Sunday, January 1, 2012

2011 > 2012: Everything is rejuvenated

My life is going to change — I feel it.

(from 'Fat' in 
Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” by Raymond Carver)

When Wall Street shut the trading doors on the year 2011 on Friday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was up about 5 percent; and the NASDAQ and Standard & Poor’s numbers were about level with where they ended the year before. Given the perils endured by the rest of the country — the rest of the economy — Wall Street was shooting par. But one part of the stock market had a year that was, in some ways, a case of poetic justice.

The financial stocks took a beating. Financial Select Sector SPDR Fund tumbled 18.5 percent over the course of the year, MarketWatch reported after the close. Bank of America won bottom feeder honors as the S&P 500′s worst financial stock in 2011, down nearly 60 percent for the year. And Citigroup, the global financials behemoth, lost about half its value, taking a bite from the same offal sandwich as many of its customers in an awful year.

But Citi Cards, the Citigroup consumer credit-card division, did us all some strange favor this year, in a television ad, no less.

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You’ve probably seen it: the 30-second ad for Citi Thank You Cards that shows Katie Brown and Alex Honnold, two accomplished rock climbers, clambering up a towering rock formation said to be the Fisher Towers, near Moab, Utah. The voice-over is a clever play on women’s apparel and fashion purchases for a vacation, but it’s not the words you’re paying attention to.

You’re riveted by the sight of this lean, agile chameleon athlete making her way to the top of a seemingly impossible ziggurat of rocks … and then standing at the top, on a slanted irregular surface no wider than she is tall … gazing into the distance, gorgeous in silhouette, queen of all she surveys — all of it captured in an image that is not a Hollywood special effect.

It’s then, at that moment, that you wake up to what you’re hearing: the music on the soundtrack, the song “Into the Wild” by the impossibly talented singer LP, and the phrase that hits you in the solar plexus, and stays with you —

“Somebody left the gate open … “

With the kind of year Citigroup had, the company needs all the spiritual uplift it can get. But here’s the thing: so do we. And there’s something in that 30 second spot for another bank-card rewards program that emotionally boils down both what we’ve been through in 2011, and what we’re looking for — hoping for — in 2012.

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There’s little to gain by recapping the year’s sorrows and disappointments here; yours aren’t mine aren’t hers, and recaps of the collective disasters, the ones that we can agree on by existential acclimation, will be found in the ritual top 10 lists and earnest retrospectives that crowd this end of the calendar.

It’s not a good idea to drive a long distance paying more attention to the scene in the rear-view mirror than to what’s in front of you. We seem to understand that intuitively at year’s end. An Associated Press/GfK survey from earlier this month, for example, finds 62 percent of Americans feeling optimistic about the country’s prospects in 2012; some 78 percent said they were personally hopeful about the coming year.

Another leading indicator: According to a report by Kiplinger’s, the economic forecasting outfit, men were buying new underwear as far back as February — an apparently solid if unconventional barometer of an improving economy.

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It’s part of our annual ritual of renewal, and a return to our usual pledges and resolutions: Begin the begin. Lose those ten holiday pounds and keep them off until at least after the Super Bowl. Kick those cigarettes over the cliff — and for once, don’t jump off that cliff to retrieve ‘em. Have one less drink a week; have one less latte a day.

But this year, it feels as if there’s more to look forward to. Housing starts are inching higher across the country. Farmers in Iowa are enjoying record exports.

According to the annual employment forecast from, small businesses are reporting more confidence in both hiring new employees and keeping those they’ve got this year.

About 29 percent of employers plan to concentrate on recruiting a more diverse work force; one in every five intends to focus on hiring black and Latino workers; another 20 percent plan to recruit more women.

According to a Bloomberg survey of economists before a report from the Commerce Department due out Wednesday, U.S. manufacturers saw orders increase nearing the end of 2011, with bookings for factory goods increasing by 2 percent in November.

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There are other things we already recognize on the horizon, not so much events as processes — first and foremost, the coming U.S. presidential election and its inevitable variation of the political pyrotechnics and bad behavior we’ve come to expect with either anticipation, curiosity or a certain civic dread.

Other things are one-off experiences freighted with history. The Summer Olympics are coming to London; parallel with the games themselves is a Cultural Olympiad Festival, running from late June to early September and poised to be the biggest cultural event in the UK.

A new production of Gershwin’s “Porgy & Bess,” with a freshly re-imagined book by Pulitzer winner Suzan-Lori Parks, opens on Broadway on Jan. 12. The Beach Boys — The Beach Boys! — are going out on tour to mark their 50th anniversary. There’s talk of the Rolling Stones doing the same thing.

But this is more than a confluence of policies and statistics, big events and the brand names of the culture. It’s the sense (mine, anyway) that things may be about to change in some bracing, fundamental, inescapable, structural way. The blunt power of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement; the impact of social media both on people and on corporations; the pushback against the institutional at every level ... they all suggest we’re turning some corner in this nation and in the wider world. We’re being called into the wild, the experience of rethinking the power of the vast immovables — economic, social, cultural — to which we’ve grown sadly accustomed.

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Which is why the Citi ad matters in ways beyond itself. We’re hard pressed to attach anything like philosophical sagacity to a financial conglomerate worth half as much today as it was a year ago. But give Citigroup (or more properly its creative team) credit where it’s due: The ad is a metaphor for our lives, as much aspirational as inspirational in a way that’s bigger than “reward points.” It slyly but clearly speaks to our desire to achieve, to get out of our own light, to stand on top of a rock rather than walking one up and down a hill for the rest of our lives.

It tells us what we already know, when we pay attention: We’re being summoned; this year will be about the discovery that we’re being summoned by ourselves, challenged by ourselves to be better, really better, than we’ve gotten used to. And there’s no app for that, and there never will be.

Last night was the night for parties and champagne and fireworks, if the skies were clear enough for that. Today calls for reflection; a celebration in solitude; a joy of the fact of still being in the vertical position, drawing breath, glad for the sunlight of another day above ground — even as we get ready for the hard work of climbing our own personal Fisher Towers, to play a part in the opera, the movie, the story of this, our time.

It’s New Year’s Day in America and around the world. Somebody left the gate open, all right. We did. And it’s time to step through it.

Image credits: Katie Brown: Still from the Citi cards ad. © 2011 Citigroup. 2011 poll snapshot: © 2011 GfK Roper/The Associated Press. New Year celebration in Manila: Romeo Gacad, AFP/Getty Images.

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