Back When I Was Young And Poor I Often Became Disgusted By People Who Weren't Poor Who Used The Term To Describe Their Charmed Existence

There's one of those first-person travelogue stories in last weekend's Times Travel section about Provence where the couple returns after many years to discover how the region has changed and "do it right," which is to say, spend a shitload of money and live it up. Jen started reading it and nearly put it down when she got to the part where the author began to explain how when they were young and poor and newly married they slummed it for a year in a farmhouse. I'm paraphrasing her. She was paraphrasing the story itself.

Suffice it to say, it set off a string of invective about how offensive it was to hear the word "poor" trip off the tongue so casually, especially when relating a period in one's life when one had the means to live for a year in the south of France. And become "fast friends" with "the author James Baldwin."

"That's not being 'poor,'" Jen complained. "You don't take a yearlong 'extended honeymoon' in the south of France and call yourself 'poor'."

Of course, I agreed, adding that it was amazing to me how easily people default to that kind of language. You know, stuff along the lines of "Back when we were poor, we made do with cheap cuts of hangar steak and liters of table wine." Or, "When we were young and poor, we had to walk up five flights of stairs to our rickety flat in the Village." If you Google "young and poor" or, better, "when I was young and poor," you'll get a sense of how casually people use the phrase.

Obviously I understand everyone's point — they're not poor like Henry Miller or even Knut Hamsun was poor but rather they mean to invoke a faux sense of modesty while underscoring how fortunate they once were . . . or are . . . or something . . .

I guess if I sat here long enough thinking about it I could discern a counterintuitive reason that it's actually not as bad sounding as it seems, but I don't think I want to. (Maybe there's a literary allusion here — here's a candidate or perhaps it's Willa Cather's fault.)

At the very least, it's a horrible choice of words in the same way that applying war metaphors to sports is a horrible choice of words — especially when there are actual wars going on (three at last count, right?). That's why the NFL has "beat a hasty retreat" from the practice.

So at any rate, I finally read the article/piece. Here's how the writer framed it:

As newlyweds, on a year's extended honeymoon, we'd lived in the gatekeeper's cottage of a beautiful old farmhouse in Opio, near Grasse. The mailman would arrive on a motor-scooter, sputtering up the switchbacks of the driveway; the farm plow was horse-drawn. When the mistral blew in winter, the view past Cannes revealed the peaks of Corsica; the coal stove in the kitchen yielded little hot water or heat. Now Opio boasts a Club Med with a spa, and a supermarket has displaced the butcher and the baker; a golf course has replaced the olive groves. And "our" property belongs to Earl Spencer, with locked gates and well-tended lawns and a swimming pool.

It's difficult to know, in the wake of Heisenberg and Einstein, what is absolute, what relative, and why. Do we change as witnesses, or does that which we witness change, or both; does it alter because of the viewing, and is our estimate altered by the consciousness of sight? Think of a train track and moving train; does the world pass by while we sit still, or is it the reverse? These problems of philosophy and mathematics are personal riddles also; was it always just like this, and did we fail to notice? For we have changed more than the landscape, no matter how the locals complain that the landscape has changed.

"Young and poor," Elena said. "Old and secure. That's us."

So not quite "Back when we were young and poor" levels of obnoxiousness, and I think it was clearly meant to be at least a little self-deprecating — maybe — but Jen's point is well taken: the more you read people misuse "poor," the more disgusting it sounds.

Of course when I read the piece and saw what Jen was talking about the first thing I noticed was how the author used his wife to make the young-poor/old-secure connection. Imagine that, using your wife as a vehicle in your writing for grand declarations.

Posted: June 23rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: For Reals No For Serious, FW: Link | Tags: , , , ,