I stood there in the refrigerator door with a jug of spoiled milk in my hand and said, “How did this go bad?” Then I realized I had been “saving it.” I thought about all the times I had gone to the refrigerator and seen milk, and thought of making iced coffee or just drinking it. And then I remembered how I had stopped myself, thinking, “No, I should save it for later.” And later came, and there was sour milk in the refrigerator.Then I was driving down the road thinking of the canvases I have in the art room, and what I should do with them. I started thinking of all the things I could do with them, and then a thought came in: “Well, you don’t want to waste them.” Suddenly it occurred to me that saying this implied that whatever I would do with them would be waste. In other words, my art was waste.
That was a few weeks ago. Since then I have been looking at this particular schema, or mental meme, or demon, or complex, around “saving” and “waste.”I grew up in what I recognize was a lower middle-class household. There were four children in the household and two adults. My mother worked on and off, and my father worked steadily. However, he worked for a company that was not a good place to work. The owners of the company were careless and privileged. The old man increasingly let his sons run the show, and they were incompetent at best and imbeciles at worst. There was no retirement and no insurance, I later found out. The work was tough, but my father built a solid base of customers who trusted him implicitly. It served him well when he finally left the company and went to work for another company, who offered him – finally – what he was worth. Insurance and retirement, and finally a level of pay commensurate with what he brought. And what he brought was all his customers. But before then, my dad didn’t make a lot of money. My mother worked much of the time when I was growing up as a bookkeeper, either for a military academy or the county school system after the military academy shut down. In those Mad Men days women were employed either as secretaries, bookkeepers, or nurses, and none of those paid well.So supporting four kids on a limited income meant a lot of lack and want. I won’t say that we were poor, because there were a lot of people worse off than we were in 1960s/1970s Mississippi. But we didn’t have a lot, and everything was parceled out and measured out. If we were having shrimp, everyone had exactly the number that they had, no more. “Now remember, you can only have eight shrimp, no more. Leave some for your brother and sisters.” This applied to everything. So there was always in my mind a feeling of lack and want, not just around food but everything else.
When they first came out with “generic food,” an idea which thankfully has gone, we had generic food with not many brand names, unless the brand names were as cheap as the generic. You probably don’t remember generic food, but it was some weird idea that happened in the 1980s. The packaging was all white and it just had the scan code, and it was THE most absolute basic bottom line food product there could ever be.
The idea that “we can’t afford that, so don’t ask for it,” was pervasive. You got what you got and that was it. It extended to absolutely everything. For example, we didn’t have a new TV until my brother bought one. We had a series of hand-me-down black and white TVs that usually belonged to a relative previously. These of course kept breaking down and crapping out, so we would go through them fairly regularly.
My family was watching black and white TV until the 1980s, when we finally inherited a color TV. It didn’t work very well, of course, and the colors were blatantly off, but it was a color TV.