Over the years I’ve met a lot of people who collected things – some of them of the “old school” variety like stamps, coins or even butterflies, and some who collected odder things. I remember (with horror) entering a colleague’s basement and seeing it lined wall to wall with “official commemorative” NASCAR memorabilia. I certainly remember working in a cubicle farm during the insanity of the Beanie Baby years. Heck, I even used to live with two chuckleheads who spent months driving all over town to different Burger Kings so they could collect Pokemon toys.
My point is that I’m familiar with collectors and am one myself, only instead of luridly colored plates with mustachioed drivers or plush toys, I collect heuristics. That’s a five dollar word from the Greek which refers to mental shortcuts people use to think about things.
Unlike some people, who consider heuristics as “flaws” in thinking or “mistakes” or even “errors in rational processing”, I think of them instead as handy tools to process a lot of information. You know, all of the billions of things going on around us all the time, which would overwhelm our brain circuits if we had to crunch each piece of data one at a time (which incidentally, is what I suspect is going on with some autistic people).
Take the drinking age in Romania – which is 18. Are people who are 17 years and 364 days old insufficiently mature to handle the consumption of an alcoholic beverage? And do they instantly gain the necessary level of maturity when the clock strikes midnight and they turn 18? Of course not.
But that’s what a heuristic is – a sort of “general rule” that tends to work out most of the time (at least in theory). Certainly we all know people twice the drinking age who shouldn’t be anywhere near a bottle of booze and likewise, perhaps a few younger people (under 18) who are mature enough to handle such things.
One heuristic you won’t find in any text or on WIkipedia is what I call the “Cult of the Bottle Shakers”, a term which I cribbed from a (fiction) book written by the genius Neal Stephenson, who perhaps coined the term partly from an old film. That’s my guess anyway.
From page 36 of Anathem:
What’s a Bottle Shaker?
Imagine a witch doctor in a society that doesn’t know how to make glass. A bottle washes up on the shore. It has amazing properties. He puts it on a stick and waves it around and convinces his fellows that he has got some of those amazing properties himself.
Think about that one for second. Really and truly – take a moment and read that paragraph until it sinks in for you.
The term “witch doctor” and “doesn’t know how to make glass” imply a very primitive, “backward” society but don’t let those terms mislead you.
Although it’s less common today, I remember a few years ago in Romania when the fashion was to carry around brand-name shopping bags. Even if you were schlepping around the same potatoes and cabbages as your neighbor, your stuff was in a DKNY bag or a Zara bag or Calvin Klein or some other brand-name bag while everyone else was stuck with those ubiquitous Tedi bags.
This, my friends, is the Cult of the Bottle Shakers. It’s why people in Cluj all went delirious with pleasure when the Starbucks opened in town. You can get a virtually equivalent cup of coffee at several places within half a kilometer of Starbucks but people still flock to the place and pay their hefty prices – why?
Romanians making half the salary I did 10 years ago buy brand-name clothes and shoes in the mall for higher prices than in the United States. Why? And the poorest gypsies and Romanians wear their Chinese-made imitation Nike shoes and athletic clothes too, where seemingly even a crooked swoosh is worth a few extra lei. Why?
It’s not enough to just say “being trendy” because it goes a lot further than just clothes or food. I almost fell out of my chair last month when reading a book by Doctor Vasile Puscas because at the beginning of his book he wrote the sentence “After 1989, Romania had no choice but to modernize”. Just like that! No explanation or justification for it. He just laid it out there on the table and went about his business as if the subject matter was so obvious that only a fool would even question it.
Which, I guess, is my role here – that of the fool.
The Cult of the Bottle Shakers in Romania goes like this: if everyone would adopt the lifestyle and the behaviors and the material possessions of a theoretical, far off land (usually America, but also Britain, Germany and France), then we’d all gain the magic to be happy.
When I hear Traian Basescu opining at length at how laws and Labor Codes need to be modified in order to attract foreign investments, all I can hear is the sound of that glass bottle rattling on a stick. Truly, I do.
Every time I hear Romanians that I know – ordinary people, not fatcat corrupt politicians – lamenting about how we “need” more highways and multinational corporations and (most surprising of all) lower gas (petrol) prices, I hear the ghostly clink of the glass rattling on a stick somewhere in the distance.
If you can pin down a Romanian long enough to ask him (or her) exactly what makes the criza a criza, they’ll start quoting numbers to you – oh the economy went down X percent this year. Or GDP (Rom: PIB) went down X percentage points. Or perhaps the number of tourists coming here fluctuated in some way. Or salaries went down. Or the prices of gasoline or milk or chicken or something else went up.
I’m not saying those numbers aren’t real – in fact, I assume they’re roughly accurate. But nobody ever asks why they matter. Those numbers describe only a tiny, tiny fraction of what makes life worth living. They focus on money and only money. And we all tend to buy into it because the witch doctors say that if only we had more money, everything would be all right.
