On Where’d You Go Bernadette

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Image retrieved from http://www.goodreads.com

Maria Semple’s critically acclaimed novel Where’d You Go Bernadette is one of the most refreshingly unusual family dramas I’ve ever come across in fiction. Through Semple’s ingenious storytelling, readers are introduced to Bee Branch, exceedingly intelligent eighth grade student at a Seattle-area private school and daughter to Bernadette Fox and Elgin Branch.

The story launches when Bee suggests a family trip to Antarctica, an idea which nearly pushes her overly-anxious mother over the edge. Once an L.A. architect, Bernadette despises her Seattle life, spends most of her time in an Airstream trailer in the family’s backyard, and delegates even the most mundane household tasks to a virtual assistant named Manjula. Meanwhile, her husband Elgin Branch is the picture of tech success, a Microsoft employee whose lead position on a new project gives him star status in the company and whose innovative work he discussed in the world’s fourth-most-watched TEDTalk. The tension between an agoraphobic mother, a workaholic father, and their brilliant child trying to exist as transplants in an elite Seattle community make up the stuff of this novel. But while this meager outline of Semple’s main plot points is certainly accurate, it does nothing to describe the experience of reading such a uniquely entertaining and constantly surprisingly book, equal parts satire and touching portrait of a family trying to navigate the absurd world in which they find themselves.

I usually find it irritating when novelists opt for an epistolary style, using a compendium of documents, such as email correspondence, news articles, and the like, in lieu of a traditional, straightforward first- or third-person narrative form. The former feels clunky and cumbersome, rendering it a chore to immerse myself in the world of a novel, rather than the delight it should be. But Semple deftly executes this often-aggravating device, parsing out bits of information on her own time and, in so doing, playing on readers’ curiosity. The correspondence of Semple’s many characters are interspersed with letters sent home from school, report cards, workplace memos, receipts, news articles, psychiatric reports, FBI files, and the like. Some of the emails are blatantly expository, documenting dialogue exchanges between the email-writer and other characters in a narrative fashion that would never be seen in real life emails. Doing this served to advance each character’s perspective so well, however, that I forgave the obviousness of Semple’s effort.

Although I did not find it to be clear initially, this collection of narrative artifacts is supposed to be presented to the reader at the hands of young Bee. This fact becomes more apparent with time. But it also means that, mixed among the epistolary documents, are brief but consistent blurbs of first-person narrative from the perspective of Bee. These more traditional sections of story serve to bring readers up to speed on Bee’s rational view of the situations at hand and act as a check in to make sure we readers pick up on all the subtle clues as to what is occurring. This, I believe, is a large part of what makes Semple’s novel work. We know who we as readers should be attending to most because we hear her voice directly.

Semple at first anchors her narrative documents around Bee and the Galer School which she attends in Seattle. Even though readers come to find that this novel is not so much about Bee’s education as it appears to be, this initial focus allows readers to gently settle into the world of that Semple has created. The material contained in the first section primarily consists of emails exchanged between Bernadette and her virtual personal assistant Manjula, correspondence between Galer School moms Audrey and Soo-Lin, delightful first-person interludes from Bee, and letters sent home from school personnel about attracting more “Mercedes parents” to their institution. Through the lens of this school community, I completely caught on to the complex central relationships and problems, even those contained within the Branch-Fox family unit. Granted, the majority of this information comes from Galer moms Audrey and Soo-Lin, who are obviously unreliable narrators. Nevertheless, their gossip-laden email exchanges about the Galer School community, and very often the Branch-Fox family in particular, convey the sense that something is objectively not quite right with this Bernadette character. Semple subtly suggests throughout part one that there is indeed something more to Bernadette’s oddities, a clearly identifiable reason for her unusual behavior which the title character evasively refers to as the Huge Hideous Thing that occurred in her past.

