Thursday, February 23, 2012

Inconspicuous Consumption

1931 Duesenberg

Winter Fundraiser 2012, Day Four

The theme of this winter’s fundraiser is, as you all know, Frugality. Or lack thereof. And related topics.

The other night I talked about being raised in a Nash-Rambler family, which, in terms of 1950s American suburbia, was the essence of frugality. Its opposite would have been a Cadillac family, whose members lived a life of opulence and splendor and conspicuous consumption — or so it seemed to us kids who had to share the cramped space in the back seat of a 1954 Rambler.

Really, though, when it comes to high-end elegance and power, you can’t beat a 1931 Duesenberg. Just look at that car! Some Duesenbergs had 16-cylinder engines, and their advertisements boasted that they reached 88 mph in second gear, and 116 in top.

And look at the dapper fellow standing next to his pride and joy! Doesn’t he have it made? It’s obvious that, in addition to being able to drive from Richmond to D.C. in 45 minutes, he could have any woman he wanted. You know he could.

Or so it seemed to us, the Rambler people, stuck in our boring world of economy cars and thrifty spending habits and boring routines.

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Tip jarFunnily enough, when I grew up, I didn’t rebel against my upbringing and become a high-flying big spender, ready to while away the time in the most expensive resorts with a high-maintenance fashion model on my arm.

No, except for being a hippie for a while, I turned out pretty much like my parents. Not a penny-pincher, but not inclined to spend any money I didn’t have to. I kept the family AMC Hornet going for as long as I could, tuning it up myself and jury-rigging various solutions to persistent problems — such as cutting a V-notch in the flywheel cover to let the oil drain out and save me from having to replace so many clutches, as opposed to replacing the rear gasket (so expensive!) and taking care of the problem at its source.

When I became a landscape artist, my natural tendency towards parsimony grew into something more pronounced. I shopped in the previously-owned meat section of the local market. I bought my clothes at yard sales. I drank A&P Tudor Premium beer — $2 a sixpack, but after the first four you didn’t notice the taste.

This was the shabby and emaciated fellow that Dymphna, for reasons known best to herself, decided to marry thirty-odd years ago. She trained me out of some of the worst of my habits — hence the “discussions” about Parmesan cheese — and we eked out a reasonable life together. When the Future Baron came along, we provided for him well, even while remaining thrifty. He didn’t know we were poor — by careful management of money, made easier by not having a TV, he had most things that a kid would want, even if he didn’t get to visit Disney World or go skiing, unlike some of his more middle-class friends and relatives.

When Dymphna’s fibromyalgia became so severe that she had to quit work, our lives changed, and I had to resume my career as a programmer after a long hiatus, thanks to a good friend who steered a substantial contract in my direction.

Fortunately for our family, it turned out that my skills paid well, and our prospects improved. The Future Baron went from home schooling to a decent private school, and later college. Our good fortune continued — I wasn’t laid off until just before he graduated.

One of the things that I discovered when we regained our prosperity was that all those years of self-denial had changed my deepest habits. I had lost my desire for most things that cost serious amounts of money. Even at the high point of our good fortune, I couldn’t bring myself to order an expensive item on the menu at a restaurant. I didn’t want any of the gadgets that were popular — they just weren’t interesting. It wasn’t through any inherent virtue; it was from long, long habit.

There are exceptions: I have a weakness for French wine, and a taste for very dark Swiss chocolate. Dymphna and I both like latte, just as if we were yuppies. But mostly we retain our frugal ways.

In contrast, take a look at Geronimo’s Locomobile:

Geronimo’s Locomobile

Now that’s conspicuous consumption.

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Yesterday’s donations arrived from the following places:

Stateside: Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, Nevada, New York, Texas, and Virginia

Near Abroad: No Canadians yesterday!

Far Abroad: Australia, Belgium, Croatia, and Norway

Many thanks to everyone who contributed.

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