The correspondence of Apartment 5402 in exile


November 2008
December 2008
January 2009
February 2009
May 2009

Sunday, November 30, 2008

What kind of friender are you?

Dear frienders and friendeds,

I am also interested in Julia's question about the optimal number of friends, but I am constitutionally limited in the actual number of friends I can have, so it's kind of a moot point for me. I am never going to be the kind of person with 900 facebook friends, so I will always be partial to philosophies of friendship that emphasize quality over quantity. However, I do think that there are some sociable people who can have both (like my grade school best friend, whom some of you might have met), but that it takes a certain inborn disposition to be able to balance the two, and it's one that draws people to you rather than vice versa, so that the burden of maintaining the friendship falls disproportionately on other people and spares you. Alex has always seemed to me better at making friends than most people, so maybe she can explain how it's done.

There are many friendship styles that interest me, but what most fascinates me is the serial monogamist best-friender--the person who has extremely intense friendships with one person at a time, throws herself completely into this relationship, kind of like Julia's boyfriend-obsessives (I hope you were not referring to me, ahem), and then abruptly "breaks up" with the person over some petty thing, and moves on to throw herself into a new all-consuming friendship. What drives this kind of behavior?

I am a possessive friender, which Alex tells me is the result of being an only child and being unwilling to share my things, including friends, even into adulthood, so I can sympathize with the serial monogamist best-friender's desire to keep her friends separate. But the appeal of the single "best friend" seems to fade for most women by late adolescence, though it's the source of a lot of very amusing drama before then. When you are nine, and you want to build snow forts, there are a lot of nine-year-olds to share that interest with. But when you are 29, and you have a career, a family, and a fairly differentiated personality and set of interests, it's probably hard to find the one person who will satisfy all your social desires. So why are there still women who try? (Maybe men too, but I know nothing about male friendship.) And by 29, haven't they already had such a long series of intense best-friendships that fell through that they see that new ones are also doomed to fail?

I also suspect that the obsessive boyfrienders of Julia's description are people of this tendency, who have channeled their desires into having boyfriends who are everything to them rather than friends. This is probably more widely accepted since the idea that love makes one out of two or some such thing is one that floats around in our culture, but it seems to be common sensically true (and also, Edward Laumann agrees) that very few couplings can last without social support and restraint. Possibly some of the drama of childhood best friendships is the result of their unrootedness in friendship networks--there is nothing at stake when I break up with my fellow snow fort builder when I am nine, except perhaps the snow fort in progress, whereas if I decided to break up with one of you, it would have unhappy repercussions for everyone else we are mutually friends with, so there are now more incentives to reconcile than in the past. Networks also help you stay in touch with people without direct communication, since mutual friends can convey what the other friend is up to, like when Friend 1 plans her wedding, but only tells Friend 2, leaving Friends 3 and 4 to find out indirectly (ahem!). So, maybe it doesn't matter how many friends you have per se, but rather how rooted in friendship networks you are--in other words, how many of your friends are friends with your other friends? This still doesn't explain the serial monogamist friender, who remains a freak of social nature in my book.

As to making friends in adulthood (have we all finally decided that we are adults? hurray!), I think it's 1) hard and 2) harder in DC, where everyone schmoozes all the time without any purpose in mind. (Amber, who also lives in DC, has talked about this problem with Belle.) I have met many people in DC while inebriated and consuming small cheeses on toothpicks, but, all told, I've made about one new friend, and that person befriended me. My mother was worried about this for a while, and would call me every week and ask if I'd made any new friends yet, but I haven't been that unhappy about it. For one thing, I think having a full-time job takes up way more time and mental energy than college classes did. I can see no one socially for an entire workweek and not even notice (though not because I work extremely hard, as those on gchat have noticed). I don't know if you all find your job situations similar. Moreover, I have Seb, and now Alex, and thanks to teh internets, I can remain closely-involved with my pre-adulthood friends (that would be you) in a way that suits me best anyway (I am not greatly in need of much physical hugging), so I haven't felt a great void in my life since moving here. If I did though, I'd probably be screwed, because it looks like the only way to meet people outside your job is through really lame shit like Oprah's book clubs and the gym, and my gym is full of middle-aged women with eating disorders. I know that all of you make friends at work, but I don't know how you manage this, because I am intimidated by everyone at my job and prefer to hide from them. So maybe I haven't given friendship in adulthood the kind of effort it requires, but I think my approach to avoiding it has worked ok so far.

And, finally, I think it's at least extremely difficult to be friends with men without the intercession of some kind of desire, but that doesn't mean that the presence of such tension must necessarily undermine or undo that friendship. Much as I like a little eros in my education, I like some of it in my friendships as well. When Harry Met Sally is stupid--just because your intentions are ambiguous or change over time doesn't mean you have to act on every desire that arises, or choose between jumping into bed with someone and never speaking to them. Why can't some friendships be left complicated or incommensurate?


On second thought, I should add that, while I have made only one close friend in my post-college life, I have made many casual friends through my blog, which I guess is weird and untraditional, but amazingly useful for introverts.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

how to make blechs and influence gah.

Dear People-I-Kinda-Know,

I was gchatting with Alex yesterday morning, and she told me that she was having lunch with Rita. This got me thinking about lunch, and how I spend too much money buying it all the time. Then I started thinking about how, when I first started my job, I always brought my lunch from home. As soon as I made friends at work, though, I started eating out constantly and hemorrhaging $$$. Then I realized that Rita had solved my problem the day before, when she said (also on gchat): "ok, well, the best way [to save money] is to stop having friends. life is really cheap then." So true, Gremlin! Movies, dinners, bar tabs - that shit adds up.

And then I read this article, about how basically loneliness is just a state of mind, and I thought that, being naturally introverted in the first place, I could maybe get rid of my friends and pull it off. (As a bonus, that article also reminded of another article, which is one of my favorites ever.) I could still be friends with you guys, though, since none of you live in New York and therefore demand only cursory financial investment. Gchat is free, after all.

But man is a social animal and all that, so the long-term feasibility of this plan is probably suspect. I've heard, though, over and over again, how hard it is to make friends as an adult, so it's possible that I may end up friendless without trying. I can't decide whether it is actually harder to make friends in the "real world," though. I don't know how you guys feel about post-college life, but I've made a fair number of friends since graduation. But I've never thought making friends was a piece of cake, so my standards are probably too low. Making friends, keeping friends - who said that shit was easy?