It is not until part two, however, that the specifics of this event are finally, tantalizingly, revealed. I failed to realize just how much I wanted to uncover Bernadette’s secrets until they began to emerge. Then I simply could not stop consuming the story, and therein lies the magic of the novel’s construction. I was torn between an intense desire to soak in every detail of every line and a compulsion to inhale this section as quickly as possible, seeking answers to my every last question. Would the Huge Hideous Thing that Bernadette cites as the cause for her family’s relocation to Seattle be related to criminal activity, a family on the run? Would it have to do with a deep and bruising pain, some issue more psychological than practical in nature? Would it be revealed that Bernadette was just as crazy as she seemed, having no sound logic to back up her choices, the title character proving unable to procure a description of the Huge Hideous Thing that warranted the reaction she took? I had no idea which way Semple would go, and it was this not knowing that made my desire to uncover the answers both so strong and so surprising.

As compelling as Bernadette’s past proved to be, the novel continued to unfold in delightfully unexpected and complicated ways, such that I was constantly questioning whose story this truly was. Does it really belong to Audrey and Soo-Lin, since their commentary on the affairs of the Branch-Fox family, at first, consist of the bulk of this novel? Or is it essentially the story of Bernadette, who is, after all, our title character? Bee’s character becomes rather dormant in the middle of the novel. But her perspective is the only one specifically intended for us as readers, so does the narrative belong to her? As we gain a fuller understand of each character’s backstory and their evolution over the course of the novel, our sense of who is heroine and who is not is called into question. With so many figures swirling about and their respective moralities constantly in flux, Semple kept me on my toes, never quite sure who to consider the protagonist. While to some this may sound like a patent flaw, it was done in so deliberate a manner that it actually proved to be one of the novel’s main strengths.

Ultimately, however, it becomes clear that this is the tale of Bernadette and Bee, a novel about the depths of the relationship between a tortured mother and her brilliant daughter. When Bernadette goes missing (which happens far later in the novel than I expected it to, given that the title suggests this very thing will occur), we see Bee transformed into a different child, coming unhinged with grief and confusion and a sense of despair. While the circumstances around Bernadette’s disappearance at first seem almost too fantastical for this book, they are adequately explained in due time, as are all mysteries in this novel. And with this explanation, the profundity of Bernadette’s relationship to her daughter is fully exposed with all of its beauty and flaws.

There isn’t much more I want to say about this novel for fear of spoiling the delightful unfolding unsuspecting readers have in store when they begin Semple’s book. This is a completely engrossing tale, with a touch of international adventure, a taste of the detective novel genre, and a healthy dose of good old family drama too. The characters are both fascinating and vivid, especially the female figures, while the satire is spot-on. But all of these seemingly-disparate elements, set in this slightly-more-absurd Seattle are nicely balanced by a sweet and particular type of mother-daughter relationship, the likes of which I have yet to see before in fiction.

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On Self-Inflicted Wounds

I’m crazy for all things Aisha right now. I first knew Aisha Tyler (as many people did) as Ross’ black girlfriend on the sitcom Friends. Little did I know back then, Ms. Tyler is a lady of very many talents (podcaster, comedian, writer, actress, TV host, writer), vast intelligence, and unparalleled quirkiness. My husband recently got me into her excellent interview podcast, Girl on Guy, on which she speaks with mostly male comedians and entertainers about their origin stories and always finishes up with a tale of their worst self-inflicted wound (Chris Rock’s is pretty epic and can be heard here). I’ve even gone so far as to make my husband suffer through rampant applause breaks and painfully shallow gossip during the 2:00 hour on snow days by watching The Talk, the panel-style afternoon talk show that Ms. Tyler co-hosts along with Cheryl Underwood, Sharon Osbourne, Julie Chen, and Sarah Gilbert. I just can’t get enough of this lady.

