Of Coupon Codes and Meaning in Life

Karl Marx believed history was shaped by an overarching dialectic—an enduring conflict between the bourgeoisie who owned the means of production and the proletariat who were stuck selling their labor to the capitalist class. I have my own overarching dialectic that I believe shapes family life, religious communities, municipalities, and even nation-states—an enduring conflict between our material and spiritual selves.

In the simplest terms, it’s a battle between our preoccupation with consumer goods that make our lives more convenient and comfortable versus prioritizing family, friends, those in need, and the ethical stewardship our finite natural resources.

My material self routinely gets the better of my spiritual self. I spend too much time shopping online and I recently I purchased an iPhone 6+ and a new car. But I suspect I’m different than a lot of consumers because I’m keenly aware of the battle that rages inside me. I also live well below my means and know my phone and car, as nice as they are, can’t hold a candle to the joy and meaning my wife, family, friends, students, and writing provide.

How ironic that this time of year is marked by numerous sacred religious traditions and we’re more susceptible than ever to mindless materialism. Consumerism trumps contemplation. This manifests itself in many ways, stampeding store customers have to be the most jarring (the increased popularity of online shopping appears to be dampening that phenomenon).

This weekend in Seattle, The Gap and a few other stores were having a “50% off everything in the store” sale. Which got me thinking about a grand experiment in which all of downtown Seattle businesses had simultaneous “100% off everything in the store” sales. Their motto might be, “This stuff was really ill-conceived and is poorly made, ugly, and of no real use, so please, please take it off our hands.” Tens of thousands would jump in their cars and speed downtown, park haphazardly, and run towards the stores with eyes ablaze.

Free man, free! Nevermind that they’d have no real need for the stuff falling out of their overfilled shopping carts. Free man! Nevermind that they wouldn’t have enough room in their dresser drawers, closets, or garages for the stuff. Free! Nevermind that the stuff wouldn’t fill those empty spaces in their lives created by superficial or strained relationships with others.

My spiritual self has convinced my material self to sit out the mania this December. Join me. Help me tilt the balance from the material to the spiritual.

Light a Candle or Curse the Darkness?

Is quality of life improving? Depends on the person or people and the place right? What about your quality of life, your family’s, your friends’, the majority of people who live in your community?

I’m conflicted. I believe the U.S. is in decline. And because both political parties approach government as a zero-sum game making bipartisanship a relic of previous centuries, I have no confidence that government will slow or reverse the decline. Health insurance and higher education inflation are major negatives.

Also, Edward Conrad aside (short rebuttal), growing inequality is a definite negative and there are still serious cracks in the global economy. Social security funds are supposed to dry up in 2033, right when yours truly will be 71. Wars and security threats abound and our military spending is unsustainable. And if Romney pulls off the upset, he promises to increase it in the short-term, inevitably adding to our unprecedented debt. And finally, my hair continues to recede like the world’s rain forests and UCLA hasn’t beaten USC in football since 2006.

But there are lots of positives for the other side of the ledger, the “light the candle” side. Medical research continues to march on, extending our lives and improving quality of life. Life for many in the poorest countries is gradually improving. Baby apps and my late-adaptor skepticism aside, personal technology has made life better. Writing on this laptop is a marked improvement on the typewriters of my college years. Watching t.v. without commercials, reading electronic newspapers on my iPad without getting ink-stained hands, the value of these things can’t be overstated. Cars keep getting safer, more efficient, and relatively more affordable. Appliances and homes are more energy efficient. Alternative energy technologies make energy independence and reduced military spending a possibility.

Related to that, wise consumers, in many sectors of the economy, are getting more value for their dollar than ever before. A personal example of that. Everyone is complaining about the cost of gas and related things like summer air fares. I just bought a plane ticket to visit Mother Dear mid-summer. I put the time in to get a great fare, $391, Seattle to Tampa. Let’s add in $80 for airport parking and $15 for in-air groceries (to and from) for a total cost of $486. Translating that to time spent working, at $50/hour, that’s 1.2 work days, at $12.50/hour, 5 work days.

