Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Confessions of a Bi-Partisan Party Pooper

I am a die-hard tightwad. I am not one of those people who makes a menu for the week before going to the supermarket. I decide on one or two meals to prepare at some point during the week, but I buy the needed ingredients to my list only if they are on sale or very reasonably priced. The majority of my supermarket shopping is simply shopping the sales. If our favorite cereal goes on sale, I buy six boxes. If our favorite yogurt goes on sale, I buy a dozen cups. Truthfully it’s hard to say that we have favorites in many food items, because I buy only what’s on sale. “Eat it, guys, or you’ll be hungry.” We went through a period of about a year when I spent no more than $60 per week on groceries; as a result of our starvation diet, we paid off our school and car loans that year.

When we go out to eat, I cringe when I think of the cost of a small soda at Barolo’s when compared to a 2 liter bottle of soda at the supermarket. And since I’m feeling guilty about wasting money, I go ahead and get outraged at the sheer ridiculousness of the entire soft drink industry. Who needs soda anyway? As for clothing shopping, until about a year ago, the majority of my clothing purchases were made at Good Will. My best friend has chided me for years about my shopping habits: “Gail, get a grip. You don’t have to shop at Good Will anymore. You can afford to buy clothes at full retail; treat yourself every now and then.” So I have begun to treat myself to new clothes at the mall, but I still mostly just shop the sales – and I do that with the mailer coupons that take an additional 20% to 40% off my total purchase.

At the other end of the spectrum, there is no doubt in my mind that travel is my most unthrifty outlay of cash every year. I take annual solo jaunts to Europe. I wander around in Italian and Spanish cities, towns, and museums until my sappy, art-stuffed, solitude-hungry heart is content. But still, I go as cheaply as I can: using frequent flier points, staying in the cheapest hotels that provide me with a private bath (I just can’t share bathrooms with strangers.), carrying snack bars from home in order to skip a few meals here and there, refilling a water bottle that I take everywhere, and eating at stand-up pizza joints all over Europe. Even then, there are moments when I shudder at the thought of how many people could be fed with the money spent on my morning cappuccino and biscotti. How many people would be sleeping in a space the size of my hotel room if that space were plopped down in some of the more densely populated, poverty-stricken areas of the very cities I find myself wandering in? Not only on foreign shores, but also right here at home I rarely go through a day without thinking of ways in which I have wasted money, energy, and resources by leaving lights on when I have left rooms, by standing for a few seconds too long in the shower, and by throwing away the yogurt with expired expiration dates. I am indeed a rich Christian living in an age of hunger.

So when I did an internet search this morning and discovered that President Bill Clinton had a library built in his honor that cost $165 million to comstruct, I was horrified. How many $3.79 skirts could that buy at Good Will for the thousands of women who need new clothes in order to enter the work force? How many pairs of boots could that buy for poorly shod children in the coldest areas of this nation who go to school without sufficient protection from the elements? How many empty oil tanks in cold basements could be filled so that the inhabitants of those houses wouldn’t have to go to bed in their overcoats and leave their stoves on all night to stay warm? How many small town libraries could have been built in the mountain towns, farm towns, and bustling downtowns in this increasingly non-reading nation? Couldn’t someone have advised Mr. Clinton to reduce his library budget by 80% and distribute the rest of those millions to the desperate and unemployed in his home state of Arkansas?

In my early morning internet searches, I also came across several acrimonious and ungracious blog exchanges related to this very topic. Why all this expenditure for a second inauguration? Why are all the “commie liberals” protesting Bush's 2nd inaugural shindigs when they have no problem with banks and post offices being closed for Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday celebration? What about Clinton’s second inauguration and his Presidential library? What about following President Wilson’s example who decided against elaborate inaugural celebrations in 1917 because “such festivities would be undignified” while the nation was engaged in World War I? To all the questioners, responders, “commie hypocrites,” and “right wing extremists,” I say: “More power to all of you. Keep talking. Keep disagreeing. Let up on the name calling, but demand answers. Demand accountability. Demand honest self-evaluation. Keep asking the questions. Keep seeking the answers to the toughest questions.” I know that I will.

In response to yesterday’s blog, one friend wrote to me and pointed out that there was little or no chain rattling when Clinton spent $30 million on his second inauguration while genocide was taking place in Africa. What she wrote is sad, but true. There was little discord when the Golden Globes were enacted this past weekend or when the Oscars took place last year. Rarely do picketers line up outside of professional athletic venues to speak out against the excessive cost of tickets and the outrageous salaries paid to the athletes on the courts or the actors sitting courtside. As much as I love Oprah and am awed by her enormous philanthropy, an argument could be made that her many multi-million dollar residences are difficult to justify in the face of the enormous poverty she herself works to eradicate all around the world. The list of criticism could go on, as can the relentless finger-pointing. Ultimately, there is no end to the needs of the people in the world. Jesus himself said, “The poor you will always have with you.”

Another friend asked me today, “What happens when you read books like Nickel and Dimed? Doesn’t it make you sad? Don’t you feel guilty about living in the house you live in when you read stuff like that? I know that if I read books like that, I’d just be really sad.” I told her the truth: it does make me sad. I put down books like this with a mix of equal parts gratitude and guilt for having so much. But it also makes me more aware of the lives of so many people I know. It opens floodgates of compassion and generosity. It makes me look more steadfastly and more thoughtfully at the many people I know who probably will never be able to afford Monday’s $49 ski trip for their children, who will never be able to quit work and homeschool their children, and who will never take solo trips to Europe. Stories like this one make me want to move beyond feeling sad and compassionate – all the way to giving away more of our money, our time, and our energy to help the countless poor that we now have and will always have with us.

And it makes me consider the possibility of running for political office someday. If I am ever elected President, I promise to not have any elaborate celebrations related to the inauguration; I will ask that the funds be used to feed the homeless and poor in Washington DC instead. I promise to not use any funds for a private Presidential library; I will forward all the earmarked funds to the most needy public libraries in the nation. And I will never, ever use taxpayer dollars to feed my addiction to peppermint mochas and glazed lemon pound cake at Starbucks. Those treats will always be paid for out of my pre-Presidential savings account. You have my word.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You have my vote!