So I also picked up her second book entitled Self-Inflicted Wounds” Heartwarming Tales of Epic Humiliation. Not truly a memoir, nor really an essay collection, the book defies any kind of classification. Ms. Tyler first explains the concept of the self-inflicted wound, essentially an event of supreme pain, humiliation, shame, failure, etc. for which you have no one to blame but yourself. She then goes on to recount a series of said wounds experienced in her own life, from childhood up to now. The stories are humorous, well-told, and surprisingly (well maybe not too surprisingly because after all my girl did go to Dartmouth) ripe with wisdom and intelligence. They run the gamut from literal wounds, broken bones, and physical scars to emotional and psychological injuries. Unlike most of us, Aisha owns these shameful incidents with pride, never afraid to make fun of herself, point out her flaws, and pass on a good lesson learned. She fuses the funny with the sage, always coming up with some insight from each tale, no matter how silly and impractical or universal and true. This book even brings in the motivational/self-help genre, as Aisha pushes her readers and fans (as she loving refers to them, her army) to pursue their dreams and be okay with failing in an effort to achieve success (like she did). Really this book couldn’t challenge the boundaries of any single literary category more and that made me like it all the more.

Aisha’s playful idioms kept me smiling and her prodigious footnotes kept me in stitches – and I rarely, if ever, laugh aloud while reading. Since she’s a comedian for a living, I expected the book to be humorous but it takes a lot of smart to be this funny. And Aisha won’t let you forget her wit and wisdom, for as soon as she talks about doing something as stupid as lighting her own kitchen on fire or breaking her arm and then snowboarding down a mountain three more times before seeking medical attention, she turns around and composes a heartfelt, well considered essay about the homeless community of San Francisco or references a quote from a brilliant philosopher to remind you that there is some substance behind the wackiness. Tangents and asides are ripe in this one, but whenever Aisha gets off track, she comes back around to draw connections between the various topics knotted up in one little essay that are at once logical and hilarious. Highly pedantic, Aisha resorts to the type of vocabulary and references that prove her intellectual prowess more than a few times, although she never alienates readers with her smarts because it’s all in the service of humor. The girl can write and she does so with great care and personality and pizzazz.

On Why We Broke Up

Image retrieved from gmfunkbook.blogspot.com

Although I consider young adult fiction to be a guilty pleasure of mine, sometimes I don’t feel quite so guilty about it. Despite the fact that Daniel Handler’s YA novel Why We Broke Up feels even more juvenile than most picks from the young adult genre because it is a picture book (artist Maira Kalman’s work is included at the beginning of each chapter), the art is actually a quirky and creative means to tell the story of why protagonist Min (short for Minerva) broke up with Ed Slaterton. I certainly anticipated feelings of guilt before I started reading this one, but once I picked it up those feelings evaporated rather quickly. This was an incredibly enjoyable read and one I wouldn’t feel an ounce of shame to recommend to me friends (which is why I’m writing this review, I guess).

So the plot: en route to her now-ex’s house, Min composes a letter detailing the reasons why she and Ed broke up as she goes through a box of all her Ed-paraphernalia. Each item within the box (illustrated in the book by Kalman) is afforded its own chapter in which Minerva elaborates upon the circumstances surrounding the physical object that reminds her of Ed and how it made her fall for Ed or foretold their coming break up. In so doing Minerva shares with readers the story of how she came to fall for Ed in the first place. It’s a deceptively sweet young love story told within the confines of an unapologetic break up novel, the classic tale of two young people from different worlds falling in ill-fated love.

Minerva, an unabashed cinema nerd, continually cringes as Ed’s friends try to describe her – she always dreads being labeled “arty” but what she is more commonly classified as, “different,” isn’t much better given its vagueness and potential for profoundly negative connotations. Ed is co-caption of the basketball team, a charismatic high school senior that seems to have dated pretty much every girl in school with even the slightest ounce of popularity to her name. Min and Ed meet one another at a party, a chance encounter for two high schoolers from completely different social circles – after a disappointing basketball loss, Ed and company crash one of Min’s friend’s parties. Minerva’s friends are a delightful bunch, fiercely loyal to both one another and their respective ideas of themselves as independent and authentic. They spend time at coffee shops and see black and white movies at the art house movie theater, they explore the most interesting haunts of their neighborhood and have ironic Bitter Sixteen birthday parties. They aren’t the most developed teenage characters in the world of fiction, but they are appealing in their earnest attempts at being themselves and their ability to plainly recognize the superfluousness of popularity, athleticism, and high school drama. Ed’s friends fall on the other extreme, a group of far more one-dimensional characters who spend their time at bonfires dominated by gossip, kegs, and an endless game of musical girlfriends among the basketball players.

