Ours is a culture obsessed with more. The pitch is that more clothes, more rooms, more closet space, more cars, more gadgets, more money, more food, more growth will make you better or happier. We are trained to fix our discontent, our dis-ease or even our sadness by acquiring. In the immediate wake of September 11th, George W. Bush literally told us to “go shopping.” Sure, the ostensible message was that we had to keep our economy going. But there was an underlying notion that shopping would help us heal. When the going gets tough, the tough buy stuff.
For most of my post-college adult life, I’ve lived in studio apartments, ranging in size from 200 to 1,000 square feet. Looking back, I don’t recall feeling discernibly less happy from lack of more square footage. In fact, I look back rather fondly on those decidedly more edited years. Simpler times with less mental overhead.
As I get older (I’m north of 50 now), I’ve watched many of my contemporaries acquire and accumulate more and more. Many of them had to upsize to accommodate their growing families, while others seemed to need more space to accommodate the virtual lint rollers they’d become as they accumulated more stuff with time, income and age: furniture, clothes, shoes, books, gadgets, gear, cars and other consumer detritus.
What is it all for? This quest for bigger and more? More square footage, the bigger car, the bigger closet to accommodate the bigger wardrobe, the growing #sexpile of expensive watches… The relentless grab for ultimate luxury and comfort, because everyone is a VIP in their own mind and entitled to all the trimmings. This is like the All-American fuck-off: check me out, bro… I have arrived… get a load of me and all my stuff, please observe with envy, and tap the ‘like’ button. Strip it all away, and we’re left with the ultimate in discomfort: ourselves.
After sitting still, exercising restraint and “underindulging” (a word that doesn’t exist, go figure), we’re only left with ourselves – a prospect that seems too uncomfortable, difficult and depressing for many. That, in itself, is depressing.
But we’re not supposed to be comfortable with ourselves. Quite the contrary. In the interest of making a profit by selling things, happiness and contentment are the enemy. Discontent is the spark that ignites the burn and yearn for something more, something bigger, something else. It’s all about what we don’t have, where we aren’t, with whom we aren’t. Discomfort or dissatisfaction with self and everything else is the kryptonite marketers have, telling us that we’re losers or less-than without the right car, the right watch or a full head of hair.
Don’t get me wrong: stuff is fun. I am, after all, an American capitalist and consumer, susceptible to many shades of envy and desire. Show me an issue of The Rake or a Tom Ford ad (or film) and I’ll show you a dozen garments, accessories or scenarios I’d like to dive into. I love a sick suit, a great pair of shoes, a beautiful bicycle, a fantastic apartment… lots of it. But who am I without it?
Lately, I’ve been thinking more about the things that money, power or any currency of one-upmanship cannot buy. Things that can’t be believably faked, stolen or even borrowed. Can I be funnier? Smarter? More interesting? More compassionate? More generous? A better listener? A better friend? A bigger blast on the dance floor? Hotter in bed? More worthwhile? Could I have more integrity? The answer is yes. And none of the shit I can acquire so that others will envy me will support that agenda. When I die, or when anybody dies for that matter, no worthwhile person is gonna say, “He had such great stuff.” (But a nod for having some flair would be appreciated.)
I have much work to do in all the areas I just mentioned and then some. When I find myself detouring to a retail grab in lieu of feeling a feeling, confronting a truth or stepping outside myself to help someone, it’s a red flag. There’s nothing wrong with a little retail therapy or comfort food from time to time, but I can’t let it define me or become my default evasion. And I can’t just pay lip service to these ideas. I have to put the words into action, which takes work and practice like all truly worthwhile pursuits.
In the interest of becoming a better man, that’s what I’m thinking about these days. I appreciate made-to-measure tailoring, a beautiful Eames chair or a nice Central Park view just as much as the next guy. But such niceties or the relentless pursuit of them don’t define me. “More,” as I observe, doesn’t mean “better.” In fact, the philosophy of design legend Dieter Rams grows increasingly appealing to me: less but better.
With two dogs, I probably couldn’t hack the 188 sq ft apartment I lived in from 2004 to 2009. But when I look back on those years, I don’t remember being unhappy. In fact, just the opposite. Living exponentially lighter, with less furniture and a rigorously edited closet, I was probably happier than I realized at the time.
Today, I live in a converted 370 sq ft hotel room with everything I own, including the dogs and all four seasons of my wardrobe, with nothing in storage awaiting a bigger home that I don’t have. Would I like a bigger apartment, perhaps with an actual bedroom and a real kitchen? Abso-fuckin-lutely. Am I miserable or even unhappy with the current arrangements? No. It’s about accepting the constraints and making it work.
While I certainly have goals and aspirations, I write this as a guy who’s currently unburdened, unencumbered and undefined by a lot of stuff. And I’m okay. More than okay. I’m happy.
A little favor…
This little blog, my social media nonsense and my occasional podcast runs on elbow grease, midnight oil and the occasional bad idea. Access is totally free. Any help you can give so I can continue to produce content and keep the lights on would be immensely appreciated. Thank you so much!!!
Hear, hear! Or even “Here, here!” despite that incorrect spelling. Everything you wrote here resonates (oy) with me like a goddamned tuning fork. I want to circle this entire entry with a big fat El Marko (Tr*mp ruined Sharpies for me) (fer meeeee) and a big ol’ Patrick-Swayze-In-Ghost “Ditto!”
