August 4, 2015
Most people require a lifetime to decide…
I’ve been thinking about something my father once told me and I’d like to share that with you here. But first some history…
Newly married, I had just bought my first house – a brick cottage in a sketchy but up and coming neighborhood in Chicago. The place was a dump and I’d hired a number of people to help with the rehab. We found a young architect with no track record but a lot of big ideas. He’d drawn up plans, which, in retrospect, were ridiculous… and way over our modest budget. He wanted to blow up our warren-filled bungalow into this huge open space, with soaring ceilings and a catwalk! Like a fool, I green-lit the whole thing.
My solution for underwriting the high costs of his grand designs would come from hiring a cheap contractor: a guy named Wayne who said “no problemo” a lot. Guess what? We had problems. Turns out not pulling permits in Chicago is a bad idea – the first of many implemented by a man who proved to be nothing more than a drunk and a con. A month after demolition I had a huge mess on my hands –our hands. After all, I’d dragged my new bride into this shit show. Irate inspectors, a growing pile of bills, and a new mortgage on top of rent. We were in deep.
In my adult life I can count the times I’ve cried on one hand. The first such time came then. Sue and I were in a theater parking lot, a few blocks from our demolished house. I broke down. I was a new husband and so-called young urban professional. And I was failing. Miserably.
Exasperated, I called my old man and basically asked for help. If memory serves, that was the first time I ever had to do such a thing. God, it was difficult but I was bereft of ideas. Long story short, my father saved us. He “loaned” me 30 grand and I was able to clear my debts and finish the work with more reputable help. In addition to the scratch, my father also gave me a piece of advice. “Son,” he told me, “possessions possess you.” Obviously, he didn’t coin the phrase but I heard it from him first.
Decades later, I think about those words, especially when I open our credit card statement. Stuff. And more stuff. A cornucopia of swoon! Yes, we are blessed. But after I say my prayers at night, counting those blessings (literally counting them) I often recall my father’s words and shudder. For the genie is out of the bottle. And while he may grant wishes they are never given freely.
Yet, I also know:
Some day not too far from now my house will belong to another family, as all houses will. Our girls will be women. Our many things will have been rid of – perhaps at an estate sale. How classy is that? Flocks of young couples will pick through our belongings like carrion birds, eyes full of hunger at such prized possessions. They will gorge themselves. And I will smile and say to my wife: “honey, it’s their turn now.”
Has anyone read The Paradox of Choice (Why More is Less) by Barry Schwartz? I started it the other day. His premise that our “culture of abundance robs us of satisfaction” captivated me. Deep down I’ve always felt –in spite of being a capitalist and an ad man- that having too many choices makes life chaotic. Mine anyway. Here was a book espousing the same idea!
The pressure to keep up is real. In high school and college we are given a syllabus: a defined and finite list of books we had to read. For most of us that was all we could handle.
Upon graduation, we create our own reading list –presuming we still read. I certainly do. However, I also love movies. I make it a point to see every best picture nominee in the Academy Awards. Recently, Oscar expanded that list to what, nine? How am I supposed to see all these films (not to mention the genre pictures I adore) and finish that book I just started?
It would help if I got off the damn computer…
Ah, the computer. Like many of us, I’m hopelessly addicted to the Internet. The trade blogs, the film blogs, the book blogs, and all those I-can’t-believe they’ve-got-a-site sites. Nothing says choice like the Information Superhighway. Damn you Al Gore for enriching my life! Damn you, Apple computers, for creating such glorious shiny, silver hardware.
On my devices I sail down the Amazon. There I can get anything I want -fast, cheap, easy. Do you like Ebay or are you a Craigslist guy? Perhaps there’s another etailer you prefer more – one that really knows you and what you like.
Am I missing anything? That’s the big question, isn’t it? Am I missing anything? The answer is yes. And that makes me nervous. Irritable. Discontent. It’s sort of like New Year’s Eve. No matter which party I chose I was missing another far better one.
But we prefer having choices, right? Sometimes I wonder. I’m relieved when a restaurant has only three dishes on its menu. The chef has chosen for me. Picking one of his specials is a no-lose situation. It’s even relaxing and enjoyable, which, come to think of it, is the whole point to going out for dinner.
Schwartz opens his book by recounting a visit to the Gap to buy blue jeans. Instead of merely having to find his size, which is daunting enough, he is faced with myriad styles to choose from: boot cut, relaxed fit, skinny, distressed, button fly or zipper. Black, brown, white or blue. And so on.
He wanted jeans. Not choices. What should have been a simple task became complicated, even fraught with peril. Yes, freedom of choice is the American Dream. But is it turning into a nightmare?