Cheap Thrills

A story of American women in financial jeopardy
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Apparently it’s the last post-feminist taboo. So let’s violate it. Just for you, my friend, today I’m going to open it wide … My pocketbook, my purselet, my hidden portmonee … Yeah, I’m going to push aside all the secret velvety folds and show you that most intimate of female parts: my money.

Because oddly, in this age of the blinding white Oprah pantsuit, when everything is illuminated, it seems a Victorian lace curtain still hangs over the delicate womanly matter of our personal expenditures. But unlike most urban professional females, I’m going to rip back that curtain, I’m going to bare all, I’m going to feed you raw numbers like oysters—My husband? Him? Oh, he won’t mind. As usual on weekends, he’s with his favorite dominatrix, PBS’s own Hell’s Angel, Suze Orman. There he stands in the kitchen, obediently chopping vegetables, as from the small TV the saber-toothed blond androgyne berates him in her jacket of leather: “So you’ve been ‘too busy’ to figure out how a Roth IRA works, or what a FICO score is? Buddy, wake up and smell the 401(k)!”

In eras past, financial punisher Suze Orman would be a man, feelings negotiator Dr. Phil would be a woman … But no, in the ’00s, sex roles, finance roles, power roles, domestic roles—they’re all up in the air! Yet still, women don that AmEx-hued fig leaf. In Money, A Memoir, Liz Perle describes a divorcing girlfriend seeking her advice about such complex issues as property division, child support, income lost, college funds. Perle asks—but gets no answer to—what her friend actually spends in a month. After hemming and hawing, the friend finally admits: “I do know, and I’m too embarrassed to tell you. What I need and what I spend are two different things.” Writes Perle:

As I hung up the phone, it struck me that I know more about my friends’ sexual assets than their financial ones. They’ve never hesitated to tell me all about love affairs, dreams, disappointments—even their husbands’ most minute physical, moral, mental, and sexual failings—but I have no idea what any of them earn or spend each month.

Of course, here’s the rub: after reading Perle’s “tell-all” memoir, you still have no idea what Perle earns or spends in a month. Yes, she writes candidly about how her own divorce brutally exposed her girlish financial illusions. She confesses to a host of characteristic female frailties, soil previously tilled by Lois P. Frankel in Nice Girls Don’t Get Rich (duly credited). Craving not just the convenience but the metaphorical stability of a double oven, Perle admits to being a member of “the emotional middle class,” to experiencing downward mobility as a kind of “egocide,” to caving in professionally to her own acquiescent “inner stewardess” (who’s too polite to protest a bad job assignment or lobby for a raise). It’s fertile, relatable territory—what woman, feeling blue, hasn’t practiced retail therapy (during PMS, how often have I fondled aromatherapy candles named “Tranquility,” rosemary soaplets startlingly named “Refresh!”)? What XX-chromosomed human hasn’t hoped her dreadlocked spoken-word barista may one day transform into a (still soulful) stockbroker with a bulging portfolio? (For one singletess in Perle’s book, saving money is actually painful—it’s an admission that “no one is coming to take care of her.”)

Over this garden of female neuroses is laid the larger template of American Women in Financial Jeopardy … a topic I’m finding increasingly troubling, gnawing. Just the previous week, I’d been reading Getting Even, by a former lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, Evelyn Murphy, with E. J. Graff. Until then, I’d considered myself pretty well versed in the depressing rills and contours of the gender wage gap. I knew that almost fifty years after Betty Friedan sounded the gender-equality alarum, U.S. women still make just 77 cents to the dollar of U.S. men … I knew about the lifetime million-dollar “Mommy Tax” (Ann Crittenden, The Price of Motherhood) … I knew about the glass ceiling, either real or self-“chosen.” But what does a woman’s “choice” really mean, Lisa Belkin of The New York Times Magazine, when the job demands eighty hours a week? And how many dual-Harvard-M.B.A. divorce settlements could have gone so much better if the female Harvard M.B.A. had just stayed working? I was already seeing us women in a whirling estrogen maelstrom, Perils of Pauline–like, greenbacks flying madly about our heads as though in a wind tunnel—I pictured us like in that scene in Thelma and Louise, where the money whips from a tearful Geena Davis’s hands right out the car window.