Some people don't even try very hard; I've known lots of people (male and female, in high school and in college) who would ditch their friends as soon as they started dating someone, and this kind of behavior always befuddled me. Aside from the fact that I was usually the person getting ditched, I never understood why anyone would go through all the trouble of making friends, just to shrug them off. The person you're dating may be perfect, but doesn't everyone need a break from perfection now and again? I mean, what happens if you break up with this new girlfriend/boyfriend? You can't be friends with their friends anymore, and your old friends hopefully have enough self-respect to be angry with you, so you've got to dig up a whole new set of buddies. It just doesn't seem worth it. The other kind of behavior I never understood was people who have a million acquaintances (and 900 facebook friends) but no actual close friends. If you can have drinks with 200 people, but can call none of them when you're locked out of your apartment in your underwear, what is the point?

These strange behaviors don't seem to be gendered, as far as my experience goes, and contrary to popular opinion, I'm pretty sure there are an equal number of friendless men as there are women. It's true, though, that I've lost touch with more male friends, percentage-wise, than I have with female friends. The reasons for this have varied from bitter betrayal to general laziness, so I don't have any coherent theory about why this is the case. (I could speculate about the needs of the male psyche, but that would probably be pointless and painful, so I'll skip it.) Maybe if we pool experiences, a pattern will emerge. I certainly don't agree with the When Harry Met Sally adage, that men and women can never be friends because of the sexual tension. First of all, gay men are still men in my book, and second of all, I have definitely had sexual-tensionless male friends (but, admittedly, this is a rare thing). For whatever reason, though, all of my close long-term friends are women, and I imagine this will continue to be true for the rest of my life.

I subscribe, generally, to the less-is-more theory of friendship, which is convenient considering how rarely I make new friends. But I moved around as a kid, and since it has never been easy for me to make friends, I learned fairly young what it feels like to be without any. The feeling never lasted too long, but it happened often enough that I ended up being more concerned with having a few good friends than having lots of so-so friends. Other people, like my sister, had the opposite reaction; she learned how easy it was for her to make friends each time we moved, and has since then subscribed to the bigger-is-better theory of friendship. I have yet to determine which theory works better in practice, but to each her own, I guess.

Love, and sunshine, and puppies,

Sunday, November 23, 2008

My vindictiveness might require therapy


I just submitted four graduate applications--two containing an extremely embarrassing misspelling of an historian's name and who knows what other errors that I didn't have time to check because they are due next week. And there are still four more to go, plus the nerve-wracking process of extorting timely recs from the endearingly absent-minded professor types who have unendearingly absented their minds from completing my recs by the deadline even though they agreed to do this months ago and I even asked them to please tell me if they were planning not to do it on time, so that I could just resign myself to their lateness and stop worrying. They also didn't do that. So I have a lot of feelings about systems right now and gaming them, and most of them are negative.

High school is absurd, I think we can all agree. It serves an important social and academic function, and it's not irredeemably evil like middle school, but it's still absurd. I don't know much about the experience to be had at schools like Julia's, but I have some faith that they are better than public schools, and that I should send my hypothetical children to them instead of Niles West. But I guess gaming the system is a kind of useful skill too, and it's probably learned best at big public schools, where everything is both absurd and incredibly complex and impersonal. You have to wear your gym uniform every day and the rule is that you can't cover it with other clothes or wear street clothes with it, for example. About 90 percent of your grade is just showing up in the stupid thing, but because gym is also required every semester that you're enrolled, you have to go outside in November to "play soccer" when it's 40 degrees and all you're allowed to wear is a t-shirt and shorts ("you'll warm up when you start moving around"). What to do when freezing is a compulsory school activity? Put on your XL gym shirt, lay down on the field, and tuck yourself completely into the shirt so that you are a warmth-conserving, gym-shirted egg. Possibly roll around on the field in this position for emphasis. Forgo "participation points" in favor of earning more "appropriate appearance" points, and get a B in gym. Also, attendance policies? Let's not even start. I've blogged a lot about the absurdity of high school though, so I'm sure you all know these stories.

Although by the end of high school, I probably didn't have a moral leg to stand on in terms of shirking, manipulating, lying, and outright cheating in order to circumvent the system, I still managed to cultivate an intense sense of self-righteousness about other people's doing it. I did pretty much stop playing these kinds of games when I realized that college--at least the coursework part of college--was not absurd and arbitrary like high school, and dedicating my time to creating elaborate ways to undermine my teachers was not going to be that productive.

I credit my hum class with demonstrating this to me, but I realize that such redemptive narratives are self-justifying and often manipulated by hindsight. Still, there was a real change in my attitude towards school during first quarter (I have blog evidence!), and I can't imagine it resulted from my really awesome calc or "neuroscience" classes (were you in that, Becky?) or my nonexistent social life. But my hum class was amazing enough to re-direct my interests, and I really did love everything about it--the books, the professor, the TA, even (most of) my classmates--so I'm going to go with that. I kept getting checks instead of check-pluses on my papers, which at the time, I took to mean that I was getting a C in the class, and since the only academic skill I had reliably cultivated by that point was the ability to write decent sophistic papers arguing that whatever the teacher said was wrong, I decided this meant that I HAD NO SKILLS and would imminently FAIL OUT OF SCHOOL, so I moved into the Reg and started taking Homer extremely seriously and writing all my papers weeks in advance. Now I realize the silly lopsidedness of the situation, which was just the TA giving everyone perfunctory low-ish "grades" that didn't even count for the course so that we could figure out how to write a college paper, and me re-arranging my life in response. But that wouldn't be the first time my freaking out was completely out of proportion to events.

In any case, after that, I decided I was a sincere student (plus or minus a few relapses into cynicism), and people who were gaming the system deserved my scorn. The mockery of class fuckers was one facet of this, but it also has much less socially acceptable consequences, like my burning hatred for grade inflation that makes it possible for everyone who remains alive during the quarter to get at least a B-, and possibly a B if he goes to office hours once and cries about how hard his life is (or cries about how hard her math homework is, as Julia might remember). Now, I understand that we're supposed to have good will towards our classmates, and at least the decency to keep our mouths shut when they do unethical or simply lame things to get by. I mean, what are you going to do--snitch? Even to harbor animosity towards these people rather than admiration for their cleverness and luck is questionable. If you can't admire their great skill, shut up and be unconcerned with it all, since their behavior doesn't affect you. Nonetheless, I resented these people. I resented the people who always got extensions on their papers, who wheedled their way out of requirements, who stroked their beards with enough seriousness that their professors mistook them for deep thinkers, who wrote their BAs the night before and got A-'s. Generally, Julia was a good person to express these socially unacceptable sentiments to, since she often harbored them as well (especially in reference to BA shirking), though more diplomatically. In some sense, I guess this vindictiveness of mine demonstrates my own small-mindedness. A really dedicated student would probably ignore what lame people are doing to get by and focus instead on the integrity of his own work. Fair enough. I am a shallow, jealous, and competitive person. Play by the rules or incur my wrath.