What if I drove the 3,200 or 6,400 miles roundtrip? Let’s assume 32mpg for 200 gallons at $4/per for a subtotal of $800 in gasoline. Plus four long days means, 12 meals (@ $10/per) and 3 hotels (@ 90/per) x 2 (for the return)=$780 for a total of $1,580. And let’s add in $120 for an oil change, depreciation, and tire wear and tear. So I could spend eight days on the road at a cost of $1,700 or fly for $486. So I get to spend seven extra days with MD for $1,214 less.

The older most people get the more they succumb to selective perception. They get nostalgic for a Golden Age when young people had shorter hair, fewer tats, read more, and life in general was better. I don’t buy it. I’m not sure there’s ever been a Golden Age of anything. My goal is to light candles more and curse the darkness less.

That’s me in the second row excited to see Mother Dear

Everything Free Day

Two weeks ago Megan McArdle reviewed a few books on consumption. Early in the review she reveals she recently bought a $1,500 food processor. Who knew one could drop 1.5 large on a food processor?

The Saturday morning after Black Friday my betrothed filled me in on the L.A. shopper who pepper-sprayed several other X-box shopper-competitors before fleeing the scene. The good news is I don’t think anyone was trampled to death in Toys R’ Us this year. On Black Friday I subscribed to consumerreports.org in the a.m. and then spent a chunk of the p.m. shopping for new kitchen appliances at home in my pepper spray-free environment.

I spent part of Thanksgiving Day shopping too. Well, kind of. While watching Ndamukong Suh stomp on a Packer o-lineman, I blew through 90% of the 90 lbs. of newspaper ad inserts. Took everything the labradude had to drag that bad boy to the front door. Who knew Wal-Mart sells decent looking jeans for $10? And a decent Timex Ironman-brand watch for $10? Maybe they won’t stop stomping their suppliers until they can sell everything for $10 or less.

Remember the crazy shopping spree marketing prizes in the 70’s or 80’s? Some lucky winner would get an hour in a grocery store and they’d sprint up and down the aisle frantically loading a few baskets with a little of everything? And we’d watch imagining how much faster we’d go or how we’d be more strategic and target the most expensive goods that take up the least space.

What if Black Friday was “National Reduce Inventory” day and everything was free? Nothing sold out, no servers crashed, perfect availability. What would you have brought home? What about those you live with? Where/how would you have stored everything? How would those new possessions have changed your life? Would you be much happier?

At minimum, I would have ordered a few new kitchen appliances and brought home some of Costco’s most expensive vino, a new bicycle computer, and a McArdle food processor in a new Seal Gray 2012 Porsche 911. Initially at least, I would have been much happier. Among other ripple effects though, I’d have to work more hours to pay for more expensive car insurance and maintenance costs and over the course of a few weeks, months, and years, I probably wouldn’t be any happier at all.

I don’t assume what’s true for me is true for you, but I’m learning the things that make me happiest—friendship, good health, film, literature, exercising in natural settings, writing this blog, helping others—can’t be purchased in a store or ordered on-line. I could spend tons of time and energy shopping in stores and on-line at this time of year, brag about my good bargains, but not improve the quality of my life.

If there’s ever a time of the year for reflecting on this dynamic it’s now. The thrill of even great purchases quickly fades so invest time and energy in the people and things that bring lasting joy.

Related Graham Hill TED Talk titled “Less Stuff, More Happiness”.

How to Increase Your Living Space Without Spending a Dollar

By decluttering of course.

Jane E. Brody reviews a new book by Robin Zasio titled “The Hoarder in You: How To Live a Happier, Healthier, Uncluttered Life.” Brody says it’s the best self-help work she’s read in her 46 years as a health and science writer. That should help sales.

After that endorsement, I was disappointed by Zasio’s advice, which I’d describe as decluttering orthodoxy based on Brody’s highlights.

