March of the Miser

piggy bankWhen I told my son Noah that this month at our house would be the March of the Miser, and that therefore we wouldn’t be buying anything, he looked at me evenly and said, “We never buy anything.”

We are, in many respects, a frugal family. The kids know that “new books” come from the library and that eligible grocery store purchases sport little yellow sale flags. Takeout Chinese is an occasional treat; takeout sushi is . . . for visiting dignitaries. My clothes-loving child makes do with hand-me-downs from stylish friends and sporadic sprees with Grandma; my Broadway-musical-loving child has yet to see a show on Broadway.

But the thing is, although we are relatively frugal, we are not absolutely frugal. Or, as I recently explained it to a friend, we always find the absolute best price—plus free shipping!—for the thing that we don’t really need.

We recently spent hours on the Internet, for example, chasing down the best deal on a computer for Noah. Could he get by with something basic and/or refurbished? Of course! We started with a frugal mindset, but then we lost our minds. We got sucked into getting the most for our money, toggling back and forth between detailed specification lists, while steadily increasing our price limit. This one’s no good: it has only 2 gigs of RAM. (I don’t know what RAM is, but I sure as hell know 2 is less than 4.) That one has Windows 8, not Windows 8.1—what are we, cavemen?

Ah, the allure of value shopping: I can’t resist it. And I’m an even bigger sucker for sale shopping. Matching coupons with store sales isn’t quite earning money (so I’ve been told), but it’s definitely winning. So although I know it will go on sale again and I already have 11 extra boxes of cereal in the basement, I have to buy 4 more boxes of Chex for $1.77 each. And with bacon this cheap, why not put another 6 pounds in the downstairs freezer?

(Yes, the “downstairs freezer”—I also have one in the pantry, plus a regular fridge freezer, a pantry, and spillover larder in the basement. Come to my house when The End Is Nigh: you will be well fed as you contemplate the apocalypse.)

For frugal people, we also do an embarrassing amount of recreational shopping, browsing the sale rack at Target or Marshalls while Jesse’s in rehearsal or Noah is at his piano lesson. And then there’s reward shopping: craft supplies for the kid who wants to spend Saturday morning making things while I sleep,  sheet music for the kid who’s decided to tackle Chopin’s etudes, new yoga pants for the mom who’s started resolved to get more exercise . . .

Finally, the senseless spending to compensate for the craziness of life with kids. After running Jesse to school early for practice for the fourth time this week, dammit, I’ve earned a stop at Starbucks for my coffee. Lena—fetched from school and headed for piano—needs a snack, so . . . how could you get much cheaper than a McChicken for a dollar?

Sorry, kids, but the answer is: with a 19-cent banana brought from home.

March of the Miser is dedicated to the 19-cent banana. To the perfectly edible beef and barley soup languishing at the bottom of the downstairs freezer. To suggesting new uses for the art supplies we already have and pointing out all the sheet music we already own. In March, when I’m trapped near a shopping center with an hour to kill, I’ll read a book. In March, a sale at DSW will not necessarily be a sign that I need shoes.

Maybe in April, we’ll go crazy with pent-up spendergy.

Or maybe we’ll just truly relish that takeout Chinese . . . until we start to take it for granted all over again.

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The Meeting

Big BookWe parked next to a lone car in the lot, and, once inside, wound our way through the seemingly empty church to find the door to the basement. I hung close to my friend, my guide to the world of Alcoholics Anonymous. I wanted to know what AA was like, what his new life was like, so I had asked if I could go with him to a meeting.

I regretted the outing as soon as we found the room. I had pictured rows of folding chairs, half filled with reluctant people clutching coffee cups and coats. I had pictured myself in the back row, at a friendly, supportive remove. But we were the fourth and fifth people there, and we draped our coats around chairs set in an intimate circle. I smiled nervously at the other three people, wondering what I would say when it was my time to address them. “Hi, I’m Kate, and I’m ———–”? Oh, good: two more arrived; now we were seven. Nine. Ten. At the last minute, the circle filled, and there were twelve of us.