But here was yet another layer I’d not even thought of. A laudably thorough examination of sex discrimination in the workplace, Getting Even probes the subtle distinctions that still exist among collars blue and pink. Have you noticed that at elite restaurants, waitpersons tend to be men (better tipped and paid than waitresses at truck-stop diners)? In the aisles of Home Depot, do you see more male employees than female ones? (Salesmen make more than cashiers; cultural biases remain around which sex excels at selling paint chips.) Are you aware that on construction sites, even women fully capable of operating those … Caterpillar … thingies … must fight much harder to get those good union jobs by proving they’re physically strong enough to pull up (down?) that gearshift … clutch … dealio—argh!

I felt horrible frustration reading Getting Even, both because of the social injustice and because, with my imperfect attention (I kept thinking of that money whipping out the car window!), I found the book itself so hard to concentrate on. It was a trip to Barbara Ehrenreich Land without Barbara Ehrenreich. I felt awful for the minimum-wage-earning women in their Wal-Mart vests, standing exhausted under the fluorescents; I felt sorrow for their unremitting bad luck, both in life and in literature. It seemed unfair that slogging through their book required ropes, huskies, snowshoes. By contrast, here I was devouring Liz Perle’s middle-class confessional divorce memoir like it was a piece of porn, a Harold Robbins beach book. Even Money’s Women in Financial Jeopardy statistics mesmerized me: more than half of retired women live in poverty, 58 percent of Boomer females have less than $10,000 in a pension or 401(k) plan. (My own “retirement funds” currently stand at a mere $6K—down from $12K—in a wheezing little IRA. I call him “my Ira,” my little Jewish codger who keeps yelling “Feh—my knees!” while osteoporosis shrinks him yearly.)

In the end, however, Money fell short of satisfying me. After all those hazy female anecdotes, metaphors, and statistics, I wanted the Money Shot—I wanted to look at it, to see Perle’s own Quicken Bill-Pay file open spread-eagle before me. The only numbers she let drop were $2,500 a month in San Francisco for “a dark two-bedroom shoe box on the ground floor in a dicey neighborhood” and $5,000 for her son’s “sweet hippy preschool.” Five thousand, eh? Per month? Per year? Do they pay more for organic? What?

But no. Still doing a skillful three-card monte behind her Dance of the Seven Feminist Rhetorical Veils, Perle insisted, “I’ve talked to women who make $30,000 a year and women who pull in $300,000 annually who feel equally hungry and equally insecure.”

All right, then. Barring women of genuinely modest means—those who make less than $30,000 a year, who drive ten-year-old cars or take the bus, who rent apartments, who have tumbled terrifyingly into the health-insurance abyss, who, for goodness’ sake, are reading this very magazine between laminated covers at the public library—herewith my modest proposal.

What if, instead of trying to change the still-male-dominated worlds of government and business and contemporary work culture from the top down, we American Women in Financial Jeopardy went the other way? To fill our womanly coffers with the cash we need, what if—in a group strike à la Lysistrata—we all just said no to … buying stuff we don’t need?

That would stick it to the Man!

Wait, no, think about it—clearly, it’s the synergistic forces of capitalism, corporations, and consumerism that are driving our lives down into a spiraling hell. But, looking at it another way, we’re actually pressing our Manolo Blahniks to the accelerator. We women make the lion’s share of household purchases in this country. We ourselves drive billions of dollars a year in sales. Without the army of us and our Visa cards … ?

Because the fact is—not to take anything away from the women who make $300,000 a year and still feel hungry—we do happen to live, as you may have noticed, in a country of choking abundance. Our 99-cent stores are Wonders of the World. Food is so cheap, even our pets are obese. The bears in our parks practically require cholesterol medicine. Do you understand? Even our trash is fattening! Things need shaking up when American women feel endangered even as Yosemite bears lumber around belching, their eyes glazed with surfeit, their pelts covered in Oreo crumbs.

