Thursday, March 31, 2011

Small pleasures

Americans have become jaded. For most of them, their pleasures and luxuries have to be really, truly expensive, and they've come to believe that a lot of things are necessities.

My perspective tends to be different. While my parents grew up poor---in my mother's case, extreme poverty---my family was middle class. My dad is old enough to remember the Great Depression. People tend to react two ways to handling money after this: either they take the "eat, drink, and be merry" attitude and are always broke, or they scrimp past the point of common sense. My father tends toward the latter. My mother bounced between them, I think. 

My dad's income was noticeably lower than most people in his field, but his job was far more stable, his reason for picking it. We lived much more modestly than most people with similar incomes, more like my classmates, kids from small farms that barely got by, including gardening, canning, and cooking almost all meals at home. But we had our pleasures. Our house was nice and comfortable. We had a telephone. A television which usually picked up the 4 channels in that rural area. We may not have had our own bedrooms, but there were only two of us in each room. We never worried about food, clothes to wear, a warm coat. Since my mother was an excellent cook, we generally looked forward to mealtimes, especially desserts. Garden work was sometimes tedious, but the pain of picking rows of strawberries was offset by bowls of delicious strawberries covered in milk.

And I saw how my classmates, and some of my relatives, lived, and by comparison, our lives were luxurious, just as later, when we moved as I started high school, I often felt poor compared to many classmates (and now realize that many of them were much worse off because their parents overspent to "keep up with the Joneses") I later lived two years in (then) West Germany, and got yet another perspective on need, want, and luxury.

I've learned that with the right attitude, you can find as much, or more, pleasure out of little things. Few people in this country know the luxurious taste of just picked ripe strawberries, covered in milk or a fully ripe tomato picked and sliced just before supper. The stuff from the grocer's has NO taste compared to these. A cup of hot coffee or tea on a cold morning is a delight. An iced drink, even water, on a hot day is as well. I think one problem is that most of the pleasure people get out of their luxuries is now from showing them off. Once the novelty wears off, the pleasure is mostly gone, and the person needs a new purchase to be the envy of his or her friends.

Sixty years ago, when a woman turned on her stove in the morning to make coffee (in a percolater that went on the burner), she smiled at the stove in pleasure because she often remembered her own mother cooking on a wood-stove. When she opened the refrigerator to get eggs, she smiled in pride and remembered her own mother's ice box. When she turned on the kitchen tap to fill that coffee pot, she might remember a pump in her childhood, even outside in the rain or snow. And both she and her husband remembered World War II and shortages and rationing of almost everything, especially food. As he went out to start his car, he remembered horses and wagons still on the road when he was young. They had no doubts about how much these things had improved their lives and that they were luxuries. They probably still knew a few people living without them.

I think two things are important for perspective. First, become genuinely aware of how many things we have that are not needs and how much harder life would be without them (maybe even actually try splitting wood, then building a fire in a woodstove and cooking on it). But don't let that make you feel guilty or scared. Instead, learn to take pleasure in them and get the same delight out of the commonplace, small things in our lives that you do out of the impressive luxuries and toys. Learn to consider little "extras" as much luxuries to be savored as the expensive sports cars. And second, try to make all luxuries less frequent in your life. A single cup of gourmet coffee in a month is almost a ceremonial event to be enjoyed thoroughly. Two cups a day, and you probably don't even think about it anymore.

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