Wednesday, November 16, 2005

SuperSize Me

By Judith

Americans like things big (except women, but that's a topic for another post). Before the country was even out of diapers, we had more than doubled our original size, thanks to President Thos. Jefferson. There's Texas and the Whopper and the Mall of America and the house known as the "Starter Castle", or, as Sarah Susanka refers to it, "McMansion."

Bigger is always better in our minds. That's why we always have to have more, whether it's a more powerful, better paying job; two, or three, or more vehicles; vehicles that are as big as tanks; vehicles that are tanks; a 5,000 square-foot house and a lake place; more food, more sex, more sexual partners, more money and more things that money can buy. And a place to store them.

Many years ago I read Small Is Beautiful:Economics As If People Mattered by the German philospher E. F. Schumacher. The premise flew in the face of the "bigger is better" ideology. He said, "production from local resources for local needs is the most rational way of economic life." Intermediate Size and Intermediate Technology provide a more sustainable way of living, for our souls as well as our bodies. Hmm, also sounds suspiciously like G. K. Chesterton's theory of Distributism, which is described as "...the economic state where the possession of land and capital, instead of being concentrated in the hands of a few, are maximally distributed among all men throughout society." (Nope, it's not Communism, which is really only another form of economic despotism. Chesterton wanted people to live and work on their own property, for themselves, buying and selling on a small, local basis.) One wonders what either Schumacher or Chesterton would have thought of one large store or bank or business attacking and swallowing another business, only to be swallowed itself, ad infinitum until at last, it explodes like Mr. Creasote, collapsing into bankruptcy and ruin. Not a pretty sight. And not a pretty result for the people whose lives have been changed for the poorer along the way.

Enter Sarah Susanka, who thinks that the size of houses has gotten out of hand, that we're becoming lost in the very sanctuaries that are supposed to give us respite from the chaos around us. Square footage isn't even the real issue here; make a house of whatever size work for the way we really live, and, spend some of the money that we'd use to purchase bulk to purchase beauty instead. We build houses now that have rooms that we don't even use. We think we need these rooms based on a model of life that doesn't exist for most of us anymore. Even our formal entertainments are much more informal than in a previous century, yet we still think of our living spaces as corset-stiff entities.

The first houses in America were often one room, with the focal point being a large fireplace, which provided heat and a place to cook. Furniture often was sparse and played more than one role. A bench doubled as storage; a table could be folded up to not only provide seating, but block out the draft when it was turned away from the door and towards the fireplace. The seating was then pushed against the wall so that beds could be layed out in the middle of the room. This scenario is a far cry from the executive houses we see being built in the suburbs today, but not unfamiliar to apartment dwellers in New York City, Washington, D. C., or Boston.

When people became more affluent and houses began to grow, separate rooms were fashioned with fireplaces in each room. The cooking area no longer had to double as the main heat source and so was pushed off to a far corner of the house, to a basesment-like area, or even to a separate building to lessen the chances of burning the whole house down. As fireplaces were replaced by wood or coal stoves, the kitchen became a part of the main house again, but was still often banished to a site far away from the main living area. Partly this was to keep the smell of the cooking away from the family and guests and partly it was because servants prepared and served the food, so it was not necessary for the lady of the house to have the food prep area in close proximity to the parlor where guests were entertained or the play room where the children spent their days. And so it goes right up through mid-20th century when kitchens were still shut off from the main living areas.

In our own - former - 1950s rambler the kitchen had a door to the dining room on one side and to a hallway on the other. If I had guests, they were without my scintilating company until dinner was served, or else they all tried to be in the teeny kitchen with me. Ah, maybe that's how it started. Everyone tried to be in the kitchen so we started making kitchens larger. First we added the eat-in part, then we opened them up with a break-through to the living room. Then we took the wall down all together and put in a family room next to the kitchen. But even that wasn't big enough, so now all of a sudden we have a huge space- a great room - where we cook, eat, recreate and just generally all hang out. Hmm, back to that one room living. Except now we still have the formal dining room, the formal living room, maybe a den and maybe a family room downstairs in addition to this huge room in which we all congregate. We in essence have two houses under one roof, but we only live in perhaps half of it.

Whatever happened to the bedroom where we sleep and.., well, you know. The bedroom has been replaced by the Master Suite. Suite? Are we on a constant vacation? Do we really need to have a bedroom that has a living room in it? Does the bathroom really have to be as big as the locker room at the gym?

And just what is a "bonus room?" The builder happened to have some lumber and siding left over so he added another room. Surprise, Mr. & Mrs. Johnson, just a little housewarming gift for you - another room!

Everyone seems to think cathedral ceilings are to die for. Ever tried to light or heat or cool a cathedral? Or paint the wall? Our painter friend looked like Michaelanglo when she was painting the living room in our - former - townhouse.

It's been a long journey for us in our efforts to down-size our lives. The older we got, the more we realized that we would never have the time and means to do what we really wanted if we didn't get rid of all the stuff that was holding us back. The possessions became the possessors. Once we started getting rid of things that just sat in boxes year after year we finally were able to move to a condo downtown that better suited our style, that was smaller, but more efficient and enabled us to spend more time in closer proximity, even if we were in different rooms. Now, obviously this isn't for everyone. I don't think I'd want to raise a brood of kids in a one-bedroom condo, but the point is, we've found it's easier to live in a manageable space that really fits the way we live, that let's us enjoy the things we have because we see and use them every day.

Perhaps we can stop and look around us and start to ask ourselves if more and bigger is really better. Do all these external things really bring us the satisfaction that we're searching for? Maybe the "bigger" we truly want is that which is bigger than us all.

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