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Headshot of me wearing red lipstick Kara Babcock

Baby needs a new pair of shoes

Not actually about shoes but rather the need for radical collective action. All of us deserve more than just survival. We deserve luxury too.

This morning I received an email from my natural gas company informing me that my Equal Monthly Payment Plan amount had been updated. They courteously laid out why my monthly payments would be “higher than you expected.” But the upshot is that my natural gas bill will increase, effective September, by sixty-five percent.

You can probably guess that my salary isn’t going to increase by anywhere near that amount. For those unaware, public secondary teachers in Ontario, including adult day school teachers like myself, will be bargaining for a new collective agreement this fall. The Ford government is going to do its best to hold us to a paltry increase along the lines of one percent for each year of the new contract. Meanwhile, as the cost of my groceries, gas, and natural gas increases by leaps and bounds and my monthly budget grows tighter and tighter still (and that’s notwithstanding the debt I mounted by taking the summer off from teaching), I have to ponder whether I can afford to remain an adult day school teacher.

When I saw that new natural gas bill and it sent me into a financial anxiety spiral, the first thing I was going to do was post a tweet-length version of the previous paragraph to Twitter. But I’m trying to do that less—negative, anxiety-inspired tweets, that is—because as much as Twitter might feel like a useful place to scream into the void, I’ve started to realize that doomscrolling through the negative tweets of others on my timeline has had a deleterious effect on my mental health. I want to break that cycle. I’m not saying all my tweets will be positive, but when I share something negative, I want there to be more substance to what I say.

So then I started thinking about why, beyond the affront and indignity of this disparity between the cost of living and my salary, this bothers me so much.

I realized it’s because I want to buy a pair of red shoes.

Now, I have acquired quite an impressive collection of shoes since I started my transition over two years ago. I have some really cute flats, some wedge sandals, a couple of pairs of heels, and my favourites are the block-heel ankle booties. All this despite having a larger women’s shoe size that restricts my buying options! I have black shoes, white shoes, even a pair of blue suede shoes. A couple of weeks ago, it occurred to me how much I would love to add a pair of striking red shoes to that collection.

Nevertheless, I don’t need a pair of red shoes. I don’t need any new pairs of shoes, not for this year at least. I could happily keep wearing all the shoes I currently have, probably for the next several years, without buying any additional pairs. Hence, purchasing a pair of red shoes would be, as I teach my adult learners in Mathematics for Work and Everyday Life, a discretionary expense (also referred to as a non-essential expense). As you know, one of the first chestnuts of budgeting advice is to cut your discretionary expenses.

Now, it is definitely fun to lambaste out-of-touch moguls who dispense this wisdom to millennials on social media, accusing us of frivolously spending our money on avocado toast when we should be saving up for houses many of my peers will never be able to afford (I have been so fortunate). But it is sound financial practice.

It’s just not a great human practice.

My bills are going up. So I guess I won’t be buying those shoes anytime soon. I start looking for other ways to tighten my many stylish belts. Maybe I don’t get to travel to visit either of my best friends this year. Maybe when my Bluetooth earbuds stop holding a charge, instead of dropping $200 on a shiny new pair of wireless Bluetooth ones, I buy some crappy, wired earbuds from a corner store. Maybe, just as my social life might be rebounding after two years of near-isolation and so many atrophied friendships, I stop going out for lunch or dinner because, sorry, I have to save my money.

Maybe I start to withdraw into myself and become a little more bitter and a little less human.

That is the end goal of this enforced parsimony, of course—to disconnect us from each other and wear down our empathy. When education workers or nurses tweet about our wages and working conditions, we are inevitably met by real people (in addition to bots) who call us lazy or entitled, who tell us that we “have it better” than innumerable other workers and shouldn’t complain. I see people proudly proclaim how they endured years and years of abject poverty and hardship as if it is a badge of honour rather than a failure of our society to provide for everyone equitably. For some, it’s motivated by a sense of, “if I had a hard life, why shouldn’t you?” But for others, it’s a twisted type of work ethic perverted by decades of neoliberal austerity whereby those in power have convinced the working class that we, in fact, deserve to be unhappy and destitute in our lives, because that’s “just the way it is.” And if you dare complain—if you dare to imagine a better life, a more just society, then you are an idealist and dreamer at best and, at worst, a threat who should be ridiculed, mocked, or perhaps dealt with even more harshly.

I reject that it is axiomatic that I should have to struggle financially for my entire life, for any reason. I reject any argument that it is virtuous to withhold luxuries from oneself to make ends meet. Is it necessary sometimes? Yes, of course. But the idea that there is a positive moral value attached to this action feels sooooo sixteenth century. I don’t need a pair of red shoes this fall, but I want a pair. Whether I decide to spend what little discretionary money I have on a pair or save that money or spend it on a different luxury is entirely beside the point—if I do eschew the shoes, though, it doesn’t mean I am being a more responsible or moral person.

I also know I’m not alone in this philosophy, even if sometimes I feel isolated by dint of geography or lack of social connections. Hence this blog post, to explore in longer form what I could not in a tweet: it isn’t enough for me to fight for survival; I am fighting for my right to happiness. I am fighting for my right to luxury.

All of us deserve a happy life. All of us deserve to define that happiness how we like as well. I want to emphasize that, despite appearances to the contrary in this post, I don’t personally root my definition of happiness in material goods—honestly, I know having that pair of red shoes is not going to make me that much happier. Rather, my definition of happiness is rooted in positive mental health, which in turn is tied, for better or worse, to my financial situation. It’s not so much that I want a new pair of shoes as I want to be able to afford that new pair of shoes.

I want to be free of the expectation that I am going to make myself smaller so that people richer than I can become richer still. I suppose this makes me an idealist and a dreamer. Perhaps it even makes me a threat. I hope so. History shows us that we can turn these dreams into reality, raise quality of life for more than just the richest of us, when we work together in collective action. If we fight, we can win.

Cover photo by Chau Le via Unsplash.