Not with a Bang, But a Tote Bag

Back in the pre-covid days of festivals and conferences, my husband used to travel a lot, and my closet overflowed with tote bags. This essay appeared in the now defunct Weekly Standard September 26, 2018. An article in today’s NYTimes brought tote bags and all their environmental baggage once again to the fore.

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I seem to recall an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson in which he predicts that the world will be subsumed not by fire or flood, but by an overwhelming mound of common pins. It hasn’t happened so far, but that may be because we have shifted the cultural weight, as it were, to a far more voluminous enemy: the tote bag. 

My husband is on the festival circuit. He goes to exotic and beautiful places like Maui and Aspen, cavorting with celebrities and beautiful people, while I stay home with the dogs. It’s not as bad as it sounds, really, and it has the advantage of enhancing spousal appreciation, but it does have a curious byproduct. Every time he returns, he presents me with a tote bag.

Tote bags are nothing new. They have been the mainstays of museum gift shops and the low-cost premium for subscriptions to magazines and public television for decades. Environmentalists made them important by urging us to pile our groceries into their bacteria-infested depths week after week, rather than wounding the earth with the clean, fresh, disposability of plastic or paper grocery bags. 

I love the earth. But I have questions about tote bags. 

I have never had a statement handbag, but then, I live in the Midwest where things like that are considered ostentatious. I do find, however, almost against my will, that I have begun to select the tote bag I want depending on where I’m going and who I will be seeing. There is a hierarchy to tote bags that is more subtle than the kind of car you drive. Tote bags can brag without your ever having to say a word. They are signaling mechanisms to announce your affiliations. 

The local grocery store gives out a flimsy, paper-thin canvas wine bag when you purchase more than one bottle. It’s okay if you leave that one behind at your friend’s house. I have a beautiful well-made canvas bag with a painting of the Flatiron Building that I purchased in a museum gift shop. It is sturdy enough to carry books and signals my cultural sophistication. This may have slightly more cachet than the thin fabric WNYC tote that seems to suggest that I am a donor (I am not) or that I am part of the East Coast intelligentsia (I am most definitely not). I have a bag from the American Enterprise Institute, proving that I am “Fighting for Freedom, Opportunity, Enterprise.” That sounds nice. The TaxPayers’ Alliance signals my support for fiscal restraint, and the Hoover Institution is a nice way of encouraging people to enquire whether I have met Milton Friedman or George Shultz. I have bags from book conferences that suggest my writing bona fides. I have one that declares “We Can Change the World,” a claim whose sincerity I don’t doubt, but about whose particulars I am somewhat skeptical. Perhaps my favorite is my niece’s gift, a utilitarian lightweight “Totes Ma Goats” bag in which I carry my own books (especially my novel The Audacity of Goats) for publicity events. 

But of all the tote bags, the most exclusive are those presented as swag to attendees of various high-level conferences, like the Aspen Ideas Festival. We now have three or four Aspen tote bags. One is beautifully made from military grade canvas with leather handles and represents philanthropy to a veterans group. A bag from an exclusive corporate philanthropic retreat has a lovely insulated pocket underneath to carry your properly chilled bottle of New Zealand sauvignon blanc or possibly a can of bug spray that wouldn’t mix well with the potato salad. 

Does Davos have a tote bag, I wonder? Do Davos attendees ever do anything that requires the use of a tote bag? Or do they bring them home as a bonus gift to their nannies? 

As my husband’s spoils of conquest accumulate in the hall closet, and the door becomes harder to close, I have begun to feel the need for some form of triage. How many tote bags does one family require? I ought to sort through, choose the most exclusive, and chuck the rest, but I’ll probably keep the nice plastic one from the now-defunct local bookstore. It’s easy to disinfect.

Going With the Flow

Pirate ship

My niece’s wedding took place on a dock on Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, a fashionably updated working harbor surrounded by sailing ships, industrial areas, refurbished warehouses and chic shops and restaurants. It was a formal wedding, with the bride in cream satin, five bridesmaids in teal organza, and the groom and groomsmen in classic black tuxedoes.

Among the various tourist attractions on the Harbor is a pirate ship. It has lots of flags and sails, and a skull and crossbones, and its purpose, apparently, is for people to get happily sloshed while sailing around and experiencing various kinds of pirate schtick, all electronically amplified. I’m not clear on exactly what this involves. Maybe it’s something like the routines of the flight attendants on SouthWest Airlines only with a pirate theme, and probably a cannon or something. Anyway, the bride had been warned by the venue that the pirate ship made regular trips on Saturday afternoons, and that the pirates and their passengers tended to be somewhat…uninhibited.