Yeah, I see us women piling into our SUVs, our Volvos, our minivans—hell, even our cute little lime-green VW Bugs—and driving out to the desert … Grrrls doing it for themselves, all together. We could get off the grid! We’ll dump the cars, change into sarongs … go barefoot … drop out … unplug … start our own Burning Woman festival! At the very least, we could burn our bras! Which would probably take a full month, because by now we have so damn many of them. (Over the years, from Victoria’s Secret alone, I’ve bought Angel bras, T-shirt bras, Wonder bras, Miracle bras—I have so many bras, I could make my own giant bra ball.)

I grant it will be difficult to get the word out about this burgeoning new women’s movement. There will be no glossy new Condé Nast magazine celebrating us. There will be no sitcoms about us, standing around, not drinking Diet Coke. Could we get on Dr. Phil? Oprah? “Women Who’ve Stopped Spending.” I can’t picture it. I don’t even see us blogging on urbanbaby.com about the thrills of buying nothing—our posts would be blocked (if adorably, one little hand up) by Baby Gap (and look at that striped wool mitten with the pom-pom!).

But perhaps humbly, on these pages, I can share one woman’s story: my own. After all, I did promise you a journey deep into my pocketbook. Although I do hate to open it. Because I happen to be, yes … the world’s cheapest woman.

Let me explain how I got this way—how I became this utter marvel—at age forty-four, in Los Angeles. To start with, professionally speaking, frugality is an absolute necessity. My guitarist husband, Mike, and writer me are the old-fashioned kind of bohemians. Not ’fro-haired hipsters gyrating in iPod ads but the sort who, starting January 1 of every year, literally don’t know where their next dime is coming from. That’s right: we’re the kind of creative free spirits who buy their own health insurance ($500 a month). Over the eighteen years we’ve lived together, my annual income has ranged wildly, from $9,000 to (in the one surreal year of mirage-like TV pilots) $250,000. We pay cash for everything, including cars. Our house is paid off—not so amazing when you realize we bought it for $239,000 seventeen years ago. Of course it’s also 1,300 square feet, and now that we have two daughters, there are four of us in residence.

But here again, the silver lining. The financial upside of living in a too-small house is that you stop buying things, because there’s no place to put them. Thanks to our girls, free stuff keeps coming to us anyway, stuff upon stuff. Joyous gifts of clothes, books, toys … The other weekend, I spent three hours on my knees scooping up what I call “piñata chum,” the candies and jacks and half-broken tops and balls and SpongeBob stickers that continually trail in from birthday parties of children I cannot even name. A tiny living space is the perfect cure for materialism when brute objects get in the way of such basic human needs as being able to find your mail or sit down while eating.

Of course, one could argue that I’m lucky—I’m genetically inclined toward thrift, coming as I do from an insanely cheap immigrant family. It’s true that by now my siblings and I simply enable each other. I’ll give as Christmas gifts publishers’ galleys I got in the mail. (If they’re good, why not?) My sister recently topped that by placing under the tree a book she’d checked out from the San Francisco public library, with the stipulation that my brother finish it quickly so she could return it. But the master of parsimony remains my eighty-five-year-old, Shanghai-born, retired-scientist dad. He doesn’t just Dumpster dive; he’ll go to his local Starbucks and pour the latte dregs of others into a discarded Starbucks cup and then quaff the whole lukewarm mess right there, while enjoying his also- stolen-from-Starbucks New York Times (to class things up a bit, I guess).

I grant that at a certain point such behavior moves from thrift to eccentricity, even health hazard (never mind how my dad fertilizes his lawn; although I must say, for eighty-five, the man has an astonishing immune system). In my twenties and thirties, I openly rebelled against all this Sanford and Son–like penny-pinching. Spreading my wings, forging my own identity, I was fascinated with the taboo of luxury, of buying expensive things. And so (particularly in the $250,000 year of mirage-like TV deals), I threw down! Instead of cheesy white $5 plastic chairs from Home Depot, how about some quality outdoor pieces made of Brazilian teak—$1,500? Well, it turned out that the two lounge chairs, like fussy pedigreed dogs, required constant grooming (oiling, actually), and—as I like to say in California—I am my own Mexican. I found myself becoming the full-time employee of the fussy teak chairs. I’d spend my afternoons scanning the sky worriedly. Was rain coming? Should I—with much shin bumping and lower-back wrenching—move the chairs into the shed? With then another oiling? I was becoming a slave, a Slave of Teak—and it irked me.

