Monday, December 26, 2011

Tweaking 'Christmas' and ditching soft drinks

Lego Santa Yoda
I've a column on the ABC today, 'Symbols of Christmas', which looks into Christmas consumption and creativity.  A sample:
One way to make the season more widely rewarding is volunteering, or other kinds of altruism: actual 'goodwill to men' rather than its simulation in advertisements. Community trumps covetousness. 
But a more humble, domestic remedy is another of Lego Santa Yoda's possibilities: creativity. While some kids just copy the instructions, the best Lego innovations happen off-plan, so to speak. They are incorporated into the raw materials of bags or tubs, and used for unpredictable games, imaginative flights, cooperative play. This is ordinary creativity, and it is for adults as well as children. 
Because of Romantic myths, creativity has a mysterious tone to it, but it need not be otherworldly. It can simply be labour, in the best sense of the word: the process of objectifying ourselves in the world. We see ourselves anew, and can reflect, meditate, criticise. It is also a particularly intimate way of giving: instead of simply handing over a credit card, we share our sensibility and sensitivity. 
Many of the older rituals of Christmas are classic domestic creativity: baking cakes and biscuits, cutting and decorating trees, making paper chains, baubles, stars. They seem hackneyed and dull, but each can reflect the subtleties of the psyche and hands behind it.
Vending machines in a hospital
Another (timely) column is in the Canberra Times, 'It's time to let the fizz out of this sickening habit'.  Killjoy that I clearly am, I'm taking aim at soft drinks, and their dubious daily ubiquity.  A sample:
It is difficult to believe that Australians drink so many soft drinks, which are the most popular water-based beverages in the country. They encourage us, in simple terms, to be sick, fat and wheezing. Yet they are now perfectly mainstream: sickly sweet has become the new norm. So much so that the soft drinks of previous generations – whether home made or mass produced – would now be considered bitter by comparison. 
This is partly familiarity: generations have grown up with these products. But it is also canny business. As Humphrey McQueen reported in The Essence of Capitalism, by slowly ramping up the sweetener in their products, soft drink companies – alongside many other confectionary businesses – have cultivated a false need: for products with unnatural sweetness, unavailable in fresh food or water. They have tinkered with our palate, in other words. 
Alongside the new demand is ubiquitous supply: soft drink dispensers in every café, train platform, mall and shopping centre. It costs companies like Coca-Cola to install, supply and maintain fridges all over the country. But it is simultaneously marketing and delivery: money well spent. Despite pledges not to advertise to children, Crikey reports that Coca-Cola has regularly sponsored children’s sports teams complete with the Coke logo at events. According to the Crikey report, the South Australian Berri Warriors baseball team was also given free drinks of Powerade, a Coca-Cola brand, alongside the company banners. 
This is all about keeping soft drinks mainstream: having them popular, available, and identified with healthy, fun pursuits. They are also cheap, which means parents struggling for necessities need not think twice about picking up a slab of bubbly sugar. 
The problem, of course, is that soft drinks are not part of a moderate diet. They are overloaded with sugar or its substitutes, and have little if any nutritional value. They are, in other words, more like a dessert: the cloying treat at the end of a special meal, or as a celebration. That they have become part of daily snacks and rehydration is a testament to excellent marketing and wayward appetites: businesses and their consumers collaborating to produce poor health.

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