Yesterday morning, I used the birthday money my mother sent me to buy a pottery mug at the Worcester Center for Crafts annual fair. The mug is amazingly beautiful and cost an unreasonable amount. The marks of flame and ash from its wood-fired origins are the natural decoration on this smallish drinking vessel. The cup itself was pushed in as the handle was attached, so the sweet memory of soft wet clay lingers with the finished piece. The handle itself is elegant, chunky and reliable.
I paid a wild forty dollars for the mug and probably wouldn’t have done it with ‘my own’ money. But as a birthday extravagance, I could justify the purchase. Having been a professional potter many years ago, I suspect that the maker of my mug works long days, both in the making and in the selling of his creations. And if his annual net is thirty thousand a year, I’m sure he considers himself quite successful.
Later in the day, I went to my local Ace Hardware store to buy a replacement halogen bulb for one of the space-age light fixtures that fly in the Temple kitchen. Ace is the chain store that drove the previous locally owned hardware store with wooden floors and guys who knew how to fix things out of business ten years ago. They often have great bargains because now they are hanging on for their economic life due to the Home Depot that recently opened just a few miles away.
On the way out, in the center aisle, which is the seasonal bargain display, I saw a four-cup coffee maker along with the snow shovels and window scrapers. I have been half-heartedly looking for a small coffee maker ever since I gave away our old one to my father last Father’s Day when he was passing through town on a RV camping trip and had forgotten his coffee maker. So I checked the price on the coffee maker, and when I saw it was an amazing nine dollars, I scooped one up -- along with my tiny, don’t touch with your fingers, seven-dollar halogen bulb.
Later this morning, I will go into the kitchen, turn on my seven-dollar light bulb, make ten-dollar a pound dark roast coffee in my nine-dollar coffee maker, and then drink a small cup of Joe in my forty-dollar mug.
This all makes me conscious of the invisible webs of relationships I support as I live my economic life. I know who made the mug, he lives in Maine and I am happy to share some of the money that people give me with him. The people who made the parts and assembled the coffee maker and packed it and put it on the trucks and put it in the center aisle of Ace Hardware are more hidden from my imagination – I suspect most of them, like the potter, would be happy to make thirty thousand a year. I feel virtuous about supporting the potter (even though it was my mother’s money). And while I am happy to save money on my new coffee maker, I feel vaguely uneasy about the relationships I foster with my frugality.