Also, driving through Big Sur over many years, I’d become curious about the Post Ranch Inn. All one could see from the road below was a misty green hill rising up beyond a gate. The Post Ranch Inn’s cliff-side retreats were $700 a room and up. And so what? “Seven hundred dollars a room!” I told my husband, arms akimbo, legs planted like Yul Brynner, flush with my Hollywood cash. “For just once in my life, I want to know what a $700 room is like!” I found out. The SUV ride up the hill? Thrilling. The moss-roofed entry port? Magical. The room? A veritable aerie boasting a 180-degree Pacific Ocean view, a stone fireplace, a slate tub, every surface discreetly touched with perfect northern California appointments—exotic teas, eucalyptus bath salts twined in raffia, Bose sound system with DMX … “No!” I snapped at my husband as he leaned over the dials. “Miles Davis we can have at home!” I jabbed my finger toward the skylight, dropped my voice to a whisper: “What we’re paying for is the birds, the susurrus of the birds, the natural Pacific birds.” He opened his mouth as if to speak, but I shushed him. “Don’t you understand? We can’t afford conversation,” I hissed, my Shanghai blood roaring in my ears, its eternal abacus clacking. “At $45 an hour, what we’re paying for is the silence, the natural Zen silence!”

Which brings us to the fact that being neurotic is expensive. Amid the crazily sleep-starved wars of the first baby, Mike and I booked ourselves into therapy. But we soon realized we could stop fighting, find a way to divide the household labor, and save the $120 a session—our health insurance being no dental, no mental. (Since you ask, this is what we came up with: he does all the cooking and cleaning and laundry, and in reward gets to be very bossy and curt about it, and we also have to eat whatever he feels like all the time—lots of fish. I do the bills.)

These are just household things, though—issues of circumstance, fate of genetics. Truly cheap people are, in their secret hearts, individuals. Iconoclasts. Rebels. Always oppressed, always breaking out, with some kind of personal “crazy philosophy” (my dad’s term, eyebrows lifted, twirling index finger at the temple). I think the most colorful intro to mine is via one of my favorite novels, Pearl S. Buck’s Pavilion of Women. On her fortieth birthday, after serving two decades as a faithful wife and mother, the matriarch of a great house in China announces to her husband that she’s done with having sex. She’s finding him a young concubine, and is in fact that day moving to another pavilion so she can sit in the library and read books.

I’m fully aware that our 1,300-square-foot bungalow cannot house a young concubine. (Look at me: I’m already doing the math. I’m figuring that young women being what they are today, our concubine would probably also require therapy, fiction-writing classes, spa treatments, the rosemary soap, the Tranquility candles. Forget it!) But what I relate to in this character is the great weariness suddenly felt, midlife, with the trappings of being female. For instance, at forty-four … I’m tired of looking at myself in the mirror. I’m so bored with it! My God, I’ve been looking at this face for decades now. When will the tedium end?

It wasn’t always like this. At age thirty-six, in the year of the mirage-like TV pilots, I found myself many mornings at 10 a.m. riding glass-walled elevators to a lot of frightening meetings with a lot of fresh-faced young people. In multiple fun-house reflections, I could see that I looked like a hound dog, Leonard Nimoy–esque. Those eye bags haunted me day and night. So I paid $3,000 and had them lasered right out.