Sure enough, just after the officiant had begun the service and The Sainted Aunt had been invited to come forward to speak, the pirate ship made its appearance, accompanied by amplified uproar. Naturally, it was impossible to speak over this, so the ceremony paused and everyone turned to watch the ship go by. This took some time. Everyone on the pirate ship waved, and the entire bridal party and guests all waved back. A ceremonial ARRRRRRRRRR was raised from the ship, and the guests responded in kind.

No matter what what else was said and done that day after more than a year of planning–what the vows were, what music was played, what was on the menu at the reception–I’m pretty sure that this act of exuberant spontaneity–and the response to it–is the one thing everyone will remember twenty years from now.

Another lesson for married life.

Words for the Newlyweds

From my talk at my niece’s wedding.

I would like to point out to those who don’t know me that I am not merely an aunt, but that I am in fact, The Sainted Aunt. In that role—and since you’ve given me a microphone—your mistake—I would like to offer some small pieces of advice which the bride and groom probably won’t hear today or remember later.

Never mind.

Madeleine L’Engle is best known for her science-fiction children’s books. But she was also a prolific essayist. One day while reading something of hers about creativity, one sentence brought me up short.

It was this: Love isn’t an emotion. It’s a policy.

That may be an odd thing to say at a wedding, but it is the secret to all relationships. Because if we base our relationships solely on how we feel, then we have the power to ignore them if we become tired; to throw them away if we can’t forgive; to crush them and destroy them if we are angry.

The intense passion and devotion we feel for one another at the beginning is not an experience that continues constantly. People annoy us; they bore us; they disappoint us; they desperately hurt us; they forget to pick up their socks. So does that mean if we aren’t feeling passion we don’t love? Of course not—if it did, no human relationship would last more than a few minutes.

No. Love has its seasons of emotions that come and go, but it is, in fact a policy. It is a decision we make about commitment, about value, and for the day to day essence of any relationship: It determines how we treat each other in the casual exchanges of every day life.

It is so often true that we make more effort to be civil to strangers than we do to people in our own house. Surely these people whom we love most deserve our most full effort to be kind? So my first piece of advice is to be polite to each other. Save your best selves for each other, not for strangers. If you do that, your home will always be a place of refuge.

Life with humans—even with dogs, as any of us who loves dogs will know—also involves a lot of mistakes. And thoughtlessness. And grievous hurts. And when we are hurt, it is natural to be angry. It is an instinct of self love and preservation. But to nurture anger is to willingly harbor a killer within your heart. George MacDonald said “It may be infinitely less evil to murder a man than to refuse to forgive him. The former may be a moment of passion: the latter is the heart’s choice. It is spiritual murder, the worst, to hate, to brood over a feeling….”

And in any relationship—especially in marriage when, at our most vulnerable, we can innocently hurt one another—it is essential to drop your pride and to forgive, forgive, and to forgive again.

But if you remember one thing, make it forgiveness.

My last piece of advice may be, ironically, the most difficult.

We have some friends who have a very busy life. He has a very successful business; she does, too. His 93 year old grandfather with the beginnings of dementia lives with them and likes to wander out on his own to mow the lawn; they have 3 children, and one of them, a teenager, is seriously ill. Their life is full and busy, and demanding. It can be hard. But every morning when they wake up, he says to her: How are we going to have fun today?

One of my favorite public figures is John Cleese—one of the original members of Monty Python. Think: a sort of 1970’s version of Eddie Izzard. Since the days of the television show he has gone on to a career—believe it or not—as a creativity consultant—which sounds like a sketch from the show, but it is actually perfectly true.

Cleese talks about the distinction between being serious and being solemn. He points out that you can be sitting around a table talking about the most serious things in the world: Love, death, the meaning of life, great literature, and you can be laughing while you speak of them. Serious doesn’t mean humorless. And you don’t have to go to the circus—or the New York trapeze school—to have fun.

But laughing and finding escape can be liberating and inspiring, and relationship building.

Not to mention a whole lot cheaper than psychotherapy.

Our life’s landscape isn’t geographical. It’s human. When you are young, life is an endless horizon of years ahead. It’s hard to realize how fast time goes, and how quickly the people we assume will always be here can suddenly be gone, changing the landscape of your life forever. It’s easy to allow the demands of every day to take up our energy and our hours. But in this, in every day, we have the essence of our lives. Our lives are only time, and, however far off the horizon seems, finite. So take the time every day to have fun together.

For all that, Marriage is serious business. To return to Madeleine L’Engle, (and I am paraphrasing) marriage is a fearful gamble, requiring risking everything of yourself. Marriage starts with love, and it is something that you must create together. And, she says, it is that creation that is part of our human calling.

So…Remember: love isn’t a feeling. It’s a policy.
Be polite. Forgive, forgive, forgive.

And have fun.

Off you go.