McMansion Envy

American homes are a lot roomier than they used to be.  In 1973, the Census Bureau determined that the median size of a new house was about 1,500 square feet.  As of 2015, that number had shot up to about 2,500 square feet.  And with Americans having fewer children on average, the increase in house size translated into a lot more square footage per resident — from 507 square feet per resident for new houses in 1973 to 971 square feet per resident for a new house built in 2015.

mcmansions-real-estateSo, are Americans a lot happier with their larger, roomier homes?  A researcher tried to figure that out and determined that the answer is:  not really.  Although American homes have grown significantly in terms of their square footage, overall house satisfaction hasn’t changed.  According to the research, the apparent reason is that some Americans are trapped in an endless cycle of house one-upsmanship.

The researcher concluded that Americans whose houses are among the largest in the neighborhood tend to be most prone to house unhappiness.  These homeowners build the biggest house around and are satisfied with it, but when somebody builds an even bigger McMansion on a nearby lot, knocking them out of the “biggest house in the neighborhood” slot, suddenly their satisfaction with their home drops.  The research also indicates that there’s been a kind of nuclear arms race at the top end of the American housing market, with the size of the largest 10 percent of houses increasing 1.4 times as fast as the size of the median house.  Evidently “keeping up with the Joneses” now means adding on to your house to maintain your status as king of the block.

I’m not sure about the statistical analysis used in the research and how you can determine with certainty whether people are dissatisfied with their already big house because it now isn’t the biggest house in the ‘hood, as opposed to other reasons for house dissatisfaction.  But I do know this:  I feel sorry for people who measure their own happiness and satisfaction by comparing their possessions, whether it is houses or cars or something else, to what is owned by others.  It’s a rat race that isn’t really winnable, because there’s always going to be someone with a bigger house and fancier car.

Such people are never really going to be happy — at least not for long.  Better to find a house that you and your family like, forget about participating in the pointless big house derby, and be amused as you watch the Joneses and their McMansions endlessly duke it out for top dog status.

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Working For The Three-Day Weekend

In the distant, early days of Homo sapiens, there was no concept of “work” in the modern sense, and thus there were no holidays, either. Every day involved its many toils, from hunting and gathering to working to find shelter and water and protection against predators.

Then, as civilization developed, designated jobs became an inevitable part of the process. No city could exist without people charged with performing essential functions like laboring in the fields to bring in the crops, delivering food from the countryside, serving as scribe for Pharoah, or building the new pyramid or ziggurat.  The concept of holidays came later still. First, there were only religious holidays or seasonal holidays, to mark the Feast Day of Set or commemorate the harvest with a day of celebration. In the medieval era, when a saint’s day arrived, the duties of the job were replaced by lengthy religious obligations and, perhaps, fasting and the ritual wearing of a hair shirt.  It wasn’t exactly a laugh riot.

As humanity advanced even more, the concept of a work week was introduced and, then, secular holidays. When some brilliant soul realized that secular holidays really didn’t have to be tied to a specific date on the calendar and instead could float — so that the holiday could combine with a normal weekend to create a three-day weekend — it was a huge step forward in human development. And when an even more enlightened individual realized that we could use those three-day weekends to bookend the summer months, so that the joys of summer could begin with a glorious three-day revel in the warmth, it marked a true pinnacle in the annals of human achievement.

As we celebrate the joys of this three-day Memorial Day weekend, let’s remember those forgotten figures of human history who came up with the ideas that led us here — and be grateful that wearing sweaty hair shirts isn’t part of the equation.

Like A Dog In The Rain

Recently I went for my morning walk on a blustery, rainy day.  As I was walking along, struggling with my umbrella in the gusts and grumbling about the cold, crummy weather, I saw a raincoat-clad woman with a dog.  The woman also looked peevish about the rain and wind.

4149865894_7a5fd51c5a_oThe dog, however, was undisturbed.  It clearly recognized that, as a four-legged creature without clothes, rain slickers, or opposable thumbs capable of gripping an umbrella handle who was subject to the walking schedule and whims of its human companion, there really wasn’t much it could do about being out in the rain and the wind at that moment.  It obviously needed to get out, walk, and answer the call of nature.  And so, it just went about its business, as usual, without concern about the fact that it was getting soaked.

I was struck by the dog’s placid expression and its contrast with the stormy looks on my face and the face of the dog’s owner.  There were no snarls or bared teeth — by the dog, at least.  The dog, who was powerless to do anything about its situation, was imperturbable, while the humans who had total control were letting the bad weather bother them.

It was a very zen-like moment, and it made me realize that, in the right situations, there is value in following the dog’s example:  don’t worry about what you can’t change, accept your circumstances, go about your business, and when you get back to that safe, dry, warm place . . . shake it all off.

Found Money

On Thursday, drivers on U.S. Route 31 in Grand Haven, Michigan confronted one of those moral dilemmas that ethicists love to discuss.  A fellow driver somehow forgot that he left a cash box containing $30,000 on the bumper of his car.  As he drove on the highway, the box fell off the bumper and opened on impact with the pavement, and the thousands of dollars in cash spilled onto the road and into the air.

image-photo-money-thrown-in-the-air-april-2016And thus, the ethical thought experiment met reality:  if you were driving one of the following cars and saw the money on the road — where you were out in the open, surrounded by total strangers, where no cameras would see your conduct and no criminal consequences were likely to attach to what you did next — what would you do?