But then Min catches Ed’s eye and introduces him to her world. There is something rather endearing about the trope of the artistic love interest opening up new doors for the more conventional one and Handler carries it out rather sweetly.

Of course, conflict arises. Ed was conditioned to behave towards women in a certain way that is far from conducive to Min’s expectations of coupledom. Min tries to ignore Ed’s complete lack of taste, not to mention his lack of genuine interest in her friends. Their circles are so far removed that social events require careful and elaborate planning so as to evenly split time with both groups. Ed’s ex-girlfriends are constantly around, constantly contributing to Min’s sense of self doubt. Min learns her lesson that you can’t choose a boy over your true friends.

Handler also gives readers a fair share of what we always seek in romance novels, whether written about the young or the old – a glimpse into the remarkable and unrepeatable world two people create together. Even though we know all along, thanks to the author’s wise choice of title, that this relationship will end with a split, that doesn’t negate the moments of tenderness, humor, and adventure that Min and Ed share. On their first date, Min takes Ed to see a movie and, upon leaving the theater, surmises that an elderly lady also exiting the theater is in fact the aging star of the film they just watched. The ensuing narrative of Min and Ed following the supposed actress around town and to her home highlights the way that Min brings out a certain side of Ed many don’t see, not even Ed himself. It’s a side that is game for adventure, that seeks something in life other than the unquestioned norm, but he painfully needs some guidance in how to access that part of himself to begin with. Each item in Min’s box is a testament to this world that no longer exists by novel’s end, the small touchstones that indicate the type of people Min and Ed were in the short time they spent together.

Handler expertly characterizes a modern day Romeo and Juliet, a pair that obviously don’t belong together but are still drawn to one another in ways that are at once plainly clear and deeply complicated. Why We Broke Up is easy to mock (I’ve seen my fair share of negative reviews whose titles are hackneyed puns along the lines of “Why I Broke Up With This Book”), but I appreciate Handler’s bold (and I would argue successful) attempt at navigating the seas of teenage love and heartbreak in a fresh way. And if it makes you feel any better, you don’t have to tell anyone that pictures accompany the story though in retrospect, I ultimately found them to be just another sweet touch.

On Ingrid Michaelson

Now I know this album is long past relevant for most, but to me Ingrid Michaelson’s 2007 release Boys and Girls still stirs that undefinable something inside which music is supposed to unsettle. Maybe it’s just that I was going through a way pivotal time in my life when I first listened to the album on a daily loop, or maybe it’s something more implicit to Michaelson’s unapologetic honesty and her songwriting ability. I’m hoping it’s the later so that this post isn’t entirely in vain.

Michaelson’s songs on her second release distill the complexity of heartbreak into such effortlessly poignant music that I almost feel inspired to try my own hand at songwriting whenever I listen to them. She makes it seem so easy to turn stories of love and love lost into a resonant and coherent album. Although her songs make reference to the specifics of Michaelson’s own relationships and heartbreaks, from too-small hand-knitted hats to jokes about Rogaine, implicit in each and every quirky lyric is the understanding that anyone who has ever been in a relationship shares certain universal emotions and experiences. Her songwriting is thoughtful but playful, demonstrating a witty intelligence that is never self conscious or takes itself too seriously.

Though “Breakable” isn’t the most remarkable cut from this album, I still can’t quite get over the verse “Have you ever thought about what protects our hearts?/Just a cage of rib bones and other various parts/So it’s fairly simple to cut right through the mess/And to stop the muscle that makes us confess.” I think this lyric sets the tone for the entire album, offering a theme of sorts about the delicacy of our hearts and the myriad ways in which they can be broken and repaired.

