Caught unawares and no bracelet to show for it

Kathleen Parker
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Posted: Jul 23, 2005 12:00 AM

I hadn't realized how unaware I was until the woman seated next to me snapped a strip of leather around my wrist and whispered: "This is hottest thing in Hollywood right now."

Looking down, I admired my new adornment. Embossed on the soft caramel leather band were the words "Stop Global Warming." Almost immediately, I was aware of wearing a bracelet. I was also aware of an unfamiliar warmth. Not the global sort, but that which radiates from one's Inner Virtue.

I could feel other people in the restaurant looking at me and knew that they knew. As I walked down the street later, strangers glanced discreetly at my wrist, whispering and nodding. Their faces betrayed their thoughts:

"There goeth forth a woman who opposes global warming," and all were glad.

And soon the planet would cool, and the glaciers would freeze again, and Mother Earth would smile upon her diverse and virtuous children.

But firsteth, excuse me while I burneth my bracelet.

The phenomenon of "awareness bracelets" - a real term for which we have Lance Armstrong and Nike to thank - has reached its absurd conclusion. There are now so many bracelets, causes and colors that all meaning - if ever there were any - has been sacrificed to the gods of commodification.

Like nearly everything else these days, it's all about moi. Here's the trick: While publicly declaring your deep concern via colored ribbons and embossed bracelets, you get to draw attention to yourself. It's not enough to care quietly or to commit private acts of conscience. You have to erect a billboard on your forearm.

Now even the kids are on board, not to be confused with those yellow "baby on board" signs anxious mothers hang in the rear windows of their Volvos. Indeed, collecting awareness bracelets is the latest fad among preteens, who wear multiple bracelets at once.

In the era of competitive caring, wrists have become bumpers for people too young to drive. Personally, I miss the days when kids collected baseball cards and marbles and cared about Trigger. Today's highly evolved human offspring worry about everything from diabetes to deadbeats.

To say there's a bracelet for every cause or concern is to understate what can only be described as a new mutant form of mass hysteria. There are colors for diseases that germs haven't thought of yet. Ever hear of GERD? Me neither, but someone somewhere is aware of it, and he's wearing light blue. (OK, I looked it up and it's an acronym for gastroesophageal reflux disease, which seems like something we shouldn't be talking about.)

Of course, light blue could mean something else. Graves' disease, for instance, or irritable bowel syndrome. Surely there's no love at first sight quite like that when two people wearing irritable bowel bracelets bump into each other on the Metro.

With so much to care about, there aren't enough colors to go around. In fact, some colors are so tortured by concern and afflicted with disease, Amnesty International has been notified. Take yellow.

Remember when yellow meant bring our hostages home (Iran '79)? Now yellow may refer to spina bifida, equality, missing children, bladder cancer, Amber Alert, suicide or endometriosis. So much for sunny.

To minimize confusion, caring colorists have resorted to nuance and shading. A different shade of blue makes more than a shade of difference. Imagine your embarrassment if you mistook a Reye's syndrome causist (blue blue) for a myasthenia gravis victim (light blue/teal). Today's compassion requires a whole new etiquette.

The point of all this originally was to raise awareness and money for cancer. The Lance Armstrong Foundation and Nike teamed up to sell $1 yellow "Livestrong" bracelets in honor of Armstrong, a cancer survivor, during his sixth consecutive win in the Tour de France.

Other foundations and activists latched on and - one hopes - have nearly exhausted the trend. You can probably figure the awareness bracelet has passed the tipping point, jumped the shark and is riding a dead cliche to an apocalyptic finish when the featured bracelet at awarenessdepot.com (no kidding) is a black-and-white wristlet that says "God Bless The Dead."

I'd say that about covers it, though I'm still waiting for the invisible bracelet to raise awareness about the problem of awareness bracelets. In the meantime, children are learning the important lesson, certain to help them advance in America's corporate, human-resource culture, that publicly displaying one's virtue is a virtue in itself.