The idiom back in the 50s, 60s was “Keeping up with the Jones’s”. Simply put, if your neighbor bought a new Eldorado, while you were still driving your old Chevy Biscayne, they were more successful than you. Or to put it bluntly: They were better than you. It is a nasty, vicious cycle to which billions still fall prey, primarily because it trades on the worst qualities in human nature.
As Boomers/60s pseudo hippies, however, we promised and swore by Aquarius to eschew the rat race as well as the pursuit of…STUFF. At Franklin and Marshall our battle cry came right from the British group, The Animals. It’s My Life…and I Can Do What I Want. The only trouble was, no one ever thought to ask: What exactly do I want?
We protested marvelously in our frat houses and dorm rooms…until we graduated and had to look for a job and/or learned to duck machine gun fire in Vietnam. Eventually, all but a handful of us succumbed…sooner or later, overtly or covertly.
It manifested itself in myriad ways. I liked cool, fast, good-looking cars. I still do, though it has tempered somewhat. Others went straight for the game of parlay-your-house into an even bigger house. With that the jug wine fell by the wayside and we began to wince at the wine tastes of others. Designer jeans… brie was in…then, quite suddenly it wasn’t.
The Animals were quickly replaced by Pink Floyd …MONEY…”Don’t give me that do-goody-good bullshit.” How appropriate, and it happened in the blink of an eye. We caved fast and hard. Strangely, it’s still going strong in our area even today. “You know. of course, you really must have granite counter tops. Anything else is déclassé”. …I’m trying to remember whether Julia Child had granite counter tops. Oh wait… Now I remember. She didn’t. And she didn’t cook with designer pots and pans. I’m trying to think how she survived the disgrace of it all…
The Shoe Box: Having come from “money” (my parents’ money), the first house I purchased as a green second lieutenant was a far cry from the huge historic stone house I grew up in. It was a brick shoebox. Growing up,I had my own “wing”. My shoe box, however, was 800 square feet with a postage stamp back yard, though it did have one redeeming quality: It was ours. The funny thing was that both Pamela and I loved that little shoe box. We had great times there. With little square footage, it was a cinch to clean, heat, cool, and repair, which gave us TIME for all kinds of other things. And because it was inexpensive, we had lots of disposable income, which we promptly disposed of. No regrets. Those were some of the happiest times of my life.
STUFF: But then, that ole insidious American Dream kept whispering to me. If you invest here, cut back there, and keep your eyes open, you can parlay your shoe box into something bigger and more impressive, more STUFF…
The movie, The Big Chill summed-up our generation cynically, but accurately. In one prescient scene, Kevin Klein, while sitting in his McMansion with the gang from college, takes a long hit from the doobie being passed around. He exhales and grins… ” We’ve all made so much money, good thing it’s not important to us.” Though it was a throw-away line, it was the pivotal point of the movie.
Even though I’m a sculptor, writer…whatever, Pamela and I followed that very same path, as did…well…every single person I know. (Sorry guys, I’m ratting us all out) but here’s where it gets interesting. Here’s the pivotal point where we all leap like lemmings, only instead of leaping into the ocean, we leap into…the money pit. In an effort to become more successful, better-liked (yeah, I’m admitting it), or fill-in whatever buzz-word applies to you, I came to the conclusion that having more expensive cars, toys, houses, bank statements, would cause my friends and associates to hold me in higher regard. It doesn’t actually work that way at all. Quite the opposite…
At one point, our two cars were an exotic Shelby Cobra and a nasty black-on-black Trans-Am, set up for winning races. And guess what…everyone liked us much much more. Yeah… Right… Precisely the opposite thing occurred. When we parlayed our “shoe box” near the air base in Tucson to the tiniest house in the wealthy foothills of Tucson, however…then they really did like us more. Uhm…are you reading carefully? Are you hearing the cynicism dripping off the words?
Several parlays and about a decade or two later, I now have a beautiful sanctuary in Bucks County, PA, and the coupe de grâce? Electric gates! I can tell you right now folks, I can’t think of a better way to alienate all of your old-guard and new guard friends than making them buzz-in at the end of your driveway. I didn’t even like doing it but…guess what, a little tiny glimmering realization began to take place. I immobilized the gates to…stay open. I ditched my little BMW sports car, only by then it was pretty much too late. I had fooled (annoyed) 95% of the people we knew and lost a bunch of “friends”. We deserved it, I suppose, though I don’t believe we were the only ones to go down this insidious bunny trail.
What I did realize with the speed of glaciers drifting through the millenia was that STUFF just doesn’t do what you think it’s going to do. It just doesn’t. The handful of friends I have now like me in spite of all this b.s., not because of it. If they like me at all it’s because I can occasionally make them laugh or the fact that I’m actually a decent listener. Plus…Pam and I will be there when things go to shit.
14 Hefty Bags: The pivotal point of this article and in Pamela’s and my life occurred when Pamela’s dad died. Emery was a prominent well-to-do doctor with all the bells & whistles, cars, houses, boats, and so on ad infinitum. And Pam’s mom, Ella, kept the cleanest, tightest house I have ever seen. It was perfection. Were they happy? Read on.
