Dense Blog Advisory

Lots of words, people. Lots of words.

The New Frugality, My Ass April 27, 2009

So here we are, 7 months after Lehman Brothers folds and knee-deep in a painful recession.  Yes, it hurts.  We’re all doing what we can to get by, but…in the back of my head, I still really really really want a new dress, a new bag, and a flat-panel TV.  If I had the slightest bit of disposable income, I would buy them all.  But I don’t, so I just bought the dress.

Anyone who says otherwise is lying.

Anyone who says otherwise is lying.

For the past few issues, TIME Magazine has been getting on my nerves–they’re a bit too preachy about this recession and consumer spending habits.  The cover story a few weeks ago, “The End of Excess,” was all about how spending is down, saving is up, and nobody will ever look at the mall the same way again.  Perhaps, but if my own tendencies are any indication, I’m itching for some good news so I can reward myself with a completely frivolous treat.  Yes, I am a shopaholic, but after the easy credit of the past ten years, so are most Americans.  How many of them, like me, are just itching to get back to the days of buy, buy, (best) buy?

This past week’s cover story, “The New Frugality,” looks to be pretty much the same story.  I can’t bring myself to read it because, well, time is valuable and I feel like this cover is a pound-for-pound repeat of “The End of Excess.”  Why reinvent the wheel?  Tell me if you feel the same, but I’m getting the feeling that TIME is trying to make something true by printing it over and over.

I read their quotes from people who are freelancers growing their own vegetables or laid-off auto workers who can’t pay for healthcare.  I feel for them.  It is a terrible situation, and I would never wish it on anyone (except possibly Gwyneth Paltrow…I really do despise her).  And yet…until I am in that horrible position, I am not strong enough to deny myself a dinner out or a new book or a new dress (clearance only, but still). I want it, life is hard, and sometimes just surviving another day means I want to reward myself.

If I feel this way, I’m guessing some of you do, too.  My spending habits have been changed, but not for good.  I’m riding out the storm, waiting for the clouds to clear.  I’m not building a bomb shelter or stocking my nuclear survival kit.  I think TIME is talking about extremes, hoping to cause a peer-pressure sort of situation in which we think everyone is hanging onto every dime, and thus do the same.  It’s like they want us to believe America is full of Puritans again, so they proclaim it loud and proud, and hope the message sticks.  But I’m not buying it.

Do I have any evidence to support this?  If I did, I’d be a journalist, not a blogger.  All I have are my own feelings, my intuition, and some observations.  But here’s what I see:  The girls at work haven’t changed their spending habits.  We all still shop, just like before.  One of them just took a vacation to Paris.  One of them is buying a house.  One of them just bought a new car.  It is still impossible to get into pretty much any chain restaurant in Little Rock between six and eight pm on Friday or Saturday night.  They’re packed.  Lines out the door.  Fat-ass families who get appetizers, meals, drinks and possibly dessert.  That shit’s not cheap.  Every meal out is $50-$90 when you’ve got a family of 4 or more.  And they’re everywhere…Outback, Olive Garden, Friday’s, Applebee’s, Chili’s…you name the bastion of mediocre Americanized fare, it’s packed to the gills on an Arkansas Friday or Saturday night.  These are not people holding back or pinching pennies.

And this is in Arkansas, land of Midwestern values and third-world salaries.  If anyone would be strapped or hurting more than usual, it would be here.  This leads me to believe that Arkansas is either a strange deviation from the TIME Magazine norm, or things aren’t as terrible as fear-mongering TIME would have me believe.  The end of excess?  I’d say more like the pause-button of excess.  It will be back.  It has just been temporarily silenced by forces larger than itself.

After the privation and horror of the Civil War, we had the Gilded Age. Gilded. As in PAINTED WITH GOLD. As in THE ERA WHEN PEOPLE LIKE ROCKEFELLER MADE ALL THEIR MONEY. If Gordon Gecko had a great-grandpa, he would have given these fools a run for their money.  If the gut-wrenching Civil War couldn’t make people embrace each other and good old-fashioned American values, how the fuck is a recession going to do so?

After World War II, when six million Jews were cruelly murdered and 25 million soldiers died fighting to save the world they knew, we had the suburban boom of the 50s and early 60s.  Cars, refrigerators, TVs, houses, pools…everything with a price tag got snapped up.  If the horrors of our most evil and insidious war didn’t make people grateful just to be alive, how the fuck is a recession going to do so?