Now, you guys mention going to office hours as a way of playing the game in college. I think this is a case of what Becky suggested below in the comments, where some people do this sincerely, everyone else sees how it benefits them, and it becomes systematized as the thing to do to succeed. I think a lot of people don't even know that it's the thing to do when they come to college since it's usually not the thing to do in high school. The only reason to have out of class communication with teachers in my high school was if you were flunking or you were sucking up in some egregious way, both of which marked you out immediately as a failure. I went to office hours in college because my hum TA required it, and the first time was excellent, but unfortunately set off a regrettable succession of four-hour office hours social disasters that made up my college experience. How many apology emails did I/you have to send out, Social Secretary Julia? SO MANY. Sigh. Anyway, I realized pretty soon that office hours were the gold-paved road to recommendations and other forms of external benefit, and so definitely a way to play the game (and one that was less heinous than joining a sorority or "networking" as CAPS instructed), but I still couldn't make myself go to office hours for classes in which I had no interest or nothing to say about the reading that didn't fit into normal class sessions. I know, however, that many people went "just to chat" and some who went to, uh, more than chat, and I recall discussing in Julia/Becky's dorm sometime during second year how they managed these amazing feats. I would rather have died than walked into a professor's office to ask him about his kids and hobbies.

So, to bring this all back to grad school, despite my resentment of game players, or perhaps because of it, I am fascinated by really clever or daring game plays, particularly the phenomenon of faking academic credentials, which I will one day write a profound tract about, really. Someone posted on one of the grad school message boards that one of her classmates had forged her letters of recommendation because she was too awkward to get real recs. Is this not amazing? Obviously, I am not alone in my fascination with this story, since the post has gotten tons of responses, many debating the problem that snitching poses for hyper-competitive but basically ethical students. We await the outcome of this tale.


Friday, November 21, 2008


Thursday, November 20, 2008


Former Inhabitants of 5402:

Whenever the general topic of education, especially public education, is raised, I am strangely unable to come up with a coherent position on any part of the issue. I think my reluctance to take sides on any of the relevant points may come from spending nearly my entire life surrounded by teachers. Nonetheless, I went to school for 16 years, public and then private, I pay taxes that go toward the public schools where I live, and my life is full of people who work in schools, so I obviously have at least a personal basis for an (anecdotal) point of view.

My experience with "the game" was slightly different than all of yours. In high school, to the horror (and I think secretly the pride) of my parents, I not only didn't play the game, but I refused to do anything I thought might even be related to playing the game. I was in no clubs, I didn't stick with any sports for more than two seasons, I did not cultivate relationships with any teachers, and I refused to study for the SATs. "The SATs should be a measure of how much you know, not how much you can memorize right before you take them," I argued. "Colleges should decide whether they want to accept me based on who I actually am, not based on clubs I don't care about padding my resume!" I was a fucking brat.

Obviously I did fine in school. I got mostly A's. I took a few AP classes, although I uncharacteristically bombed one of the tests and didn't get credit in college. I finished in the top 10% in my class (barely). I did well on my first try on the SATs. And despite my anemic resume, I got in early to the U of C, which was the only college I had any interest in. I don't know if that means I fit perfectly into a certain slot in the whole applying-to-college scenario just as I was, and thus didn't need to play the game, or that I got lucky. I think I got lucky.

In college, I absolutely failed to play the game. Julia, I think you probably did a slightly better job than me. At least you wrote a BA. The difference in college from high school was that while I knew I should go to office hours and cultivate a relationship with professors and form a particular academic interest, and I didn't resent those necessities like I did in high school, I totally never did them. For one, I was very much put in my place about my academic abilities as soon as I got to college, and I was shy about that. For another, I am kind of lazy. But also, not playing the game didn't hurt me the first time I didn't do it, so what the hell.

Now, post-college, I have a job that I like (although with no prestige or advancement opportunities) and a plan for what's next and a fear that upon applying to law school I will finally be bitten in the ass by my utter refusal/fear/failure to participate in the game at all.

I don't know where my experience fits given Rita's connected points about the wisdom of gaming a shitty system in order to escape it and not gaming a good system. My high school was okay (Michelle says it was good for New Hamphire, mediocre for the country). I was occasionally inspired in high school, and I grew to really like studying in college. Maybe I played the game enough to succeed just by having involved parents, a natural affinity for standardized tests and a family with enough money to help me go to college wherever I wanted to go.

Non sequiturs: 1) I have been influenced significantly by each of you, and 2) I changed my mind about what I would do all day if I didn't have a job: I would totally watch soap operas. The questions is, could I accomplish brilliant things while keeping up with the twists and turns of General Hospital?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Warning: you are about to fail at life

Dear system gamers,

Alex and Julia bring up two different but connected points. One point is about the wisdom of gaming a shitty system in order to escape it, and the other is about not gaming a good system. I agree with both points. Beware, a novel might follow.

First, as I've said before when we talked about this story (via Liz, who also can tell you a lot of stories about DCPS), Alex, I think that there is a point at which a school becomes so bad that it's better for a child to sit at home and stare at the wall all day than to attend it, and this description is pretty much that point. Middle schoolers are vicious enough by nature; the last thing they need is an adult authority vacuum. One of my former students in our program, as you know, got jumped so often at his school that his parents finally pulled him out and transferred him, according to my other student, and I am very happy to hear that. But what worries me is that he himself could not do that, not only because he's 12 and doesn't have the ability to transfer himself out of his school, but also because he probably wouldn't have wanted to.

I've talked to the kids about their schools--it's almost always the topic I use to get them talking since they have a lot of opinions about it--and the extent to which they're oblivious to their own circumstances is sort of surprising. For one thing, none of them think they are poor. Once, one of my kids, in explaining why he supported Obama, said something like, "Obama cares about poor people, and we're poor. I mean, we're not poor poor, but we're kind of poor." This is possibly the closest any of them has ever come to seeing themselves as most of America would see them, and it's not even totally clear what he meant. They also don't think their schools are "bad," though they acknowledge that many other schools in DC are terrible. They don't think their home lives are problematic even though they have about 10 half-siblings each from various temporary combinations, though they can always tell you about their cousins, whose families are totally messed up. And so on. In some ways, this is good, because it means that they don't feel sorry for themselves or see themselves as victims of a cruel fate or an oppressive society, and in fact, they might not be all that poor, and their apparently crazy home lives might be pretty functional, and all in all, it's not clearly bad that they are happy with their lives. But the downside is that they're too complacent to see that they're somehow in danger. My best student, for example, is quite aware that she is hot shit, and is, as a result, very self-satisfied about her schoolwork. She is kicking everyone else's ass, and what more is she supposed to do at age 12? She has not the vaguest idea that there are other schools out there, like Julia's, where thinking that Africa is a country would not get you to the top of the class, and where you would, moreover, be disabused of the notion that Africa is a country pretty quickly.

