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.


Anonymous said...

"The desire to have things is, after all, uniquely and universally human. "

Don't squirrels hoard nuts?

Ken said...

Anon--oh c'mon. Squirrels like to have nuts, dogs like to have bones, but you know what I mean :)

Dave Sailer said...

I'm sorry I keep forgetting about your blog (intermittent brain cell shorts, I think), because every time I read it I learn something worthwhile.

Anonymous said...

$70 shoes?! That's crazy. What about thrift stores, or to the very least, something more affordable?

Ken said...

Dave--no worries, brother. Thanks for the kind words.

Anon--I know, I know... But like I said, you get what you pay for. Those shoes must function as running shoes, basketball shoes, trail-walking shoes and walking around everyday shoes. I've bought cheap shoes before and learned they were cheap for a reason. I have no issue dishing out big money on things that are important.

kenavo said...

A badge of honor, very nice said!
I also belong to the proud knightship of not needing symbols of wealth.

michael said...

I think the whole idea of wearing shabby clothes as a badge of honor is a bit disrespectful to people who are really struggling. I realize that you are working hard to sustain yourself and remain debt free, however to call the clothes a badge of honor really just exhibits how privileged you are to begin with to be able to make that choice. This may be something that occurred to you, but it wasn't addressed in this post and I thought maybe it should have been.

Ken said...

kenavo--nicely said!

Disassembled--I wear shabby clothes not to wear a badge of honor. Rather, I wear shabby clothes because I have shabby clothes and don't want to spend the money on newer, flashier clothes. They are what they are. The badge and the pride come with being aware that I don’t need to buy or consume or upgrade, and that the ad men have no control over me. It has nothing to do with a hole in my jeans. I’m thankful for your comment, but I guess I just don’t see how I’m disrespecting the truly poor. I really don’t think homeless people would be upset to see me dressed in rags or for feeling pride in wearing them.

Kevin M said...

Like you, I get a certain pleasure out of driving my older Jeep around the neighborhood, looking at all the shiny new cars wondering how much my neighbors work to pay off their toys. I specifically bought this truck because I knew I would take care of it and want to hold on to it for as long as I could, as opposed to a generic four-door sedan or whatever was popular when I bought it.

It occurs to me - after reading this entry - you and my current self are exactly the people I would have made fun of in my late teens/early 20s for not having the latest and greatest "stuff". Thankfully it only took until my mid-30s to realize how wrong I was.

Ken said...

Kevin M--ha, I remember even being proud of riding around those junkers way back then. My girlfriend at the time got a brand new car from her parents for her 17th bday. I hated that thing more than anything; something just seemed wrong with the transaction (or lack thereof).

What's the alternative to not feeling proud of what you have? It's envy and wanting. I hate feeling envy, so it's either I make money to attain the things I don't have or just alter the way I think and the things I value. Better, I think, to just be happy with what you have. Envy, anyway, isn't something that you can bring an end to so long as someone is richer, better looking, has a prettier gf... There's no stop to it because there's no way to get to the top. There is no top.

Anonymous said...

I think it is a misnomer to present the options of feeling proud of what your own vs envying other people's possessions as being the only two options... I think little of what I have, I dont identify myself by the clothes that I wear, or the car that I drive--neither are ostentatious by any first world definition of the word, they are just things I use to live my life. By choosing to identify self through ownership of things you are doing precisely the same thing that a person who buys a landrover as a status symbol does... the only difference is price, the hubris is the same.

Ken said...

Anon—Well said, and hard to argue. I agree. The way I put it certainly over-simplifies the ways in which we can think about possessions. (We can just not think of them at all, as you suggest.)

Yet, it seems unrealistic and overly idealistic to be completely numb and apathetic about what we have (or don’t have). Is it okay to feel pride about having a happy family, a loyal dog, or a trusty ball point pen? Or—if we do—is that just egotistical, self-absorbed hubris? Emotions like a sense of superiority and pride exist and always will exist; they’re as human as anger and sadness and jealousy. They exist in each of us, but we’re often reluctant to admit we feel “better” than someone because it’s offensive and unpopular. I think the idea of equality—that we’re no better or worse than the guy next to us—is an ideal worth living up to, but going a lifetime without feeling pride or a sense of superiority is about as likely as going through a lifetime without feeling fear or joy.

What is an identity comprised of? That’s a tough question to answer, but I’d say it’s a mix of our morals, values, and beliefs, but also the objects around us: our family, home, car, and clothes, which represent and reinforce our morals, values, and beliefs. So while I’d like to say that—like you—I don’t feel anything when I put on a pair of clothes, and that I don’t feel anything when people look at my van funny, I can’t. I think about how—while they might be embarrassed for me—I’m not embarrassed at all. I feel things. I feel pride. Hell, I’m human.

Ken said...

Just to add a bit to that last comment in hopes of clarifying my thoughts… I think everyone feels pride. We can feel pride in having things or in not having things (or, of course, we can feel pride in something completely unrelated). So I don’t think we ought to judge someone based on whether or not they feel pride; that’s just silly. If we must judge, we should judge the values they have behind what they feel pride for.

On a vaguely related note, for my “History of economic theory” course I’ve been doing some research on the Greek Cynics. Diogenes (412-323 BC) is BAD ASS. Also I just read a bit of Lucian (125-180 AD), who’s also a Cynic.

