My wife and I prefer a simple life. At times we even border on complacent hubris about how simple we manage to be, but for the most part we live simply not so much out of piety or poverty (though both play a role!) but because we just like things simple. For much of our time in Colombia though, the precariousness of employment and a plethora of kids imposed on us a simplicity even beyond what we would have freely chosen. When we came to live in Washington, DC, we had a higher income, but the cost of everything also rose enough to almost wipe out our monthly earnings. So we weren't much better off economically in most objective measures. Nevertheless, for some reason, call it softness, call it our happiness with a more stable job outlook, or call it being star-struck at the abundant consumer offerings in the US economy, I for one took advantage of the new surroundings to indulge my material desires.
Two of the big acquisitions I made were not in fact purchases, but simply bringing my old stuff from Chicago to our new apartment in DC. Early on in our time in the States, I took a train trip to Chicago and back by myself. This trip was in and of itself a real treat for me, since in Colombia there's not much of a functioning passenger rail system. At my mother's house I got my bike out of the basement, and my record player out of the attic. I had bought the bike some ten years before, used it intensely for a summer to get to and from work at a grain elevator outside of Champaign-Urbana, then didn't use it so much thereafter. I hadn't been able to take it to Colombia, and I wouldn't have wanted to, since our town is too hilly and too car-choked to allow for practical biking.
But a summer gig as a youth bike program instructor in Chicago shortly before moving to Washington rekindled my love of bike commuting, and since then I'd longed to get to and from work in DC on a bike. This was finally my opportunity, and thankfully Amtrak has a very efficient program where you can buy a special bike box from them and ship your bike as luggage. On the same return trip to DC, I packed in a suitcase the stereo system I'd cobbled together in my teen years from my parents' retired receiver and a turntable my cousin gave me. I'd brought speakers from Colombia already, so upon my return to Washington I was able to set up a working sound system! I'd stupidly left the needle unprotected in transit, so I had to mail-order a new one, but I was pleased to see that the Internet has made it very easy to get analog stereo components.
My wife and kids often spend a few weeks or months in Colombia in winter, and again in summer, so I had a fair amount of time alone with my sound system in the following months. For me it was a luxury to listen to my and my dad's favorite records, to listen to Garrison Keillor Saturday evenings on NPR, to follow the radio news of the Central American refugee crisis as it unfolded. My father amassed a lot of blues records that I've often shied away from. I usually avoid listening to the blues, since it's so formulaic and repetitive, to the point that I have records I've been lugging around from place to place for three years out of loyalty to my father, that I still haven't listened to.
Recently though I've also begun to listen to them, and aside from the soulful, heartfelt emotion they convey (not, in fact, at all repetitive or formulaic), I also relish reconnecting with my father through them. He didn't listen to music much while I was alive, but I imagine him as a young single man listening to these records. Perhaps as a university student, surrounded for the first time by a huge pool of middle-class, intellectually agile people, discovering these exotic sounds from the languorous Mississippi Delta and the bustling, gritty Chicago streets, both areas a few hours' drive from his hometown, but worlds apart from his childhood. I imagine that he felt a connection between this black music of suffering, protest, and resilience and the arid, joyless streets of his working-class Great Plains youth, which have had few bards to capture their spirit and validate them before the world. I wonder if these records in part drew him to settle in Chicago, in black neighborhoods where the constant struggle and hustle to survive reminded him of his home, but the liveliness and cosmopolitan air and sheer urban beauty provided the salve that his spirit never found in the sprawling dirt alleys and tumbling woodframe homes of Kansas. I wonder if he suffered and delighted with the singers as he fixed car engines in his solo apartment between multiple jobs, feeling that at last he too was where it's at.
In summary, my first two major moves in the direction of middle-class consumerism in my DC life were a late-19th-century technology and an early-20th century one! It makes sense, since what I was looking for was not so much the material thing (hell, most stuff you buy is cheap crap anyway), but rather an experience, the pleasure of doing something just for entertainment, beyond the constant worry about practical matters that consumes much of our life. Don't get me wrong--my wife and I revel in practical matters. For us a big part of our leisure and entertainment is the practical stuff, finding meaning and pleasure in everyday tasks. Cooking, cleaning, washing diapers, getting groceries, walking our kids to and from school. That's what we take joy in, and we especially like finding novel ways of getting things done more sustainably (cf our experiments with washing poopy diapers in the dishwasher we didn't use for dishes--not a success--or dumpster diving for food). We don't have much leisure time, and we don't want it--we wouldn't even know what to do if we were just supposed to seek our own immediate enjoyment and distraction. But a few little material things, like the record player and records, gave us an opportunity to indulge at least a tiny bit in just enjoying something for its own sake, without any practical need behind it.
The other thing I got out of my record player and my bike was a vision of myself that I liked, which is probably what most consumers are really going for. You don't buy the new iPhone or Fitbit so much for what it can do for you, but because you want other people to know you have it, or at least you want to feel like you're the kind of guy that's on the cutting edge. I was similar in this respect. I liked to think of myself as someone sophisticated who has the taste (and the leisure time) to listen to good music. I like to be someone who bikes to work, and eschews even the modest fossil fuel consumption of using the Metro. I like to listen to A Prairie Home Companion and remember Saturday nights in our Wisconsin summer house as my folks left Garrison's corny jokes and old-timey musical acts running in the background of whatever we were doing. Above all, I loved hearing the news and feeling informed, something I wasn't so good about in Colombia.
