Friday, September 10, 2010

Gone shoppin'

“How many things there are in the world of which Diogenes hath no need!” – Diogenes (upon entering an Athens marketplace)

George Costanza: I'll sniff out a deal. I have a sixth sense.
Jerry: George, cheapness is not a sense.


Oh, how I hate the mall. I’ve been averse to it ever since I was a little boy. Between all the lights, colors, people and smells, I’d get dizzy and nauseous and have to take rests in the food court. Now, between the sensory overload (to which I'm still sensitive) and my distaste for all things gaudy and unnecessary, I hate visits to the mall as much as I hate visits to the dentist—another place that conjures memories of childhood trauma.

Despite my aversion to malls and marketplaces, I actually like buying things. The desire to have things is, after all, uniquely and universally human. But like other pleasures, I think the pleasure of the purchase can be destructive when we act immoderately.

If there’s anything that's made me wary of shopping, it’s the realization that the purchase is—like the alcoholic’s first swig of bourbon—instantly gratifying, but—like the alcoholic’s subsequent hangover and reduced mental faculties—devastating in the long run. Once the itch to purchase has been scratched, we’re left feeling guilty and hollow until we seek another "high" with yet another purchase, and then another and another…. And after the pleasure of the purchase has dissipated, the product ceases to enrich us, and starts to just take up space and remind us of our profligacy.

The joy of buying, to me, is a joy worth forgoing. To curb my desires, I’ve created rules. For one, when it comes to buying shoes, I’ve told myself that I can only buy a new pair if my current shoes are either visibly falling apart or hurting me.

Here are my old sneakers, which were both falling apart and causing pain. I bought a new pair ($70).

I bought three tanks of propane ($30). I cook about 4-5 meals a week. These will probably last me the entire school year. Amazingly, I still feel guilty about making these undeniably necessary purchases.

I wear my poverty like a badge of honor. I like donning faded shirts and ripped jeans; I like driving a beat-up van and carrying around a battered water bottle. I'm reluctant to admit that--when dressed in my drabbest garb--I can't help but feel a sense of superiority amongst material-minded people who’ve allowed themselves to be brainwashed by money-driven ad men, and who’ve thoughtlessly acquiesced to the prevailing social norms no matter how silly or expensive they may be. My poverty is like a declaration of independence; it’s a symbol of my unwillingness to dance according to the direction of some corporate puppeteer.

Though I'm nowhere near audacious enough to reject all fashion trends, shopping at The Salvation Army seems to help me strike a balance: somewhere between respectably dressed and embarrassingly out of fashion. While they'd probably serve their purpose as clothes just as well, I suppose I care enough about my appearance to stay a step above burlap sacks or a patched-together cloak of rabbit furs.

Last year I bought—for the first time in a long time—some new clothes (a pair of cargo shorts for $20 if I remember correctly). I committed this rare sin because the cut-off jean shorts hanging on the rack at The Salvation Army was, I’m afraid, a badge just a bit too shiny for me. This fall, my other clothes-related expense has been a set of white tees, which I purchased because I’d stained all my other tees working in David’s garden ($12).

Another rule I follow is that sometimes the cheapest item is—in the long run—the most expensive and, inversely, the most expensive, the cheapest.

My mom frequently calls herself a “professional shopper” for her ability to sniff out uncommonly inexpensive deals. When she finds some unusually cheap item she thinks she's—by dint of her powers—discovered some "glitch" in the system, which she's quick and eager to exploit. But really, she just buys the cheapest crap available that, sure enough, will be showing signs of accelerated decomposition soon after the purchase is brought home.

One day she came home with a big leather swivel chair to put in our computer room. “You won’t believe what I got it for,” she said, beaming, as if she’d picked up a pot of gold on her drive home from work.

We all surrounded it, ewwwing and ahhhing over the upgrade. Within a week, though, one of the "arms" had disconnected from the chair and there were several ruptures in the seat exposing some cheap yellow foam stuffing inside. It didn’t last more than a year.

My dad is little better. He bought me my first car when I was nineteen because I needed a way to get to my $5.75 an hour landscaping job.

I remember I was surprised when he told me he was buying me a car since things, in our family, were given and taken scrupulously. At first, I was delighted. I pictured myself in a modest but respectable four-doored sedan, cruising for chicks down the Niagara Falls Boulevard with one hand on the wheel and the other confidently dangling out the window. Maybe there’d even be a sun roof, I fantasized. In moments of impassioned impetuosity, one of these girls would—if in a particularly frolicsome mood—open the roof, stick her upper-body out, and scream ecstatically as the wind swept through her long, flowing hair.

“What kind is it?” I asked.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said.

“What do you mean? What kinda car is it? How much was it?”

“I said don’t worry about it!” he repeated, turning his face from me. Normally, all topics regarding money and gifts were topics—out of principle—not be discussed. But this time I detected something else. I saw him accidentally crack a smile and wondered what information he had that he was so careful not to disclose.

To lower my expectations, he epilogued the conversation with: “One of the doors might be a different color than the rest of the car.”

When we went to pick it up, I was taken aback when we drove into, not a used car dealership as I’d expected, but a mechanic’s lot. Parked in the grass was a dilapidated Nissan Sentra that smelled like it was birthed from and reared in a tobacco factory. The person selling it--I'd later learn--didn't have the heart to take money.

A week later, I was driving my friend Josh to a roller hockey game we were to play in. I remember disregarding the smoke that seeped out of the cracks of the hood as part of the whole “breaking in” process. Moments later, there was a “BOOM” and I lost control of the vehicle. The engine had exploded and the car ended up safely on the side of the road. Despite our brush with death, Josh and I couldn’t control our laughter. The car got junked.

