Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

How Is It Possible That Several-Hundred Dollar Handbags Feel Essential To Adulthood?

For me, one of the most striking things in the aftermath of Kate Spade's suicide was learning how many other people thought of her bags -- and her bags' general price range, of several hundred dollars -- as lying in what was seen as sort of modal zone of "grown-up."

The sentiment runs throughout this piece in The New York Times:

"At midrange prices of several hundred dollars, they were aspirational but within reach of some women who were starting their careers."

"for so many women, buying that first kate spade bag was your first grown-up purchase."

"A Kate Spade handbag was the very first 'nice' 'grownup' thing I ever had."

I realize I am out of step with the nation along several dimensions. But really? You have to spend hundreds of dollars on a bag to count as a modern grown-up? 

No doubt my life in academia helps explain how off-trend I am. The most expensive bag I ever bought was one of those collapsible Longchamps nylon bags, at 70 dollars. The nicest bag I own is a Coach bag I got at a thrift store for 25 dollars. I've looked at Kate Spade, and I've thought to myself, "Hm, kind of pricey." I'm so off-trend I don't even carry a bag most of the time. I'm just throwing everything into my backpack.

In many ways, my ability to use a backpack and carry a cheap bag are manifestations of my privileged position in society. Back in 2013, Tressie MC wrote a great piece about how poor people have to buy, and wear, expensive accessories in order to gain respect from the fellow citizens, and thus to be employable. Many people need nice accessories, because they're literally a job requirement.

I would also like to emphasize that I am not saying there is something wrong with buying nice bags because you like them. I buy and love other expensive things, and I am not criticizing the purchasing of expensive bags for fun.

However, what I am saying is just that in a society where $15/hr is an aspirational minimum wage for most places, the idea that a few hundred dollars is considered an entry-level adulthood bag is strange and fucked up.

Of course, it's significant that this sentiment was appearing in The New York Times, and so you might think "Well, what did you expect"?

It's true that when I started reading the New York Times I was an easily bored college student sitting with some eggs-over-medium with friends. The fact that the homes were millions of dollars and "cheap" wines were my weekly paycheck didn't bother me, because I just thought of that part of the paper as written for aliens. I could just read the news, and ignore all that.

But newspapers have changed. The fact that Kate Spade's bags were accessibly aspirational is now intertwined with everything else. Newspapers want to be relevant, they want to reach us in different ways, and they want to reflect our concerns.

Like so many people, I have been prompted by this to obsess over the question of who the news thinks it is for. The answers are frequently disturbing. The New York Times is obviously for people with the kind of financial background in which spending hundreds of dollars on a bag is part of the baseline of what's just normal in life.

The creepiest aspect of the whole thing is the use of that word "grown-up." So: you can't be an adult if you're poor? Minimum wage earners are condemned to eternal childhood? WTF? If that's the way expectations are set up, it's not surprising that young people are stressed out of their minds.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Why Does Buying Something Feel Like Such A Thing?

I've had a kind of self-imposed moratorium on buying stuff, because 1) I already have most the stuff I need and 2) there are other things I can use that money for and 3) the environment. I'm not boasting or treat-deprived: I still spend a lot of money on things like coffee and wine and having people make food for me -- because preparing food in advancing and bringing it with me some place is somehow an activity I've never been able to manage.

Since I'm not treat-deprived, I've been surprised at the urge to buy stuff and by the texture of the anticipated pleasure of buying stuff. I kind of gave myself an exception-clause for buying clothes for exercise or dance class, because 1) I actually did need more exercise clothes and 2) who doesn't want to look good while they're dancing?

As a woman of a certain age, it's not every day I find exercise clothes that I think make me look good, so when I found a cool Nike mesh top that fit me perfectly, with cool sleeves between short-sleeves and three-quarter length sleeves, I was pretty excited and I bought it on the spot. Yes, I waffled about supporting Nike, yes, I did the merry-go-round of weighing the options of trying to buy a shirt from some other company and whether they would treat their workers better, and yes, I went briefly down the rabbit hole of what it meant to support a giant corporation. Those thoughts didn't get me anywhere. In the end, I was like, "If it's good enough for Serena Williams, it's good enough for me."

I wore it, and I liked it so much, I thought I might buy another one in another color, or at least swing by the Nike store to check that out as a possibility. I thought about what times I'd be over by the mall or whatever and how I could squeeze that in, and it felt like such a prospect of a treat. Like really something to look forward to at the end of a day.

The more I thought about the idea of another shirt, though, the more it seemed like a bad idea. I was trying to buy less -- did I really need two mesh shirts? Plus, if I bought a shirt now, it'd be less reasonable to buy some other slightly different shirt later, since I'd already have enough. And wouldn't it be more fun to have a potential future shirt, with all the open-ended and unseen magic that could entail, than a repeat of a shirt I already have, already fading from being washed, hanging in my closet?