I know Romanians who are old enough that they grew up in remote villages and had literally no money at all when they were children. They grew their own food, wove their own clothes, made their own tools and equipment and traded and bartered for what they needed. Were they unhappy because they had no cash money? Did they not sing, and laugh, and dance and smile and kiss their wives and make babies?
There is a very small country named Bhutan, nestled high in the Himalayas. I’ve never been there but they are the only place I’ve ever heard of which doesn’t just measure their Gross Domestic Product (those money numbers) but also their Gross National Happiness. Can you even imagine such a thing? They actually try to evaluate how happy people are in their country!
Not from Basescu, not from Mircea Geoana, not from Corneliu Vadim Tudor, not from Stolojan, Emil Boc, Marko Bela or Kelemen Hunor, not even from Mrs. Elena Udrea herself have I ever heard any politician talk about the national happiness of the people of this country.
No. That’s because they all belong – lock, stock and barrel – to the Cult of the Bottle Shakers, who say that if you have enough money, if you can afford that Big Mac or the six-piece Chicken Tenders at KFC, if you can wear Adidas and Levis, if you can drive your BMW at high speeds on smooth asphalt, if you can fly off to Paris or London whenever you like, then you’ll be happy.
Really. That’s their message and just about everyone with an ounce of power in this country (with a few exceptions amongst organized religion) believe it and propagate it. I hear ordinary Romanians say it every day: If I just get a little more money to acquire this, that and the next thing, then I’ll be happy.
I don’t own a car. I might like to own a bicycle at some point but for now, I don’t have one of those either. I don’t own a skateboard, a scooter or any other form of transportation, so I spend a lot of time walking around. I like walking quite a lot because I spent many years (in what feels like my “previous life”) behind the wheel. And one thing I notice here in Romania, day after day, is the expressions on people’s faces that I see walking up and down the same streets that I do.
If you live in Romania, check it out for yourself. Just look at people’s faces as they walk around. If you live somewhere where most people drive cars, just stand near a traffic light and look at the faces of the drivers at the red light. What do you see?
I can’t speak for your experience but what I see is a lot of unhappy faces. I see them now during the criza and I saw them years ago when everyone and their brother was buying washing machines on credit too. I look at the comments on this blog – a website written by the most positive, optimistic person I know (me!) – and I constantly see a lot of griping, complaining and sniping over petty shit. I can’t see your faces but I can hardly imagine most of you are smiling when you write these things.
I don’t know what the current GDP is in Romania or what the figures are for employment but I can tell you that there’s a lot of unhappy people in Romania. The witch doctors might pull this economy out of the dirt and rain down gold coins on the streets and yet I sincerely doubt whether the “Gross National Happiness” of this country would rise much. A little, perhaps, but not much.
Leaving aside young children – who haven’t yet fallen under the spell of the Bottle Shakers – the only people I regularly see laughing and smiling are gypsies. No matter how ragged their clothing, they always seem to be goofing around, laughing and joking, singing songs and telling (often quite dirty) jokes. If happiness were money, they’d be the richest people in this country for sure.
Mind you, I’m not advocating anyone adopt the lifestyle of a gypsy, nor am I saying that you should give away all your possessions either, although there are a lot worse choices that you could make.
What I am saying however is that we’ve got to change the terms of the debate here in this country. A double iced mocha coffee at Starbucks might make people happy but it’s a means to an end, not the end itself. Shiny, flashing images on MTV are mighty bewitching but what we’re after is our happiness and enjoyment of this short life we have, not just adopting the clothes, mannerisms, music, drinks, clothing and even slang of those whom we presume have a happier lifestyle.
In 2004, Basescu ran on a slogan of Sa traiti bine, which means “May you all live well!” but I think a far better slogan would be Sa traim cu bucurie de viata, may we all live happy and enjoy our lives. And no, I’m not talking about the fake smile on your face type of “happiness”, grinning like an idiot just for the sake of doing it either. I’m talking about genuine satisfaction, contentment with life and glad to be alive here in this wonderful country.
I don’t know about you but just about all of the best times I’ve ever had in Romania cost me little to no money at all. I’m talking about long conversations with friends, walks in the park, playing with my cats, sharing a Sunday morning cuddle in bed, dancing to a good song, reading a good book or drinking a glass of some fine homemade țuica. Or jeez, eating a fresh strawberry in spring or cutting up a salad in summertime, what could beat that?
Hell, one of the most fun things I did last year was pick up stinking garbage with my hands. And I still remember laughing as I drove a horse and wagon up a rural road somewhere west of Cluj a few years ago. The best tasting water I’ve ever drunk in my life didn’t cost me a dime – it came from an izvor (spring) on the side of the Transfagarasan road.
Need I go on? I hope not. I live here in Romania precisely because it does make me happy to live here. Let’s talk about what would make you happy and enjoy your life, whatever that is. The witch doctors can stomp around, shaking their bottles, convincing us that money and brands and F-16 fighter jets and highways and aping some other culture’s music, clothes and speech is the key to happiness all they want to. I say fuck ’em. And pardon me for the crude language but that’s how I feel.
But that’s what makes me happy. The question for all of you out there – especially those living in Romania – is what makes you happy?