Broken Promises

1. Higher Education:  In the “new” economy, only one skill is taught in traditional degree fields that actually has relevance to the rest of the world: writing.  Does that really justify a $20k per year price tag plus living expenses?  Not in my book.  Am I a Scrooge when it comes to higher education?  I’d just rather see colleges invest in some innovative programs (JMU has a degree program in technical writing, for example) rather than their bottom line.

2. The Dream of Home Ownership: Just ask my family law clients who are now saddled with an albatross neither party really wants and neither can afford on a single income.  In the days of twenty percent down, which appears to evaporate overnight, house poor seems an expensive way to be non-responsive to economic changes like having to move for your job, or moving to get a job.   

Expensive Things

The other day I walked through a Pier-One Imports, and I thought to myself: “This is like A Teenage Decorating Fantasy.” So you know, I am a reformed over-spender and I used to love Pier One. And I know that a huge area of selling is self-image. That if you have the perfect place to live, it looks just so, it’s a nice life.

Not so: When my husband and I lived in a house that had plenty of extra rooms, storage and wall-space, we shopped and shopped: low end or high end it didn’t seem to matter we just couldn’t seem to get the empty feeling out of that house. The truth is we were going through tough times where we weren’t connected, and I think the empty feeling had far more to do with us than with the house.

This concept of selling self-concept has been around for years in the form of lifestyle and decorating magazines. By all means, we want nice things and to live in nice places and have nice lives. But the same as an expensive house doesn’t mean it’s built well and the stucco won’t fall off in a year, or the floor is installed correctly. But it sure can be pretty from a distance.

They begin early. We have a teenager in our home who loves WANELO (Want Need Love). Since when was buying a comforter really driven by any of those things? Okay – need, as in function, and we want it to have a nice appearance. But not need as an emotional reaction to an object for the Buddhist icon on the cover. She announced she wanted a Zen bedroom and I tried to explain what Zen is metaphysically and I’d take her to temple if she wanted to go. Apparently I didn’t get it but we did agree somewhere between “relaxation” and “meditation.” Truth be told, I was a little disturbed by the commercialization of what is hard spiritual work – I mean, I knew it was going on in many stores but I ignored it and now it was in my house asking for our money. And these aren’t well made things with any of the values incorporated. They aren’t meaningful things. They’re just pictures and dyes stamped on a cheap comforter to represent meaningful things so our daughter will “want need love” to spend money in poor ways.

And in my age group it’s a designer handbag. Same problem: I was thrilled when my husband bought me an ostrich bag I “coveted” one Christmas, and it lasted less than one year and now sits on my shelf, a forlorn symbol of poorly made things. On the other hand, my Italian-made work bag is literally a work horse, with heavy hardware and nary a blemish after three years of abuse except for the me-reckless things. But the weirdest part is the emotional reaction: I feel guilty now for having spent my husband’s money on such worthless stuff. The other gifts he has chosen me have all lasted well, it was only the thing I thought I wanted that was trash.

So back to that Pier One trip: The furniture is in fact undersized – for single women, if you didn’t notice. The glasses are so thin they look like they’ll break if you even lip them, let alone toast them around at a vigorous party of friends. But these things are priced to appeal to Middle Class women, who now have their own money to spend on teenage decorating fantasies they haven’t outgrown. I am as guilty as all as I fell for it for many, many years. I wish I hadn’t. I wish I’d learned to crochet from my grandmother instead.

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