Why We Don’t Buy

By Harmony Button

I never used to snooze. It was the button on my 1990s Big Lots clock radio that I never fully understood: why wake up just to suffer in limbo, knowing more real sleep is not an option? Then, I met Jason, and suddenly I started wearing skirts, hitting snooze, and learning to cook artichokes. Jason is a handyman photographer who knows how to appreciate poetry: with a spoon, unwittingly. Sometimes, I catch him mouthing words just for the sound of them. Festoon, my breadbasket Rothschild! he rumbles from the belly, impatient at red lights. I had found my own dream of a common language. I found, at least, a basis for comparison.

Like most other addictions, snoozing leaves me disoriented and unsatisfied, and yet, I really do enjoy it. I can take a look through the spyhole in the door and tell the morning knocking to be patient while I find my slippers, fix my figurative coffee. The morning steps back, wall-eyed face blurring into sight, and shuffles foot to foot, a package of day in his hand. He rings again. Leave it on the doorstep, I shout from inside, but the muffled voice of morning says I have to sign for the delivery. I sigh and open the door, clutching bathrobe tight at the neck. It’s a new day, the morning says, handing over the package while I sign on the dotted line. Funny, I say, I thought it might be my new self.

Saturday: my one day of guilt-free indulgence when I haven’t yet started to worry about the prep and grading required to get ready to teach next week. This morning, it was easy to get out of bed because I knew that I could get back in it whenever I wanted. I made coffee and an egg sandwich for Jason to take with him when he came bolting out of the shower and had to hit the road. It’s Sundance season in Park City and Jason picked up a job as a hired gun for some L.A. based TV show covering celebrity events. They’ve got him driving up and down the canyon at all hours of the day and night, setting up equipment rentals and chauffeuring producers between schmooze-fests. In typical L.A. fashion, these guys are about a 3.5 on the scale of inconsiderate to asshole, holding up production with their hangovers and scapegoating their failure to coordinate on Jason’s inability to be five places at one time. They pay Jason some ridiculously low wage to be a driver, and yet use him as a gaffer, camera tech, rental house hook-up and dinner escort. It’s worth it for the connections, Jason says, bleary-eyed and haggard. I know it’s true – all it takes is knowing one right person to put a camera guy’s career onto the accelerated track. But still. It’s sometimes hard to watch.

Alone again, I relish the morning to dawn alone with coffee and the internet in bed. I’ve been browsing real estate online in the same way I shop for new swimsuits or shoes from catalogs: covetously, with increasingly impractical considerations fed by body dysmorphia and fantasy. This morning, I started out investigating humble, 2 bedroom houses close to downtown – sensible, squat little brick dwellings with wide-angled roofs, modest windows and no driveways. Soon, however, I slipped into daydreams of houses so cheap, so run-down and ugly, so condemned by their previous occupants that I could purchase them all at once, in one big reckless bite, the way I’d impulse-buy a block of fancy goat’s milk gouda because it was on Manager’s Special at the supermarket and, although nearly expired, I knew it could be used to make something delicious. I scan through photos of dank living rooms with sagging ceilings full of water stains and sockets sprouting uncapped copper wires. I gloat over filthy carpet and gutted bathrooms, imagining how Jason and I could revitalize such impotence, turning a shit hole of a house into a quirky, loving home. Soon after, I realize that it’s mostly Jason I’m counting on to do the “revitalizing” part of home renovation, while I would contribute by being loveably incompetent and maybe rolling some paint. Wanting to buy a house I can’t fix is like browsing jeans two sizes too small: it’s close enough to practical to contemplate the possibility, but too far from reality to ever act on any decisions I might make.

Having exhausted the Bargain Barn of online real estate, I turn to fantasies of a different kind: wealth and luxury. I increase my search terms to include homes far more expensive than I could afford just so I can see their inset stone mantels, crown moldings, furnished basements and wrap-around front porch. Four bedrooms and two baths? Why not? The fact that technically, I can count on my house housing only my self – not my boyfriend, not my soon-to-be doctoral roommate, not even my (i.e., my roommate’s) cat – does not deter me from deciding we should have a den, a finished basement with a sectional couch, pool table, stationary bicycle and flat screen TV. I fall in love with octagonal rooms with hardwood floors, knowing that the houseplants would thrive as much as any yoga practiced there. And then, as the sun finishes rising over a cloudy winter day that spits slush from the sky, I find the search criteria that allows the real estate browser to specify minimum acreage. I set it to the maximum, just to see what happens.