Here’s the gist of it. If you’re familiar with the decluttering literature skip ahead a paragraph. 1A) Tackle just one project at a time—a closet, garage, room, dresser drawer, file cabinet—and stick with it until it’s done. 1B) To create positive momentum, work from the easiest project to the most challenging. 2) Schedule time for decluttering—an hour a weekday or weekend day for example—until done. 3A) Use three containers labelled “Keep,” “Donate,” and “Discard”. 3B) Brody adds her own advice here. To force yourself to decide among the three, be careful not to add a fourth “Undecided” container.

Simple, huh? So why do I predict, six months after finishing Zasio’s book, that the majority of her readers will still live clutter-riddled lives? Because no matter how faithfully one implements that logical plan, there’s still a cultural, even spiritual element to our tendency to buy far more than we need.

Every day, all day, we’re subjected to a one-two punch of extremely sophisticated and ubiquitous advertising that plays on our insecurities and to what sociologists refer to as “relative deprivation” or wanting what others wealthier (or more in debt) than us have. Regardless of whether we have the three containers labelled correctly, we want what we see advertised and and we want what our next-door neighbors have. Until we figure out how to resist those two things, our “stuff” will continue to overwhelm us.

I’m not immune to the one-two punch. I owned a Porsche once, an incredible machine, but I sold it (at a loss of course) because I felt self-conscious in it. Weird, I know. Most Porsche owners want you looking at them at the light or getting out of it at the restaurant. I was the opposite. I didn’t like pulling into the church or school parking lot. Insufficient swagger I guess. But then after reading Irvine, and getting fired up about Stoicism, I learned Stoics aren’t supposed to care about what others think of them. There’s something to work on. With that in mind, maybe I should give it another shot. The new 2012 911 looks damn nice. An exercise in applied Stoicism?

Xmas 12?

I Am the 1%

Not based on my five figure salary, my Kirkland Signature wardrobe, my penchant for water at restaurants, or my municipal golf courses of choice.

I am the “one percent” based upon health, meaningful work, beautiful surroundings, good friends, and a loving family.

Turning fiddy in a few months. My peers are showing varying degrees of wear and tear. Their setbacks help me appreciate how fortunate I am to be able to afford healthy food, to have time to exercise daily, to have access to quality medical care, and to feel younger than I am.

My work matters. How fortunate to get paid to help young people write, teach, and think through what they believe and how they want to live their adult lives. And remarkably, every seven years I get the ultimate gift, time to press pause and read, think, write, rest, renew.

Half the year I get to cycle in unbelievably beautiful mountain settings, swim in an idyllic next-door lake, and run on wooded trails and sleepy residential streets. In the summer it’s almost never hot or humid and there are no bugs that would prevent one from eating outside. There are no hurricanes and hardly any lightening, but I reserve the right to amend this post if I someday survive the overdue Shake.

I often climb the mountains, swim the lake, and run the trails with excellent friends. Fitness fellowship.

My extended family is a blessing. My wife and daughters especially so. Apart from one very bad leg, they’re healthy and happy. My Better Half and I just returned from visiting First Born at Leafy Midwest Liberal Arts College. Most nineteen year-old college students would be semi-embarrassed by visiting parents, but for some reasons ours was off-the-charts warm, inviting, and appreciative the whole time. Even invited her Spanish teaching mom to her Spanish class and took us to great student a cappella and modern dance concerts.

When we first arrived on campus, Spanish teaching mom went to meet her at the Language Building. I read in the “Libe”. At the appointed time I headed across campus to meet up with them. Turned a corner and there she was walking by herself to a piano lesson. Cue the killer off-the-ground hug.

We stayed in a room in this house which a woman left to the college with an unusual condition—that it always be available as a student hang out with the necessary ingredients to bake cookies.

Home Base

The suggested donation for staying there was $30/night. We had twin beds in a smallish room. The first hints of winter crept in through the window next to my bed. I could whizz while simultaneously brushing my teeth in the tiny bathroom.

But looks can be deceiving. No one would suspect that inside this humble house, in one of the modest rooms, a One Percenter slept contentedly.