When I was finishing middle school, I was in a parallel situation where my parents wanted to move to Wilmette so that I could go to New Trier for high school instead of Niles West. I knew that objectively, New Trier was the better school, but I threw tantrums in protest, citing precisely these kinds of reasons: I already have friends in my school and it would be hard to make new friends, Niles West is not that bad and if it is, that just means I will do really well there, whereas if I go to New Trier, I will be poor and stupid and friendless. I was probably wrong--I did do well at my high school, but I also likely would have done well at New Trier after a period of adjustment because, like my self-satisfied student, I had the potential to succeed in a more challenging school. So even though I was aware enough to notice that middle school was basically a vortex to the Hellmouth, I was too comfortable with my big fish-small pond academic status to act on this observation. Granted, my middle school was not our students' middle school, but I suspect that it's a pretty rare kid of that age in general who has enough initiative and foresight see that his situation is bad and to try to get out, and circumstances might actually mitigate against the best students doing so, since having a niche, even the Spelling Bee Queen (really, play the song) niche, is a powerful inducement to stick around. In other words, the kids who learn to game the system might be the first to become comfortable in it and the last to leave.

So the long answer to your short question is that I don't think it's really possible to convince the kids that their situations are dire and they need to do anything--whether it's study for real or game the system--to get out of there. At best, you will succeed in convincing them that their school sucks so they shouldn't care about it, which they will gladly believe, but which will only get you halfway to your goal, and at worst, you will have them believe that society is set against them and they are so hopelessly behind their peers that they should just go out and steal cars if they hope to make a decent living. I think this is a situation where adults need to make the decisions--to pull the kid out of a chaotic school, to send him somewhere better, and to pressure him to do the work that he doesn't want to do, because the kids won't do any of these things on their own. And our program is kind of taking that responsibility by pushing the kids into competitive high schools they wouldn't default to on their own.

When you describe how you had the epiphany about gaming the system, it wasn't because you thought your school sucked relative to good schools, but because you heard you needed A's to get into college, and the best way to get them was to appear to be good. But that actually sounds to me like the prevailing attitude of students at competitive public schools (or the competitive groups in mediocre schools), which revolve around the anxious pursuit of elite college admission through various questionable means, rather than the attitude of students at crappy schools, where not going to any college at all is a perfectly respectable option. What you aptly describe as learning "when we had to work, when we could coast, when we could cheat" requires a pretty clear ambition to direct these energies, and I don't see that kind of clear ambition in most of our kids, probably because they're still too young for it, just like they're only starting to see how to play this school game. (For one thing, my good student has gotten much brattier since last year. She is starting to see how she can get away with murder because she is a good student, and even I am loathe to punish her because I am so grateful that she understands the lessons and answers my questions that I don't want to do anything to dissuade her from continuing to do this, even though she has such an attitude about it.)

Um, ok, then. That was kind of long. I guess I will wait to talk about why I agree with Julia until my next post. Maybe Becky will tell us about her underachieving childhood in the meantime.


wealth and chickens


Julia, you beat me! Now this will be even more irrelevant than it already was. No matter though, I will say it anyway. These are the remnants of my thoughts on the work ethic stuff. More soon on how I am pretty sure I have never "worked up to my potential," as they say on elementary school report cards.

I sometimes wonder (idly) what I would do if I were wealthy enough that I never needed to work (as it is defined in my life currently - for someone else for a small paycheck). Usually, I think that I would continue to work, probably in a low paying field where I would feel good about myself, but not as good about myself as I might feel if I could not actually afford to work in that field and were therefore sacrificing for the greater good (and my own ego). That is another topic. Other times though, I think maybe I would be able to find the one thing that I am brilliant at, that is completely fulfilling and my true calling (I know - not actually a thing) if I didn't have to work.

Reading those articles about people (rich or poor) who don't have jobs leaves me with one overwhelming reaction: think of all the time! All the time those people have to do whatever they want! Sure, some people probably just watch The Real Housewives of Any Given City all day long, but other people write screenplays or start innovative companies or grow magnificent gardens or I don't even know. And that's the thing, I don't even know what I might be capable of if I had those 40 extra hours each week to myself. When I take a step back and really think about myself, I know that I will always do better in a structured environment. I thrive in the workplace and generally struggle to accomplish anything substantial on my own time. Still, I will always be a little bit curious.

It seems like Rita would define anything constructive I did with my theoretical 40 hours a week as "work" though, and I would mostly agree, so my daydreaming is not totally relevant to our topic. Whoops.

As for my parents' chickens, some of their eggs can be seen here (my Brooklyn cousin's cooking/baking blog). There are currently eight hens living in a chicken coop my dad built in the back of their garage. When they are turned loose they eat the compost in the garden and chase each other around the yard. Turns out chickens are pretty hilarious.

gossip girl

i suck at games.

Dear 5402ers,

Before Becky posts and I get shut out of this blog completely (who knew we would all be posting this frequently? It's kind of amazing!) I think I need to state something publicly: I have always studied hard.

This may seem like a random self-affirming proclamation, but it relates to both Rita and Alex's most recent posts. Let me explain:

First off, Rita says that due to her influence, I studied more in college than I otherwise would have. (And thanks to me, her hairbrushes are clean.) Rita likes to goad me by telling me that, while I have only marginally affected her life and viewpoints, she has completely transformed mine. We talk about this surprisingly often, and no matter how much I protest that I have, in fact, rubbed off on her in significant ways, she is never convinced. (I'm sure this doesn't surpise you at all, Alex and Becky, since as you well know, Rita is rarely convinced by anyone's arguments, except her own, and maybe Hannah Arendt's.) In any case, there is no categorical way to prove that I have been an influence in her life, or indeed, in any of my friends lives. I will freely admit, though, that all the members of the 5402 (Nigel and Beatrice included) have certainly influenced my life. (And when we do get around to the topic of friendship/pseudo-lesbianism, I will expand on this.)

My life began long before the 5402, however, and this brings me to my second point: I have always been an excellent student. I'm not bragging, I swear, it's just true. There was a brief period (mostly 8th grade, when I was miserable and didn't care about life or the future) when my record wasn't totally stellar, but for the most part, my lifetime GPA is pretty high. This is due to the fact that I always liked school (except, of course, for 8th grade, when I hated everything). And in high school, especially the last two years of it, you could say that I loved school. I know that sounds extremely odd, but again, it's just true.