I’ve always valued space. I want to open my windows to the world, not into someone else’s house. I find hideous, Ranch-style dwellings on the sketchy west side of the city where poor people and the big noisy highway live, or even farther west, next to the copper mines, where the scent of Great Salt Lake and smelter would billow through the laundry in the backyard. I ignore the ugliness, the poor location, the potentially carcinogenic side effects, and I dream of organic gardens, row upon row of leafy greens flourishing in lush bunches that miraculously sprout out of the scratchy hard-pack of gravelly earth in the photos. In these fantasies, Jason would share a cerveza with the neighbors, who I’m sure wouldn’t be drug dealers, and I would sell bundles of kale and chard at the People’s Market. Another search: I gasp to find the rustically run down cabin on the inconvenient side of Emigration canyon, pausing to consider the practicality of such a purchase only when I realize that I would have to sell my car and get something with All-Wheel Drive.

Jason’s call interrupts my fantasy: he’s in transit, wanted to say hi. What are you doing, he asks, and I fess up to it. He says he would love to live in Emigration canyon and I say I know he would. This does not help me to be practical.

We hang up; I spend another hour exploring search terms, comparing square footage, cross referencing zip codes against average property tax. I do this knowing that I will make no decisions, call for no accreditation, and in the end, buy no houses. I do this knowing I will not follow through because online shopping isn’t about purchasing. It’s about self-voyeurism: peeking into possible identities through the lens of purchases without anybody – no pushy salesperson or fellow shopper – to judge you on your fantasies or call you back into reality. Why don’t I want a bank appraisal? For one, I don’t want anyone to tell me what I can or can not dream about. When I shop online, the inability to see clearly or touch or smell an item makes it all the more desirable; it hovers, rife with the capacity for perfection, as indefinite as my own personhood becomes, unhinged from all hinderances of size or wealth or marital status.

Luckily, my consumer fantasies can be fulfilled with fairly frugal purchases, like discount socks. If they’re full price, I’m not really interested. Part of the appeal of the purchase is the feeling of getting away with something, beating the system, or finding the diamond in the rough. This is the same impulse that makes me want to buy foreclosed crack houses and turn them into successful bookstores, bakeries, pottery studios and/or community centers. Winter athletic socks are the most satisfying of the discount sock spectrum, because inherent in imagining their sole-cushioning technology, their soft woolen warmth or their wicking temperature control, inherent in the cradle and plush of their newness against my toes is a vision of the future: snowshoeing up mountain trails, rolling tall socks off when I come in the door to the yoga studio, standing in my cold classroom wearing classy pencil skirts and tall boots. Feet are the unacknowledged thrones of the emotional kingdom. Why else would we shop for shoes we don’t need or would necessarily even ever wear? It’s not about fashion or function. It’s about being the kind of girl who would wear those shoes.

All this thought of external validation makes me uncomfortable. But at the same time as I fully admit the pleasure of consumer-driven shopping, I must also confess to harboring the additional vices of miserly frugality and downright penny pinch-ism – an awkward alchemy, but one not unheard of among online shoppers. When Amazon.com added the “wish-list” function in addition to their “shopping cart,” they gave online shoppers the gift of guilt-free, virtual consumerism. No longer did online shopping have to follow traditional narrative trajectory: discovery, contemplation, decision making, purchase and delivery. Although achieving purchase follow-through is the goal of online sellers, they recognize that indulging the pleasure of browsing is an important step towards completing the sale. This is the indulgence and the pressure of the shopping cart: you pick an item up, you carry it around for a while, periodically looking at it, and then, before you leave, you either decide to wait in line at check-out or you put it down and let it go. The beauty of the “wish-list” is that it creates a holding pen for desires that forgoes narrative closure. Closing out a browser window when your shopping cart is full of un-purchased items leaves the story hanging, but turning the page on a wish-list creates an alternative ending, a lingering whisper of possibility, a breath of potential that will wait patiently for your return. Even though the functions of the shopping cart and wish-list are basically the same – to collect desired products – the wish-list does not push the shopper towards narrative completion; this list is an indulgence, a wish, a space of pure identity play.

