Wednesday, August 16, 2006

class stuff

(This piece is also available at Enough.)

I’ve been thinking about class and community. I’ve been thinking how hard it is to build cross-class community. Lots of stuff comes up in my cross-class relationships. Stuff about money of course, but really, it’s not just the money. There’s stuff about talking, stuff about eating, stuff about dressing. There’s stuff about how close you stand and who you touch and how far in advance you make plans. There’s stuff about how often you do laundry and who has your spare key and how you feel about the kids on the corner.

And also, there’s stuff about stuff. Who has good stuff and who has crappy stuff. Who has lots of stuff and who has just what they need. Who goes and buys the stuff they want, and who just kind of assumes that they can’t afford to, or that they don’t really need the stuff anyway. Who shares their stuff, who borrows stuff, who gives stuff away.

One thing I notice is that I feel really awkward accepting stuff that my friends are giving away. I feel … exposed, kind of, as if everybody’s going to look at me and just know that my new stuff is someone else’s hand-me-downs, and judge me for it.

And this is weird, because I didn’t used to feel embarrassed about hand-me-downs. When I was a kid hand-me-downs were no big deal. It was just how you got clothes. It was kind of exciting actually, like a little party, when some friend of my mom’s would bring over a pile of clothes for us to go through. We’d sit and have tea, try stuff on, decide who looked best in it, and who could use it best. The difference is, mom’s friends were working folks just like us. They might have had a little extra sometimes, or they might have had a growing kid that was bigger than me. They might have bought something at a yard sale hoping it would fit, and found out it didn’t. So they shared. Sometimes we had extra too, and we gave our hand-me-downs to the same people who gave us theirs.

These days most of the folks I hang up with are middle class or upper-middle class. They often have extra stuff, or at least, they seem to have a lot more than I can imagine one person needing. I have extra sometimes too, but it’s a different kind of stuff. The stuff my friends give away is high quality stuff. And because their extra stuff is so good, I’ve convinced myself that my extra stuff is so crappy that no one would possibly want it. I’m not sure if it’s true or not, but it makes the whole exchange feel uneven and shaming.

I remember the first time a college friend gave me a tee shirt that didn’t fit him anymore. I hadn’t realized there were different grades of tee-shirts. I guess I knew tee shirts could be cotton or not cotton, and they could be printed well or they could be printed with that crappy shiny stuff that was big in the ‘70s. What I didn’t realize was that some tee shirts were double-weave, heavy-duty, reinforced hems and embroidered. All that for just a plain tee-shirt, with one stripe across the chest. This plain blue tee shirt with one white stripe must have cost as much as my best shoes.

And it didn’t even fit me. I felt offended that my friend would think I’d want his cast-off when it didn’t even fit me right. But I also felt like, how could I pass up something so much higher quality than anything else I owned?

I took the shirt, and wore it for a few years. Even with all that wear, it’s still in pretty good shape. I guess you get what you pay for. Now the shirt’s in my give-away bag, waiting to be taken down to the shelter. I take my extra stuff there, because I think none of my friends would want my stuff, especially twice handed-down stuff.

I know I shouldn’t feel ashamed about accepting good stuff from friends who can afford to give it away. Actually I think it’s very just and appropriate to get stuff that way. I mean, as long as we’re living in a grossly unjust economic system, it’s more just that they should give it away to someone who uses it, rather than just throw it out. And I guess it’s more just that they should give it to someone who couldn’t afford something as good, rather than give it away to someone just as rich who really doesn’t need any more stuff. And I guess it’s more just that I get free stuff from people who can easily afford it, rather than from people who work hard to have just a tiny bit of extra once in a while. And I guess it’s more just that I give my extra stuff to the people at the shelter, rather than to people who, like me, have enough even if they don’t have much extra.

But somehow, giving stuff to strangers doesn’t feel quite as good as sharing with friends. Sharing used stuff amongst people with similar means feels like … well, it feels like sharing. It doesn’t feel like charity. It doesn’t feel shaming. It doesn’t highlight a power relationship. It feels ordinary. It feels … can I say natural?

