Sunday, September 4, 2016

Here comes the jolly season


Here come the catalogs.
I have been working on my credit rating since I rejoined the consumer forces of the United States. I had been traveling around the world and long enough to disappear from active credit records—that takes seven years, which is handy to know even if I'm not traveling around. And now that I have a credit rating, catalogs are starting to appear in the mailbox. In their eyes, if I have credit, I'm a consumer who likely indulges in the great orgy of spending and consumption during the last third of every year. If I'm a new customer, I'm pre-selected or even pre-approved, which means I can order a whole new wardrobe, an IT office's worth of personal electronics, or sweets for my few remaining teeth and pay very little money now. The famously great wealth of the United States gets spread around during the oyster months—the months with the letter R in their names: at the year-end oyster months I spend lavishly on credit; at the beginning of the year's oyster months I'm entrenched in the system of wage & debt slavery.
This catalog showed up unsolicited, and while I don't need shoes, they sell clothing. But it turns out the clothes are suitable only for a 20-year-old on the way to a sporting event. There is a pair of Birkenstocks that I like though.

My first step to reëstablish credit was to buy a phone, the hardest part of which was convincing someone on the phone that I was who I said I was by remembering obscure addresses where I had lived during my peripatetic days before the American Civil War. I didn't have to cough up the addresses­—that would have been impossible to remember—but I had multiple-choice questions like:
Of the following addresses, at which did you live:
  1. 221B Baker Street
  2. 3017 N St., NW
  3. 22 Hyde Park Gate
  4. 27 Rue de Fleurus
  5. 222 West 23rd Street
I had failed these tests in the past, but I was lucky when T-Mobile threw one at me. Even so, since I was a dark horse, they said I would have to make a large down payment for my phone, but I had to pay for the phone anyway, and I had the money, so I went for it. The address and identity test originates with the major credit agencies (Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax), and that meant that by paying my phone bill regularly I would be establishing good credit. Six months later I landed my first credit card, and by not spending frivolously but funneling the bills that I pay every month anyway through the cards, I established the patterns that the agencies consider credit-worthy.

I want credit for fairly simple reasons: at some point I'm going to buy a chunk of land and put a minimal cabin on it and call it home, and credit will be useful for that. I'm generally of a mind that it's foolish to buy a car on credit though. Instead, as my income grows, I make car payments to myself. With luck, each successive care will last a little longer so that I can save more money to buy something a little nicer. And like the Car Guys say, I should never buy new cars because their value depreciates so rapidly. The plan is to find myself a mechanic who for $50 or $100 will check out a used car during a test drive. Then, when I find a car or truck that looks good and drives well, I'll have him do an inspection, and on his advice I buy the vehicle or not. But I currently have no urgent need for a car—almost everything I do is within walking distance. Frankly, rather than buy a car, I'd rather live in a city that has decent public transportation, and such cities are rare in the U.S. Why do I need public transportation when I can always frack for more oil, burn it in my car (or in the power plant that powers my car), and completely rearrange the functionality of the atmosphere and melt all the ice on the planet?

The Swiss Colony catalog came to me through a roundabout path of marzipan and a movie. There's a scene in The English Patient when Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas) has recently been ravaged by her new lover, the Count Laszlo de Almásy (Ralph Fiennes). She is doing her best to do the womanly tasks expected of her as a wife of one of the expedition members, but she's so overwhelmed by the passion, the exhausting coverup, and the heat of North Africa, that she has to take time out and sit for a spell . Her husband, Geoffery Clifton (Colin Firth), sensing that something is wrong, comes to check on her, and he senses on her body the scent of lovemaking that cuckolded him, but fortunately he doesn't recognize it for what it is—or perhaps he does but he is in denial just yet. (People who are around each other continually—not just married people but even classmates and coworkers—read a great deal about each other through body language, through thoughts that shape the face, and through something subtler, call it vibrations, along with pheromones and more blatant odors, so that everyone knows things about each other, including things they might not be ready to admit to themselves.)

CLIFTON
I do so love you.
(he kisses her head)
What do you smell of?

KATHARINE
What?

CLIFTON
Marzipan!  I think you've got
marzipan in your hair.  No wonder
you're homesick.

This is an unnerving scene—even to Katharine, whose carefully restrained "What?" reveals she fears she's on the verge of being found out—because at this point in the movie Geoffrey has made himself into such an unpleasant and sniveling nerd that I don't care that his beautiful wife is cuckolding him, and the passion between Katharine and the Count is so intense that it leaves me breathless. I don't want her to get caught. I want the affair to go on indefinitely.

But beside the drama of near discovery between Katharine and Clifton, there is also an erotic undertow of her body redolent of her rich sexuality. In that moment food gets invoked not as a god of stomach but as a god of physical passion (if you don't know already, you have to take my word for it: food and sex are lovers from a long time back; they are equal sacraments in the union of human beings): he mistakes the perfume of the commingling sweat of lovers, her wetness, and his ejaculate for marzipan, that yellowish paste of ground almonds, sugar, and egg whites. After that I had to have marzipan, to know it, experience it, and I wanted to completely and sensually understand the marzipan scene.

I wasn't satisfied with the marzipan available in the local grocery store, and my limited transportation eliminated the possibility of tres chic bakeries in South Austin, so I bought it by mail order from Swiss Colony, which is why they have sent me this seductive catalog with enticing offers of credit and pages filled with fudge, marzipan, and petit fours; cakes; cheeses, sausages, and teas. "Come back to the catalog, Mason, hon'!" Though, were I not an atheist, I might fear what Pastor Jones or Father McGillicutty would think if they knew, but the pagan spirit of commingling food and unbridled passion lives among us and fans our passions.
The Inner Traditions, Bear & Company catalog came because I asked for it. There is no credit offer here, and I need a bank card or a checkbook to buy anything. They publish strong translations of Chinese classics like the Tao Te Ching and the I Ching with insightful commentary, which is an area of interest for me. They also publish a lot of books connected to pre-Christian European paganism, but the missionaries so obliterated paganism—it really was a kind of Holocaust because anybody who embodied the ancient religion had to die—that these latter-day books along with the Wiccans who draw upon them to form a religion are all a kind of farce. The synthesis of something new, like a restoration of reverence for the world, is a positive course to a point. Yet I know of the pagans only what the Christians have told me in their warped way. From their tangled message that Europe was gripped by witches practicing witchcraft and worshiping Satan, I have to decode that paganism was matriarchal instead of the Church's patriarchal structure; that it was based out of the home instead of institutions; that it respected nature whereas in Christianity the forest belongs to demons; and that it preserved its power among the people in the community rather than sending people's lifeblood up the Church hierarchy back to Rome. These power shifts during Christianization then, a thousand years later, during the Reformation, are a political interest of mine.

By the way, you didn't think I'd use my real addresses, did you? The addresses on the recreation of the identity quiz are:

  1. 221B Baker Street—Sherlock Holmes in London (the easy one).
  2. 3017 N St., NW—Jackie Kennedy's former mansion in Georgetown.
  3. 22 Hyde Park Gate—Virginia Woolf née Stephens girlhood home
  4. 27 Rue de Fleurus—Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas's address, Paris
  5. 222 West 23rd Street—The Chelsea Hotel, New York