Category Archives: consumerism

mending a pair of pants we bought because we could afford them

This morning, while my son watched children’s television in the other room,
I sat by the open window on the bed and mended a pair of corduroy work pants
sipping my coffee and letting spring wash over my skin through the screen.
As I worked to knit the button hole back together,
I noticed how few stitches had been used to assemble the belt loops,
how there were loose threads
and poor workmanship here and there
and then I pricked my finger with the needle.
while swearing and applying pressure,
i glanced at the label,
and realized that the fabric I held in my hands
had been been held by a woman, or man, or child,
in China

i read “made in china” a hundred times a day
but i don’t realize much.
i think:
then: “we can’t afford to buy things made fairly,
and “after all, i do try to buy second hand, so that helps, right?”

and there’s not much realizing after that, just an unspooling narrative of rationalization

like so much tangled thread
sure we bought the pants because we could afford them
and we could afford them because that person in China
made a few dimes
for these seams
and went home to a crowded room in a toxic city
hundreds of miles from their families
who they might see once a year.

I think about who made these pants,
and think about my seamstress great grandmother
an immigrant Eastern European woman
who fled the land of pogroms with (most of) her children
to Philadelphia
just a few years
after the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
where, after her husband’s death from tuberculosis,
she made a living sewing theater curtains and
beaded bags
for wealthy women

and holding my mending by the window i think that these are not trivial connections
but literal ones
we can feel
as we bleed tiny drops of blood
into the same fabric



Filed under basic goodness, blue collar, consumerism, crafty, Family, History, Labor, meditation, memory, migration, Ordinary, poetry

On Not Buying.

Been around the block a few times.

This past Thanksgiving, my parents rolled out a gift for Callum, who’s been obsessed with pushing things on wheels for a few months now.  Of course, I recognized it.   It was one of my favorite toys as a kid.

My historian mother did a little research and discovered it had likely been manufactured around 1972.   Unknown children pushed it around during the waning of the Vietnam War, the Energy Crisis, and the Carter administration.  My parents picked it up around 1982, and my siblings and I put it through its paces through the Reagan era and the final years of the Cold War.  By the time Clinton moved into the White House and the United States set off its last nuclear warhead my sister Emma started to get bored with the shopping cart. It ended up in the barn out behind my parents house.

That might have been the last hurrah for the yellow and orange shopping cart.  It was missing two wheels and a handle, and it was cracked seventeen ways to Sunday after a decade and a half in the barn.    My mother couldn’t bear to consign it to the trash though.  She’s the first to admit she has trouble throwing away treasured bits from our childhoods. In that shopping cart there are a hundred stories that only she remembers.

me. c. 1982

Don’t write off the Thanksgiving shopping cart revival off as pure sentimentality just yet.  Sure… sentimentality is part of it. But its something else too.

The day after Thanksgiving, a woman maced other people to gain a competitive advantage in her efforts to buy a discounted xbox. A man in a Target store in West Virginia collapsed in apparent distress and was stepped over by other shoppers who were too deal-focused to lend a hand.  At least they didn’t trample him to death, which inevitably happens every other year or so in the riot-style consumptive-frenzy that stores stage to initiate the holiday shopping season.  The holiday season which is ostensibly about love and warmth and gratitude and other things you can’t put a pricetag on.

While people injured each other in their efforts to purchase the perfect gift to express their love, Callum trucked around our house with a 40-year old shopping cart, held together with glue, pvc pipe, zipties, custom-wood panels, homemade wheels, and a few barbeque skewers.  He likes to fill it up with canned food or small plastic animals, occasionally rubber balls or cars.  He thinks its great.

My Dad and my brother spent hours putting it back together.  “It broke in a different place every time I tried to work on it,” my father grinned.  “But I figured there had to be a way to make it roll again.”  They put their engineering heads together and spent a while wandering through the hardware store.  Its a pretty remarkable custom job, if you look close.

“It probably won’t last two days,” my father laughed.  “But if he has fun with it, who cares.”

Is it silly, to spend hours reconstructing a busted-up forty year old plastic toy?  Maybe.  But my dad is one of those rare people who likes to figure out how to make things work, rather than throw them out.  He keeps scraps of wood neatly organized in the barn, and he’s been recycling supplies since before it was hip.  The base of the cradle he built me is an old wooden campaign sign he brought home from work, and the first floor of our two-story childhood treehouse was an old highway sign.  My father-in-law has the same resourcefulness.  My Gramps did too.  There’s an art in fixing things, and not many people do it anymore.

I don’t want Callum to cling to stuff, but I do want him to understand that there’s plenty of fun to be had in things that aren’t shiny or new.  That a little creativity goes a long way.   That kids in other parts of the world have to scavenge in dumps for food, and have wicked fun soccer games with balls made out of plastic bags stuffed inside other plastic bags.  That Black Friday has nothing to do with Thanksgiving or Gratitude, and that Not Buying someone something can be the most loving act of all.


Filed under basic goodness, consumerism, crafty, gratitude, love