Monday, August 29, 2005

How much is enough?

I never intended this venture to be as overtly political as it has become, and I suppose I look forward to the time when I can step back from the outrage that I feel everyday when I read the newspaper (or, more accurately, when I get the latest newsletter from or Information Clearing House), and merely express myself, give vent to the day's muse, rather than post another rant (or an excerpt of some like-minded individual's). I'd like to tell you about the last great book that I read or piece of recorded music to which I listened, or the emotions that I felt when I brought my oldest kid up to college. But it seems like everything that I read these days has a single-mindedness to it that infects me with the fervor of evangelical revulsion towards what our society seems to be becoming.

And what are we becoming? In his new book "American Mania,"
Dr. Peter C. Whybrow, a psychiatrist, asserts that our mania for more and bigger toys, our incessant orgy of indulgence, stimulation and instant gratification is nothing less than a mental illness with a clinical symptomology that includes anxiety, depression and obesity. And we all know, Americans have grown increasingly anxious and conspicuously fatter.

My wife and I live a fairly standard middle class life, with some notable exceptions from the consensus we are surrounded by in our South Florida edge city neighborhood. For one, we drive our cars into the ground. Not to say that we fail to take care of them, only that we do not get new cars every 3, 5 or even 7 years. The vehicles that we purchase are compromises between our needs for interior room and our desire for economy and low environmental impact. I am appalled by the number of Hummers in my area, and only slightly less so by the number of other mammoth SUVs often seen entering and exiting the neighborhood (as often as not with a single person - the driver - inside). I admit that I am known for my almost pathological distaste for Sport Utility Vehicles. With our first child now in college, we will be able to jettison our mini-van when its useful life is up, and intend to purchase a hybrid sedan. I drive a 2-door economy car to work that gets 36 miles to the gallon.

The other day, taking a walk around the 'hood after Hurricane Katrina had danced her way across the Peninsula knocking out our power (I love the neighborliness that emerges, briefly, like a shy flower in suburban neighborhoods after a collective trauma like a hurricane), I met up with a neighborhood friend just as we neared a corner house with a real estate banner hanging in the lawn. I asked my friend if the house was for sale, and he replied that it was sold already. He then volunteered that the owners (who'd been there maybe a year or two at most) were "moving up" to a house twice this size on an acre lot on the other side of the pine oak ridge that runs through our development. Now, mind you, this is a couple in their 30's with 2 kids. Humongous Ford Explorer and sporty BMW parked in the driveway. And the question rose up on my mind yet again: "How much is enough?"

My wife and I never use our clothes dryer. Instead, we hang our wet laundry outside (in late fall through winter and early spring) and inside during the summer (taking advantage of the drying power of air conditioning). Yes, we use air conditioning, though we strive to keep it off as long into May as we can stand, and stop using it the minute the first cool front penetrates through the subtropic haze in October.

We don't have cable television. Our children used to refuse to admit this to their school friends, but now make mention of it with a certain amount of perverse pride (I think). We have infected them with a healthy skepticism about what they are told (and sold) on commercial TV. But my kids are not immune to the excesses of the quasi-affluent life: the plaint of "I'm bored" is heard far too often for my tastes, and nothing drives me further to distraction than hearing that mantra of indulgence tossed at my feet like an accusation of negligence. Yes, they are learning it goes nowhere fast.

We have very little debt: our mortgage, refinanced two years ago, and with about 8 years to go; a modest car payment, with less than one year remaining, and a total accrued interest paid of only $275. Plastic is used as a convenience and for some generous rebates on purchases and is paid off monthly. We are actually managing to save a reasonable amount for our retirement, which is at least 10 (and probably more likely 15) years away.

We are not very acquisitive. We take as much joy in finding something useful in a neighbor's bulk trash as our neighbor might in spending several thousand bucks at a box store. We wear our clothes until they dissolve. We shop with some degree of principle, in terms of choice of vendor as well as degree of expenditure. Unlike many of my neighbors, I have traveled in some of the poorer outposts of the world and have at least a novice's sense of what real poverty looks, smells, sounds, if not feels like. I do not believe that it is my God-given right to consume 75% of the world's natural resources.

We don't spray our home for insects, nor do we treat our yard for pests. Lawn is kept to a minimum, and native plants comprise 75% of the landscaping. At any one time, there are at least five species of butterfly fluttering about somewhere in our backyard, which has become something of a wooded refuge compared to the sterile and frequently empty expanses of over-nitrified St. Augustine grass that surround us.

So why I am telling you all of this? To boast? To hammer you with my self-righteousness? To hit you over the head with a sense of sanctimonious superiority? Am I some
David Brooks (gad, I hate that guy) caricature of a bourgeois bohemian (I hope not). I like to think that I am something more akin to a cultural creative, albeit a little too cynical and misanthropic to REALLY qualify. No, all I'd really like you to do is ask yourself that one simple question with which I titled this post: "How much is enough?"

"To avoid suffering a collective mental breakdown, Whybrow implores us to stop focusing on things and instead turn our attention to people -- family, friends and community. It's a familiar refrain, but one that clearly needs repeating: If we are to be happy, Americans must stop superficially striving, and learn to prioritize people over products."
-- Laura Barcella

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