But here came the strange part. The procedure was so quick, so simple, so painless, and so effective—I looked fabulous, no one could deny it—that my outer appearance actually … began to unravel. Not just the bags but the scales fell from my eyes. For a decade I had cosseted my eye bags like royal invalids—creaming them, lotioning them (after reading a tip in a beauty magazine, I even tried smearing them with Preparation H). Now that I was free … there, there, there on the bathroom counter! That busy, self-important cityscape of skin revitalizers, moisturizers, scrubs, washes, lifters, exfoliants. I suddenly saw that dusty shantytown for what it was: an utter sham! With one sweep of my arm, I razed it. I threw those Clinique and Nivea jars and tubes away, every single one!

When I was the servant of the eye bags (and they my master), oh … I used to be so hunched over, in apology for my hideous presence. I wouldn’t dare leave the house without my hair meticulously styled, makeup labored over, wearing what I hoped—prayed!—were my hippest outfits. But now, with the eye bags gone, it was like my female debt was finally, suddenly paid in full. And now the pendulum was swinging wildly the other way. With the worthless cosmetics gone, what else could I do away with? Ideas were flying to me. Why wear earrings, why put on lipstick, why even—the sloth that dare not speak its name—change out of the clothes you slept in? I have this pair of $10 black drawstring Target pants that balance perilously on culture’s very Mother Who Works From Home fulcrum. Are they running pants? Exercise pants? Pajamas? Who knows? Then again, check out this Ann Taylor striped T-shirt I’m wearing—Goodwill, $1! (That’s right, one dollar. Don’t mean to brag, but I paid for it in quarters!) As for my fabulous shoes, they’re probably German and expensive, but for me? Free! Because like all my shoes, they’re cast-offs! That’s the upside of having girlfriends who are rabid shoe buyers. It’s such trouble to go back to Nordstrom’s to return a color they don’t like; it’s easier just to … give the shoes to me. Thanks!

Because it’s not new clothes I hate so much as clothes shopping. Several decades in, it is the mall itself that has become wearisome to me—depressing, odious, exhausting. Glowering down from all around are posters not just of ten-foot-tall eighteen-year-old supervixens, but of men! Even in Victoria’s Secret! Men of rock-hard pecs, gelled hair, curled lip! How gay are our Madison Avenue ad executives?

Speaking of which, one day it hit me how much I’d come to physically dread going to my pricey salon. The faux-antiqued walls, the WWD magazines, the jumping club-kid haircutters (who are by now actually north of forty, just like me). The owner of the salon is Taz—that’s the name of the salon, “Taz”—and it suddenly struck me how sick to death I was of hearing about Taz. Taz was here, Taz was there, Taz was in South Beach, Taz was on a shoot in Arizona … where he was developing a new line of “product” including some $30 chi-flavored botanical serum I’d have to, as usual, fake interest in. You know what, Taz? They’re just split ends. Fuck off.

Then there’s the whole weight project. My friend Carolyn has lost twelve and a half pounds in the past three months. Good for her, you say, but consider what she’s spending: $199 for six months at Jenny Craig, plus many little tins of food at upwards of $400 a month. And what with all the deprivation and the sensitized palate, there’s the feel-good sports ion water she deserves, at $2 a bottle, of which she has several a day. New gym membership ($40 a month). New running shoes that really fit, air-spring sole, cushioned heel ($100), plus important new sports leggings, new socks, etc. To entertain her during all that treadmilling, a $299 iPod. And to celebrate a drop of two sizes, a recently purchased pair of $300 “distressed” jeans.

That’s right—that’s what distressed skinny jeans cost now: $300. Carolyn tried on jeans at the mall for three hours before she finally found the right snug fit. Let’s not even count the new high-heeled strappy shoewear to go with the jeans, the $120 haircut with highlights. (I admit—when she asked, I sent her to Taz!) Carolyn’s self-esteem is glowing. She’s going out more at night. She’s contemplating a vacation, maybe a cruise, with salsa dancing, windsurfing, parasailing. There’s more confidence, laughter, tossing the head back.

