Some months ago I was listening to a public radio station in the car and “Marketplace Money” came on. I’d never heard of it. I’m a public radio type, but I’d rather hear music than voices, so unless I’m in the car, without other options, I don’t listen to NPR. The program featured an enlightening, interesting discussion of how media shapes the way we think about money, what we “need” as middle-class people. The commentator said that the supposedly middle-class people on television have a lifestyle far beyond what real–world folks can afford. Examples included the Huxtables and the foursome on "Friends."
I could verify this from my own experience. My mother never cooked wearing pearls, though she did on occasion don an apron. The pearls were for Donna Reed or June Cleaver. My mother was blue collar; she spent her working life on an assembly line and loved it, whether the product was airplane wings, plastic toys, or candy. My father the salesman was Archie Bunker in a white shirt. I always thought of us as middle class, using the criteria that we never missed a meal, had elaborate Christmases, and went on vacation.
We didn’t discuss money; still, I remember being worried when I was diagnosed with scoliosis at how expensive I guessed all the treatment was. I was also class-conscious before I knew the word or concept. We lived on a street of ranch-style homes; some were all brick, some were all wood, and some, like ours, were brick-fronted. We weren’t, I knew, as rich as the people across the street, whose house was all brick, but we were clearly richer than the people whose homes had no brickwork at all.
I remember being confused in junior high when a classmate invited me to her house. It was smaller than ours, and all wood, but her parents had tickets to the symphony, and an extra one for me. That didn’t add up in my young snob’s guide to wealth. (But I was entranced by a young Itzhak Perlman’s performance that night, which I have never forgotten—Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade,” which remains one of my favorite pieces.)
Money, I realized then, could buy things other than brick-fronted homes or boats like my Uncle Gerald’s. Money could purchase tickets to events and experiences that would change my life. I have always chosen those above the more tangible things, though I’m fond of stuff, too. I wanted to go to plays and concerts again as soon as I could afford to do so after declaring bankruptcy, and I did.
I just read an article about minimalist living; it cited two books I plan to read as soon as my interlibrary loan requests arrive. (I’ve stopped buying books for myself; libraries are wonderful places.) These works are guides to the 98 or 100 must-haves for the new college grad lucky enough to get her own place and not live with parents—after all, everything I needed fit in a Ford Galaxie 500 when I left for my first job after college. The list also are intended for the hip metrosexual minimalist readying for a major purge.
Intrigued, I started my own list. I couldn’t think of 100 things anyone would need, although I did tend to lump things together—utensils, towels, rugs—rather than listing each thing individually. I have more than 100 things in this apartment, true, but many of them, probably most of them, aren’t necessities.
Looking around as I brainstormed a list, I realized yet again that I have small tables to hold lamps and whatever objects I add to design tablescapes. If I bought floor lamps or lamps that attached to the wall, I could make do with less. Much as I love little tables, I am going to have to think about this.