Its pretty easy to argue that Americans have been a little excessive in our mortgage fueled quest for a house that will make the Jones feel bad about what they have. But we are still conditioned to want a lot. Social and cultural mores change more slowly than the intellectual acknowledgement of finances.
So to wrap up my June month of small houses I want to time travel back to before the housing crisis and look at the big house movement we’re trying to recover from.
Back to Yesteryear
I recently came across a 2006 NPR piece about “the Ever Expanding American Dream House” which features an 11,000 square foot house in Fulton, MD. The attitude of the article is not entirely clear – is this interesting or appalling? The owner, one Michael Frisby, says he’s living out his fantasy. (I have to wonder how he stands with his mortgage today.) He says that having grown up in the projects in a confined space he dreamed of being able to spread out. Understandable. But then this quote:
“I always wanted a house big enough that my kids could be in their room screaming, and my wife could be in a room screaming, and I could be somewhere else and not hear any of them,” he says. “And I think I have accomplished this with this house, because this house is so big that everyone has their own space.”
Really? I assume he means that his family will be screaming in good fun while he ignores them but even so I find that to be a disturbing amount of separation. I am a person who values space and silence but why would you want to be so separated from your family that you couldn’t hear them? For that matter, why would you want a family you’d need to be soundproofed from in order to stand? But how about if something went wrong. When your kid screams and you can’t hear them … that’s a problem, not a fantasy.
I was reminded of one of my favorite childhood stories – Tikki Tikki Tembo. (Note: I have NO idea how politically correct this is as a view of China and its cultural heritage (probably its horrible) but as a parable about allowing appearances to take precedence over expedience its a great story and a wonderful lesson for children.)
The story, if you aren’t familiar with it, is of two brothers. The first has a very long name in keeping with his status as eldest brother and the second has a short name. One day the younger brother falls into the well (after being repeatedly warned not to play near it) and his brother has to run around and tell various adults who fetch a ladder, haul the boy out and revive him. Everyone is relieved. Then the older brother falls in and his younger brother has to delay the process of getting help by constantly repeating his brothers very long name to everyone he notifies and in the end the older brother nearly doesn’t make it because the whole thing takes so long. After which everyone decides that they were playing with fire with this whole name-so-long-it-nearly-kills-its-owner thing and everybody gets short names.
I’d hate to think how long it would take one of Frisby’s kids to even find him to let him know a sibling had fallen in the well. Screaming sure wouldn’t do the trick.
Lessons Learned … maybe
I’m not wishing any harm to Frisby and his family or even trying to criticize them specifically here. My point is more general – we have all been basking in the apparent glory of too much. And its created problems for America as a country and for each of us as individuals. Now that we’ve fallen in the metaphorical well I hope we can step back and reassess our values and behaviors and come up with a way to “live our fantasy” without going to such dangerous extremes. If only real life were as easy to learn lessons from as a children’s story.