When Emery died, we flew down to Jupiter, Florida to help Ella sort things out. But here’s the kicker: For all the stuff Emery had accumulated in eight decades, and there was a lot, his life had quickly been reduced to 14 Hefty bags sitting in the bedroom closet for Pamela and me to reduce even further. The apparent goal of our visit was to reduce the number 14…to approximately zero. All those decades acquiring more and more stuff, and that’s what it had all boiled-down to. Take a brave moment to realize that we all are reduced to Hefty bags or a sheaf of papers called a will, or some dusty novels, sculptures, inventions…memories. Do you remember what James Buchanan, our 15th president left as his legacy? I don’t either. And no one will remember you…or me. To quote, Ricky Nelson, (Garden Party) “You can’t please everyone so you gotta please yourself.”
Emery always wore bow ties. Pam saved some of the ones that she remembered, as well as his stethoscope. Strangely, he had kept each of the books I’d written and sent to him. …I always figured he’d just tossed ’em. And Ella? For all the tens of thousands of hours she had spent…keeping the house perfect, within a week after Emery died, the place did, too. All that cleaning was for……..what???????????? This is a cautionary tale. I know for a fact that none of the friends who come to our house give a damn about how much dust is behind our refrigerator.
Is there a conclusion to any of this? Anything that a younger generation might be able to learn from? I apologize but…it reminds me of a coarse but apropos joke about sperm cells. The raison d’etre for a sperm cell, of course, is to do the ultimate: create a human life. The punch line to the joke, however is, one of the first sperm cells turns around and screams back to his cohorts, “Go Back! It’s a blowjob!” Again, sorry for the coarseness of the metaphor, but right this minute I want to turn and scream to my son and his wife, a handful of my friends and all the innocent, naive generations out there, “Go Back!!! It’s not the Stuff!” It never was.
It’s not the fastest i-Pad. It’s not the highest def, biggest TV monitor…it’s not how many “friends” you have on Facebook. It’s about TIME, Freedom, and Happiness, and most of all, the love of your mate. These are the precious things. Don’t squander them. Oh, and house keeping? You need to do the basics, but all those extra hours, dusting behind the fridge and polishing the granite counter top. One week after you’re gone…the dust returns.
The solution? We have a little magical place called Black Mountain, in Asheville, NC, in our cross-hairs. Don’t know when we’re going but it’s in our hearts. Are we planning on having a big house? Fancy car? No way. What I’d really like is an old Chevy pick-up circa 1950. Electric gates? Never again. I want to write, sculpt, make love to Pamela, play with our pups, drink good booze, eat great food, see my family and make the most out of what time we have left on this planet I’ve spent way too much time impressing…….no one at all with the stuff I’ve accumulated. Maybe someone can key-in to this a little quicker than we did.
(Shot was from the 70s when I knew that I was: “A child of the Universe, no less than the trees and the stars…I had a right to be here”)…Desiderata.
I already emailed this blog to my kids.
If only someone had given me this advice years ago, I would have done things differently.
My first house was also modest with a shag rug, giant pillows on the floor, and homemade book shelves that were left over from college. Our dinner parties consisted of spaghetti, Italian bread, and a jug of chianti. Everyone had fun!
But that was before designer jeans replaced Levi’s. Suddenly, everyone was checking out everyone’s fanny…
mostly to read the labels. From there,
it got even more ridiculous….even my first -grader was pressuring us for designer jeans, which wore out at an amazing speed.
When my friend from college asked me when was the last time you had fun, I was stumped. I, too, am ready to down size. You managed to capture how I want to spend the last third of my life…sans granite.
I’m constantly amazed by the fact that we each live utterly independent lives and yet…there can be so many similarities.
I’m guessing your e-mail to your kids will fall on deaf ears however. You can’t teach experience or wisdom. Every generation says, “Yeah, you’re right….BUT…my situation is different. I wonder what kind of world it would be if that one simple factor changed.
Chianti, eh? Didya melt candles in the bottles and let them drip down the sides? Now I think they have a new and improved fake version. Costs $75 and uses LEDs to fake the candlelight. Ahhh..progress. Thanks for writing!
Overall, I enjoyed this blog a lot. I do have a couple of questions though. You don’t seem to hold house-keeping in high esteem. What’s your yardstick for what is enough?
Also, though I like your dream truck, is it possible that this is just another thing, only a bit removed from the mainstream?
Okay…the truck first. Yes, you make a point and you may even be right. But…and it’s a significant “but” that little old Chevy isn’t what the world is standing in line to buy or drive. It brings back memories…for me and it suites my tastes and style…and wallet. If someone backs into it or scratches it, I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to fix it with either a can of Rustoleum Black or Rustoleum Red. I think that’s a legitimate difference.
Regarding the house cleaning. There’s an old joke about newly weds. The new wife explains to her husband that she will be GREAT for him in two out of three rooms…the kitchen…the bedroom, or…the living room. When we’re throwing a party or having someone over, we hop-to…a little to make the place look nice. The rest of the time…not so much. I assumed you wanted the truth.