There were obviously things I hated (my soccer coach, several of my classmates, calculus) but other than these things, school itself was great. My classmates were very smart, most of my teachers were interesting, and I learned a great deal. There was, of course, a game to be played, as Alex says: I tried to cultivate an image of studiousness, and I joined after-school activities (newspaper, yearbook) with this image in mind. To do well in my high school, though, you had to work hard, and I remember burning the midnight oil more than once. I actually enjoyed this, and looking back now, it was in high school that I realized how much I liked learning just for the sake of it. I never enjoyed playing the game, but that was mostly secondary, and it didn't get you As (or in my case, 7s - IB grading is weird). Those of us who worked hard did well, and we got public recognition for it, too: at the end of every school year, teachers would give out awards for excellence. (And I won several.)

Then I went to college, where I failed to play the game entirely, but I didn't fail to study (thanks to Rita, apparently). This was great at the time, since I always hated the game but I did, sado-masochistly, enjoy studying. And since I no longer had to collect activities and cultivate relationships with teachers so that I could get into a good college, this didn't seem like a totally horrible way to live my life. In the long-run, though, the results have been mixed, and I kind of regret it now.

My point is, I agree with Alex: learning to play the game is important, and not just in high school. In life after school playing the system gets more important, in some ways, both socially and professionally, and I wish I was better at it. I'm not en route to becoming a total loser or anything, but I'm sure it could help. The problem is that people I know who are really excellent at playing the system are mostly douchebags, and I don't particularly want to be like them. I need better role models.


p.s. I realize this post is mostly about me and how smart I am. Sorry about that.

Teaching kids to play the system

Dear good students,

I went to Starbucks this morning and bought coffee and a croissant, and I’m going out to lunch today, so I think now is a good time to change the subject. (Although I was thinking, Rita, that I don’t really understand this point: “…but it's just an incentive to good behavior for the wrong reasons, since it still makes acquiring stuff for the sake of stuff the main goal of the process, and this is what seemed unsustainable and unjustifiable to me in my first post.” There didn’t seem to me to be a substantial difference between the two reasons, except that in one, I feel morally superior and retire, and in the other, I just retire. But then, at Starbucks, I thought maybe if I was motivated by an underlying conviction to virtuous thrifty spending, as opposed to just regular thrifty spending, I wouldn’t fall into the coffee trap as often.)

Speaking of the wrong reasons for doing things, I would like to turn the topic to public school education, specifically, what I should say to my child when he tells me that “my cousin stole a car and only got JuV, so it’s really not that big of a deal.” As I think all of you know, Rita and I participate in a “mentoring” program for middle school kids in low-income areas of DC. The purposes of the program is to ultimately get them out of their crappy school system (the one which, as one columnist said to those who insist Obama should put his kids in public school (myself included!) “would be a form of intellectual and social child abuse”) and into college-prep high schools, and ultimately to college. We get the kids from 6-8 pm, at the end of their 12 hour day, so I sympathize when they are less than motivated. But that’s not really the larger problem. As one told me, “I don’t LIKE school, man, why do I gotta be here?”

So, the philosophy that we (we being tutors, teachers, anyone professing to care about the education of children) are supposed to have is that we have to make these kids LIKE learning. Through good, creative teaching, attention and mentoring, these kids can change from (trouble-making) lumps on logs to the proverbial sponges that soak up information and radiate awe and interest. My response to this: WHATEVER. (Rita, I trust that if I ever run for public office on a school reform platform, this blog will be deleted? And when you are interviewed, you will tell the reporters how much I loved the little children?) So what do I say to this child, who too is busy sneaking cocoa-puffs from his backpack to his mouth to notice that I am talking to him?

“I don’t care if you like school. I didn’t like school either, especially in middle school. But you still have to DO it and you better do it well, because I am NOT taking the train all the way out here to watch you pick your nose.” I have found that this kind of guilt-trip is largely ineffective with children, as they do not have a highly developed facility for compassion. But really, there is a larger message that I want them to absorb from this, one that I think would get me kicked out of the tutoring program if I were to make explicit.

I understand what it’s like to go to crappy schools.* I know what it’s like to sit in a classroom when there is no discernible reason for my presence other than that it smells better than skipping class by hanging out in the bathroom. I remember, one time in particular, when I was assigned to “Business and Computers” in eighth grade and wasn’t allowed to switch to Home Ec. I sat, for nine weeks and watched the teacher file her nails while I fumed about not being able to bake cookies. At the end of those nine weeks, I received a D for the class. I went up to the teacher, report card in hand, and basically said, What. The. Hell.
“You didn’t turn in any work.”
“There wasn’t any work.”
“I don’t have your worksheet.”
“It’s right here.”
“I’m getting straight A’s this year. I’d like an A in the class.”

This utterly arbitrary assigning of grades was not a unique experience for me. Probably lots of people got C’s and D’s, who did the same amount of work as I did (which was none) and didn’t say anything, because, like my aspiring car-thief, they didn’t care enough to confront the teacher. School is stupid anyway.

So here is what I would like my kids to absorb: Yes, school, especially right now, and especially the one you are in, is stupid. But you have to learn to play the system. When teachers randomly assign grades, who gets the A? The student who has proven themself diligent and conscientious in other ways. The student who has merely expressed a desire for good grades. The student who expects good grades.

In sixth and seventh grade, I was a mediocre student. In eighth grade, in preparation for high school, when my grades would matter for getting into a good college, I decided I should get straight A’s. And that’s all it was. A decision. It required no burning of the midnight oil. It was a planned campaign to change my teachers’ conception of me from a middle-achieving student to a high-achieving student. (This was slightly harder in math class.) And this continued throughout high school.** It wasn’t until college that I learned to actually care about learning, rather than what my grades could get me. And I would say that, largely without exception, all the high-achieving students at my high school shared this same philosophy. We knew when we had to work, when we could coast, when we could cheat, and how to make our previous grades and our reputations work for us. In a lot of ways, being a good student was less work than being a mediocre student. Our teachers thought we were too smart for busy work. We got called out of class a lot for special presentations, college-meetings, and awards presentations. We got special privileges. We skipped school and drove to the beach and never got in trouble.

So, my kid can make a choice. He can make the effort to appear diligent and have his teachers worship him, or he can go to JuV. Both require the same amount of actual work (although I suspect plotting to steal a car requires more brainstorming and planning than writing a standard English composition). He just doesn’t know how to make school work for him.

Now, clearly I don’t think my mentoring program should form itself around this philosophy, just that I wish I could convince my kids that getting out of their situation is urgent enough to require this kind of mental overhaul. I don’t think my educational…structure was enviable, and I would try my hardest never to send my own children to schools where they would adopt this kind of philosophy. Learning is fun, and I wish I could have learned that earlier. But you’re lucky if you come out of a DC public alive, much less a philosopher.