A week later my dad bought me another car; this time it cost him $300. It was an ’87 Dodge Aries that I called "The Reagan" since it came out of the factory when "the Gipper" was in office. When I took left hand turns the car’s innards moaned like dinosaurs doing battle. Sometimes it stalled when making loops on thruway entrance ramps. This one only lasted a summer.

So I suppose my point is that I’ve learned that some expensive purchases are worth the cost. At the beginning of my experiment, I thought about going without car insurance ($47/month) and a cell phone service ($37/month). But because I knew I needed a phone to find work, and that it would cost me a ton if I got caught without car insurance, I decided to give in and pay these unwanted monthly fees.

I suppose I should also note how buying a $1,500 van was also a huge gamble (as is going without health insurance). I figured I’d be alright in a rattletrap because I foresaw driving very little. It turns out that the van operates really well. In fact, I’ve been able to make several long-distance trips to David’s and the Appalachian Trail.

After almost two years, I haven’t needed one repair. I did, however, just get a new set of tires ($330) because my old set had the mechanics at Sears doubled over in laughter when I asked them if they thought my baby-smooth treads would pass inspection. They also told me I really need new front breaks, so that’ll be a future expense.

While having things and security is nice, I suppose I favor the simple life because, for one among a thousand reasons, it allows me to enjoy a period of self-enrichment and development. Because I don’t need a job to pay off an endless series of bills, debts, and purchases, I can focus on myself for a bit. Of course I’ll need to make a little money here and there, but it’s been over a year since I had my last full-time job, and I still have a good sum leftover from my summer working with the Park Service—enough at least to get me through another year at Duke.

Friday, September 3, 2010

First week of school

Ah, the first week of classes! There is adventure, hope, romance (electricity!) in the air.

Frisbees float above freshly groomed campus lawns. The gym is packed with people trying to keep summer muscles hard. Males are clean-shaven and dressed neatly in ironed polos and plaid shorts. Frustratingly pretty females are quick to give friendly smiles in delightful sundresses and skirts.

I remember my first day of college back in August of 2001. My best friend Josh and I were going to be roommates at Alfred University—a pricy private school in southern New York. When our parents dropped us off and said goodbye, we turned the stereo all the way up in our dorm and celebrated our newfound freedom with chest poundings and maniacal dancing.

It was our first taste of freedom, and it was wonderful. We envisioned ourselves partaking in passionate, but fleeting romances, leading the club hockey team to glory, and—to a lesser degree—excelling in school.

Things didn’t go exactly as planned. The hockey team performed pitifully and I struggle to remember if we even won a game that year. My female pursuits—a embarrassing series of rejections and misadventures—all ended disastrously. And my grades were mediocre at best since I was just starting to shed my high school slacker skin.

I had my first beer in college, and between the pleasures of the “sauce” and the dining hall fare that gave me more digestive issues than I care to mention and you care to hear—I added a good thirteen pounds of flab onto what had been a trim physique.

Despite our unmet expectations, my experience at Alfred was great. As are my experiences at Duke. But I suppose I’m far different than the excited eighteen-year-old who wandered doe-eyed onto campus nine years ago.

I know that by the time December rolls around, the excitement in the air will have dissipated. The males will have slender, pale muscles, and two week’s worth of stubble sprouting on their chins. The women—carrying around an extra seven or eight pounds—will stagger into libraries with zombie eyes and a caffeinated gait, carrying a piping-hot cup of coffee in one hand and a greasy bag of Chick-fil-A in the other.

I'm afraid I don’t share the same excitement as my fellow students. This is my eighth year of school, so I guess I know what to expect. Don’t get me wrong—I’m happy to be here. It’s just that I’ve learned that university life can be an unnatural, unhealthy way to live.

The intellectual journey is little different than a physical journey. The serious student is like a lonely ascetic embarking on a transformative adventure. To go from his “old” self to his hopefully smarter, keener, more developed “new” self, he must endure a period of struggle and sacrifice.

Of course one hopes that all the struggle and sacrifice will be worth it one day. But that's an easy gamble for me to make. Despite graduating with $32K in student loans, and Josh with over $60K, I'm sure neither of us would go back in time and change things around. Really, it's unthinkable since we're more than aware of the transformative power of a college education.

Some things I’m not looking forward to:

-Waking up in a 100 degree van.
-Waking up and having to disrobe in a 20 degree van.
-The coffee addiction that comes with too much school work and not enough time.
-The loneliness that comes with being a man on a journey who knows he ought not forge ties that are sure to be severed.
-Invading swarms of ants and shelter-seeking mice.

Things I am looking forward to:

-The rare “rush” or “click” one feels—upon reading a book, listening to a lecture, or writing down thoughts—when the world, suddenly, makes a lot more sense.
-Cooking evening feasts on the lawn in front of my van.
-My dear, darling elementary-aged tutees
-Being lulled to sleep by the cicadas’ hum
-Feeling the cool air on my face when bundled in a sleeping bag on a cold winter’s day.

I have just two semesters left. If all goes according to plan, I will have no problem graduating debt-free.

Lastly, here are some end-of-summer cleaning shots. My van was in nasty shape and it needed a thorough cleaning. This summer I killed two more mice in the van with traps. Here's a few pics with everything removed.

This is what a three-month-old apple looks like.

Over the past year and a half, I've accumulated my fair share of crap. This is pretty much everything I own except for my clothes, some drawers, my sleeping bags, and cooking supplies.

The great thing about living in a van is that it helps you keep your stuff at a minimum because you can only fit so much stuff in there. Mine was starting to get uncomfortably dense so I gave a box of books away to a used bookstore.

This is the first time I've been able to vacuum the van.

Giving the ole coat hook a shining.

All clean!

Home sweet home.