Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Beyond, beneath, and in search of our means

My mother and step father got divorced years ago. They were both working the same job, living in a brand new condo in a beach town, and making about 80,000 a year together. They split up and I ran off to college, so you could say we each struck out on our own. Our interpretations and performances of class couldn’t be more different.

My mother moved to Michigan because she couldn't take the hour and 1/2 commute while being a single parent. She's remained unemployed since she’s been there, collecting 1,200 a month in retirement (before taxes). Her income is now 15,000 a year, but when I went to visit her, everything in her house seemed new. She was installing oak encasements on the windows and doors, she has custom designed sinks put into the bathrooms, she drives a new envoy (read SUV that gets 15 iles to the gallon), she bought another TV and DVD player (even though she hadn't figured out how to use the one I bought her years ago), and the list goes on. She spoke of how she was poor a lot. She lamented about all the things the house "needed"-- like plusher carpeting, tile to replace the linoleum, another TV for the kitchen, etc. She obviously believed it and yet, in my mind there was excess in every inch of her new 21,000 square feet of house.

My step father stayed with the company and now makes 4,000 a month. He lives in a house in NC that is half the size of hers. Moreover, it has gaps between the wall and the ceiling, that has no door knob on the front door, that has broken windows. He eats out every night at olive garden, his house has nothing of value in it, and he owns a junky, old (20+ years) car and a similarly beat-up truck.

It’s inconceivable to me that either of them can live the way they do making the amount of money they do. When they were together, they mediated one another’s excesses, and so my home life was more or less congruent with their income—we ate out often, but they had the same cars forever; we had TV’s in the living room and bedroom but only basic cable; my mother bought expensive tools but did all her own home and car repairs.

I’m sure my upbringing has been formative for my worldview (whether I like it or not), but we must also remember that my attitudes and practices are heavily influenced by the ideologies I embrace as a Buddhist and an anti-capitalist. I don’t buy new things. I rarely buy old things. I sometimes collect free things. And I always make sure I get rid of one thing for everything I acquire.

I’ve been unemployed for 6 months now. I’ve made $760 total in that time and supported myself entirely. I buy fresh produce and go to coffee shops on my credit card. The first thing that sticks out to me is that I think of these as luxuries, and sometimes I even feel guilt about them. However, I rationalized that when you find yourself in a period of extended deprivation you have to afford yourself “luxuries” because they are important to your sense of well being (honestly, I am rather successful at staving off the feeling of being deprived by allowing myself my luxeries). The second thing to note is that I have 1,000 worth of credit card debt to show for it. That means my cost of living for the entire time I’ve been out of school is on average 550 a month in a town where I pay 400 in rent w/o utilities. I’m not sure which sensibility I take after more since I’m living beneath the poverty line but above my means.

Now I think about how my 6 year old brother is growing up with two reference points that are each imbued with their own sense of class unreality. I wonder how he will make sense of money, of finances, of budgeting. I wonder more how he will connect those things with social standing, which excesses he will indulge, what he will think he needs, and how will that compare to what he can afford to need…

1 comment:

Dane said...

I posted a response. It's not really a coherent response, but just some reactions in bullet form.