“The Hat” is Ingrid’s reflection on first love, her own being a winter romance that she struggles to remember in its ending. She captures all the bitter-sweetness of a first love, of feeling impossibly special and carefree when you initially find yourself in love with someone, of the tenderness and wonder you will always hold for that person tinged with the sadness that he or she will likely just remain a memory: “I have come to learn I’ll only see you interrupting my dreams at night/And that’s alright.” It’s a song about coming to terms with the fact that first loves do end. But Michaelson recognizes the vital importance of letting someone know just how much they figured into your life story, even if they have long fallen out of the plotline. I can’t think of a better word to encapsulate that type of feeling than “fondness” and Ingrid gets it just right.

And then there’s “Glass” which reflects on a different type of lost love, one shaded by regret and hurt. I doubt there are many song lyrics more gut-wrenching and on the mark than “I am blind/I can not find the heart I gave to you.” The austerity and simplicity of these lines (obviously a skill with words that I have yet to master) contains a whole host of emotions that are impossible to ignore when you lose yourself so completely in another person that you can’t even figure out who you are. It’s a very cinematic song, the type I would envision as score in a movie during a scene when a woman leaves her lover and begins to gain strength in moving on.

By far my favorite track is “Starting Now,” a break up song about committing to a new start even when you still long for someone. Before the song crescendos to the point where Ingrid wishes she never even met her scorned lover, she sings about the lengths to which she would go to rid herself of the man that so badly damaged her life, ie wanting to “crawl back inside my mother’s womb” and “burn the sheets that smell life your skin.” Something about driving around and singing this song at the top of your lungs until your throat is so sore you can barely speak is really satisfying after your heart has been trampled on. Thanks for giving me those moments of rage and recovery, Ingrid!

Contrary to what I seem to be portraying, there are more than sad, angst-y break up songs to be found on Boys and Girls, but I think these songs shine a little bit more. That’s not surprising to me; I think happiness is much harder to capture in a moving way and much harder to be moved by. We all want someone to share our sorrows and listening to Ingrid makes me feel like I’m hashing it out with a best girlfriend. I’ve laughed and cried and danced and sung along to all twelve tracks back in the day and still find myself moved to do the same when I listen now, even from a happier and more settled place in my romantic life. And while I recognize that certain pieces of art will feel particularly timeless to an individual person because of whatever they were going through in their life when said art was first encountered, I believe that Boys and Girls represents something a bit more widely universal.

On The Shouting Matches

Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon has proven himself to be quite the musical Renaissance man. Under the stage name Bon Iver, Vernon’s melodically mumbling tunes were met with wild indie success. Though I found his debut effort (supposedly written while Vernon was locked in an isolated cabin recovering from a breakup all by his lonesome) much more satisfying and accessible than his more recent work under the name Bon Iver, I still considered myself a fan – just one with a fledgling interest in the man. But it was a delight to come across Vernon’s project The Shouting Matches, a true musical smorgasbord that showcases a much wider range of sound than Bon Iver ever has.

Leading off the threesome’s first full length album “Grownass Man” is “Avery Hill,” a tune that positively reeks of classic rock and roll. When I played the song for my husband (not a particularly fond fan of Bon Iver’s music) and cunningly withheld the name of the man behind the tune, he guessed it was a Warren Zevon song. Though Zevon wasn’t a bad guess, it was certainly a departure from the truth. Other comparisons have been made to Tom Petty, Stevie Ray Vaughn, the Black Keys, and Wilco – and none of them are off the mark.

The Shouting Matches’ album offers a healthy dose of nearly every musical subgenre within the blues and rock realms. But the thing that makes this album so remarkable is the way in which The Shouting Matches blend sounds not only from track to track but throughout the course of each song. Much like Letitia VanSant, The Shouting Matches have a remarkable ability to surprise listeners. They challenge convention, even by indie standards, combining guitar-heavy musical hooks with melodies from completely separate schools. Take “Gallup, NM” – it starts off with a healthy dose of Southern rock sounds leading to a guitar solo so reminiscent of Wilco’s Nels Cline (of whom I am a devoted fan) that I had to check if he wasn’t featured on the track. And the opening vocals of “New Theme” immediately brought to mind Dr. Dog, a Philadelphia-based band whose name is nearly synonymous with retro lo-fi in my book. But the song takes on a more soulful sound as it progresses, forcing me to make comparisons to JD McPherson, the 21st century’s answer to authentic rhythm and blues.

