When did we decide to become a supersized nation? Whom do I blame? I could perhaps begin with Ronald Reagan. Reagan made us believe that being an American was all about thinking and living large. He told us that it was okay to get obscenely wealthy; indeed it was a virtue. He was our Gordon Gekko: greed is good. And he said as much in such a convincing aw shucks Boy Scout sort of way that it was impossible not to believe him. In the 80s we began to think big again. Enough was okay but suggested you weren’t really trying. More was better. A lot more was fabulous!
But I can also blame Bill Clinton. Bill never met a millionaire or billionaire he didn’t like. During his tenure Americans reaped the rewards of being the world’s only superpower. Our 401Ks bulged with inflated stock values. Our home values went through the roof too. We leveraged our housing prices to trade up to larger houses. We used those low interest rates to buy bigger and better cars. It was during the Clinton years that the sports utility vehicle craze took hold in this country. It was during the Clinton years that a single-family house with a one-car garage on a modest lot became simply insufficient. For those with the resources an opulent estate surrounded by acres of ranch or forest became our dream house. For the rest of us we settled for boxy McMansions on postage stamp lots. Three or four bedroom houses were out. Why not six, or eight even? Why not have a deck that wraps around the house? Two-car garage? Why stop at two? Why not demand a three or even four car garage? Hey, you only live once baby! You and your wife and your 2.2 kids may not need all that space, but buy it anyhow! This was the time to live the American dream!
As for food: to heck with normal portions. Normal portions were for wusses. It’s not enough to buy a hamburger anymore. Go for the double cheeseburger instead, or the triple burger with the sesame seed bun. Forget the regular fries. For forty cents more you can supersize them! Let’s make the new fast food standard to get as many calories in one sitting as we used to consume in a whole day — all for five bucks or less. And let’s add a whole lot more salt, fat and cholesterol to the meal too! Supersize that Coke while you’re at it! Have two hot apples pies, not one.
Not surprisingly our waistlines expanded. Because all the lots were taken in town, our McMansions naturally were built out in the exurbia. So walking to work or even to the grocery store was out of the question. We’d better hop into our SUV and drag the 12-mpg behemoth a dozen miles to our local Costco. There we supersized our pantries with mega-sized cases of detergent and frozen hamburger patties by the gross.
Whatever happened to David Thoreau’s simple life? Are you a little bit mad to want the simple life in modern America?
I must be a little bit mad. But first I will confess that as a former townhouse brat I was glad to go single family when I finally had the option. I was tired of the teen next door sitting on my car hood to smoke his cigarettes. I did not enjoy his loud bass-centric music, particularly when I was trying to sleep. My mental health improved markedly when we moved into our house.
Our house, as houses go, is fairly modest. The garage fits only one car. It has three bedrooms, but only two of any consequence since the third is small enough that it was turned into a TV room. We have a guest bedroom in the basement that doesn’t really count since it is mostly below ground. There are only three of us though and it is big enough. Our lot is a third of an acre and way more than I really want to manage. We’ve been in the house ten years. Only now have we completed giving everything a first coat of paint. In short it’s too much already and I want to downsize my life.
I wonder about people who own McMansions. I wonder primarily why they do it. Maybe they are masochists. Or maybe they like spending every free moment keeping the house up. Maybe they don’t mind taking out a second mortgage to put furniture in all those empty rooms. I can spend a day just picking up and vacuuming in my modest house. I would think you would either need to be a full time housekeeper or hire a couple cleaning ladies to come by once a week to keep these houses presentable. When do they find the time to relax on that screen in deck with a mint julep?
And why is at least one SUV a compulsory item in the driveway? It’s not like there are any mountains with gravel roads that must be traversed on a daily basis around here. As best I can tell the primary purpose for an SUV in my neighborhood is to take the kid to Taekwando or to get through the drive-thru pharmacy lane. Most of these families are not large extended Mormon families. They are a mother, father and two kids. A Camry sedan would have been a much more sensible choice. Why did they supersize their car?
Are they mindful of the effects of their lifestyle choices on the rest of the world? Or do they simply not care if they drive something that spews twice the toxins into the environment as my modest sedan? I guess to them it’s not that big a deal. When the summer ozone levels become unhealthy they aren’t affected. They live their lives indoors anyhow. They can drive right into their three-car garage. No need to exercise outdoors either — get on the treadmill in the basement instead.
No point in thinking about the costs of our lifestyle choices on others or even on ourselves. Live for the moment baby! Those who die with the most toys win! Hey, if we tear down another forest to put up more McMansions and shopping centers, well, that’s just the price of progress! And we’re doing God’s will. Because the preacher tells us it’s right there in Genesis: God gave us the Earth to shape as we see fit. God is saying: it’s all right to supersize your life! Go for it!
Still, how quaint: those seven deadly sins proclaimed by Pope Gregory in the Sixth Century: pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth. These are all American virtues now baby! Let’s put the Bible back on the shelf. We paid lip service to it anyhow. We don’t need it anymore. We have a new American religion. It’s called Capitalism. Adam Smith is our new God and Ronald Reagan was his only begotten son.
We will live well and die well. We will fill up our lives with possessions. Our credit cards may be maxed out but our net worth will continue to soar. Let us stay focused on our lifestyle. If we get a twinge of remorse from time to time let us pay some therapists and pop antidepressants instead. Let us never, ever dwell on just how meaningless it all is.