Wednesday, March 16, 2011

How to Be Pleasant in Your Own Backyard

I'm seeing the glass half-full right now. It's not like me, and it stinks. It's a stinky, stinky way to be.

But, honestly, I've been slowly gravitating that way for a while.

For instance, I've been known to look into a box of Girl Scout cookies and say suspiciously, "This box seems smaller. Is this box smaller? Man, I think there are fewer Thin Mints in here than last year!" Looking up at Matthew, I conclude with gravity, "Must be the..."

But that's when Matthew cuts me off, "Yeah, yeah - I know. It's the economy. Stupid economy!"

He's endured my complaints for the past few years while I've blamed everything that I perceive as a deficit on the economy. I have a recession-economy conspiracy theory raging in my head. I think every commercial enterprise has cut back the quality or the amount of product they're giving consumers for the same amount of dough. So when I think I see more air than chips in the potato chip bag? Damn economy! Toilet paper seems a little thinner than previously? Grrrr! The economy! Ice cream with more ice than cream? Light bulbs that blink their last in an early death? - Why, oh why are people ripping me off in this economy?

But all that was just conjecture; I had no proof. After all, I didn't think to save the packaging from various products before the economy went sour, so I can't be sure that I'm actually getting ripped off, that my handsoap is less anti-bacterial than it used to be or that my ground beef is something other than cow. I just have this vague feeling.

That feeling stopped being vague within the past couple months.

It began in a very innocent way, my fall into nonsense - my, shamed as I am to say, covetousness. I began driving. Yes, just driving around before picking my older two children up from school in the afternoon. This was necessary in order to get my baby son to take his second nap. It wasn't long before I got thoroughly sick of circling the neighborhood around my kid's school, so I went exploring. That's when I discovered how the other quarter lives.

I say quarter instead of half, because the communities I discovered were not crawling with obscenely rich people. Okay, while exploring I did indeed get lost in one lushly rich neighborhood. I circled around forever trying to find a way out, always passing this same mocking mansion no matter which direction I chose. The fancy-shmance neighborhood only had one outlet, and I was never so relieved to get away from winding driveways, grand facades and perfectly manicured lawns in my life as when I finally found it. Plus I had an eerie feeling wealthy people were standing at their windows as I passed by time and again, pointing me out to their butlers and nannies and laughing at my minivan.

But back on topic. The people in the "quarter" neighborhoods I discovered seemed wholly unaffected by the economy. There was nary a house for sale in either community. In my subdivision, there are ten at least, maybe more.

Their houses, with a few ostentatious exceptions, were modest - bigger than my home, true, but still modest. The only difference was that instead of having a door smacked onto the front of the house with no preamble, these folks had steps and pathways and porches leading one pleasantly to the door which was almost always slightly recessed in the front of the house. I admired this. I grew up in the southern United States; I miss porches. Still, it was their yards that I gaped at, a hand over my mouth to stifle an, "Ahaaaa!" yell of epiphany while the other gripped the steering wheel.

These people had small fields for yards, an expanse of green that sometimes contained a variety of animals including but not limited to: chickens, horses, cows, mules, sheep and emus. In the city - the city, people! And their front yards! I could not help picturing my kids playing a game of football with their dad there or maybe a crazy game of tag with all the kids in our Mom's Group. Such things would be perfectly possible, you see, because the streets these houses stood on were like quiet prim old ladies sitting by the side at a noisy ball. The streets were so quiet in fact, and so unused to a stranger's passage, that I felt they were muttering against my presence, alerting the driver of every passing car, for I felt the suspicious gazes upon me as if to say emphatically, "Who are you? You don't live here. You're not us!" I wanted to hunker down behind the steering wheel whilst I gazed upon their oddly bucolic lives in the midst of an enormous city.

It must have been a full week before I was able to drop my hand from my mouth. And then I found another neighborhood in an adjacent city with even greener pastures. Only here I did not feel as if other driver's were staring at me suspiciously, and the streets were wider and more open and friendly. I liked this community even better than the last, with its mini-fields of grazing horses and its low-lying homes with their pleasant entryways, with their porches and porch swings. I even took my kids to play in their public park a few times to get a better feel for the place. I had it bad.

Please understand how unusual it is for me to spend afternoon upon afternoon admiring and wishing for what others enjoy. I have always felt it was very foolish for anyone in good circumstances to exclaim, "We need a bigger house!" or whine, "All my friends live in newer homes than me." Very few people need a bigger house or a newer car. Food, clean water, shelter - those are needs. But shelter can be a lean-to in the forest. So I do indeed understand that Matthew, the children, and I could live in this 1240 sq. ft home until the four kids leave the nest. Until this last month I've felt perfectly contented to say as much. It'd be tight, especially during their teenage years, but we would be blessed and provided for.

Unfortunately, I now also understand the "moving up" complex. It was a shock when suddenly I found myself wishing I could live in a bigger home with a porch and a tiny field where my children could play with a family dog, perhaps. I know I'll be in the city - sad to say, I think it's my fate now - but to feel as if I were not in the city while still in the city, well...that would indeed be grand.

My friend Camille told me that I am projecting my own desires onto my children. They have never lived in the country and therefore do not miss it. She's right, of course. Nevertheless, I checked the prices on those homes in the "quarter" neighborhoods, ones that had recently sold, and we cannot even contemplate a purchase. I always under-price things in my head, because I often undervalue money, so I was taken aback by the numbers. Foolish, foolish girl! I was bitten by the covet bug or at least smitten, so next I began scouring for sale signs close to the homes I desired just for the idea that I could live near all their green space and perhaps take a walk on their streets in the early morning light, say hello to their horses as I pass by.

Human folly has no bounds.

So here at last I come to the part where I got a real tangible hit from this bad economy that's been skulking around on my periphery, a black eye really. We started to talk to a real estate agent about possibly putting our home on the market. She was reservedly optimistic at first...then she did the research.

To sell our house, she told us, not only would we take a loss, but we would need to bring lots of loose cash to the table just to close the sale, just to bribe our bank to let us leave our home. So...we'll stay, I think, and we'll plant some more greenery in the yard to help me overcome my city-sickness. We might even improve the kitchen. We won't move - oh, no! But we will know we're blessed to have our comfortable home.

And I am humbled by the fact that a girl like me, so proud of her indifference to mere possessions and finer things, fell under the spell of "Better and More". This is especially true since I came to my computer Friday morning and found that a nation on the other side of the Pacific was devastated by an earthquake and tsunami and could possibly be facing a horrific nuclear crisis as well.

I am well. I am happy. My loved and precious ones are near. And I am thinking about the people of Japan instead of myself and my petty wants.

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