So maybe The Shouting Matches are a bit self indulgent as nearly every song off “Grownass Man” brings to mind yet another one of my favorite musical artists. But it’s refreshing to have another bluesy band on offer these days, especially since more than a few of The Shouting Matches’ tunes, in particular “Three Dollar Bill,” are painfully danceable (that is, it’s painful to listen to them and not dance). And it never ceases to amaze me that some musicians are able to create such disparate worlds through their music. To think that the gorgeous but melancholic sounds of Bon Iver and the gritty, genre-fusing Southern rock of The Shouting Matches stem from one talented man is not only inspiring, it fills me with anticipation for what musical genius I might discover in some unexpected place next.

See their entire Coachella set here and listen to their album in it’s entirety thank to NPR here.

 

 

 

On Oprah’s Favorite Things

I am pretty crazy for the holiday time of year. There are plenty of traditions I love to return to annually come November and December and, though I’m not a huge TV fan, one of those is indulging myself in cheesy made-for-TV holiday films and Christmas commercials. I recognize how commercialized the holiday season has become, but I love the whole spirit of Christmas and being so completely surrounded by it at the end of the year, so I’m never one to complain.

One thing I have always loved to do every year is watch Oprah’s “My Favorite Things” episode where she bestows upon her audience an unbelievable number of luxury items that she swears by. It’s a generous move on Oprah’s part and an awesome marketing move on that of the companies who put out these products, so I guess it’s a mutually beneficial thing. Plus, a deserving group of people (for instance, a few years ago all members of Oprah’s audience on that day were teachers) are surprised with plenty of new things they probably would never have otherwise treated themselves to. And the Oprah set is decked out in festive colors, twinkling lights, and holiday decorations (which is probably the biggest reason why I’ve watched year after year).

Maybe it’s the fact that I’m more mature with age, or that I take an overly critical eye to things, or it could be my immersion into the real world has me a bit bitter. Whatever the reason, on the show’s last holiday special I found myself more disgusted than jolly while watching Oprah’s giveaway episodes (she actually had two “My Favorite Things” episodes rather than just the usual one). Yeah, it’s great that Oprah is so generous to her most deserving viewers and fans. And I love to give, it’s one of my favorite things about the holiday season, so I can relate to the joy that this scale of gifting can bring to the giver. But the excess of the whole endeavor turns me off. I understand that it’s Oprah’s last year so she wants to go out with a bang, but who really needs a $3500 3D TV or the promise of a 2012 VW Beetle that no one other than VW employees in Germany and Oprah herself have even seen? A panini maker and 4 pairs of Nikes? Sweat pants and jeans that lift your butt, squeeze your thighs, and keep everything in place?

I don’t deny that Oprah is an extremely generous person and I think her intentions are entirely understandable and mostly pure for a person with her wealth and power. To better explain my position, I’ll explain the context in which it became fully realized – in the reactions of her audience. Hysteric screams, tears of joy, jumping in place, wide-eyed disbelief. It’s important to feel, and demonstrate, gratitude when treated with such generosity. But the audience was reacting as though Ty Pennington from ABC’s Extreme Home Makeover just revealed to them their new home, complete with free utilities, all the furnishings, and a lifetime’s worth of food from a major grocery chain. Maybe I’m just a more subtle, less-excitable person than the majority of Oprah fans, or maybe I’m entirely too cynical, but these people were in hysterics over a new brownie pan designed so that each and every brownie was an edge rather than a middle. I couldn’t help thinking of how these products were largely unnecessary and fairly limited in their usefulness. We’re only made to think that they’re the answer to our prayers because skilled advertisers have the know-how to trick us into spending money on things we think we need.