I think we as Americans are programmed to want more.  It’s called Manifest Destiny, and every single US history textbook talks about it.  It’s in our blood.  We’ve lived it since 1776.  Every horrible thing that happened only tamped it down; it never extinguished it.  I mean no disrespect to people who have been hit with the loss of a job, home, health care, or retirement portfolio. But this recession is not the end of the world. We’ve had worse, and always come out on the side of survival-and excess. I imagine Gordon Gecko, dressed up as the Terminator, aping Arnold’s voice:  I’ll be back…to kick TIME Magazine’s ass.

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Anna Wintour Has Lost Her Shit April 15, 2009

Vogue. It’s the holy grail of fashion, right? Infallible, envelope-pushing, compulsively devourable…the bible of fashionistas everywhere, beloved by Carrie on Sex and the City.  Right? Wrong.

This magazine is lost. Editorially and artistically, it’s the equivalent of a girlfriend who knows she’s about to be dumped but insists on faking a pregnancy in a last-ditch effort to salvage the relationship. In short, it sucks.  Ms. Wintour, I’m here to tell you that you can only stuff a basketball up your Prada dress for so long before someone starts to wonder what the hell you’re doing.

Let’s start with the articles. Much like Penthouse, they’re a waste of space. There’s a really stupid column, “Up Front,” that is Vogue’s pathetic attempt to compete with the tabloids. It’s written by a different contributor each month, someone with a theoretically earth-shattering life experience that they think I’m supposed to learn from. We’re meant to empathize with the author, but give me a break…these women are too insulated, rich, and clueless to earn my sympathy.

Some of the more recent topics presented for our approval: a woman who learned her father had a secret gay past, a wife dumped by a husband who then married a much younger woman, a society belle who married a hulking and uncultured tribesman, and a woman embarrassed by an tragically unhip mother who lives in a hut in Hawaii. Their responses to these hardships usually involve wearing items of clothing that have four digit price tags and sighing prettily that life goes on despite people who embarrass them or deprive them of a date for the next charity ball.

So far, all I’ve learned is that these women are not good writers, have too much money and spare time for their own good, and treat the people around them with thinly veiled contempt. Vogue obviously has nothing to offer in the way of arresting life stories, and it shouldn’t try to compete with outlets that do.

Also, someone has GOT to do something about Plum Sykes. As if being the former BFF of Gwyneth Paltrow isn’t bad enough, she clearly has no purpose in life. She writes about the joy of finding the perfect long-sleeved dress, and how terrible it is to have such thin arms that most sleeves never fit snugly enough. Well, boo fucking hoo.  She also writes about buying a $5,000 custom-made suit for a weekend party at her country house, and how the suit made her feel like a super-chic kick-ass hostess. Oh, what a travail it must be to feel less than perfectly stylish while relaxing at your country house! Give me the rack or the iron maiden, but SWEET JESUS IN HEAVEN, don’t let me feel unchic whilst serving brandy in the drawing room. This woman is as relevant as an 8-track player. Thank God I’m not the only one who thinks so.

There is nothing worth reading in this magazine. Even cover stories with theoretically interesting actresses like Reese Witherspoon and Anne Hathaway offer nothing new or novel. Most of the writers get the actresses to dish fantastic secrets like their personal philosophies on how to wear clothes they have neither paid for nor will ever wear again. The magazine’s big coup, getting Jennifer Aniston to let loose with an Angelina sound bite, was broadcast to the world in large black type on the cover, as if in competition with the National Enquirer. Again, this magazine is having relevancy issues. A whiny Jennifer Aniston who protests too loudly that she’s really and truly happy yet can’t wait to play the victim card AGAIN…boy, there’s something we’ve never seen before.

In the “Dispatch” column, fantastic foreign locations are reduced to blather by models and socialites, who dish about what they love about exotic locations, and what you need to bring when you visit them yourself. They say things like, “I just love white sand beaches! I never come to Tahiti without a bikini and my boyfriend!” or “The energy here is so young and fun…a great place to relax!”  No shit.  I never would have guessed that a beach would be relaxing. Thanks for the insight.  You’ve really opened my mind.

Now, a word about the art direction. I am SICK TO DEATH of seeing jumping models with ponytails flying above their heads, staged on a plain background. I am not the only one who thinks this.  THINK OF SOMETHING ELSE FOR THEM TO DO. Or maybe stop playing Van Halen and Kriss Kross at the photo studio. Try a little harder to earn those six-figure salaries, people. Also, I am sick of seeing models with their hair wrapped in some tight sheath, at the end of which the hair poofs out like it has been electrocuted. Stylists who do this should be fired.

