One woman buys a lottery ticket every day—even when her utilities are about to be cut off. She has already planned exactly how she will spend the money.
“At least she still has her dreams,” someone murmurs, and I want to scream.
Another friend whips up a new business scheme or an alternate career every month—even though he has yet to begin preparing for any of them. “It keeps him from getting depressed,” my husband says, and again, I want to scream. I manage to lower my voice—but the words that fly to my tongue surprise me. “It’s dishonest,” I snap.
Which is harsh, not to mention unamerican. I feel shriveled and mean, telling people not to dream. But I do find it dishonest. Instead of making peace with the circumstances of their life, they are lavishing precious energy, time, and money on the impossible. A daydream is like a pill we pop to numb our misery. It pushes us from a grim present into a sunshiny future—one that is not likely to materialize. Yet there we stay, for as long as we possibly can, luxuriating in fake warmth.
What is the harm, when you are that strapped for cash, in splurging on hope? Saving a few bucks will not pay the gas bill anyway. “She should make peace with poverty?” my husband asks dryly.
“Peace is not the same as resignation,” I retort. Our culture confuses the two. “Peace just means accepting the current limits so you can dream a little more realistically. Look for better odds. Come up with smaller ideas that might make a real difference.”
I need to lighten up. Even to my own ears, I sound Calvinist, like one of those do-gooders who want to whip people into a frenzy of self-improvement. It is hard, when you are miserable, to stay poised at the fulcrum, perfectly balanced between hope and practicality. And it could just be that dreamers have a higher tolerance for frustration than I do. When my leg was so painful I could not walk any distance, and nobody knew why, and the pain lasted for years, I threw my tennis racket away, threw it hard. I needed the dramatic gesture, the renunciation that was the opposite of a daydream. Now I am all fixed up, bionic, and I wish I had that racket.
Giving up is never necessary. The trick is to hold on to a sense of possibility without furnishing it with fake stuff you will never own. Like the parent of a raging toddler, we have learned to dangle car keys in front of our own eyes, pop snacks in our mouths, point to a puppy or a rainbow. Our distraction dreams just continues to remind us, in snide subconscious whispers, of what we do not have. They cancel gratitude, and they waste energy.
And there I go again, ramping back up to prissy puritan outrage. I have felt this way since high school, when my best friend dragged me shopping “just to look.” She would finger one pretty garment after another, holding them up, wondering, fantasizing, trying them on. “Isn’t this gorgeous?” she would ask, and I would grit my teeth and nod. “Sure. It’s great. But it costs more than either of us make in a month.”
I preferred my mom’s approach: instead of swooning with envy over Grace Kelly’s wardrobe, she copied the looks, sewing and improvising. Noticing what you cannot have in order to modify what you do have, that feels creative, because it shifts the emphasis back to what is possible. Thinking, “Which would I pick if I could afford it?” yields a bit of self-knowledge, a test of taste. But it also makes me too eager to snap up what I can afford, just to fill that self-created hole.
By now it has dawned on me that I am greedy. When I wrote about the iconic Fortuny gown, I was startled by how many female readers said they would love to “just try one on” or “just wear one for an hour.” I want at least an entire evening in that dress. Try it on and take it right off again? Even as a hypothetical, that is too frustrating.
I suspect we tease and tempt and frustrate ourselves more often than we used to. Two centuries ago, it would have been exciting when yards of silk arrived from France, but that would have happened maybe once a season. Even if you had unlimited funds and a mansion to decorate, most of the furnishings and art would be inherited from previous generations. You might indulge in a shopping trip in Europe, but it was not a decorator’s jamboree from scratch.
Window shopping began in the late eighteenth century’s grand shopping arcades, their freshly glazed window displays attracting a freshly minted middle class’s yearnings. Shopping ceased to be a seasonal project or a necessary errand. Instead, it was a hobby, an indulgence, a promise of transformation. Each decade’s advances in marketing psychology layered in more symbolism, more promises of instant allure and happiness. Buying, acquisition, consumption—those were the ultimate goals, but slavering over the stuff in the window gave you a taste. It placed you in that atmosphere, inflated the value of all those unattainable lovelies behind glass, destroyed your appreciation for what you had back home, and left you with only three options: save up, dream, or smash and grab.
At least the old window displays were artful, the fresh air healthful. Now our windows are Windows, our steps clicks, and a whole world of stuff flaunts itself before our eyes. Social scientists describe a cluster of online consumers they call “e-window shoppers,” because “they are predominantly driven by stimulation,” following link after link with no intention of purchasing any of it. In “Window Shopper,” 50 cent raps about somebody “in the jewelry store, lookin’ at shit you can’t buy… in the dealership, tryin’ to get a test drive.” Where does this end? In raw envy, with the passive dreamy window shopper “mad as fuck when you see me ride by.”
How content we are, in these exhausted days, to live online, live in our heads, live virtually, live in a dream world. And then come back to this world angry about all we do not have. Imagine how the metaverse will dance for us, and how hard it will be to stay honest then.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.