In America today, I can’t think of one person who wouldn’t pump the air and say, “You go, girl!” I can’t name one female self-help book that urges you, now that you’re forty, to simply accept … the extra seven pounds (talk about egocide). If we were all wearing sarongs, no one would know the difference—that’s why we need skinny jeans. When it comes to oppression, jeans are our burka, our religion, our god. We labor for the jeans, we starve for the jeans, we pray to the jeans that they’ll close … The fact that we’re paying $300 is only good news. Female emancipation is always defined in terms of expanding our economic presence. Our personal power is defined by our earning, our cultural power by purchasing, how we vote with our dollars.

Which is to say, conversely, the woman who buys nothing is nothing.

Nothing … nothing … nothing.

I resent it bitterly, and I am in revolt.

However, having now made a $25 purchase at Borders last week, it is I who gaze in awe. It is I who wave the saggy old bra in salute. Because it turns out there’s a new mistress of the shabby pavilions, a new Queen of Cheap! She is New York writer Judith Levine, and I so enjoyed her new book, Not Buying It, that I’ll be “gifting” my copy on this Christmas, in turn, to each member of my penurious family.

Nauseated not just by her own maxed credit cards but by her weakness in a hyperconsumerized world, Levine decided to try to survive, for one year, on just “essentials”—a strategy that saved her $8,000 (out of a gross income of $45,000). Yes, there was a diabetic cat requiring expensive veterinary care, and no, Levine’s vanity (which I respected her for fessing up to) would not allow her to give up her $55 haircuts. But beyond that, the strictures were urban-spartan. She and her partner, Paul, were to buy no clothes or shoes. There would be no restaurants, movies, gifts. They could buy groceries, but not fancy ones. Toilet paper, yes; Q-tips, no (this impressed me—I consider Q-tips essential).

Levine’s yearlong Visa-free journey reveals a hitherto-invisible realm. Without the whirl of buying, vast quantities of time open up—and not just from a lack of purchased entertainment; consuming itself takes time. (In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz illustrates how we can fritter our days away even on trying to choose the best price for something on the Internet.) But perhaps Levine’s most pointed observations are political. She is no fan of Bush—he who advised patriotic citizens, post-9/11, to go shopping. But she’s troubled too with her fellow Democrats’ click-and-buy approach to political organizing.

If participating in the election by joining MoveOn or Concerned Wom­en for America is not as satisfying as shopping, it feels a little like using an Apple computer or wearing Nike shoes—what Merkely + Partners brand manager Douglas Atkins calls “joining a brand.” The twenty-first-century political group is not a group in the human sense. It has no voice, no flesh. There is no room to meet in, no one to meet. You send your money (or not), you get your e-mails (just like your software updates and porn-site come-ons), you “buy in” to the organization’s politics.

Meaning that “Kerry” (windsurfing gunboat captain, Ivy League union supporter) was simply a brand that didn’t work. These days, Americans are not citizens so much as consumers; says one friend of Levine’s, “What’s left of the counterculture is the counter.”

That’s not entirely true, of course. There are those eco-footprint fetishists (almost always white males, natch) who retreat to little dwellings in the woods (notably often the woods of Vermont) to compost and crack their own wheat berries and tinker ad nauseam with revolting gadgets like batteries powered by their own pee—all while doing a lot of calculations about how much “nature” they need to sustain their lifestyle. Generally these types like to keep their income “below taxable level,” in the words of Vermont conservationist Jim Merkel, a reformed weapons engineer and the author of the veritable bible of eco-footprint reduction, Radical Simplicity. “Then,” as he says, “not a single cent of mine would rain bombs and bullets onto peasants who live near coveted resources.” Of course, taxes sometimes go toward good things—bridges, schools, and … well, never mind. Idaho Panhandle, meet the Green Mountains.

But women have a whole different style of going “off the grid.” Men like to live alone in a rusty old school bus in Vermont, whereas for women (OK, white women), the romance, the adventure, of getting off the grid comes through travel abroad, away from America’s Jeans Nation. I’m thinking now of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love and Rita Golden Gelman’s Tales of a Female Nomad. The narrative always begins with an affluent urban woman weeping alone in her creature-comfort-filled home with the as-though-slugged-in-the-stomach pain of knowing her marriage will end in divorce. She emerges on a whirlwind journey of Third World villages that always, wonderfully enough, involves Bali. Common tropes include sumptuous weight gain, deep conversations with barefoot shaman-type medicine men, untrammeled sex with males of all ages (including Ecuadorian fishers).