A more costly indulgence that had to do with my self-image was becoming a season subscriber to one DC-area theater, and a frequenter of a few others. Our chosen lifestyle exposes us to urgent political issues, exotic rural locales, and constant movement, all of which we love, but after years of living that way (and in the relative penury it entails), it was nice to have a taste of civilized bourgeois comfort. For me a theater subscription symbolized such comfort and stability and routine. It wasn't how I would want to live my entire life, but I wanted to take advantage of our brief DC interlude to enjoy certain aspects of a more settled, urbane existence. I loved seeing the plays, maybe only a fifth of which were really standouts to me, and I enjoyed discussing them afterwards with Caro. But I also really liked just being someone who goes to plays.
In this sense I guess I became a perfect consumer, purchasing things to construct a customized self-image. The problem is that I'm easy to please, so with my record player and my bike and a play subscription I was pretty much set. When looking for my record needle, I saw some $6000 speakers and $14000 needles (yeah, just the needle!), but I had no desire for any of that. I'm probably not a discerning enough listener to even know the difference between my $60 needle and one that's one hundred times that price, and I'd be too worried about messing it up to even be able to enjoy it. I will admit that I bought a fair number of records at the local library (Annie, Stevie Wonder, orchestral music), but at $1 a pop, it wasn't a pocketbook-breaking habit. While I can understand an urge to amass as many records as you can, I don't even have time to listen to that many, so I'm not inclined to too many purchases.
Early on in our time in DC, we were very short on furniture, so I was always on the lookout for stuff people left on the street. My wife got really into it, too. On her morning walk to drop off our oldest kid at school, she would make note of any good finds, and then give me the location so I'd pick it up that afternoon on the way back from school. Our apartment complex dumpster was always a treasure trove too, since there were students constantly moving in and out. This way we got bookshelves (which also made me feel bourgeois and settled, since I've always dreamed of having a respectable, old-style mahogany library, instead of jamming books wherever I can as is our wont), chests of drawers for clothes, desks, chairs, kid furniture, baking equipment, crafts materials, Japanese screens. Even a sewing machine that my wife has since used to make three Halloween costumes.
Once I saw a pair of pants strewn on a hedge by our parking lot. I left it there in deference to whoever, perhaps in a fit of inebriety or other Bacchal passion, had flung it aside, reasoning that perhaps such person would return to find it later. But after a few days I took the Calvin Klein slacks and had them slightly tailored to fit me, and to this day I wear them to work. The nice thing about living in a suburb where you're the only person who walks around is that you find things others don't, and you can usually count on them being just where they were the day before. My kids have dropped toys on the way to school, and the next day they're there waiting for us.
As I noted in a prior blog, the ready availability of such things on the street made us less careful with them--I would jam shelf slats into place without concern for chipping them, since I knew we'd be throwing them out ourselves in due time. But eventually this came to an end, too. We both noted that we were becoming like compulsive shoppers (or hoarders), always on the lookout for a good find, whether we needed it or not. As we took care of all of our furniture needs, we eased off the scavenging instinct, so even this little nod to materialism had its days numbered. In the same way, Caro learned how to manage going to the local Marshall's (another consumerist novelty in our new US life) without ending up in the checkout line with a cart full of crap she didn't really want. It was just a question of stepping back from the instant of acquisitive ecstasy and thinking practically about what you need.
I guess the lesson from our time in DC, and our brief dalliance with consumerism, was that we still wanted a simple life, just adorned with like five little things that we hadn't had access to before. Our material urges were met in DC not so much by the constant procession of new items for sale, which we rarely bought, but because the US consumerist society (yes, the selfsame that we always bemoan) creates so much surplus and waste that it's easy to find the few simple things we actually value. Whether it's garage sales, Marshall's, or dumpster diving, the US produces castoffs that other places just don't. In Colombia your old junk is either worn until it's unwearable, given to someone poorer, or stored as a treasure. There just isn't the constant flow of new purchases, not to mention the space to accumulate junk, that would enable or necessitate many garage sales. Clothes and toys aren't imported en masse and cheaply from China, so there's no Marshall's to do away with them when they're inventoried. And food is too precious to fill dumpsters with. In many ways, the fact that Colombian values are so in line with our own makes it difficult to find the stuff we need there, since others snatch it up before we do. Not so in Arlington, VA, where our values are so different that we find diamonds where others see garbage.
The upshot is that the simple life is possible and even cheaper in a wasteful consumer society. As our kids grow though, I know that the constant pressure from US culture on their young minds and value systems would challenge our ability to live humbly, from the throwaways of others. As Sam began getting exposed to superheroes and TV characters and even friends with iPads, his budding interest in these things was undeniable. In that sense, we like being in our provincial town in Colombia, where people are too poor or too pragmatic to get caught up in the consumer vortex. Or in other countries, where we are so clearly set apart from the surrounding society that we can smoothly adopt the good points of their culture while easily signalling their foibles as things that "we don't do where we're from".