In this instance, other drivers immediately started stopping, scooping up the money, and driving off — conduct that, incidentally, caused a traffic tie-up on Route 31.  Of the $30,000 in the cash box, only $2,500 was immediately recovered and returned to the owner.  Since Thursday, police have appealed for drivers who pocketed the loot to probe their consciences and turn in the money.  Only some have done so.  Two teenagers turned in $630, which would sure seem like a lot of money to a kid, and one woman turned in nearly $3,900.  The police commended them for their honesty.  However, most of the money remains unrecovered.

Over the years, I’ve found wallets and car keys and credit cards and other valuable items, and I’ve always returned them immediately because I’d like to think other people would do the same with an item I misplaced.  But before I hurt my shoulder patting myself on the back, I also recognize that I haven’t been in desperate need of money on those occasions, either.  If you were at the end of your financial rope and suddenly saw hundred dollar bills on the Route 31 asphalt, would you do the honest thing — or would you think that your prayers had been answered and drive off with fistfuls of money without a second thought?

Going Off The Beaten Path

We’ve been watching Russell’s dog Betty recently.  She’s a very nice, well-trained dog — kudos to Russell on that! — who absolutely loves taking walks.  Every morning I leash her up and take her for a walk around Schiller Park so both she and I can get some fresh air and exercise first thing in the morning.

img_0028For the most part, Betty is an easy dog to walk.  She keeps her nose down, hunting for interesting smells, and stays on or in close proximity to the sidewalk, swiveling her head from side to side and remaining on absolute tactical alert for any random dog that might be seen off in the distance.

But the interesting thing is what happens when we depart from the sidewalk for even an instant — say, to drop a tied-off bag of doggie doo into one of the Schiller Park trash cans.  When that happens, Betty’s entire personality changes.  She goes from the dedicated, straight-ahead walker who diligently tracks down every stray scent to a young dog who clearly wants to frolic.  She does a kind of antic, bouncing dance, going down onto her paws then leaping into the air, makes a growling sound, veers suddenly from side to side with tremendous force, and then starts to nibble at my shoelaces while I’m trying to walk.  Frankly, it’s pretty annoying on a cold workday morning, but she’s just having a dog’s definition of fun.  After a few minutes of such play, I give her a tug on the leash and we head back home.

It’s instructive, isn’t it?  Betty likes her walks, to be sure, but what really charges her up is to go off the beaten path.  Betty’s little dance just demonstrates the value of departing from the straight line and going free form every once in a while.

Reasonably Achievable Resolutions

Did you make a New Year’s resolution?  If so, how’s it going?  According to a social network called Strava, which somehow conducted some research into the topic, most people who make New Year’s resolutions end up breaking them by January 12.  So hang in there: you apparently only have to suffer through a few more days of compliance before you can go back to those old habits.

The Strava research seems to have focused on exercise and dietary resolutions, which are probably the most challenging resolutions of all.  People buy that health club membership and start eating leafy green vegetables for dinner with the best of intentions, but are felled by unrealistic expectations of what will happen.  When those unrealistic expectations aren’t met, they fall off the wagon.  And then, after they fall off the wagon, they figure it’s hopeless to try to change and totally give up.

I think making resolutions makes some sense, and the start of a new year is as good a time as any for some self-reflection and consideration of how a beneficial behavioral change might be in order.  There’s nothing wrong with trying to get more exercise and be more healthy, but why stake your New Year’s resolutions entirely upon goals that experience teaches are incredibly difficult to reach?  Maybe we should start small, and think about little, reasonably achievable resolutions that might just make you a better person and improve your life at the same time.  Consider, for example, this list of 58 New Year’s resolutions that don’t involve dieting or exercise.  It’s not exhaustive and right for everyone, of course, but it may give you ideas for the kind of resolutions that are suitable for you.

This year, I’m going small with my resolutions.  I’m going to clean out my closet and give the clothes that aren’t being used to a charitable organization.  I want to go through what we’ve got stored in the basement and the pantry, figure out whether we’re using it, and donate what’s unneeded to the Goodwill.  I’m going to tackle my emailboxes and iPhone photos, delete what I don’t want to store forever, be happy about the reduced clutter, and see whether that improves my phone battery life.  And while I’ve done a better job of leisure reading this past year, in 2019 I’m going to up the ante by identifying and then reading through to the end at least one really mentally challenging book.

Making goals is a good thing, but reaching those goals is even better.

 

That Extra Hour

I woke up this morning, looked at the clock, and then realized with a bright surge of delight that we had “fallen back” an hour overnight.  So I rolled over and enjoyed a pleasant doze and some rambling dreams to commemorate the occasion.

img_7460After getting up, I made a fine cup of coffee and continued the celebration by walking around the house, changing the settings on all of the clocks that aren’t “smart” — which means pretty much every clock in our house except the ones on our cellphones and the computer — and relished rolling them back an hour.  I punched the new time into the clock on the microwave, and rewound the old-fashioned art deco clocks at our bedsides.  It’s all part of the ritual, as important to the proper observance of the time change as any aspect of any religious service.  Some people recite the Rosary, some people sing the Doxology, I happily engage in the Liturgy of the Extra Hour.

Because getting an extra hour on a Sunday that dawns bright and crisp and clear and full of possibilities is truly a cause of rejoicing.