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Monday, March 11, 2013


Gregory the Great - Bishop & Doctor (604) 

“Baby I've been thinkin’ ’bout a trailer by the sea
We could go to Mexico, just you, the cat, and me”


Much is made of how complex our lives have become. In addition to the people with whom we interact with in real life, most of us are entrenched in social networks of virtual friends, interest and action groups. Besides choosing from 300 channels of TV programming available 24/7 and automatically getting recorded for you to watch some other day, there are myriad streaming and on-demand selections to choose from right now. I read the other day that one TV service lets you record up to five programs simultaneously. I’m lucky if I can find one thing I want to sit through.

A whole store devotes itself to giving you new ways to put stuff away. You can subscribe to a magazine whose touted purpose is to unravel the mysteries of decorating, child care, and emotional health. Squads of “geeks” stand ready to spring into action and make all the bells and whistles jingle and toot in harmony. An invisible cast of thousands labors unseen to ensure that your ability to watch “Cat Friend vs. Dog Friend” on your phone at a traffic light is unimpeded, and if you feel tempted to get a new phone before your two-year commitment is over, there are companies ready to take the old one off your hands... for a fee of course.

Living With Less.  A Lot Less.” - Graham Hill, Sunday New York Times

When I first saw today’s “most emailed” article, I assumed it was going to be about an individual or a family whose consuming habits were suddenly cut to the quick by the ongoing economic situation which seems to be if not directly affecting everyone, at least keeping us all under the same anxious pall.

In fact, it was the experience of a successful entrepreneur named Graham Hill (founder of treehugger.com) who has the means to live however he wants to, but discovered -- completely by accident -- that his consumer habits seemed to be driven more by inertia than actual need or even desire.  Having made a bundle on the sale of a successful start-up, he purchased a large house, and hired someone to fill it with things: in many cases, his role was limited to a hasty choice from a series of Polaroids. He then ended up seeking roommates because the house was too big for him, especially because he was rarely there. By this point, his vocation had taken him to the opposite coast, where he did the same thing with a big loft before he realized how much time, cost and energy was being expended for so little personal payout.

The next chapter of Hill’s life brought him to Europe, where he discovered that -- in the right company -- he could be happy and productive with just what he could transport in a backpack. Today he lives in a tiny but extremely functional studio, which can be adapted to host dinner parties for 12 or a pajama party for four.

What few of us stop to think about is what compels us to purchase, engage, and accumulate so many objects and obligations , let alone to what degree they actually make us happier people. The Gospel reading on Ash Wednesday, which kicks off the Lenten season, invites to rethink our priorities a bit:
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
MATTHEW 6:19-21

While not everybody subscribes to the notion of an afterlife, for me this passage definitely invites some reflection about how I spend not only my money, but my time.  I'm not 22 any more, and -- just because I can -- I don’t necessarily have to get a new outfit or drop a chunk of change on drinks in the city, just because “everybody else is.” As we face more economic and vocational uncertainty, I take more pleasure in a zero-balance credit card.

Airstream Sunset on South Beach
“Airstream Sunset on South Beach” by Monica Bennett
Copyright, all rights reserved.
We live in a house which is -- like Hill’s -- far more than we really require. When we first met, the same two people and two cats survived in what was essentially two rooms for many months. It did not take us long to “grow into” and find uses for all the space we have now, but it isn’t necessary, and the amount of money and work it takes to maintain it often makes me think the protagonist in Joshua Kadison’s ballad was on the right track. I spend an annoying amount of time staving off unwanted catalogs and recyclables, purging clothing out which I've grown (or aged), and -- after ten guilt-inducing minutes of Hoarders: Buried Alive on a recent Saturday -- cleaning out an entire closet, most of whose contents hadn't seen the light of day in years.  While I'm not quite ready to live out of a backpack, we could certainly pare things down quite a bit and get along just fine.  When it comes down to it, if you can’t find happiness by surrounding yourself with the kind of people who bring you joy, no amount of bling is going to fix it.

The same can be said for the “networks” into which we become immersed. A foray into the game Second Life was cut short when I realized how much it was eating into the first one.  We have a family joke about people bringing their little electronic friends to the table: we are all trivia buffs, so inevitably an argument will require someone to look up a batting average or film credit. Even the biggest protester is occasionally guilty of whipping out the digital version of Grandma’s Brag Book, but we do strive to be “in the moment” on the rare occasions that we are able to get everybody together. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to IKEA... I just need something real simple to hold all these magazines!