Tag Archives: avarice

Shopaholism: Not So Very Flex Spending

Writing this blog, I should be more aware than I am that my morale is to some extent dependent on having some discretionary income. This week sharpened that awareness a bit.

Dickens has one of his characters say, “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery.”

That is, a dozen pennies are all that are between “happiness” and “misery.”

I was shocked to find this to be true — maybe not for happiness and misery in a deep sense, but at least for the distance between financial comfort and distress.

You know, if you have been reading this blog, that I have been unhappy at work, and that last month I went on a compensatory spree for things I enjoy, such as early-music concerts, Crane’s stationery (half off), and a trip to the nuns. I thought I could afford it all, and expected only some rueful feelings.

I just didn’t know how rueful until this week. Why, I wondered, was I having to debate whether to buy the $4 slice of Sicilian pizza or the $9 pasta dinner? (As you know, I live in an SRO without a kitchen, even a shared kitchen, so I tend to eat badly.)

In puzzlement at how my bank accounts had even less money than I expected, I suddenly realized that I hadn’t submitted last month’s prescriptions for flex spending reimbursement.

sicillianI was down by slightly more than four hours of gross income. That was all.

That’s too close a shave. Granted, the savings plan got fed as usual, as did the internet bill and the credit card and the loan, and the nuns received their donation for the visit. So compared to billions of people around the world, I am bellyaching. Still and all, to feel the lack of a mere four hours of gross income is way too close to hand to mouth living for me.

what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?

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Off the wagon, shopping-wise

ticketsWell, now I’ve gone and done it. This is bad. I went on a shopaholic spending spree. You probably sense that I’ve been doing worse over the past month, and this afternoon, I realized how bad things have gotten. I’m embarrassed to confess this to you, but I simply went and spent a lot of money without thinking hard about it. I thought I was doing better with the shopaholism, but here I am off the wagon.

I’ve been very unhappy at work, and recently, things got even worse. But applying for jobs hasn’t been enough to fulfill my hunger for satisfying work. One advantage is that I avoided buying physical objects. The other is that I’m not going to be able to afford many physical objects for a while. I have now spent enough money that from now at least through this spring are going to be belt-tightening times. Avoiding physical objects is not enough of an improvement — I simply should have not spent as much.

Zummara_MedievalOver the past few weeks, I bought tickets to 4 early-music concerts in February and March, and I prepaid for Saturday to Sunday single nights at four-star hotels for 1) the weekend before New Year’s last month; 2) this weekend; 3) Presidents’ Day weekend; and 4) Memorial Day weekend. Oh, and I’m planning to visit the nuns for three days at the end of this month, which is $400 including the bus fare.

It isn’t enough to say the concerts are cheap and that I got really good deals on the rooms, that I could bring my own sandwiches to the hotels (room service doubles the cost of a hotel stay), and that the nuns almost certainly would accept less money than I intend to give them. No, I have to admit sadly that I simply spent too much.320px-Waiter_pouring_Zardetto_sparkling_Prosecco

And regardless of how grim my finances now look for the next few months, I am very happy to have all these experiences to mull over or look forward to. I’m still on the shopaholic high at the moment.

There’s a shrill little mosquito buzz of worry about how I am going to keep up with the payments as the bills come in, and some thumping sounds of embarrassment at trying to buy my way out of my unhappiness, both muffled by my shaky confidence that as much as I am a shopaholic, I have never gotten into financial straits I couldn’t get out of. Nevertheless, despite these alarms, I still feel happy to look forward to these experiences. They are anodynes that will (um, I hope) ease the pain of my work situation.

I went back to Wikipedia about “oniomania,” or shopaholism:

Compulsive buying seems to represent a search for self in people whose identity is neither firmly felt nor dependable, as indicated by the way purchases often provide social or personal identity-markers. Those with associated disorders such as anxiety, depression and poor impulse control are particularly likely to be attempting to treat symptoms of low self-esteem through compulsive shopping.

Well, that fits my situation to a tee. My once rock-stable work identity has been shaken by some nasty events at the office; I’m anxious about landing a new job and learning it; I’m depressed at the prospect that it may take years to find a job that I can do this well in, in terms of both competence and pay; and very strongly, I feel like asserting class markers, as pretentious and shameful as it is.