I decided not to buy the shirt. But, bizarrely, the idea that I had something to buy stuck around in the back of my mind. I continued to think about when I'd be near the mall, so I could go to the Nike store. I kept fitting it into my imaginary future days, and when I pictured it, I felt such a ping of pleasure at imagining the process. 

And that is what was so surprising to me. I'd already decided against buying the shirt, and yet the prospect of having something to buy --the sheer prospect of a purchase -- felt like something to look forward to. As I thought about it, I realized this is a common thing for me, to feel like buying something is somehow a thing, it's something to look forward to in itself, the buying being some kind of additional pleasure to the object itself -- an object that may well, for various reasons, ultimately be a bit disappointing.

It's surely not news that buying stuff can be a pleasure in itself, adding to or even transcending the feeling of the thing purchased. Why else would we live in a world where people's houses are full of stuff? But, still, I found myself weirded out by it. Why? Why should paying money and getting a thing feel like a thing? What kind of thing is it? Does it feel like a treat, like a cupcake? Or is it more like the pleasure of an accomplishment -- oh, I'm taking steps to feather my nest?

In a previous post I wrote about how the frictionlessness of payment systems makes people experience more pleasure in buying, and so they spend more and feel less invested in the purchases they end up with. But I pay with cash a lot. And honestly, even though I find it much harder to part with cash than to pay by card (as do we all, I guess), even the buying with cash experience feels like a pleasure, or at least a thing -- a thing to be registered on the positive side, something to be planned for and something to look forward to.

In any case, given that there are so few things I need and want to buy, I've been surprised at how often my mind goes to "buy something" as a pick-me-up for a low mood and how weak the rationality part of my mind works in response.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Mystery Of The Omnipresent Starbucks Disposable Coffee Cup

Regular readers know that I recently upped my game with respect to carrying my own coffee cup. In my perfect world, every coffee place has reusable ceramic mugs that can be washed. In my actual world, it's often a paper cup or carry your own mug around.

Regular readers may remember my previous reflection on these matters, which focused on the way that, having upped my game on this one tiny thing, I then became ultra notice-y, and dare I say even a bit judgey, about other people and their coffee cup choices. Which is a bit ridiculous, since I regularly forget or misplace my coffee cup and use the paper ones myself. But I'm sure I'm not the only person out there who is committing a transgression one day and moralizing about it the next.

Still, once I started being notice-y about coffee cups, I started to notice the really stunning number of disposable coffee cups out there. Virtually everyone who goes to Starbucks gets their coffee in a disposable cup.

For a while, I really thought of this as a mystery. I mean, I expect a lot of the people getting coffee at Starbucks consider themselves environmentalists, or at least people who recycle and do basic things to cut down on their garbage production. The Venn diagram overlap of Starbucks type customer, climate-sensitive vegetarian, and careful recycler seems pretty large to me. And coffee cups are hard to recycle and usually end up in the trash.

Yes, carrying a mug around is a bit of a pain. But the crazy thing is that even people who are sitting at Starbucks are usually drinking out of a paper cup. All you have to do is ask to have your coffee "for here" and get it in a ceramic cup and you're good. So, WTF?

The more I thought about it, the more I came to think that Starbucks isn't only selling coffee. They are selling that coffee-paper-cup experience. There is something about that cup -- and, let's be honest, the sophisticated and superior lid system -- that makes the Starbucks coffee drinking experience what it is. The coffee cools at the right rate, the cup is clean and white, the shape is pleasing to drink out of.

Then I thought: there's something about modern life that makes that coffee-paper-cup experience feel like a tiny luxury, in a world where for most of us, luxuries are hard to come by. The crapification of everything means that most of the objects and systems we interact with on a day to day basis are in some way frustrating, or easily broken, or fragile in a dumb way. My god, just using a modern public washroom is insane: the automatic toilet flushes when you don't want it to, and then it doesn't flush when you want it to, and then you can't get the automatic water faucet to go on so you're desperately shaking your hands, and then your ears are assaulted by those new hand driers.

So many things are like that now. But the Starbucks coffee-paper-cup experience isn't like that. It works and it feels nice. Why else would the Starbucks in the US automatically put a lid on your cup, instead of letting you decide whether you need a lid or not? The only explanation is they're trying to give you the full coffee-paper-cup experience. No decisions required.

Recently I visited a suburban sprawl area of Connecticut. This is where my mom used to live, and it gives you some sense of what it's like that until recently, the closest Starbucks was a 20 minute drive away on a major highway. But now there is a Starbucks right in town, and while I was visiting, I went there to catch up on email and do some work.

And the damnedest thing happened. I found myself drawn to that ridiculous paper cup. I had my travel mug with me, and instead of putting it in my backpack like I always do, I left it in the hotel room. I wish I had a convincing psychological explanation for my absurd behavior, but I really don't. The only thing I can think is I was worn down by the driving and the endless ugly plazas and whatever. My reusable mug seemed old and scratched up and coffee stained, and I wanted that coffee-paper-cup experience.

So my theory is that the coffee-paper-cup experience is a tiny luxury island in an ocean of annoyances, and that's why it's an exception to all the other social norms of life.