Sunday, March 17, 2013

Quotable: Perspective

"It is easier to wax elegiac for the life of a peasant when you do not have to use a long-drop toilet."

- Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist

This quote seems timely, given the recent flap about a NY Times opinion piece about living simply. (Here is my favorite response to that: Wealth< Risk, and Stuff.)

I'll just note that I don't really mind the occasional long-drop toilet, but I think I would mind having to dig and fill in my own.


  1. That's a great link, thanks.

    It reminds me of a lesson taught by an anthropology grad student in my PhD thesis writing support group. He told a great story about needing repair parts for his beater car that was so old, he couldn't purchase any replacement parts.

    His grandfather took him on a tour of "the rez" (reservation), visiting a panopoly of old cars on cinder blocks until they collected enough parts to repair his car. No one charged him anything b/c the cars on blocks are stored like that out in the open expressly to share parts. Who knew?

    I make new clothes from old clothes and a have boxes full of donated materials. I couldn't practice that kind of old-time frugality in a 400 sf place in Manhattan. ;-)

  2. As much as the original article is easy to laugh at (and, to be fair, I'm sure he intended to poke fun at himself -- why else would he admit to sharing a personal shopper with Courtney Love?), I don't agree that simplification is luxury.

    I have learned a lot about downsizing since I moved to Paris. Our family of four lives in a roughly 700 square foot 2-bedroom apartment, and no one around here blinks when I tell them that, because it's perfectly normal. I don't own more gadgets because of this compact lifestyle: I own space-saving IKEA furniture and I've learned how to rationalize my belongings as if from the inside of a giant Tetris game. Constantly we sort, we organize, we try to reduce what we accumulate and get rid of what we don't need in useful ways. This did not take gobs of cash, just a little time and creative thinking.

    @badmomgoodmom: actually, you could practice that kind of old-time frugality in a 400 sf place. We have thousands of books and CDs -- how's that for a space-consuming hobby? My kids have plenty of Legos and art supplies. I'm starting to make my own cosmetics. All of this takes space, but I'll make the space appear out of nowhere because it is important to me or somebody else in the family.

    What drives me crazy, and what I think the author of the original article is getting at, is consumption without any thought behind it. Consumption to fill up space, just because. Because it was on sale. Because it was the latest and greatest. Because my friend has one. Because it was a Christmas present. All the myriad reasons we have for accumulating, and it's kind of like eating too much food, really: the real need behind it is lost. That's very different that making space for a hobby or for stocking supplies for important repair jobs.

    Now, I don't buy in bulk; it's not really cultural here in France, and I never liked the whole Costco vibe. I don't clip coupons, either: I'll admit, I don't have to be frugal about everyday items, and that's a luxury I'm willing to pay for. On the other hand, if I did want to buy in bulk, I'm sure I could figure out how to make it fit in my apartment.

    Also my appliances are mostly 10 years old, and I have no junk drawer of spare parts -- am I missing something here?

    What jumped out at me in the article is the fact that new American houses have gone from an average of 983 sf in 1950 to 2480 sf in 2011. During the same period of time, Americans have arguably become less self-sufficient and more likely to throw things out than repair them. It is mindless. It is unsustainable. And I have to insist, it contributes to no one's true quality of life.

    (In the interest of full disclosure, we are about to move to a new, bigger apartment, about 1200 square feet, and I'm overjoyed! I, too, will choose bigger over smaller if I can, all else being equal. I still intend to be as mindful as ever about accumulating stuff, however, mostly because it makes me feel more at home in my own home, but in part I'll admit to silence some annoying friends from the US who insist "your stuff will just fill up all the available space and you'll be no happier; you'll see.")


Sorry for the CAPTCHA, folks. The spammers were stealing too much of my time.