I want to tell my boss: “I stay in good hotels where they call me ‘madam’ and offer to summon the bellhop to pick up my matching luggage, and I eat good room service there, where the waiter lifts the lid off the entree with a flourish. I go to sophisticated early music concerts. I have a convent I like to visit and give money to, as if I were a medieval noblewoman. I want you to know, Boss, that I am still a smart, dignified, hard-working, professional helper, the way you used to treat me.”453px-Gheorghe_Tattarescu_-_Stareta_Manastirii_Ratesti_

So as happy as I feel that I have all these pleasant events coming up this spring, it’s all rooted in bitterness and resentment, and that is not a good thing. The only positive about this is that the purpose of the convent visit is to talk with the abbess about how to handle my work situation with less bitterness and more patience, while retaining my firm decision to leave this job. But she can’t do the heavy lifting. That’s up to me.

I’m ashamed at being so pretentious and resentful and shopaholic, because compared to millions of Americans in dire straits, I’m doing all right. But I know that I am no longer in the right job if my work situation brings out traits such as shopaholism that put me in a bad situation.

Nothing that drastic

Some years ago, I discovered that I love staycations, rather than traveling. My style is to call them “mental health breaks,” aspirationally staying in a local four-star hotel for a night a few times a year. (My latest conquest was the InterContinental, on which I used points to get an absurdly low rate on a top rate room. My next conquest is the Langham.)

These places provide numerous amenities I don’t have at my SRO: A bed, a bathtub, movies, a pool, fine restaurant food served to me on a ceramic plate at a table with a cloth instead of handed over a counter in a styrofoam box, and access to alcohol, the latter prohibition in my SRO probably to prevent fights or people drinking themselves into a stupor alone every night.

In a hotel, unlike the smallest real apartment I could rent at three times my SRO rent, I don’t have to clean the bathtub, tub, and sink, change and wash the linens, go out in the weather to watch movies, and lug home a bottle of wine that will half spoil because I cannot drink the whole thing in time. A hotel room for a night or two gives me true appreciation of amenities for a fraction of the cost of having them where they are merely burdens. (And, as I mentioned in my post on interior design, they have given me a taste for simpler design combined with finer, more durable materials.)

I have made these mental health breaks often enough over the years to sense how hotel clerks size up the customers. But, as I’ve told you before, I tend to look like a bag lady at the best of times.

Frame Traveler in Venetian PaisleyBringing one’s luggage in plastic grocery bags means bad treatment. Using black fabric bags means routine, mindless treatment. Bringing three or four largeish bags in a loud, matching Vera Bradley pattern means being treated like C’mell in Cordwainer Smith’s novel “Norstrilia.” A generous 20-oz. cold bottle of water appears from nowhere, the lightweight bags are gently lifted onto a giant brass luggage cart, and upon arrival at the room, the bellhop carefully explains how the thermostat works before bowing, accepting his tip, and literally backing out of the room.

The bear-man leapt from his stool with astonishing speed. “Cat-madame!” he cried, “A thousand pardons. You can have anything in the place. You come from the top of Earthport? You know the Lords of the Instrumentality personally? You would like a table roped off with curtains? Or should I just throw everybody else out of here and report to my Man that we have a famous, beautiful slave from the high places?”

“Nothing that drastic,” said C’mell. “Just food.”

So it is with embarrassment at my pretentiousness that I admit that for years, I have wanted a fine leather designer purse. Not the tacky fabric kind with an “LV” or “CC” logo; I mean the real real thing, leather. And classically styled, no fringes and useless buckles hanging off it. If humble Vera Bradley can get me this far, what will Longchamp or Coach Classic or Chanel get me? On the rare occasions I have had a chance to examine them, I am impressed by the scent and flexibility of the leather, the attention to rounding off the ends of the stitching, and so on. If you don’t have one of these real bags, and you can afford it, get the real thing and not a fake.

Coach classic duffle leatherBut I also know I have an almost magical, magnetic predisposition to walk clumsily into the tongues of doors hard enough to ruin shirts and, doubtless, ruin a fine leather bag. A good watch will keep running on time, A Vera Bradley bag is loud enough to hide the marks, a leather bag is scarred forever.