My mother discovered quilting several years ago. She dedicates hours every week to this interest, but she rarely actively works on any sewing projects. Instead of cutting and piecing and pressing, my mother puts her energy into shopping for – and very occasionally, buying – fabrics. This past Christmas, I gave her a small bundle of sample squares designed by William Morris, the great Victorian era textile designer, architect, book-arts expert, Marxist socialist translator of medieval texts and founder of the English Arts and Crafts movement. I’m serious: this guy’s CV would be thick enough to fill all five sections of a Five Star Trapper Keeper. It would be too large to attach as a word document in an email sent from a Hotmail account. It could crush a small child beneath its heft. Any single one of his accomplishments could have put William Morris on the map, but when considered in their entirety, it is utterly incomprehensible how he managed to balance his outrageously prolific artistic life with his formidable intellectual and political pursuits. How easy it is to forget that authors are real people: when I read News from Nowhere, Morris’ utopian experiment, I never dreamed that the author would also be revered in quilting circles or that wallpaper with his designs hand-printed from the original woodblock casts would be so expensive that you have to order a swatch and speak to a representative in order to be quoted a price per square foot. I find people who achieve this level of accomplishment simultaneously daunting and refreshing.

There is something about William Morris designs. The colors are individually subtle, but bold in combination. The lines are soft in their organic curves and strong in their clear edges, sharp divisions. The prints satisfy the sweet craving of the human mind for pleasingly unexpected asymmetrical detail situated inside predictably balanced geometric design. Images are life-like without attempting to be realistic. Petals fold and bend in curves that intrigue but do not irk. Looking at William Morris fabrics is like listening to Mozart before a math test: the subtle stimulus reaches its tiny, muscular fingers into the brain to massage the little-understood areas of the human mind until they tingle and all we can say afterwards is yes, yes that is pleasing, it is good and beautiful. Morris is the epitome of good taste.

When a new line of Morris prints came out, the manufacturer would piece together bundles of samples – six inch squares just large enough to get a sense of the full pattern. These bundles are highly valued because no single fabric store can afford to stock a full line of Morris prints. If you want to see the full spectrum, you have to get your hands on a sampler pack. Once you have this, you can select the specific fabrics you would like to order and track down a seller. You are no more supposed to use these fabric samples in sewing projects than you are supposed to use the little cardboard strips of sample paint shades from Home Depot to decorate your living room. They are, in other words, a tool for browsing – a wish-list manifest – rather than a product destined for narrative closure: cut, pressed, sewn.

It took me a while to understand. When I sew, I like to make impulsive choices, throwing prints and patterns together just to see what happens. This Christmas, my mother spent hours arranging and rearranging her William Morris sample squares. First, she lined them up in order of predominant color to create a palate of slate blues, deep Victorian burgundies, pale greens and fans of red to gold. Then, she sorted them by aesthetic of pattern, large flowering vines to tiny fleur-de-lis prints. Then, she mixed and matched, holding one square up against another, playing flecks of wine red flower pestles off the lushly drooping leaves of a larger print. The result is simultaneously stimulating and relaxing: the unexpected happening inside established symmetry. It is hypnotic.

My mother might make wall hangings, or reupholster a chair, or start a table runner for the dining room, but then again, she might not. The most satisfying action in this product/consumer exchange happens in the place of possibility and play, when patterns are unbound from functional purpose. This is the living wish-list. This is why I search for houses, shop for socks, thrill to thrift stores and garage sales.

I love Jason because he understands this. The problem comes when moments of play are interrupted by choices of necessity. I shop for shoes to contemplate what version of myself would wear those shoes, but sometimes, functionality upsets this fancy. This past week, before the Sundance people came and squatted on his life, Jason was refinishing the floors of his apartment. He tore up the old carpet, throwing away filthy chunks of matting underneath, forever purging his apartment of the stains from where I spilled root beer, accidentally bleached the color from the carpet and then used a soap that collected dirt for the next four years, or the splotch from when Jason’s brother dumped a jug of salsa off the couch and tried to clean it with a mop. Underneath the mess lived aged hardwood that sanded to a beautiful, swirling grain.

It was at this point that Jason became stymied. The wood needed to be stained, but he was caught in contemplating two options: one, a warm, russet cider color that brought out the natural gold and accentuated the dark swirls of grain, the other a darker, rich chocolatey deep mocha color that smoothed the boards into a wash of nutty gloss. They were both beautiful, and either result would have been a far cry from the ratty pill of old carpet and root beer memories, yet Jason couldn’t choose.

Time was of the essence. In order to complete the renovations before Sundance shenanigans began, Jason had to stick to a strict schedule, allowing the proper amount of time for coats to dry before he could move furniture back onto the floor.

Jason is not good with schedules. Sometimes, I think he goes out of his way to break them. This flexibility is what sustains him through grueling weeks of working with the more dysfunctional end of the film industry’s dysfunction spectrum. It is also the characteristic that dug in its heels and stubbornly prevented him from moving forward with the staining process until he was sure of which color would be best. When it comes to making important purchases, it isn’t enough to know that either direction would be good enough; there is a decision that is better than the other, and it must be found before action can be taken.

