I thought I was making a difference, my little contribution to stimulus spending, when I walked out of Ann Taylor with a spiffy little cardigan and tank top. The fact that I got the ensemble for a price that made me feel like a thief is beside the point. I love a bargain, sure I do, but I don’t like the feeling I get at seeing racks of summer items on sale when the season has barely gotten off the ground. Not a full-scale depression and, yet, is there a better word to bring together the personal and the political these days?
I thought for sure I was doing my share, even if fiscal contraints have turned shopping into a measured affair, when I indulged (is there a sweeter word?) myself a month later, those sandals I thought about and thought about, an oh-so-perfect replacement for an old, worn-out pair. Sometimes want has a way of becoming need. Then came the harsh truth: what I spend barely makes a dent. According to a recent New York Times article, Even Marked Up, Luxury Goods Fly off the Shelves, “the top 5 percent of income earners accounts for about one-third of spending, and the top 20 percent accounts for close to 60 percent of spending.” These are the women pre-ordering Chanel coats at $9,000 a pop and getting first dibs on Christian Louboutin pumps. The men responsible for the surge in profits at BMW, Porsche, Mercedes-Benz. Consumer confidence? For that top 20 percent it’s creeping back from whatever brief, humbling jolt it took.
I hear a voice, my mother’s: Rich or poor, it’s nice to have money.
With it comes a nod of the head, the wishful thinking, the sigh. A hard-working woman who always managed to have some rainy-day cash tucked away, in envelopes at the bottom of a dresser drawer, she believed that honest work and good living would eventually pay off. Not an ounce of ill-will toward anyone better off than she was, more a simple acknowledgement: if only things could be a little easier, her personal debt ceiling kept from getting out of control. Maybe it’s true — the rich get richer, money goes to money — but that never stopped her from buying an occasional lottery ticket. You never know when you’ll get lucky.
Luck? My daughter, when we she was young, liked to engage me in a game she called ‘Jewelry Store’. She, the owner, would spread out her trinkets, invite me to make a purchase. Only problem was that anything I wanted, it seemed, was off-limits, “too expensive,” I was told. The more I persisted, the more she did her best to veer me toward another choice, the consummate sales pitch, words of wisdom — you get what you get — out of the mouths of babes.
It so often boils down to language — what you hear/the way you hear it; what you believe/what you choose to believe; the concepts and Metaphors We Live By, brought to vivid light in a classic book by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. It was Lakoff who opened my eyes to the political push-pull: nurturing/liberal Democrat vs. father-knows-best/conservative/Republican. The winner is the one who speaks best to the times. Terrorists at your door? Daddy will take care of things. Hungry and not feeling so great? Nothing better than chicken soup for the soul, the secret ingredient Mama’s own.
My daughter barely knew my mother, and yet something that got passed on — that thing called taking care, making sure things are just right. An aunt of mine, strong as they come, lived fifteen years after a diagnosis of lung cancer. The night before she died she got the call she’d been too long waiting for, a son in prison for more than twenty years was being released. Now she could let go.
Money can’t buy happiness (duh) and whatever piece of mind (not to mention occasional perk) it may bring is illusory, short-lived. Some say the world is divided between haves and have-nots. The greater that division gets, the worse it feels to that 80 percent making hard decisions every day about how much is too much for a new (needed) pair of shoes or eyeglasses, a crisp shirt or skirt for a job interview, every bone in your body saying this will be your lucky day. Maybe looking deeper beneath the have/have-not binary opposition would strike a chord, get to that more telling division, the one between those who see strength in numbers as a means to alleviating society’s ills and those who see it as a stock market rally. In a way that a picture is worth a thousand words, this week’s New Yorker cover says it all, three fat cats sipping champagne in a lifeboat while a ship is sinking in the background.
The more things change, my mother would say, the more they stay the same.