And, well, there isn’t much I want from the hotel, not worth spending that kind of money on something that has to be handled with such care to present a social clue that may or may not register. Nothing that drastic. Vera Bradley you can’t miss, it punches you in the eyeball at a fraction of the price.

So I must confine my admiration of fine leather products to the other side of the screen or the window. I’m all set now. Thanks for the free bottle of water!

Glass lust

Please pardon the length of today’s entry. Compared to any other object I have coveted and written about, this one is vastly more difficult. I have written about items I have wanted to grab or to gobble, but I don’t think that I have ever written before of having “given up hope” of getting one, to loose “my mind’s grip” on it, to “wrestle with the decision” not to buy it, as with this. Since beginning this blog, I have struggled several times to write about this item and failed to even begin to set down a few words. Hence the length of time since my last substantial post on this blog. I’ve been fighting the urge to acquire this item.

xz2_hero

The Olympus XZ-2

This item is the excellent Olympus XZ-2 camera, which is most notable to me for a lens with a bright, light-eating maximum aperture of f/2.0-2.5, which is practically unheard-of for a point and shoot canera.

Decades ago, when a poor graduate student, I somehow managed to scrape together a month’s pay and bought an Olympus OM-4 with a portrait lens. The OM-4 was one of the last legendary film SLR cameras before the age of autofocus, which was just then coming in. It can even be used without a battery. The esteem in which it is held by its owners can be seen on eBay, where fond sellers tend to set bottom bids at least three times higher than buyers are willing to pay more pragmatic sellers.

220px-OlympusOM4_1

The Olympus OM-4

The OM-4 has all sorts of useful abilities, particularly spot exposure, and it could use what was then phenomenal (and no longer produced) ISO 3200 film for low-light conditions.

The Olympus Zuiko 85 mm f/2.0 lens was an affordable marvel. Portrait lenses for digital SLRs of that length and brilliant aperture are now essentially unaffordable to all but pros, costing in the thousands today. (Portrait lenses are so called because an 80-105 mm length is ideal for taking portraits, although actually they can be used for anything.)

Glass lust is hard to explain to non-photographers, but when you have a really good lens on a good camera body, you know it, because it makes taking pictures effortless; you have no awareness of limitations. With a bright and high quality lens, even under dim conditions, the light comes through clear and easy, not shadowed, cramped, and darkened by a small aperture. A blurred background becomes possible, which is particularly good for portraits, as it draws the eye to the subject, instead of the face being one blob among an equally sharp background. With just a little care in framing and choosing an exposure, pictures can look professional.

Glass lust is so powerful that when a young amateur photographer who did good political photographs made a plea for donations for a better lens while he followed our favorite presidential candidate around the country, I sent him $200 without question, because I knew the ache of glass lust in him had to be real for such an unusual and specific plea.

I had a wonderful time teaching myself photography with the OM-4 and that lens. Most notable was a portrait I took of a roommate who then asked for an 8″ x 10″ version to give his mom — “This is the best picture of me that anyone has ever taken,” he declared. Other successes included some remarkable shots of candlelit church services that came back from the processor with fingerprints all over them because they had been handed around the lab. I took a fine shot of a string of 25 Sun Gold tomatoes in my garden. And once, I startled my mother when I showed a picture of her I had casually taken. Used to wide-angle snapshots filled with glare and grinning people, she stammered, “That looks…” she hesitated, “real.”

And then, gradually, over the years and particularly as my finances failed along with my marriage and my business, I stopped taking pictures. There was not much to see in those days that gave me pleasure; there was no money for film and processing; and an abusively controlling spouse meant that I had very little freedom to find any good subjects, particularly people to take portraits of.

When I emerged from that long personal nightmare, the digital camera had dawned, and professional photographers were debating whether to go digital or stay with film. I had no money then, and was much too occupied with survival to use my trusty OM-4. And I had become a recluse to avoid my obsessive husband. However, after I handled demos of cameras that could fit in an Altoids tin, and weighed in my hand the plastic bodies of larger cameras, my OM-4 began to seem less like a prospective pleasure to take up again and more like a steel-framed two-pound albatross around my neck.

