personal inadequacy. I don't know what she might learn; these are examples.

A second compassionate way to work with this would be to "exchange self with other," a technique I believe is taught in the Tibetan tradition. Imagine that you are Big Spender, that when someone compliments you on your new shirt, you say, "It cost me $200." Why do you say that? How do you feel when you are complimented, or when you just walk into the office and announce how much you spent on that shirt? Could it be that in your behavior there is no attempt to harm?

Maybe you would contact a time in your life when you said something that gauche. Maybe you were only eight years old at the time, and hadn't learned yet that here in America we destroy our souls for money, and are supposed to pretend, at the same time, that money doesn't matter. That we pay way too much for clothes with visible brands, Ralph Lauren, Chanel, Prada, exactly because some people will know from the logo how much that purse cost. That's the game. Maybe Big Spender is just an innocent kid who hasn't quite figured out all the rules.

After meditating like this, maybe Not a Spendthrift could rise above her Self and say something honest and simple to her friend, like "Blue is your color." That's what friends do.

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