*I don’t want to overstate my shared experience with DC public school kids. While Miami-Dade schools are fairly awful, I was never subject to violence, and I was never scared to go to school. I was lucky enough to be placed in advanced and gifted programs, where I was told repeatedly that I was smarter than everyone (what is up with that?), and this undoubtedly helped boost my confidence that I could use the system to my advantage. I didn’t go home to an empty house, and none of my (immediate) family members did illegal things that I aspired to. I did not start out where these kids are, and they are not going to end up where I am.

**I am over-simplifying. I took AP courses that were challenging and interesting, and I picked some of those (like Art History) because I liked the topic and wanted to learn more about it. I had some good and invested teachers, who invited me to their house for review sessions and Christmas parties. And while I was in many extra-curricular activities just for my college applications (every god damn honor society) I was also genuinely engaged in Newspaper, and would have participated regardless. But the fact remains that many AP classes I took, I chose because I knew I could pass and it would look good on my record for college (European History, Government, etc.) The positives came as a result of my already being a good student, not as motivation to love learning.

I anticipate many responses telling me I am a horrible person.


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Be gifty instead of wanty


To clarify my point about work ethic, I don't think that what you're doing, Julia, is in principle anti-work. You're not leaving your job because you'd rather not work, period, but because you want a better job than the one you have, and a desire for advancement/improvement is not incompatible with a strong work ethic. I think it's this kind of attitude that is explicitly anti-work--that it's better to do nothing/live off other people indefinitely than to settle for work that you think insults your dignity. (Also I think that dude in the article who was living off his home equity is like, "Damn." right now.) In some ways, I guess it's only a short distance from trying to improve your employment situation and acting out of a misplaced sense of entitlement, but I think there has to be a significant difference between the two, or else everyone who ever asked for a raise or promotion was just being a self-important twit and there would be no innovation or entrepreneurs. Possibly the difference is as simple as the fact that, when you were looking for your first job after college, you took that temp job at Labyrinth so that you would not be doing nothing.

Even the idea of living off savings because you have them is kind of questionable. On the one hand, I agree with Becky that having parents who can help you out is a good thing that you shouldn't be ashamed of. Certainly from the perspective of the parents themselves, who have worked and saved for the explicit purpose of cushioning their children's lives, this is a privilege they've earned. But that still doesn't mean it's ok not to work in some capacity. Wouldn't that mean that the super-rich and their children should just, ahem, spend their lives throwing parties featuring fire-jugglers in Greenwich Village apartments that were purchased for them by their parents? I think there's probably something to condemnations of the socialite lifestyle as meaningless and dissolute, and apparently, the super-rich sometimes agree that working is its own good, separate from the financial remuneration. Now, what qualifies as "work" is probably subject to debate, since it's kind of hard to sympathize with the trust fund child who watches Netflix all day while claiming to be an "aspiring filmmaker," but I'd include loose or unofficial productive arrangements like grad school and home-making in the category.

Now, about those chickens, Becky, do your parents already have them? Are they laying eggs? Can I see pictures? Can I raise chickens too? That sounds a lot more exciting than my current compost project. I am very intrigued. In general, I think somewhere between Becky's idea of curtailing wants, and Alex's point about directing wants to other people, there may be a good philosophy of saving. I sympathize with the pleasure of sitting atop a growing savings account, and the peace of mind that savings brings. But I also experience the Michelle/Alex pleasure of finding a great deal (and then, like Alex, telling everyone who will listen about it). There is something about the self-restraint aspect of saving that must be good, but not in a yuppies running marathons to "test themselves" kind of way (though that is commendably Puritan in a way, I guess) or people who are obsessed with sustainability and only use as much energy as they can convert from their own poop way. In other words, though saving might be a good way to practice discipline, it's not good for asceticism's sake. (On the other hand, this should be eliminated from being as an example of thrift of any kind. "A cab is never more economical"--is there a real person who needs to be told this?)

Maybe the problem is that it can't be all about you, and if it is, it's probably misguided no matter how you construe it. As I said in the comments (which I decided I don't like b/c they disrupt the flow, sorry Alex), I don't think simply saving in order to spend, one item at a time (even in retirement) is a good framework for saving. It might work to keep you out of debt, but it's just an incentive to good behavior for the wrong reasons, since it still makes acquiring stuff for the sake of stuff the main goal of the process, and this is what seemed unsustainable and unjustifiable to me in my first post.

I am with Becky's parents on consumerism, at least in spirit (although I think the simply anti-consumption view has been superseded by the view that we should consume ironically in order to undermine consumerism, but I don't think that will work). I was v. impressed in college by Becky's apathy towards acquiring stuff, and I always wished I could just buy a pair of jeans every three years and then not think about clothes again. I still think that, for the most part, an active interest in acquiring a lot of expensive stuff is a sign of unseriousness and lack of substance in a person, even though I know several very smart people who are into expensive stuff like fashion. At the same time, the danger of undertaking an explicit campaign to eliminate your material desires is that you might become as insufferable about your moderation as you would have been about your lavish spending (like the people who feel compelled to remind you constantly about how awesome they are for not watching TV--actually, I sometimes do this too).

I've found though that giving people gifts actually helps moderate my own desires, since then I give other people the things I like, so I can't get them for myself. Maybe this also connects to Alex's point about saving to be generous with your friends and family. This is actually Aristotle's justification for earning money in the Ethics--the poor man cannot be generous, and generosity is one of the requirements for virtue, and virtue for happiness. Also, it recalls the mostly antiquated idea of the "family fortune"--the stockpile that reflected not just your current individual status, but your family's honor, your ancestors' lives, and your hope for your descendants. If you thought about this as the goal of savings, you might have reason to save without your savings leading to whatever dissolution accompanies lavish spending and insatiable acquisition. Obviously, none of us is about to found an aristocratic line and buy a family estate to grow it on, but maybe some vestige of this idea still holds true in our concern about being generous with our families and friends.

Also, why have all our views about saving converged? Have we insidiously influenced each other by living together? Is this like how I made Julia study more, and Julia made me clean the hair out of my brush more often? Does this validate my view that this study can only be evidence that most college students are stupid or oblivious, because if they were paying any attention, they'd have to be influenced by their professors?

Finally, Alex would like me to add that, despite my public endorsement of thrift, I failed to open a flexible spending account because I refused to be bothered by the paperwork. I am a bad person.


Saturday, November 15, 2008

Sacrificing my mani-pedi

Hello former roommies,

This is SO exciting!

So, I've just moved into my large apartment on Connecticut Avenue, where I am occupying the master bedroom, which comes with a walk-in closet and its own bathroom. My aunt also gave me $100 in cash yesterday, to help with my grocery bill. So it seems an odd time for me to write about the thrifty person that I've grown in to. (But if not now, when? Rita may kill me before then.)