It wasn’t just a color. Jason understood that this decision was a reflection of himself. In defining his living space, he was prioritizing one imagined self over another; his options had leaped from the wish-list into the Must Buy Now basket at the checkout line. The check-out clerk was holding up two cans of paint and he could delay the choice no longer. The waitress was here, her pen was poised; we’d studied the map, but now we’d reached the split in the road and choice was the only option.

Jason sat at the crossroads, deep in contemplation. Time passed, deadlines came and went, unfulfilled. I came home from work and found him sitting on a upturned bucket in the middle of his empty living room, beer in hand. He had spent the whole day staring at the two swatches on the floor: cider brown, chocolate brown. It had become a choice of identity: if he chose the lighter color, he was choosing a warm, wholesome, earthy feel. The man who lived in that apartment would value texture, process, and rustic appeal. He would be someone who came home smelling like sawdust and snow, who would know how to make hash browns, and maybe even brew his own beer. If Jason chose the darker stain, his apartment would be transformed into a swanky urban pad. He might have to get a brass bar rail and a sofa with black leather. The man who lived there would sip scotch from heavy bottomed tumblers; he would wear tastefully hip jeans and he’d listen to a rockin’ alto sax over a new speaker system that included a device called a subwoofer. He’d probably know all sorts of statistics about this subwoofer.

I saw the dilemma. Jason is both these men. The decision was impossible.

I told him to go with the lighter stain because it looked better on the floor. He nodded, slowly. We talked about the two men and the importance of this choice. We agreed that we knew the cider man and knew that he would be very happy in this apartment, but the swanky guy was a bit of a mystery. It was a gamble: it could be more fabulous than our wildest dreams, or it could be a bit of a flop. I didn’t say so, but I think I gave it away that I love the cider man especially, even though I crave the alto sax. It melts me, vertebrae to heart-bone in the gut.

So why aren’t we married? There have been enough clues, enough indications of time and love and happiness. There must be a substantial reason the answer hasn’t made it into this version of the story, yet. But even that’s not the whole story.

Sometimes I wonder if dating too long is like shopping only with the wish-list function. At what point are you expected to place the order, and what counts as purchasing? Is marriage the final transaction, or just the first in a long line of lease-to-own installments? Jason and I are long past carrying around multiple items in the same basket, contemplating which one would be better, but we’re also far from standing in line at the cash register. The choice is clearly one between a known and unknown quantity – the impossible choice. How long will we sit on our respective figurative buckets, contemplating the choice between an appealing, familiar choice and something bold, transgressively mysterious but possibly more fantastic than our wildest dreams? Jason is my cider man; I am his cider girl. We wait and wait, but without any deadline – the waitress circles restlessly, filling other coffee cups, taking other tables’ orders – we make no choices, set no lasting commitments. Still, the sun filters in cafe windows and Jason holds my hand at the table and we sip our water, contemplating a menu together. We order to share, which complicates things at first but makes for better eating in the end. Our tastes are conveniently aligned, but neither one of us is particularly decisive. And really, what’s the rush? We contemplate, re-contemplate.

The pleasure of the wish-list is a sense of having without having; holding without possessing; claiming without losing the pleasure of wanting. I name this want; the transaction of desire has been completed, even if no tangible exchange has been made. Loving Jason has fulfilled this craving: every day, I identify my desire, and in turn, I identify myself. Without concrete purchases, I am allowed to play out the moment of possible purchase, over and over and over. Add to shopping cart: confirm. The self-voyeur in me is intrigued by this woman who is so certain about her heart, her hopes, her choices.

My mother shuffles her small blocks of fabric, fascinated by asymmetrical petals folded into geometric prints. Maybe this is marriage: a hypnotizing mix of the beautifully unpredictable set inside a pattern so subtle, so imperceptible that the underlying form is an act of faith. Looking at such beauty gives me an unbearable sense of fulfillment; it is a having and a wanting, all at once.

Harmony Button is a contributing editor for Paper Tape. She has been nominated for Pushcart and Best of the Web awards, and was awarded the Larry Levis Prize (Academy of American Poets). She attended Middlebury College and University of Utah (MFA). You can find her work in Colorado Review, Southwestern American Lit, Ithaca Lit, BlazeVOX, and other publications. She is currently English Department Chair of the Waterford School in Utah. More of her work can be found at harmonybutton.wordpress.com.

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