All of which sort of confuses the issue of American Women in Financial Jeopardy. Let’s face it: it’s a lot cheaper to sit in the native woods and put your pee to use than it is to wander the world in search of spiritual advice and sexual catch-and-release. So, what’s really going on here, emotio-money-wise?

Liz Perle traces her beliefs about the complex relationship between women and their money to her Yiddish- speaking grandmother. Perle remembers the day about one year after her mother had died that, driven to impart an important life lesson, her grandmother frantically rooted around in her bureau drawers, past stockings and scarves (“each new thrust released the scent of Chanel No. 5”), until finally, from deep inside an underwear drawer, she pulled out a little woven metallic coin purse. “It’s a reticule … It’s something a woman wears to keep her valuables hidden,” her grandmother says. “This is the beginning of your knipple.” Perle writes:

In my grandmother’s hierarchy of what mattered in life, money silently reigned. She believed that at the end of the day, a woman’s safety and security (not to mention social position) depended on it.

The phrase that leaped out at me, upon reading that, was “social position.” What a stunningly unique situation modern American women are in. For perhaps the first time in the history of civilization, a woman’s social position is completely fluid, hers to somehow ferret out and determine and sustain. It’s not just that the West is unlike the East. (It’s not just that it’s unlike India, where you have an oppressive if impressively well-defined caste system, or unlike Bali, where of course so many are descended from Javanese royalty—for rapt Westerners, yet another of Bali’s intoxicating-as-a-jungle-flower features.) Think how far we’ve come, baby, from Jane Austen’s day, when women clearly understood that marriage to an alpha male was upon what their social status depended … from brilliant ascension to Mr. Darcy’s £10,000 a year at Pemberley, to the mournful poultry-tending outpost of a union with the rector Mr. Collins.

A modern American woman’s social position is not so easy to calculate. If only it were still just about money—the old Yankee Protestant families, the polo ponies, the little dogs, the ladies’ lunches, the charity balls, the coiffed hair, the dull face. My Los Angeles is littered with the wives of giant Hollywood Mr. Darcys who materially want for nothing, but who continue to be gnawed at by the novel that won’t get written, the environmental cause that can’t quite gain celebrity traction, the holistic fitness line that won’t sell (it’s not the money itself they need, but the prized creativity-and-success marker of the money). Nor is female professional success/independence the cure-all. I think of a novelist friend whose books unfailingly receive burnished notices in The New York Times (making her, literarily, extremely high-caste). The problem is that in person, people find her insufferable (at dinner parties she’ll drain the life out of a room with her endless pedantic monologues, much as Elizabeth Bennet’s own sister Mary would, plodding on and on with her Scotch and Irish airs). As a result, this friend can’t even find her Mr. Collins—or at least not a straight one. On the flip side, I have a vivacious writer friend who lives in a trailer in Topanga who wrote a rickety (yes, Bali-inspired) chapbook several years ago to a spray of pungently mixed reviews that ran only on the West Coast. No New York Times mention for her, not even a capsule. And yet, she’s not only an attendee but a hit—especially with flirtatious males of dubious repute, a chain of Mr. Wickhams only adding to her allure—at A-list canyon parties. In the drab wake of pretend feminism, where women share the fuzzy poncho of “sisters,” this woman has social capital—which is to say access—to burn.

Jane Austen would lie down with a headache doing this calculus, which isn’t really all about the money. It’s about the hunger for self-definition, the terror of never knowing where you stand. In lieu of Mr. Darcy (and the ladyship of Pemberley, which I believe I would have handled quite well), at least I have this: a stale, old wedding-gift Tranquility candle.

Sandra Tsing Loh is a writer and performer whose radio commentaries appear regularly on American Public Media’s Marketplace. She can also be heard on KPCC-FM, in Pasadena, California.
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A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

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The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

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