AA, as you probably know, uses a twelve-step program of recovery. The first thing we did, after the opening welcome, was to read these steps out loud, one by one, from a photocopied sheet in a plastic sleeve, passing them from person to person. When my friend handed them to me, I handed them right along to the fellow on my right. As a visitor, I didn’t feel like it was my place to say them. As an atheist, I didn’t think I could.

I had known before I came that AA asks its members to give over control of their lives to a Higher Power, and I figured there’d be a God-related step or two. But I was wrong: six of the twelve steps center on or at least refer to God. He doesn’t get that much ink in the Ten Commandments.

Then it became less about God and more like church. We passed out copies of the Big Book (Alcoholics Anonymous, the AA “bible”), fat hardbacks with black covers, fetched from a little cabinet under the coffee maker. After some discussion about where the group had left off, we settled in to read “Stars Don’t Fall,” a testimonial by Felicia G., who drank her way through the 1940s before eventually grasping sobriety.

As we read her story aloud, turn by turn, paragraph by paragraph, we were, implicitly at least, tasked with finding commonality between her story and ours. It wasn’t easy. Felicia wasn’t just from a different era (in which one went to “gin mills” to get “tight”); she was from a different life entirely. She was born in a castle, had a chalet in Switzerland, and kept a house in Virginia “during fox hunting season.” She knew how to hold a terrapin fork. I wasn’t sure what a terrapin was.

But when she describes her preoccupation with drink, even I, a “normal,” possessed of what AA refers to as the “power of choice in drink,” could relate:

Other girls whom I had known all my life asked for one weak scotch after dinner. Sometimes they’d put it on the mantel, and forget it. My eye would be glued to that glass. How could anybody forget a drink?

Felicia tries to stop drinking on her own—“I must use self-will, self-control. I must go on the wagon for a while”—and fails. She cannot do it alone. Eventually her analyst sends her to Bill (AA’s founder), who sends her to Marty, who takes her to a meeting, and soon she meets Priscilla, who asks her to help Anne, who is in real trouble. One night with Anne, in need of help, Felicia calls the AA central office, which dispatches John and Bud to meet them. “They did not seem ashamed to be with us, these strangers. They were taking the trouble to try and help. Why? I was astonished and deeply moved.”

“I think now,” writes Felicia, “that a God, in whom I did not believe, was looking after me.”

Ah, God. And yet she describes very clearly who was looking after her: Bill and Marty and Priscilla and John and Bud and so on. Looking around the room at these people patiently listening to each other, serving each other coffee and cookies, passing information from hand to hand, and ultimately—in the few minutes left after the reading was over—sharing their stories with each other, it struck me once again that the “Higher Power” is really just human power in disguise. It makes sense: the idea that Something is in control takes the sting out of the realization and admission that you are not. But focus on a Higher Power is really a benign and brilliant feat of misdirection: Look—over there—that will save you, that will hold you steady—and, while you’re looking, here, take my hand . . .

My point is not that Bill didn’t believe or that these people don’t, in one way or another. Even my friend, an atheist like me, was trying to figure out whether he could at least make the switch to agnostic. My point is that Higher Power, whatever it may be, is not the source of their salvation.

It’s crucial to note that Felicia was saved not just by the people helping her, but also by her helping them. Serving others gave her a sense of purpose and worth, not to mention a distraction from self-pity. “I completely forgot about myself,” she writes, “in trying vainly to help Anne, whose misery I understood.”

My friend had been sober about a hundred days; his phone was filled with new numbers: other AA members he called to check up on, and those who called to check on him. His calendar was filled, too, with meetings and assignments from his sponsor. AA puts you right to work: someone has to make the coffee, run the meetings, give literature to new members, “qualify”(or speak at length about one’s experience), and eventually sponsor others. “Do you think that you are one of us?” Bill asks Felicia when they first meet. Saying “yes” included her instantly in a network of people who help one another.

I would venture that vibrant places of worship operate somewhat on the same principle. Although the worship service may talk about God, what really uplifts the soul is . . . service itself. Doing for one another. Seeing the suffering human inside the mom in the cereal aisle or the socialite with the chauffeur and “taking the trouble to try and help.”

That’s it, I thought: that is what is saving my friend.