I recommend this essay to all simple living fanatics:

Here’s a passage from the above Lucian essay. It’s a bit abrasive, but lots of great stuff:

My prayer would be that my feet might be just hoofs, like Chiron's in the story, that I might need bedclothes no more than the lion, and costly food no more than the dog. Let my sufficient bed be the whole earth, my house this universe, and the food of my choice the easiest procurable. May I have no need, I nor any that I call friend, of gold and silver. For all human evils spring from the desire of these, seditions and wars, conspiracies and murders. The fountain of them all is the desire of more. Never be that desire mine; let me never wish for more than my share, but be content with less. Such are our aspirations--considerably different from other people's. It is no wonder that our get-up is peculiar, since the peculiarity of our underlying principle is so marked. I cannot make out why you allow a harpist his proper robe and get-up--and so the flute-player has his, and the tragic actor his--, but will not be consistent and recognize any uniform for a good man; the good man must be like everyone else, of course, regardless of the fact that everyone else is all wrong. Well, if the good are to have a uniform of their own, there can be none better than that which the average sensual man will consider most improper, and reject with most decision for himself. Now my uniform consists of a rough hairy skin, a threadbare cloak, long hair, and bare feet, whereas yours is for all the world that of some minister to vice; there is not a pin to choose between you--the gay colours, the soft texture, the number of garments you are swathed in, the shoes, the sleeked hair, the very scent of you; for the more blessed you are, the more do you exhale perfumes like his. What value can one attach to a man whom one's nose would identify for one of those minions? The consequence is, you are equal to no more work than they are, and to quite as much pleasure. You feed like them, you sleep like them, you walk like them--except so far as you avoid walking by getting yourselves conveyed like parcels by porters or animals; as for me, my feet take me anywhere that I want to go. I can put up with cold and heat and be content with the works of God--such a miserable wretch am I--, whereas you blessed ones are displeased with everything that happens and grumble without ceasing; what is is intolerable, what is not you pine for, in winter for summer, in summer for winter, in heat for cold, in cold for heat, as fastidious and peevish as so many invalids; only their reason is to be found in their illness, and yours in your characters……. The old cloak, the shaggy hair, the whole get-up that you ridicule, has this effect; it enables me to live a quiet life, doing as I will and keeping the company I want. No ignorant uneducated person will have anything to say to one dressed like this; and the soft livers turn the other way as soon as I am in sight. But the refined, the reasonable, the earnest, seek me out; they are the men who seek me, because they are the men I wish to see. At the doors of those whom the world counts happy I do not dance attendance; their gold crowns and their purple I call ostentation, and them I laugh to scorn.

Anonymous said...

I would recommend that you learn how to do your own car repairs for basic and medium difficulty things. Brake pads, plugs/wires, oil, lights, etc are a huge cost saver to do on your own. Often the part costs about 30% or less of a mechanic's bill, so you can save a ton while learning a very valuable skill.

Spend $10 on a Haynes repair book for your van and go for it. If you can strike up a person relationship with a mechanic (outside of his work) he can probably help teach you out also if you get stuck.

Ken said...

Anon--that's really good advice... Apart from landscaping/gardening I know hardly any manual trades. I guess that's what happens when you spend so much time with your nose in books... Carpentry, masonry, car mechanics, etc., etc.... I'd love to learn some of these trades. I'll think about the car book. Thanks.

Toners said...

i cant def relate to the high of shopping. if there was ever a person with a shopping problem i had it id spend tons of money i had money i didnt have and run up my cards my tax money which i would save for things would be gone too..then i was left with a credit card i couldnt pay down and totally ashamed i let myself get that way...luckily im not like that anymore and actually dont really like going to the mall anymore..the debt was cleared up and gone and i refuse to ever get a credit card again.

Toners said...

ooops i mean i can* relate

Larry said...

Hey, I get that same feeling when I wear my worn out clothes and shoes and drive around in an old beater. One of my coworkers told me one time that I make good money and I shouldn't have to drive an old wreck. I just laughed.

Ken said...

Toners--great to hear from you. I think almost all of us have gone through that phase--it's an important lesson to learn, even if we got to learn it the hard way. I'm proud to say that I've never owned a credit card. A debit card, yes. But never a credit card.

Larry--totally! Ya can't help but feel like you know something they don't when they say silly things like that.

Anonymous said...

As a child, cartoons taught me that truly desperately poor Americans didn't wear clothes. They wear a wooden barrel held up by leather straps. Interestingly, children seem to immediately understand that a man wearing a barrel is poor.

Strangely though, I've seen a lot of poverty and never seen anyone wear a barrel. Perhaps that's because a wooden barrel and leather straps cost more than a shirt and pants.

At one point, I wondered where the wearing a barrel tradition began. It seems that it most likely originated in cartoons, but some think it may have some reference to Diogenes, who lived in a clay jar.

Last thing: I don't know if learning your own car repair will be too useful. You'll need some tools to do it, and you don't seem to have much space for storing tools.


Ken said...

Surgeon--good to hear from you. Yeah, the barrel thing is strange. Something tell me it has nothing to do with Diogenes, but what do I know. And you're right about the tools. I could get a roof storage container to store the tools, but I don't know how long I'll be living in a van so it doesn't seem worth the trouble. Some day, though.