I wasn’t satisfied with having a small camera, though, and even the big pro DSLRs could not match the technical capabilities of the OM-4. I wanted something small and capable, not a big DSLR but a smart compact.

And then about a year ago, I noticed that the Olympus XZ-2 was close to the capabilities of the OM-4. I watched the price come down as later models superseded it but did not match its abilities. Now would be a very good time to buy one. If you are dissatisfied with a point-and-shoot, or the picture quality of your phone, or dissuaded by the cost of a DSLR, you should take a look at the XZ-2. I think it is a much better camera than its successors in that line.

However, I cannot see myself getting back into photography. Photography simply no longer appeals to me. Sure, it would be useful to take pictures of things for eBay to thin out some of the muck I have in my little room, but I don’t need a $400 camera with $200 of wonderful accessories for that. Better to use a hundred-dollar tourist toy for that. The XZ-2 is certainly worth its cost, considered objectively, but not as a part of my life. I never did emerge from reclusiveness even after my husband died, and although I have friends, I do not have enough people I want to take pictures of, or to show pictures to, to justify such a purchase.

At this point when in person I discuss things I do not want to buy, my interlocutors channel the cheerful, materialist voices of “positive thinking.” I know the tropes well enough to imagine when alone what such people would say about the XZ-2. “You should get it, because it would renew your interest in this hobby and provide a new way to enjoy the world!” or “You can easily amortize the cost with the things you will sell on eBay.” “You could start a small side business as a classic portraitist, you’re good enough.” “Don’t you want to learn what digital photography and image processing are all about?” And, most appealing to me as a hoarder, “You can buy it and keep it for the day when you are ready to start again.” But I’m simply, plainly not interested in any of that. If I ever have a change of heart, technology and software will have progressed to the point of making the XZ-2 obsolete.

My pride and a dream to regain my youth push forward, encouraging my desires to own this new camera, but it would be a waste. My month-old $30 Dustbuster has given me far more pleasure than the prospect of this camera offers. And so, with tremendous regret, I turn away from this fine Olympus XZ-2.

This hurts.

Black Friday preview

This 1:44 video made me incredibly sad. As an ascetic shopper, I cannot imagine how anyone could possibly get any good, satisfying, enjoyable merchandise under such circumstances, much less find a gift suited to a particular person; and I hope it is obvious to the reader that the free expression of unrestrained greed cannot be of any interior benefit at all to the participants. Turn your sound WAY down if you choose to watch.

Thinking of buying? Think about buying.

This anonymous condolence verse is all wrong. We are not just our souls!

Loving friends! Be wise and dry
Straightway every weeping eye,
“What ye lift upon the bier
Is not worth a wistful tear.
‘Tis an empty seashell, — one
Out of which the pearl is gone;
The shell is broken, it lies there;
The pearl, the all, the soul, is here.”

Our souls are part of us along with our minds and bodies. Our selves are not just intellects inhabiting meaningless bodies, the way the above verse claims. However, on the other hand, we are more than chunks of meat that think and feel. We have both physical and nonphysical elements united together, each being (only) part of us.

The tragedy of death is not really that of the bereaved losing the deceased. The tragedy of death is the separation of the body, which is (merely) part of us, from the non-material element of our selves, which is also (merely) part of us. Death breaks us in two. Dead bodies are indeed worth weeping over, every bit as much as live bodies deserve to be loved and hugged and cared for.

This is on my mind in relation to, of all things, the “holiday” shopping frenzy. More than in previous years, I’ve been reading a lot of business news stories about Black Friday, Thanksgiving store openings, and the expected tens of millions of shoppers. This has led to some thought about some of the purposes of this blog.

Because of my belief that we are composed of both material and non-material elements, I mean two things when I examine an item closely in this blog. I say that goods can be good, that the material world is worth enjoying, that matter matters. But beyond this, I am also saying that the material world should be examined closely and enjoyed with real thoroughness, awareness, and, yes, suspicion. If you are going to own something, then really choose it, own it with respect, use it, enjoy it, appreciate it, and don’t let it own you. And real enjoyment of our possessions entails taking a close hard look at things we want but do not own yet. And so I take a close, appreciative, respectful look at things I long for but decide to deny myself. I do not blanket condemn the physical world.