As we read, the man to the left of my friend seemed repeatedly confused and unable to find his place in the text. Fearing he was drunk, I tried not to stare. No, that’s not right: I tried not to look. But my friend leaned over to help and discovered the man had a different edition of the Big Book than the rest of us had. So my friend gave him his book and then the two of us shared mine: I put my hand on his shoulder so I could lean in to follow the reading. And I found that, weirdly, once my hand rested on my friend’s shoulder, I could not remove it. Not for the rest of the meeting. Maybe I was offering him comfort and strength, or maybe it was the other way around.

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Human Power vs. a Higher Power

Nadia 3Principal Nadia Lopez of Mott Hall Bridges Academy in Brooklyn is the better person we all wish we were. She spends her days not just running a school in a high-poverty area but also personally attempting to empower every “scholar” in her school. This is what she says about the school color being purple, the color of royalty:

I want my scholars to know that even if they live in a housing project, they are part of a royal lineage going back to great African kings and queens. They belong to a group of individuals who invented astronomy and math. And they belong to a group of individuals who have endured so much history and still overcome. When you tell people you’re from Brownsville, their face cringes up. But there are children here that need to know that they are expected to succeed.

I know about Ms. Lopez thanks to Vidal Chastanet, one of her students, who was featured last month in photographer Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York blog. (Stanton asked Vidal, “Who has influenced you the most in your life?” and Vidal answered, “My principal.” And then Stanton went in search of her.)

Thanks to Humans of New York, in fact, everybody knows about Ms. Lopez—you (I’m guessing) and I and Ellen DeGeneres and President Obama. And thanks to Lopez’s own inspirational work and the human need to be inspired and then (once inspired) to act, Vidal has sat behind the desk in the Oval Office, and Mott Hall Bridges has received more than a million dollars in donations.

For all of this, Lopez gives thanks to . . . God.

I was ready to quit, I was ready to resign, I was done, and my mother told me to pray on it . . . I did pray about it Monday, and God showed me how much of a significance I was, not only to Vidal but to people around the world who could identify what it was like to know someone who was their champion and pushed them through.

I don’t want to minimize the range and intelligence of her statements on education and community and poverty, or reduce her to a football player who believes God kicked in the extra point. She has much more to say than this. But I do think it’s striking that here, in a situation where cause and effect are transparent, God gets credit. It’s not like $1 million showed up on the doorstep, or that people started sending in checks for no evident reason.

To conclude that what happened to Lopez and her school was God’s work is to minimize not just what Lopez herself did but also what Stanton did, what people moved by the story did. I’m sure no one involved, least of all Lopez herself, feels the need to get credit. But minimizing the human role minimizes human responsibility. We may not want to admit it, but we have the power to save not just Vidal and Mott Hall Bridges but all the schools that struggle to keep kids afloat in impoverished areas. We have the power to end poverty. We have the money; we have the will; all we lack is the certainty that it’s our job. That what controls the circumstances of one human’s life is other humans—not just personally (that part we understand), but in the systems that we create together. If we as a culture believe a Higher Power is in charge, we’re simply not going to use our human power to its fullest. We’re going to think that poverty is His doing, not ours.

* * *

Other things that happened last month: Islamist terrorists shot twelve people at the headquarters of a Parisian newspaper. In covering the march that followed, an ultra-orthodox Israeli newspaper photoshopped Angela Merkel from the picture because, according to the editor,“including a picture of a woman into something so sacred . . . can desecrate the memory of the martyrs.” Meanwhile, here at home, Senator James Inhofe became Chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Inhofe has said, among many other remarkable things, “The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He [God] is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.”

I could write about these events to demonstrate the dangers of religious belief. Many people have. But the problem with using such extreme examples is that we can all be horrified, appalled, and disgusted by them without fundamentally questioning anything we—or non-murderous, non-sexist, non-stupid people like us—believe.

Today, on Darwin Day, it’s worth asking whether the good kind of religion can have negative consequences too. Whether religion that clearly means no harm and even inspires admirable people like Ms. Lopez to do good might ultimately still be holding us back as a society.

When we talk prayer rather than politics, we perpetuate the belief that humans are powerless to address deep-seated societal problems; that the future of kids like Vidal is in God’s hands. But it’s not. It’s in Lopez’s—and in ours.

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