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Movie Reviews

The Ornaments of Success

(Note: This started out as a blog entry but got really long, which explains its tone, I hope.)

I did a lot of winter-holiday shopping this weekend (12/3/04), and I found myself thinking back with some nostalgia to when I was poor. When I say "poor," I don't mean that I was drowning in financial obligations like kids or debt; I just didn't have very much money, since I had moved out of my parents' house, and no one gets too much money from a data entry job (or, for that matter, any job that require no special skills or a college degree). Starting with this blank slate, it was easy enough with a reasonable amount of discipline and invention to operate comfortably. Everything I bought at the grocery that wasn't a staple had to be on sale. Any gourmet goods had to be purchased at Trader Joe's, where I knew they would be the cheapest possible. I bought books and CDs used with only the rarest of exceptions, and set an informal $15 limit on concert-ticket purchasing. I didn't have a car, and cheerfully navigated the J, 46, and 5 buses to and from work and shopping. I asked for things like sheets and pillows for my birthday.

The objectives were to be able to save some money, pay for meals and outings with my friends, and take occasional weekend jaunts to places where people I could stay with lived. Behind it all was an enthusiastic embrace of how things were, best expressed by the cheerful rejoinder "There is no way I am paying that much for that." I had identified what I needed to do, and I could do it, and I took pride in the fact that I could do it for less than most people.

At the stores this weekend, though, I found myself experiencing a kind of cash-enabled vertigo: "I can pay for pretty much anything I want in here, for myself or for my friends and family." (Keep in mind I was in book and CD stores, and not Neiman Marcus or anything.) I'm now making a little over double my peak pre-degree salary, but my expenses haven't increased much: I'm still in the same apartment, even if its rent has increased, and I still take the bus and rail most of the time even if I can drive somewhere. Shopping for a certain kitchen item for some people who read this site (no hints!) in Williams-Sonoma, I picked up an example of that item that cost $30, just after a wealthy-looking middle-aged couple had put it down. "Thirty bucks?" I said, softly but distinctly. "Hell naw!"

Yet this culture of ours, as much as I love it, nevertheless sends an insistent and somewhat insidious message: "You can buy a better one. You can get something extra-special. And you should, because if you have the money, you deserve it." A lot of people go through life never even questioning this message and proceeding from purchase to purchase, and they get some enjoyment from it; I like my $19 pizza cutter quite a lot, thank you. But there's more freedom in life, I think, if you can question that message every time it works its way into your mind as an assumption. There's nothing about the existence of something better that necessarily implies that your personal life will actually be enhanced by its possession, and the existence of money certainly shouldn't demand that you spend it on acquiring something extra-special. I've thought several times about moving, but my apartment actually meets my needs quite well (when it's not on fire). A nicer apartment wouldn't let me spend as much on things that I actually, you know, want to spend money on. And there's certainly no relationship between the fact that I can afford a nicer apartment and the assumption that I should rent one because I can.

Of course, like everything else I do, I probably take this too far in the direction I've chosen; I'm still bitterly disappointed when I forget to bring a coupon for 75 cents off Dove soap to the Giant at which Dove soap is on sale, and I sometimes avoid ordering the dish that I want at restaurants solely because of its expense. But I still enjoy saying, whether appropriate or not, "There is no way I am paying that much for that."

It was really over this last weekend that I realized: Now that my ability, and thus willingness, to pay that much for that has increased, I say it a lot less. And lost in possibilities at various culture emporia, I had to remind myself to say it at all. I hope I can find some reasonable way to go forward, mostly by balancing further acquisition with saving and donating to charity, but I'll miss more and more the clarity and bracing contrariness of not being able to pay that much for much at all.


All this tasty writing ©2002-11 by Andrew Lindemann Malone. All rights reserved.