Monday, December 29, 2008

How about Living the Off the Grid Life

I just returned from a very hectic travel schedule for Christmas. Living up here in the hinterlands makes it difficult to get out of town. Add, on top of that, storms all over the country and you have a nightmare on your hands. I have never been so happy to return home after travel this Christmas.

While traveling, I had little access to the internet and, surprisingly, found that to be renewing. In many ways, moving up to a remote town, coupled with chasing after a toddler, has made me more Luddite than usual. I am enjoying slowing down and this change in my personality had me reflecting quite a bit on Judith Warner's "Living the Off-Label Life," which *I* sent to me (with exhortations to finish my book!). First of all, readers who know me well, already know that I am no Psychopharmacological Calvinist. I think that Henry Greely's arguments concerning enhancement technologies are fine. I do think it is problematic to make bright lines on the continuum that distinguishes morally permissible from morally impermissible enhancement.

I just spent several days with lots of children and family--negotiating airplane problems and customer service nightmares. The idea that enhancement therapies could help a frazzled person better cope with all of these demands and stresses is appealing. It really is. Self-medication is not only morally permissible in my book, but it is necessary.

But, for me, the the real problem with the "Off-Label Life," as Warner cleverly calls it, is not the individual choices of whether or not to take ritalin or ambien to get through one's multi-tasked, fast-paced day. Rather, the problem manifests as political. The technologies that we use to manage the lifestyle we have created here in the U.S. (and increasingly elsewhere) only reifies and thereby legitimates it. We don't ever step back and ask: "Really, is this what life is about?"

No American holiday brings this home for me more than Christmas. We raise children now to expect to wake up on Christmas morning with dozens of "box store" gifts that take a paycheck bonus (if families are lucky to have employed parents) and more food than anyone can eat. This past Christmas, I found myself totally alienated and downright disgusted by this behavior. I thought about how shitty the whole economy is, how many people are struggling to get food and shelter, and then when I saw how much food that me and others made that got thrown away, and how many gifts were wrapped up that cost money that people could've really used for more elemental things, I was bummed.

Now, try to change the rules on kids at this point. You can't. They have been raised to expect this. The entire culture rewards this sort of gluttony. My dad even pointed that if you don't have gifts that children like, then they will start to cry. Gratitude doesn't seem to be part of the picture. But, you can't change the rules on kids who have grown up expecting this (I can however, never have Maddie grow up this way!).

Anyway, my reflections on the waste of Christmas--and how much the consumerism detracts from the real gifts of Christmas, such as spending time together away from work--come from the same intuition I have about enhancement medications.

We build them to persist in a gluttonous, wasteful, hectic and self-indulgent life. Why do moms take Ritalin or drink lots of coffee? To have enough energy to get their children from one structured activity to the next and their equipment and snacks and change of clothes, etc. Parenting=multi-tasking par excellence.

My former colleague Kerry has a great insight about how our consumerist culture expects utter perfection from everyone. Nowhere is this more obvious to me than in the behavior of uber-mothers. And, they transmit this to their children who grow up with anxiety fits about all the variety of ways to fail or to get hurt or make mistakes. No wonder my students are so damn medicated! So, we have hockey moms souping up on enhancement drugs to get through their structured children play/practice/tutoring/extra-curricular-activities-that-look-good-on-college-applications days. Then, we have their children growing up with unrealistic, and soul crushing, expectations for what counts as success.

Let's face it. This is fucked up. And, to get through our expensive and hectic lives we take enhancement medications, which keep us going and cranking out that American work ethic.

More than ever I count myself lucky to live in this tiny town. My daughter won't grow up around ostentatious displays of wealth or "keeping up with the Jones" Wii games and Barbie Palaces. She will grow up learning how to chop wood, clear trails in the wood, fish (hunt?), cross-country ski, read, build warm fires, make homemade pumpkin pies . . .So, am I a Luddite?

Maybe. But, the alternative really sucks.