However, the sickness of the holiday buying frenzy is that no objects are contemplated and examined for their goodness and their meaning; they are not appreciated or truly wanted; they are only grabbed at, seized, barely looked at for a minute or two. They are mere entertainment, never truly enjoyed.

This acquisitiveness, this greed, this materialism, is a mirror image to the idea that we are nothing but souls in shells, ghosts in machines, intellects inhabiting meat. Both attitudes show disrespect to the physical world. And both are wrong.

Dem bones, dem bones

The word “relic” is commonly used today as an insult to refer to what is old and outdated and thus unworthy, such as an iPhone 2.

320px-2347_-_München_-_St_Peterskirche In contrast, in the strict religious sense, relics of especially holy persons continue to be venerated — bones, mummified flesh, personal effects, clothing. And in a nonreligious sense, the Victorians made jewelry from the hair of loved ones, which they found particularly comforting after the death of the source of the hair.

In the third millennium, it all seems unappealingly unsanitary — a relic, so to speak, of an earlier era — compared to a digital photo, an image made of electronic zeroes and ones.

However, in the literal sense of objects tangibly connected to a person of significance, relics are still very common today and created all the time. Crayon drawings produced by kindergarteners hang in offices long after the children have graduated high school. Fine jewelry is available engraved with the fingerprints of loved ones, or even set with gems made from their cremated remains. There are kits available to memorialize the hands, feet, and buttocks of infants in three-dimensional glory.

Illu_compact_spongy_boneRelics are meant to give us a tactile, not merely visual, connection to the past. And so it is with these emotions that I am fascinated by dinosaur bone fossils. I so intensely want the pieces I am showing further down on this post that I feel a greedy, acquisitive adrenaline rush just looking at the pictures.

One is inclined to think of the plain surface of bones one sees in museums, but in some fossils, the actual delicate internal structure of the bone is visible; stone has filled in the spaces of the cancellous (spongy-structured) bone that is found at the end of long bones in all sorts of creatures. You may be most familiar with cancellous bone from the chewy end of the leg bone of a chicken underneath the cartilage (birds being the most notable descendants of dinosaurs). These fossils are sometimes called “agatized.”

red dinosaur boneFor me, there is an appealing intimacy to these wondrously lacy bone fossils. To me, the small, intricate reticulations prove the fleshliness of dinosaurs in a way that plainer, more stony specimens do not.

These attractive fossils make me recall the dry, warm, incredibly soft bellies of little live sunwarmed lizards I have handled in a tropical climate, and I imagine a hot planet filled with herds and flocks of reptiles big and small carrying out their lives in the midst of overflowing vegetation with sunlight streaming down through it and onto it — animals eating, and resting, flying around and running about, mating, and carefully raising their nests of babies, being so numerous and living lives in a climate so materially rich and verdant that our entire civilization is sustained by the petroleum remains of their world.

If I could handle one of these fossils, it could make me feel vividly, by means of flesh to flesh contact, that that world really existed ages of ages ago, really lived.

36 mm dinosaur boneAnd for so little money! And yet as inexpensive as it is, it is a treasure. It is a beautiful thing that didn’t come out of a factory, that wasn’t imagined by the human mind, a wonderful object that shouts down through the ages of a purer, more majestic time before mankind and its moral corruptions.

But I know that if I had such a fossil, I would marvel at it for a week or so, and then set it aside, and eventually it would end up in a box of chowder, forgotten, to be thrown away by the estate liquidator when I die. I have no vitrine to display it in and keep it safe. And even if I had it set in jewelry as a pendant, I would wear it almost never. I would not give it the attention, the respect, the emotional maintenance that it deserves.

Best for me to let you enjoy it, feel the flesh of the dinosaur press against your own hand, dream the dream of the ages past, and sing the song about dead bones coming alive again:

[The Etsy listings I have linked in this post are mortal, so if these particularly nice specimens have been sold, do a search for “dinosaur bone” or “agatized dinosaur bone” on that and many other websites.]

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