“Hey, my tomatoes came ripe all at once, will you take a bag full?”

“Kenny got a big buck the first day of hunting season. Do you want a few pounds of venison?”

“The new hens just started laying, and we got all kinds of eggs, here have some.”

The kind of sharing I remember … It wasn’t about having extra exactly, it was more about natural waxing and waning. The seasonal rhythms of rural working-class life required that we share. And the other, less predictable cycles of layoffs and draughts, big jobs and bumper crops also encouraged us to share. When we shared our extra, we didn’t assume that there would always be extra, or that the sharing would always flow the same direction. We all gave stuff away, and we all accepted stuff when others were giving. It was a way of spreading around the luck.

Later, when I was first out of school and living in working-poor queer youth community, we also shared that way. When someone didn’t have a place to stay, they’d stay on my couch. But it didn’t feel uneven because I knew I might someday need a place, and I knew if they had a couch they’d share it. When someone got a pay check, and it was a bad week for some others, they’d buy dinner or groceries for everyone. That’d be their whole pay check, but they trusted that the next week, someone else would buy. Everyone had times where we couldn’t afford food, but between us we were always fed. We shared so freely because we had so little.

Lately I’ve caught myself thinking that middle-class people don’t know how to give stuff away. That the problem is that unless you’ve been that poor, you don’t realize how much you can live without, so you don’t realize how much of your stuff is extra. I think that’s true, but I also don’t want to let myself off the hook. It’s not just that my middle and upper-middle class friends don’t give stuff away as freely. It’s also that I don’t accept stuff as freely from them. If I thought maybe next week, or next month, I’d be the one with extra, then it would be easier. But if I accept stuff from my upper-middle class friends, I have to realize that I’ll probably never reciprocate. And politically, that’s fine with me. But relationally, it doesn’t feel right.

I am trying to trust that we enter into friendships and stay in them for good reasons. I am trying to believe that I am reciprocating, not with stuff but with all of myself that I bring to these relationships. I am trying to remember that my friends wouldn’t offer me stuff if they resented the exchange or felt embarrassed about it. I am not entirely convinced about these things, but I am trying. And I’m also trying to grow a bumper crop of tomatoes. Because that is something I can share with anybody. That’s a kind of sharing I understand.


Obstructing Reality said...

even though you don't *like* tomatoes...

Was this revised? It read a lot smoother than the first time I read it.

Also, I think you'd appreciate

It's George Carlin doing "a place for my stuff".

Hamakotaco said...

Stuff sometimes seems to rule my life. Or at least, I don't like the amount of influence stuff has on my life.

I can see the larger influences on my consumerism & my "taste" in stuff, but I still somewhat blame myself for the degree to which I can analyze myself, yet still feel & follow some of my stuff related compulsions.

I've thought of it, sometimes, like standing on a conveyer belt -- just _knowing_ that it's taking me in a direction I don't want to go isn't enough -- I also need to know where I _do_ want to go, how I _do_ want to be living, and then I need to get myself going on that direction -- and I need support from other like-minded folks.

As someone privileged by the classist/ capitalist (well, really, I think of it as an "oligopolistic oligarchy") system -- I think that I have an easier time giving my stuff to people I know. In that way, I feel like the stuff is more part of a person-to-person relationship in my life -- rather than me just giving stuff to some large, impersonal organization that generally will then sell the stuff to someone else.

But then, what does that mean, given that my life & connections are significantly class-segregated, as are most folks'?

And what about social norms of reciprocity? To reflect again on some of the toxicity of my own class-privileges, while some class-oppressed folks may think about "Well, he gives me a lot of stuff, what do I give him? Is this equitable or even comfortable?" -- I worry that I may fall into a trap that many class-privileged folks fall into -- not, "Do they like me just b/c of my class privilege?" not even, "Would they still like me if I didn't have my stuff?" -- but perhaps worst, "My value comes from my stuff. That's one of the main things I bring to this relationship." The internalization of stuff-related classist values -- one of the toxic parts of internalizing classist values.

