Of Money And Merry Christmas And Consumerism

Credit: Thinkstock

Credit: Thinkstock

I flew "home" on Monday night—which I realize at 31, is a strange concept; my "home" is actually in a rambling Victorian in West Oakland. The place filled with my shit, my chosen family, my life as it were—and yet, especially come Christmas, I hear Bing Crosby warbling in my ear and off I go. I will indeed be home for Christmas. 


I flew into JFK at 6 o'clock Monday night, shouldered my hiking backpack and headed out into the bracing cold. It's freaking rush hour right now, I thought. I can't face the subway with all my shit. I'll hail a cab. I felt self-satisfied, decidedly adult-like. I never took cabs from the airport. Wending my way from the bowels of Queens to Brooklyn was my yearly rite of semi-miserable, semi-exhilarating passage. I savored the crushing crowds, the strangely hot wind rushing down the tunnel, the bing bong of the doors, the sonorous male voice telling me which stop was next. 

Not this year I thought. This year I'm bypassing that bullshit. 

But as I dialed up my mother's number to tell her I had indeed landed safe and sound—I glanced ahead to see taillights. Miles and miles and miles of taillights. Stupid, stupid stupid, I thought. Of course it's rush hour on the damn highway too! At least the subway keeps moving . . . even if  you're forced to stand so close to a stranger it can only be considered foreplay.

An hour and $65 later I was pulling up to my best friend's brownstone in Brooklyn feeling less adult-like and more foolish. 

Monday was basically shot and Tuesday I worked . . . until four o'clock when my old roommate from college, Annie, texted me.

"Heading to Union Square for some shopping."

Fuck! Christmas! Fuck! I haven't bought anything! For anyone! My mind started racing like a tiny hamster, jamming peanuts into its cheeks by the anxious fistful. My feet spun and spun and spun. I had to start shopping. Once I headed out to my parent's in Connecticut I'd be in the woods or under the fluorescent lights of Marshall's, combing the sweater and Santa-strewn aisles for anything remotely acceptable I could wrap, fingers blistered with the rubbing of curling ribbon.

Not this year, I thought. I'll head into the fray and circle back to work tonight. It was my. last. chance. 

And so I did. Barreling along the L line I was quickly deposited at Union Square and climbed the stairs to the bustling streets. I immediately withdrew $200 cash from an ATM, turned my collar high and jostled my way into the market. Five concentric semi-circles of booths surrounded me; elves and imps and makers and shakers all hawked their wares. Jewels glinted and leather gleamed. Wooden toys winked on their bouncing strings and hot cocoa wafted through the air.

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas! I scream-sang in my head. Let's do this thing.

In the next hour I spent $500 in a kind of delirious blur. Smile, inquire, rub, sniff, point and marvel. Swipe, swipe, swipe went my credit card, darting in and out of the Square with ease and aplomb. My arms grew laden with treasures. You only take cash? No problem, I dimpled, handing over crisp twenty after crisp twenty.

And then suddenly, as it dawned on me that I had to go, I was simply soaked and damn cold . . . I was also dead-high from my spree. There was this strange heady newness of actually having money to spend. And not worrying about it. I felt the sudden flood of my old anxiety. Knowing I couldn't spend more than $20 on any one person. Except my mother and father and brother who were special. Often I would shop the whole afternoon and come away with one, special gift I had discovered in a dusty bin in the back of an antique shop in Queens.

In my defense, I was raised in a family with a serious matriarch who had leveraged Christmas into what can only be described as a capitalist's wet dream. Twenty of us would gather for the holiday; it would take three hours to open all the gifts. 

This is also the first time in my entire life I've had anything in a savings account. Ever. I think the coupling of my upbringing with an unprecedentedly flush bank account—don't get me wrong, it's not actually flush—created a kind of instant psychosis. It felt so good just to not even think about it.

This isn't to say that I wasn't carefully choosing what I bought or hadn't already imagined pulling out all the wrapping paper and the bows and the tags and sitting cross-legged with my mother on the floor by the fire as the dogs pleasantly annoyed me with their swinging tails . . . but I certainly wasn't taking the kind of care I always had. I simply didn't have to.

And suddenly—and strangely—that felt like freedom.

Maybe it's a little pathetic and belies just how deeply I've been steeped in the post World War II dawn of American consumerism—which fundamentally shifted our entire societal psyche and relationship to material goods—but damn, it felt good to pile those gifts in my arms, to feel the cool weight of gold and silver against my palms.

Ever since I was a kid, I've had this fantasy (although it's admittedly a little less palpably delicious to my brain than it used to be) where I was fabulously wealthy enough that I could send people presents all the time. Big, small, beautiful trinkets; huge stuffed animals; a barrel of wine; a crate of chickens; jars of rainbowed candy; a Venetian lamp; roses in every color. One of my best friends has tiny feet—something ridiculous like a size 5 1/2 or something—and I would see these tiny exquisite shoes all the time—things she would never buy herself because she always worried about money—and I'd box them up with a gold silk ribbon and ship them to her door.


These days, there is this phrase that we all say. And when I say we, I refer to my friends and acquaintances. People I run into or meet at parties: "I don't need a lot of money, I just don't want to worry about money."

But the subtext of this is of course, the binary concept of want and need. Wanting money for money's sake is bad, but needing money to maintain a certain quality of life is good. But what exactly does that mean? What is this elusive future "life"? And just what does it cost to maintain it?

Because I'm 31 and society is simply constructed this way, the act of having or not having children is a conversation that often comes up in my household where I live with two girlfriends, both of whom pine for a family of their own. 

And often my "argument" for my own trepidation and arguable ambivalence (in addition to my phobia of pregnancy) is a sheer lack of resources. Of money. I will look at them across our kitchen table, simply incredulous at their confidence and calm—none of us have any money (you know what I mean) and I feel so far from being financially secure enough to support a child I can only marvel at their desire. But I also know when they both shrug and say, "I'd figure it out!" that they are not delusional.

They simply have a different barometer of want and need. 

On the other end of my personal social spectrum is perhaps my brother (who has made a very good living for himself as a creative director for a series of advertising firms in Los Angeles). His reality of what he needs day-to-day is about five or six times of mine and perhaps 10 times that of my roommates. The strange part is, it's not like he walks around oblivious to his spending because his coffers are simply overflowing. His "quality of life," his needs and wants, simply require more money. He worries about his bank account, too.

Often I think to myself, I mean goddamn, if I made what he makes, I'd be just set.

But then I remember I used to live on half of what I make now—in New York City no less!—and I thought everything was just peachy keen. I didn't feel hemmed in or trapped or poor I simply just knew my financial boundaries—about $20 a day—and stayed within them. Living on that now feels inconceivable. 

So now I'm left with what feels like a plump cushion beneath my rump—as opposed to occasionally feeling my sit-bones hit the saddle—but I'm suddenly resenting my own pleasure. I'm wary of the softness and safety—however slender—resting below me. I'm scared that one day this too will feel scant, and then in another 5 years, that hunger will creep in yet again and I'll spend the rest of my life like some twisted Scrooge cum-dragon, hoarding gold in a cave and cackling over its tinkling sound against my claws. 

How much is enough? And does wanting more put me on the list of naughty or nice?

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