Unlike all of you, I did NOT inherit my current financial outlook. Despite earning relatively little money and having basically no savings, my immediate family is not thrifty in the least. I grew up going out to eat all the time and getting nice jewelery as birthday presents. It's only in the past few years that I've started to understand money and recognize how dangerous this behavior is. My mom and my grandmother really like things and the satisfaction that comes from surrounding themselves in those things is worth more to them than financial security. I guess. It puzzles (and worries) me, and I got some insight into this psychology recently when I wanted to buy a $300 leather bag that was on sale for $80. I thought it was a good deal, but it was also more than I should have been spending on bags, considering I was unemployed at the time. When I asked my mom if it was irresponsible to spend almost $100 on a bag, she said, "Well, but you have the $100 now, and in the future, you might not have the money, but you'll have the bag." This is not a money ethic that facilitates saving.

Since the above philosophy is not one that I support, but this is the first time I'm earning a salary where I'm expected to save money, my views are still evolving. I have possibly gone to the other extreme and become downright cheap. I'm obsessive about bringing my lunch to work so as not to spend money, and I've taken the NYTimes advice to heart and almost never buy coffee. None of the furniture in my room matches, but since it was all left behind by a girl who seemingly fled to Peru, I'm happy with the way it is. I borrowed sheets and towels from my aunt for a week to hold me over till my mom comes up to DC with all the old ones from the house. I even started walking to a farther metro stop from my job, to save myself the 15 cents on my commute home.

This kind of thriftiness seems unsustainable to me, though. I think I'm motivated by being in a new situation and the excitement of getting a large paycheck every week, that I just can't bear to part with. But it requires forethought and mental energy, and I can see it becoming less important to me if and when I get wrapped up with other things.

What was instilled in me was the great joy of finding bargains. I don't like shopping at H&M or Forever 21, even though they have inexpensive clothes, because I hate paying full price for anything. I prefer going to Marshall's or TJ Maxx and digging through the clearance rack to find something that originally cost $80 on sale for $14.99. But I don't think this stems from a desire to be thrifty; it just makes me feel like I've gotten away with something because other people had to pay 5x what I paid. (Although I'm sure the knowledge that these people make at least 5x my salary gives them that same warm feeling of satisfaction.) The thing about this kind of shopping though, is that it requires time, a car, and a suburb, things that are not always available to me. Convenience has a price, and, like taking the further metro stop, bargain shopping could become more of a burden than it's worth, depending on my lifestyle.

Last year, living in Madrid, I didn't save any money. My travel style was about as frugal as it could be (well, maybe not our trip in London, Julia...) but it still costs a lot of money to go to a new city every couple weeks. And I spent a lot of money going out, eating at restaurants, and drinking in bars. It didn't seem worth sacrificing any part of the experience for the sake of saving money, and I don't regret that. Some of the Fulbrighters tried really hard to save their Euros and turn them into lots of dollars, and let me tell you, those people did not make good drinking buddies.

On the whole though, I have made some important changes. I don't buy things just because I want them and they are pretty, and I can make do with hand-me-downs now. I don't have any credit card debt and I've been squirreling away more than 10% of my pay-check. The only indulgence I have that I can think of is my shampoo and conditioner. (My hair is really difficult!) I agree with you Becky, that many mini-crises can be solved with good financial planning. My first month in Madrid, when I hated my apartment and decided to move, I knew that I might lose my security deposit. I didn't, and it would have sucked if I had, but I knew that I could afford to do that to get myself out of a bad situation. And Rita, I don't agree that I'm saving for a nebulous future. I'm saving for A LOT of specific things: to travel, to buy a house, to retire, and to be able to afford to be comfortably generous with family and friends in the future. I save for those reasons, and not because saving is a virtue in and of itself. The last item in particular, because it is not a "lame material wish-fulfillment" is the most important to me.

I still don't have definite ideas about what money is worth to me, and it's something I struggle with. Thrift is not a value that was instilled in me, but I know it's important, so I'm learning to incorporate it without going overboard. Luckily, trendy, expensive things annoy me, and I'm quite happy to eat $5 Crisp and Juicy Peruvian chicken.


I love money!

Dear friends,

I am glad you invited me to join you in this venture. All of the writing I do lately is about nanotubes or imaging algorithms, neither of which interest me particularly, so I am glad to have another mode of expression. Plus I lack the motivation (and probably commitment) to have a blog right now, but have always sort of wanted to. Also my new project should be studying for the LSATs and god knows I don't want to do that.

To begin, I am a thrifty person, probably even a cheap one. I agree with you both in that my thriftiness seems to have come directly from my parents. However, while Rita's parents would drive across town to save 2 cents on notebooks and Julia's parents would buy her school clothes in New Jersey to save on sales taxes, my parents just avoided buying stuff. That is not to say that my childhood was all that Rita wishes hers had been (dresses out of flour sacks, killing our dinner, etc. - although my parents' current project is raising their own chickens for eggs), but my parents do hold a general belief that consumerism is bad. They do not like to buy stuff because they don't like stuff. I absorbed this general dislike of stuff, although Michelle has to an extent mitigated my parents longstanding influence.

The issue, of course, is how one makes decisions about need versus want, and how much one wants things. As an inherently thrifty person, I feel that I need very little and want only slightly more than I need. My first instinct is always to not spend money. Honestly though, I don't believe this is necessarily the best way to be. Michelle has repeatedly reminded me that it is okay to buy things one doesn't need, assuming one will get enough enjoyment out of them to offset the expense. She did this most effectively by buying me an iphone. Convincing!

That is certainly not to say Michelle is not thrifty, only that she is thrifty in a completely different way than I am. She clips coupons, loves sales, and can recall exactly how much she has saved on every item at the grocery store. For all my claims of thrift, I can't actually make myself care about sales or coupons or getting good deals.

As for the points about work ethic, I agree almost completely with Rita about society's view of people who work, don't work, and can't work. Except that I think it is not so much that "the person who does not work is lazy [and] incompetent" but that the person who cannot support themselves is lazy and incompetent. Julia, for example, who will not be working and instead will be traveling, will a) be able to do so because she has worked and presumably saved some money to support her desire to travel, and b) has proven herself more than capable of supporting herself. After all, taking advantage of available resources is a valid way of supporting ones self. Parents who will take us in are an available resource. Plus, if part of our ethic, as Rita points out, is to find jobs that satisfy and help to define us, then presumably unemployment is preferable to a soul-sucking career-path type job leading nowhere.

