I'll bet a lot of us grew up in houses where our parents just didn't buy us very much stuff. In the 1970s, when I was a kid, I asked for a pair of Adidas Superstars (were they $9.99 or $19.99?) because every kid I knew had them. My mom was shocked and a little upset — they cost more than regular tennis shoes, I already had regular tennis shoes and getting another pair was just plain wasteful.
I had to pay for that pair of Adidas with money I made working Saturdays and after school at the Pierce County Public Library, shelving books. I remember riding my bike over to the shoe store and how much I loved the shell toe, the red stripe on the side, the way they came up to my arch and cradled my feet. They were not Keds. I even liked the box they came in. I kept special things in that box for a long time.
There were a lot of things I longed for back then in the way adolescents do, things that seemed to me necessary in order to be liked, things that bridged the divide between my weird family and everyone else. So, here I am, thirty years later, with more disposable income than my parents ever dreamed of having, and, of course, it solves absolutely nothing.
After a couple of sickening bouts of excess (you know, where you look around your house and think, "this place needs more toys" — something you can only think when your children are too small to move and you have had so little sleep you really can't be held accountable for your decisions), I had an epiphany. This became my watchword and goal, the thing I say when someone asks if they can buy a gameboy or another backpack when they already have a perfectly good one: "Just because you can doesn't mean you should." It works maybe 1/4 of the time, honestly, but I am trying.
I went to law school partly to become the consumer I could never be when I was a child, a person who counted, a person with a checkbook that had a lot of money backing it up. Someone once told me about how they bought $500 worth of ipod stuff and felt physically, gut-wrenchingly sick. I know that feeling exactly — it was the feeling I got when things changed in my life, and I acquired that bank account. And that vertiginous experience of buying too much/too soon is what makes me wary of the connection between feeling good and consuming.
As a parent, the hard work for me is just the opposite of what my own parents had to do: my job is to introduce a kind of deprivation into my own and my kids' lives. My parents' job was to stay afloat, and see us get ahead. When I'm remembering that just because I can doesn't mean I should, our house becomes the house of much poorer people. And that's okay. It is only by holding back, restraining ourselves from satisfying our cravings that we have the somewhat rare but salutary experiences of waiting, of saving, of longing for some experience or thing and working hard to achieve it, of knowing how to value things in terms of the real work it takes to get them.
My theory is that this is the way we learn to value material things properly — beginning with valuing the labor that went into manufacturing and inventing these material things. We also value this labor by taking care of material things, by thinking about whether you need the thing in the first place, by reading the damn directions when you do buy something, by fixing things when they break and using them well and skillfully.
In the larger scheme of things, when the normal desire for happiness is unlinked from the desire for material possessions, I imagine it will be so much easier to find happiness elsewhere, and maybe in more lasting ways.
Which brings me to Hadrian's Wall. Hadrian was a Roman emperor, around 100 A.D. His expansion plan brought him to England, where he had no problem subduing the English, who even then liked the idea of empires, even when it meant joining someone else's. Tony Blair is a good example of this impulse.
When Hadrian got to what is now Scotland, though, things began to go really badly. Men wearing furs (not chic furs, but real, just ripped off the animal furs), hordes of men on horseback, really angry men waving spears, came pouring out of the hills and stopped him dead in his tracks. Now it's probably the case that he could have beat the fur-wearing Picts back if he'd wanted to, but he seemed to have recognized that to do that he'd have to keep sending back to Roma for more soldiers — for a long time. And maybe he understood that this was not the way for an empire to remain an empire. The obvious parallels, or lack thereof, to today (a) go without saying and (b) have never occurred to anyone in the Bush administration.
Deciding to go no further, Hadrian built a wall that divided England from present-day Scotland. What's interesting about the wall is that it really didn't function to keep the fur-wearing hordes out. They didn't want to come in. They just wanted to be left alone. Instead, the wall announced, "I will go this far and no further. I could go further, but I am exercising restraint." I don't need to say any more about this, except that a little more Hadrian and a little less internet shopping might be what we need now.
It's amazing, when you think of it, that this guy was a Roman. When you conjure up the Romans now, you see a dark haired woman in a slim white shift standing in the middle of a fountain at midnight, a pair of shoes dangling from one hand, beautiful boys on vespas, coffee that's dark and good, people standing at coffee bars drinking it. Hours spent eating and drinking, lovely smiles, great taste: no desire to be an empire. A remarkable people, the Romans, come to think of it.