Wintour’s favorite models appear with the regularity usually only bestowed by Metamucil. If I see Coco Rocha or that godawful Agyness Deyn one more time, I will lose my lunch. I do not agree that it was “brave” of Coco Rocha her to dye her hair red, nor was it necessary to document the “transformation” in the worst piece of ass-kissing since the liberal media discovered Obama. What does Coco have on Wintour? I’d love to know.

I am already tired of “fresh faces” Arlenis Sosa and Chanel Iman. Just because Oscar de la Renta loves Sosa, does that mean we have to see her eight times an issue?  And must we really keep recycling women like Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista? Like Vogue itself, these women were fabulous in the 90s but are quite ho-hum now. Surely there are other models willing to work for blow. Just like bitchy blogwriters, they’re a dime a dozen. Try using some of them.

I don’t know if her feud with Rachel Zoe has taxed her ability to do more than one thing at once, but the Devil needs to shape up if she wants to keep wearing Prada. As it stands, I relish each issue of Vogue only for the delicious opportunity it affords me to make fun of it.

 

The American Dream, Version 2.0 April 6, 2009

It’s finally here: the day when the albatross lifts from my shoulders. The sale of our home closes today, and I feel like wearing a party hat and throwing confetti. If I just survive until this evening, I’ll be free.

How I felt as a homeowner. I kid you not.

How I felt as a homeowner. I kid you not.

True, the sale was only accomplished by our willingness to take a big financial hit. True, the process has been more painful than an unanaesthetized root canal. True, I have learned that the two agents involved in this transaction are the moral equivalent of actual plastic douche bags turned inside out and used as pooper scoopers in a dog park where the dogs have all had triple espressos and a platter of mozzarella sticks. Realtors, I am convinced, suck. Still…the end is in sight, and I’m approaching it with a profound sense of relief.

The $10,000 down payment I signed over in December of 2006? Gone, never to be seen again, along with about $24,500 of our cash reserves and available credit. But it’s worth it. It’s like amputating a dying limb, and saving the rest of the patient. True, he might not feel whole until he’s had extensive prosthetics and physical therapy, but he’s alive. He made it. And now he appreciates everything he sees so much more, because he almost lost it.

So why did we do what home-buying gurus claim is the dumbest thing possible? It’s the economy, stupid. #1: I work in retail, which means my days might be numbered. I’ve survived several rounds of layoffs so far, but there’s no such thing as a cocky advertising employee right now. #2: I live in Arkansas, which isn’t exactly the capital of economic development. On any given Sunday, there are more dogs for sale in the paper than there are jobs. It’s not a pleasant environment in which to find a liberal arts job, let alone one that lets you live above the poverty level, with benefits (even crappy ones). Faced with these possibilities, there is only one solution: make every dollar go further by reducing what it costs to live, month in and month out.

By opting out of the house, we’re looking at a significant reduction in monthly expenses. Here’s a brief tally of our projected savings:

–No property tax: + $225/month

–No homeowner’s insurance: + $57/month

–No homeowner’s association dues: + $41 a month

–Savings in monthly rent vs. mortgage: + $400/month

–Switching from Comcast cable/internet to AT&T no-land-line-required DSL: + $20/month

–Switching from TMobile to AT&T, to use my husband’s preferred employer discount: + $30/month (yes, our contract was up; no, I did not pay an early termination fee)

–Projected savings in monthly utilities: + $120/month (electricity, gas, sewer, water, garbage)

Total per month: + $893/month

And guess what: our 2-bedroom luxury apartment only costs $850/month. True, we have taken on a total of $18,000 in debt to get out of this house. But with aggressive savings, we can push hard and repay that amount in about two years. (Less than that if we forward our entire tax refund for those years to Citibank.) This way, if I lose my job, I’m covered. We owe much less on a monthly basis, and I can enroll in my credit card’s protection program that defers payments if I lose my job.

Will we need to keep our heads down and ignore the siren song of eating out multiple times a week, new clothes, and vacations? Yes, but so will many others. It’s a recession, after all. It’s the perfect climate to buckle down and pull yourself up by your bootstraps.  In a sick way, I’m almost looking forward to it.  I have a goal, a purpose, a mission. And when it is all over and we emerge with debt paid and a long hibernation of thriftiness, we’ll be smarter, stronger and wiser. And none of it would have happened if we hadn’t taken the plunge, shaken things up, and gotten the hell out of that house.