Monday, August 22, 2011


I live in an affluent suburban community. We chose this area primarily for the exceptional public schools (which means our taxes are ridiculously high) and the town's proximity to the big city. What I didn't realize 10 year ago was that with this combination often comes some seriously overprivileged people. Now while not everyone here is overprivileged, the high rates of consumption are more visible than more conservative spending behaviors. There is a great emphasis on the size of one's house, the brand of one's car, the label on one's jeans, the location of one's vacation. This is high school with grown-ups.

So I live in a more modest home compared to some of my kids' friends which is fine. I don't want to live in a house so large that rooms go unused. It's wasteful. We are comfortable and are fortunate to have what we have. However, my kitchen is small. Functional, but small. It's lovely, we had to gut the 1927 kitchen when we moved in so I got to choose the counters, cabinets and appliances. But like I said, it's small so when I visit friends or even just pick my kids up from playdates, well, I get kitchen envy. Pathetic, I know. I would love to have an eat-in kitchen. And a formal dining room. The house did have a formal dining room but I turned it into a library. That was my choice and it can't really be converted back as we closed up the doorway between the two rooms so that we could have the refrigerator in the kitchen. Oh, so where's the dining table? It's in the family room which acts as a great room. It reminds me of my days of living in a studio apartment in the big city. But yes, I'm fortunate to live in this town, in a charming house, and that my life is without major struggles. (But I'd like a bigger kitchen.)

While in graduate school many years ago, I became very interested in consumerism in the 18th and 19th centuries. I was studying the History of Stuff, and stuff is to be consumed. What was also interesting was learning about who was consuming all this stuff, specifically, furniture, silver, porcelain, fashion... well, it's all fashion really, just in different forms. Then there is the consumption of knock-offs and stuff made in lesser quality materials. Come to think of it, I've always been aware of what other people were consuming. When Calvin Klein and Sasson jeans and Ralph Lauren polo shirts were the rage (back in the very early 80s), my mother refused to buy into the trends. We didn't have the money to be so indulgent but just they same the idea of paying a company to advertise for them was antithetical to my mother's belief system. However, Mom would (and still does) shop at discounted clothing stores like Loehmann's and Syms and gets excited to find the designer labels for much less than retail. Ironically, she has also been acutely aware of labels but she finds ways to buy them without being subjected to extreme prices. It became a game. And so I hear my mother in my head... which isn't a bad thing. I think my question is why do I even care about what other people are consuming, today, in my neighborhood. There is no historical perspective here.

As an historian of stuff, I am drawn to things that are beautiful, or at least interesting - beauty isn't always necessary but quality is. So I find myself checking these local parents out, from head to toe, taking inventory from shoes to earrings. It's not that I want what they have, I really don't. I make an effort to be different enough (many women here have long hair, I cut mine short to be different) but still I find that sometimes I do want to feel like I fit in, in a way. When the Alhambra necklace became popular, I thought it was lovely but then everyone was wearing one. Now it's a trite bauble. I generally love Louis Vuitton bags and luggage (and now their clothing), the history and quality but the ubiquitous LV handbags scream "Look, I spent $1500 (or $2500 or more) for my purse that looks like everyone else's." I felt a Chanel handbag last week, what was it, kid? It felt like butter. Even though I never liked the classic Chanel bags, it felt gorgeous. But again, a ubiquitous status symbol. Diamond stud earrings. Hello, even the drug dealers are wearing them. They are so not special anymore. Personal style is non-existant, creativity, HA! We are sheep. My neighbors are sheep. I think one of the biggest hurdles I have is clumping everyone together. If they are so concerned with consumerism, how can they be interesting, nice, creative people? It can be so easy to pass judgement and I find myself guilty of it. I have a friend who has a passion for shopping. She has a new LV or Prada or Chanel bag each week. Shoes too. And she just got a 4 carat diamond ring (her previous 1 carat was too small). But she's smart, seriously smart, a doctor at the top of her field. She takes ballet and jazz classes too and is an accomplished pianist. Moreover, she is a voracious reader. I have no right to pass judgement, had I with this woman, I'd miss out on a rewarding friendship. Just the same, coming to terms with extreme consumerism is something that I have to work on. I would like high end luxury items, not the obvious ones, you know the explicit labels, but there is plenty of high end luxury out there that is not so obvious. Of course, I need to find it discounted. Again, I keep returning to the question of why I feel this need to consume in this way. Why is this something that even matters? I don't know. There, I've said it.