And speaking of t-shirts, I wonder what I might do with the time & mental energy (not to mention the money) I dedicate to stuff. The t-shirts just happen to be a convenient example for my life -- I know a lot about a lot of different t-shirts. Fabrics. Cuts. Quality of stitching. Brands. Most of them bougie outdoor-chic t-shirts. Sometimes I find that when I'm stressed, suddenly I've taken myself to EMS or Salvation Army or Marshall's and I'm hunting for a new t-shirt -- I now recognize it as a clear sign that I'm stressed out. Retail therapy? Sadly, clearly, yes.

I have cousins who're mad about baseball. They can tell you who hit the most Runs-Batted-In into a headwind during the 1971 season. Mad about baseball. And sometimes I wonder, "If you can remember all that, imagine what you could dedicate that time & mental energy (and money) to that'd actually do the world some good?"

And then I think about all the things that I know about stuff. About bike brands & makes & parts. About skis. About t-shirts and jackets and technical outerware. About computers. About cars.

And I remember back to a time when I at least _thought_ that I didn't care about such things. I've been disturbed recently by my own sense that I'm more focused on my appearance and brand names than I remember being in the past. I used to think that I didn't have a "style," but then I realized that marketers will indulge me in that delusion so long as I keep buying from the "I don't have a 'style'" rack. I learned about "psychographic marketing groups," a while ago and that disillusioned me about my "I don't have a style" style.

I used to think that stuff should be useful -- that function is fashion -- but beyond that, that function is good. And perhaps I still do think that, somewhere inside. And that conflicts with some of my anxieties & internalized oppression, whether oppression related to where I'm targeted or where I'm privileged.

Half my close-family wasn't taught to share. They don't really know how -- or at least, they're not particularly proficient about it. And I've tried to notice how I've felt when I've given something to someone -- not about "charity," but about, "Okay, I've given that to someone -- will I be okay without it? Will I survive?" -- and when I realize, "Yes, yes, in fact, I'm actually okay, despite having let go of that object," I try to remember that, to save it for the next time when I think, "You know, I don't really need this, I don't even use it. Someone else could get good use out of this... but... maybe I'll need it later and then I'll be sorry!" Maybe that's related to the idea that ideologies and religions are about "practice" -- that I need to "practice" that more healthy relationship to "stuff" -- not just so that I can give away more of my stuff, but so that I can learn that I can be okay without much of the stuff that I think that I "need." Because I think that my personal existence doesn't have many material "needs" that aren't met, if any -- wants, yes; things "needed" to maintain my class privilege, yes. But nothing like the material "needs" of most of the people on the planet.

And I think about how our society is structured in such a way that tries to take me away from that path. And not just by influencing my behaviors. I think about how my inhibitions about sharing lead to profitable duplications -- I moved into a new apartment after two years of living by myself. Suddenly, my household had duplicates of many items -- brooms, silverware, garbage cans, spices -- and then I was reminded that "space" is often more valuable than "stuff." Suddenly, the value of my garbage can became negative -- it was taking up space. And who'd want my two-year-old, nasty garbage can? So, into the trash many items went. And we ruefully realized, "Yeah, but when we move out, at least one of us will have to buy another trash-can just like it."

That prompted me to think, "I should start an art-project. I'll call it 'I threw it away because...'" I could ask people to photograph something they're throwing away and then tell me why they threw it away. Or maybe chronicle all of the things that I throw away in a week, a month, or a year?

Maybe I should start a different art project. I could call it, "I gave it to someone because..." Maybe that would help me broaden my vision and my hope -- and my control over my relationship with my "stuff."

(And what would a post from me be without a reference to a movie? In the 1980s, there was a horror-movie called, "The Stuff," which I imagine was funded at least in part by the ice cream industry. You see, around that time, frozen yogurt was beginning to become more popular, threatening ice cream's market share. So, suddenly, there's a movie about monstrous, zombifying, alien microbe in... a not-ice-cream frozen dessert. The tagline? "The Stuff... Are you eating it... or is it eating you?" I kinda relate to that.)

Thanks for putting your experiences & perspectives out there. I feel like it helps me be more honest & permitted to talk about my own class experiences, different and privileged as they are.