And while it does not seem to be true for a lot of young people, I have definitely had the importance of saving ingrained in me. Savings for me equals safety and more options in the future. If I lost my job, if I was in an accident and incurred huge medical bills, if our building burned down and we lost all of our stuff; all of these are scenarios that can potentially be fought off with responsible saving. Not that my paltry savings account could actually stand up against any of those things, but that's the idea. And a house and more school and kids are all things that I want to be able to have when I want them. What can saving be rewarded with other than whatever you spend that money on? You are rewarded for saving by being able to buy a house or travel through India for three months. You are rewarded for saving by not going under when you have unexpected medical bills or other costly emergencies. Few of us will ever make as much money in a year as we wish to spend in that year. Sometimes (now) we will make more money than we need to spend, and later on we may make less money than we want to be able to spend. It only makes sense to put away the extra now in order to have it later. But maybe it's easy for me to say that because I have an innate desire to not spend money, and am positively gleeful watching my savings account grow. Scrooge-like, I am.

And I'm out. Except that, Rita - I am all for hearing about your theory of the lost pseudo-lesbianism of Victorian/Edwardian female friendship, and why we should want that back.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

thrifty vs. cheap.

Hello ex-roomies,

Thrift is, I think, an excellent subject for us to start with, if only because it was you, Rita, who first introduced me to cheapness as an art form. You were, and possibly still are, the thriftiest person I know. I can't think of any particularly pertinent examples to illustrate this point, but I do remember being scared of incurring your disapproval whenever I bought something during our first year. This did not stop me from buying things altogether, but I did end up eating a lot of rice noodles during second year, so I do think your cheapness rubbed off on me somewhat.

In general I think personal thriftiness varies according to parental values, and my parents, while generally thrifty, have never been cheap. They are the kind of people who would go to New Jersey (where sales tax is much lower) to buy my back-to-school clothes, but they would buy those clothes for me at the Gap. The prevailing lesson was never to buy what you didn't need, and never ever to buy what you couldn't afford, but if you were going to buy something, it should be good. This has become my philosophy as well, insofar as I have a philosophy about anything. If 2 sweaters from H&M = 1 sweater from Esprit, I'll take the latter. I am not broke, and I have enough sweaters to wear, so I think this philosophy is working out for me.

Your point about work ethic makes me uneasy, though, Rita. I pretty thoroughly loathe my job at the moment, and there are days when I seriously think that unemployment would be preferable. Furthermore, I'm about to quit my job to go travel in Asia for a couple months, and my only definite plan for when I return is to move back in with my parents. There is a very real possibility that it could be months before I find another job, and months after that before I can move out of my parents apartment. (In my defense, I came up with this quit-and-travel plan before the economy imploded.) Does this mean I am wildly irresponsible and lacking virtue? Am I a dissolute child, preying on the goodwill of my parents and living merely for my desires?

Sometimes I think I am, and sometimes I don't. Mostly, though, I think that money is only worth something if you spend it. I have enough money to quit my job and travel for two months, and I really want to quit my job and travel for two months, so why not? Am I possibly making a huge mistake, and could I end up extremely broke and unemployed in the long-term? Yes, but the alternative is to forgo the trip I want, in order to stay at a job I don't, so that I can keep collecting a pay-check which is sadly inadequate considering how much I dislike earning it. There is a point, I think, when too much work ethic can be a bad thing.

If I had a husband, or children, or any desire to buy a house, I'm sure I would feel very differently about all of this.

The virtue of thrift

Dear exiled apartment-mates,

By way of introduction (to this endeavor, not to me), I should begin by admitting that I completely stole this format from Amber, who stole it from these people. And then I proselytized it to you because it was so bizarrely compelling. I think also this discussion about the nature of female friendship played an important role, because we've talked about that a lot among ourselves. Also, I figured we have a compatible spectrum of values--not identical, but not extremely divergent, and mostly generous feelings towards one another, so when we disagree, we will not kill each other over it.

We loosely voted on the first topic--thrift--but we can go back to the female friendship question eventually, or soon, if you guys want. Maybe if we do, I will blog about my theory of the lost pseudo-lesbianism of Victorian/Edwardian female friendship, and why we should want that back. I bet you are dying to know about that.

But first, thrift. I know this will demonstrate how much of a terrible person I am, but whenever I read stories now about people "cutting back" because of the economic crisis, I have three words in response: Chickens. Home. Roost. As you know, I am by upbringing a deeply cheap person. This has diminished somewhat--as my mother alleges, under your influence and tutelage during college. I also think Aristotle's Ethics played a role in convincing me that being a diligent penny-pincher is not actually virtuous. But I would like to think that my obsession with,, and various online discount codes betrays my continued commitment to the ideals of my parents, who used to drive across town from Target to K-Mart while shopping for school supplies to get the notebooks that were 10 cents each rather than stay in place and pay 12 cents. (Gas was cheaper then.) Also, this is still among my favorite essays ever, the more so because I aspire to emulate it. I have even nudged Sebastian into a lifestyle where he survives on $15 a week worth of groceries (and a lot of mooching from my kitchen).

Nonetheless, I do not live on $15 a week of groceries, so I'm kind of a hypocrite. I do try to minimize major expenses, don't own a car, seek out happy hour specials, shop mostly at H&M, etc. And that makes me feel morally superior to people in credit card debt. But the fact remains that I shop at H&M kind of a lot, like how many scarves and pairs of tights do I really need a lot. I guess the problem is that I have no coherent philosophy of thrift, other than that one should really try hard not to buy stuff I don't need. But that's like those Chevron ads all over the Metro (do you have those, Julia?) with close-ups of attractive people promising to do really noble and laudatory things to save energy like, "I will consider a fuel-efficient vehicle" or "I will unplug stuff more." "I will maybe kind of later figure out why I should save more money after I buy this cute jacket."

Part of the problem seems to me to be that the bar in America is so low that we can feel pretty awesome about our spending habits as long as we have jobs. It almost doesn't matter how much your job pays relative to what you spend because so long as you are employed, you are virtuous, and bad things like bankruptcy should not be allowed befall you. There is, I think, a strong philosophy of work here (there, everywhere). The person who does not work is lazy, incompetent, someone who can't work is to be pitied, and someone who doesn't want to work should be loathed. We are all (that is, we three, not necessarily all of America) pretty invested in having jobs that satisfy us, and will in part define us. Chalk it up to Aristotle, or Marx, or Arendt--but this ethic exists. So that's all good.

But I don't think we have a similarly articulated philosophy of saving. It's not clear to me exactly what it is I'm saving for, aside from the hypothetical house and kids of the somewhat distant future. Even for people who do have some end goal, it's often a short-term desire--vacation, boat, shoes--which, once met, leaves you searching for a new purpose for saving. I don't see how it's good or sustainable to save in order to satisfy a series of ultimately unimportant wanty items. Saving is always to some degree a sacrifice, and it should be rewarded with some other good than lame material wish-fulfillment after wish-fulfillment.

Or maybe not--it's possible that this is just a Puritanical way of thinking minus the salvation part in the end, and if there's no salvation, I guess, why bother?