I lived in a groovy-as-fuck loft apartment by the Flatiron in the early “aughts” with my then-beau. We moved up to Classic Six on the Upper West Side. We had tons of space in both places, but in particular the second one, which was just short of 2,000 square feet, 14 windows, a service entrance, the works. I would look around and think, “What the fuck is an imposter like me doing in a place like this?”
We split up 15 years ago and I moved into a cute little old apartment by myself, a bit lower on the UWS, which probably about 500 square feet, with a nifty little private “lanai” (a friend insists I call it that), which is about the size of my old living room in the Classic Six plus our front hall. Probably even smaller. And I’ve never been happier.
People who visit, especially those from out of state or even out of the city, say, “This is IT?” when coming to my place. One, from suburban (ugh) Texas (blow me), even said, “My kitchen is bigger than this place,” and I wanted to punch her in the _____ (your choice). But is she any happier for all that space, all that square footage to fill with shit and more shit and still even more shit? Nope.
I’ll be sending a li’l donation your way, by the way, once I budget some bullshit over here. Because as you know, just because I live in Manhattan doesn’t mean I’m fuckin’ moneybags.
P.S. I didn’t edit or review this for typos or whatnot. I’m sure I’ll see an error after I send it and kick myself from here to, uh, Cleveland.
LOVE this, Jodi. Thank you!
You da man George. Or as we say over here… ‘Jolly well done.’
Love this piece, George. We need more of this in the world. Thank you for writing it! I found you by accident last year, and am inspired daily by your presence and humanity. You ARE making a difference!
Thank you, Elizabeth!
It’s bittersweet, in a sense, having come to the realization in my fifties (I’m now 60) that having less; proving less, has always suited me better. The last ten years has been an exercise in shedding things: sometimes by choice but mostly by necessity. But either way, it proved easier than not. As they say, I wish I’d known then what I know now, that simpler is better. I would have lived a different life.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
Wonderful…’virtual lint roller’s they have become’
Is the best line ever.
I’m 62 and live in a one bedroom apartment in Melbourne. I’m prob the only person I know who doesn’t own a property. Never cared or thought about buying but lately thinking if I could buy a very small studio if I had the funds to buy outright.
Deft freaks me out. My brother owes 3 mill on the 3rd property. I remember the day he called me to say that he had purchased and he was freaked out. Funny thing is I’m the only person who knows, he’s told know one as he didn’t to be judged for being a consumer.
He’s a beautiful person and a musician to boot. Most people in his trade have trouble making money and I think he has been judged by them. Actually I know he has!
Just a little antidote about how different and complex we are…. I too am happy and happy with what I have.
Thanks, as I really enjoy your commentary…
Thank you for the reminders, Mr. Hahn. A year and one-half of isolation has made me lazy, and longing, and I have allowed my attention to wonder from my goal of living with less. Now it is back to my focus on ridding myself of stuff, not acquiring more.
While I could not conceive of living in a converted hotel room with two dogs in an overly expensive city, I enjoyed reading your editorial. I am in the late stage of my life and agree that less can be more, as long as it is not too much less.
Spoken like a man who is comfortable with himself – the ultimate luxury.
I’m reminded of the Socrates quote “he is richest who is content with the least”.
And I’m also reminded of a corollary to Parkinson’s Law regarding data storage. In the computing realm, the corollary states “data expands to fill the space available for storage”. Basically it’s the same with people buying stuff to fill up their available storage space. I seem to remember hearing you say you found yourself starting to do this in your Cleveland apartment because of extra closet space. And you had to make a conscious effort to stop.
I’ve been searching for a new place to park my ass these days. It’s been a year and 3 agents. Conclusion: realtors don’t seem to get it. I tell this new one: I don’t need a lot of closets cause I don’t have a lot of hanging clothes. I need some attic space for the Christmas tree and a box of old photos that someday before I die will need to be sorted. I figure that will be some weird winter afternoon that will stretch on into the night, when I spread the whole contents of that cardboard box onto the 12 x 15 ft living room floor in front of a fake fireplace and make my way thru 60 decades of life as well as 2 bottles of cheap wine. But damn, won’t that be a blast? Maybe I’ll even pair that with a YouTube never ending musical backdrop of tunes from the 60’s to the 90’s…the “good years”. Ha!
Realtors think I need granite counter-tops, stainless steel appliances, a soaking tub, new floors, a garage & a minimum of 2500 sq ft. I tell them repeatedly…I need a gas range, good water pressure in the shower, room to have some friends around a dining table and some green space to walk a dog and plant a few herbs/tomatoes. Life isn’t that hard.
So George, I feel ya…every bit of your old life of little studio apartments to the #sexpile of watches. I’ve worked myself to the bone to make a fancy house enviable only to lose everything in the housing crash of 2009. I’ve fought the fat trap, wore nice clothes, joined the tennis country club, traveled the world and one thing I know for sure…the greatest reward for living this life has been knowing that the only lasting part of all of that…the TWO things that nobody can take away….are the memories of my life expanding thru adventures getting to know people all around the world or the genuinely intoxicating trip thru my own life captured in Kodak pictures now curled and cracked with time and spotted with dots of red wine splashes.
Touche! This blog post was just what an aging lady needed…that ray of hope that somebody else “get’s” me. Bravo.
Thank you, Ruthann!!
I couldn’t agree more with you. One of the big problems with capitalism (and I’m a fan) is that it convinces far too many people that their value resides in things rather than character, that wealth is inherently virtuous and poverty a vice, that happiness is found in acquisition rather than self-knowledge. Thanks for fostering a competing vision. Donation coming your way for this great blog!