walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

consumption services

I'm ripping this away from my appalling fascination with the unbelievable vitriol being heaped upon Baby Planners in the blogosphere, because I want to mutter for a while about the more general phenomena, consumption services or products you can buy and experts you can hire to help you consume.

There are a lot of them out there. And a good thing, too! Depending on how you define this, you could include indoor plumbing (can you even _imagine_ having to shlep water? And yet, that's what women and girls the world over spend a big chunk of their day doing). Cars so we don't have to walk. Heating and cooling so we don't have to wear as many clothes/sweat as much, and we can each have our own bed. While there are some chefs who think a mortar and pestle still serve a useful purpose in cooking, for the most part, our grinding is powered and even that is done by someone else -- we buy stuff in pre-powdered.

Once upon a time, people ate food with their fingers (again, still do in a lot of places -- including fried chicken, ribs. . .). Maybe there was a bread, rice or other starch that you used to scoop up the rest of the food. Maybe you had a knife to saw off bits. You drank your soup until you got a spoon. But forks? Forks were a _late_ arrival (Okay, Eurocentric bias admitted here; forks in China predate chopsticks. Are you _happy_ now?) to Europe and later still to Northern Europe and Great Britain, where they were roundly condemned as effeminate. For centuries.

Clearly, there's a longstanding history of mockery and condemnation of things that we regard as normal, everyday, everyone-uses-them-to-consume items. Let us take up the lowly handkerchief.

Okay, let's not. If I start talking about that, the next thing you know, I'm quoting Erasmus and we're talking about snot and cuffs and don't look at it as if it were pearls and blah blah blah and shortly after _that_ I'm off on the whole ew-it-has-something-to-do-with-the-physical-body-and-must-be-thrown-away detachment culture of the mid 20th century.

Having dropped the hanky (heh), I'll fast forward to consumption services of a more recognizable variety. Why do we need experts to tell us what to buy? And come on, we all do. We may not hire a wedding planner (or a baby planner), but travel agencies have been around for a while and were considered a quite normal service (at least until recently). It's not like interior designers or landscape architects or whatever are brand new services. How are new consumption services created and normalized? And for everyone who (like me) _doesn't_ necessarily hire these characters in person, let's not lose track of all the packaged up services in the form of guidebooks. Maybe you didn't hire a travel agency, but you probably got a book or found a website to help plan the trip. Maybe you didn't hire an interior designer, but there are rows and rows of books at the home improvement store that seem to have good turnover -- and that's ignoring all the Kitchen & Bath books at the grocery store, intermingled with Lucky (the magazine for shoppers -- oh, I laughed my ass off about that one, too, and it's been amazingly successful and spawned imitators), and Better Homes & Gardens and so forth.

Some of us (I've met you) dodge all this, because instead of buying the magazine, the book, the video, watching the TV series or hiring the expert, you cadge that service for free from a friend or family member. When I'm not entirely certain how to start researching something, I'll mooch free expert advice from my extended family (fortunately, it's chock full o' lawyers, doctors and nurses, among other specialties). It's far from clear to me that it's somehow more "moral" or "natural" to go ask for the distilled advice of a friend or family member than to "hire" an expert or buy their packaged advice. (It is, I think, more effective: your friend or family member is a known quantity in terms of value system and so forth, and you can probably get them to tell you just what you need without having to wade through a lot of irrelevancy.)

Once we had indoor plumbing, a lot of things became possible that there's no fricking way anyone is going to haul water (never mind hauling fuel to boil the water) to do. Like, say, a dishwasher. Washing a towel after every single use. Heck, flush toilets. But I don't think that's why indoor plumbing was invented -- indoor plumbing happened because just the bare minimum water hauling was crazy work. So what about a wedding, or having a baby has become crazy work necessitating a consumption service to help us have a wedding or a baby?

I think when you ask the question that way, the answer becomes brutally obvious. There was a time when a wedding dress was a special dress, but not a dress worn only one time. The wedding was a special occasion, but held in a special place that was once-a-week special. The wedding meal was a special meal, but a special meal in the several-times-a-year sense special, not special in the sense of catered by uniformed strangers and costing more than your car special. And the traditions were, let's face it, chaotic and somewhat mean (yes, Virginia, my mother was complaining about the removal of the distributor cap from their car on their wedding day decades after the fact. And I do not blame her. That is not funny.), rather than carefully scripted by the bridal party, emceed by the DJ or similar, and collected from a half dozen or more ethnic traditions, possibly having little or nothing to do with the heritage of the bridal party.

Hell yeah, you need a wedding planner. If you don't use one, it's because you learned how to simulate one. I'm not saying no one is going down to the courthouse any more, or holding the reception in the library's function room (hey, I did that for my first wedding. It was nice.). I'm just saying this kind of thing has become pretty typical.

Back when in the days of isn't-it-fun-to-take-the-distributor-cap (which was at least a little better than the previous generations ideas of wedding shenanigans, like chivarees), having a baby had gotten complicated enough to involve a trip to the hospital BUT infant car seats had not yet been invented. Right there it's clear it was a much simpler world, because without infant car seats, the universe of possible strollers is severely limited. Contrary to popular opinion, breast pumps _did_ exist back then (let me tell you about milk banks. No? *sigh*) BUT they were not commonly used by mothers to feed their own milk to their own babies so someone else could raise their babies for them. Formula was considerably simpler -- depending on which decade you're interested in, it was a matter of selecting a recipe (or having a doc write scrip for such a recipe); a little later, there were product selections, but nothing remotely like what we're looking at now. We have _designer cribs_ at all price points now; I'm pretty sure that kind of selection is relatively new. I'm reasonably sure the Boppy, My Brest Friend, not to mention the Whozit did _not_ exist when I was born (altho I suspect _Pat the Bunny_ did).

Dude. Babies R Us didn't exist when I was born, never mind the upscale versions of same. You don't need a Baby Planner or Baby Concierge to help you navigate a Plastic Jungle that has not yet sprouted.

Can you still get baby shoes bronzed? And does anyone _do_ that with their Robeez? It seems so unlikely, somehow. And who told moms and dads back in the day that having their baby shoes bronzed was de rigeur? I'm betting there was an ad campaign somewhere -- and for all I know, some edition of Dr. Spock supplied addresses of where to send the little footwear off to. More likely, there was a magazine at the peds office.

Consumption services are _not_ commercialization gone crazy. Consumption services exist to reinstate some sanity in a world of commercialization gone crazy. Professionalization of consumption, ditto. It seems a little cruel to go after people who have enough money to hire some assistance, whether it's changing their oil, cooking their food, cleaning their house, rubbing their feet, cutting their hair, rocking their baby, teaching their 5 year old how to read or whatever. But then, maybe all those people on the attack are really kinda pissed off because they see the inequity in our society that says that some people can hire someone else to do their laundry -- but the person doing that laundry still has to do their own.

I should probably stop now. I'm most of the way through _The Political Life of Medicare_ and, despite it being University of Chicago press, it's really, really good.
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