To think of how much money Oprah shelled out to outfit her guests with all of these gifts just makes me despair over how that money could have been so much better spent. Sure, it’s nice to receive a few luxuries every now and then, but this was especially excessive. If these people were so deserving of a generous break, why not help them out with the expenses that make normal, everyday life so stressful? Give them the financial assistance to pay off their homes, send their kids to college, stock their kitchens, and ensure adequate healthcare. Or better yet, divide the money even further to reach more people – the people who are the most destitute, the most in need of a dollar or two every day of the year. I know Oprah does plenty of charity work and has devoted herself to a slew of important causes, but I can’t help thinking that, no matter how small the expense of this show may be in her grand financial scheme of things, every dollar of it could have been put to greater use if directed to someone in true need. I don’t want to downplay the individuals in the audience and their potential need, but I believe that if they were really destitute, they wouldn’t want an expensive TV, body lotion, loungewear, and over-priced exercise shoes so much as the essentials – shelter, clothing, and food.

I’m not here to condemn anyone, because I ultimately view Oprah’s show as merely one example of a trend that I can be traced in plenty of other venues – money is being spent on unnecessary luxuries, oftentimes for people who aren’t in need of much, especially not another expendable gadget, when true and dire need is crippling others nearby. I work two part time jobs and so have to keep my finances under close watch. I worry about money all the time, am as thrifty a shopper as can be, and avoid the mall like the plague to completely remove the temptation to make gratuitous expenses. But I still don’t guard my savings enough that I can’t find a few dollars to donate here and there, or to buy an item or two off the McDonald’s Dollar Menu to give the skin and bones woman begging for change on the street corner. I’m far from perfect and there are innumerable other decisions I could make that would minimize my negative impact on the world at large and maximize my potential to do good. But I still recognize the importance and potential of those small decisions I can make about how to use my limited resources.

My plea isn’t to boycott luxury items, to defile Oprah, or even to save spare change to give to homeless strangers. Rather, I just want to increase awareness and generate a more thoughtful and critical outlook on the way money is spent, as an individual, a family member, all the way up to the corporations. Part of this has been spurred, I think, by what I’m currently reading, a biography of Harry Chapin. Chapin was a singer-songwriter most well-known for his tune “Cat’s in the Cradle” whose most important legacy should be his dedication to eradicating world hunger. Chapin wasn’t always an admirable philanthropist, but once he recognized the scope of need and his potential, even as a mid-level artist, to make widespread change, he never once strayed from his commitment. Unlike the majority of artists, Chapin didn’t do a benefit concert merely once or twice a year when presented with the opportunity, but rather, made those very charitable opportunities out of thin air. A good two-thirds of his shows benefitted various charities, most concerning hunger issues. And all the proceeds from his merchandise went straight to his organization World Hunger Year (WHY). Chapin recognized (and was willing to admit) that, despite the occasional efforts made by big name celebrities to combat hunger, change wasn’t happening. Disenchanted with lackluster charitable efforts and ineffectual strategies, Chapin learned as much as possible about the hunger issue, connected himself with the most well-versed and respected of world hunger experts, and made a plea to his fans, any audience he found himself in front of, and finally then-President Jimmy Carter. Eventually Chapin’s efforts led to a Presidential Commission to fight world hunger on which he served as a board member. It was only through his unparalleled commitment to this issue and his conviction that he had the power to instill change, that a commission on hunger came into being, much less that Chapin found himself a member of it.

But I digress. I want anyone who reads this post to recognize the power of their potential, to be inspired to display generosity to others who truly need it in the course of their daily life, and to rethink their monetary decisions and their definition of need. Don’t feel guilty for treating yourself to a new item of clothing or an indulgent dinner out every now and again. But don’t forget that the very fact that you can sit before a computer, access the internet, read this blog post, and will probably have three (or more) square meals before you go to sleep tonight places you among the most fortunate group of people in the world. And with great fortune comes an increased ability to share that fortune with others.