Living the simple life is not longer the American way.
America has the greatest shopping in the world — and the reason is simple: Show us a new idea and a little advertising and we’ll buy things we never imagined we needed.
This winter, we all deserve to buy more after some tough economic times. Florida residents and tens of millions of tourists are expected to increase retail spending in the Sunshine State above the national average.
Stores and restaurants are everywhere. Just look around at the superabundance of clothiers, techno emporiums and Cinnabon shops at our malls and in our shopping districts.
Americans have always been retail pioneers. For example, we had Alfred Carl Fuller (OK, he was Canadian). Alfred was the original Fuller Brush Man. Likewise, Barry Becher helped create the “amazing” Ginsu knife (“Call now! Operators are standing by!”) Becher would later say that Ginsu means, “I never have to work again.”
And where else but in America would the military — yes, the military — invent a limitless retail universe? That would be the Internet, of course, which recently allowed me to surf the tsunami of sales on Cyber Monday and shop until I dropped — into my La-Z-Boy recliner.
Some, though, remain unsold, so to speak.
Humorist Art Buchwald said, “the best things in life aren’t things.” Perhaps not. But some “things” are pretty nice.
Back-to-basics living has always had its champions. In this country the Shakers, Mennonites, Amish and some Quakers preach austerity.
Henry David Thoreau, an American naturalist and philosopher, penned the classic secular statement advocating the simple life in his book Walden. But Thoreau lasted only two years living, Spartan-like, in a cabin near Walden Pond.
He built the tiny getaway for $28.12 (in 1840s dollars) on land owned by his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who supported his young protégé’s idealism but wisely preferred to remain ensconced in his comfortable Concord home.
Thoreau’s Transcendentalist cohorts, led by the eccentric Bronson Alcott, took the concept further with the founding of Fruitlands, a utopian commune where everyone wore linen tunics, ate no animal products, bathed in icy water and attempted to become self-sufficient through farming, although none of the 14 residents had ever worked on a farm.
Fruitlands, not surprisingly, lasted all of seven months. (Alcott’s much-more-famous daughter, Louisa May, later wrote of the ill-fated experiment in Transcendental Wild Oats.)
I bought my first “cabin” right out of law school. It was a walkup garden condominium, where my wife and I began our married life. We traded that walkup for a townhouse, and then for the home where we raised our children.
And I’m not through buying. Listen, I want — no, I need — a Caribbean vacation and another kitchen rehab.
Let’s face it. The world has changed since Thoreau’s time, when only the truly wealthy could enjoy genuinely luxurious lifestyles.
First and foremost, we can buy anything we want if we’re willing to squeeze enough money out of our retirement funds to pay for it. Why worry about overspending if we never plan to retire?
Second, living the simple life can cause severe status anxiety. Are we willing to be diminished in the world’s eyes by wearing the wrong clothes or driving the wrong car? I think not.
Finally, the simple life just doesn’t work for America anymore. When industrialization democratized luxury, it also created in shoppers a limitless desire for new possessions and more experiences.
In fact, economists tell us that our consumerist path to fulfillment now drives our economy. So, let’s understand. If we stop buying tchotchkes, we’ll be repudiating our way of life and contributing to another financial collapse.
I will certainly do my patriotic duty and buy, buy, buy. In fact, that new home down the street with free granite countertops looks like a good place to start.
Thoreau might not approve. But after a few minutes in the Jacuzzi, I’ll bet he’d change his mind.
Jim DeSimone is a principal at Orlando-based Knob Hill Companies and is a founding partner of Winter Park Magazine. He was previously vice president of corporate affairs for Darden Restaurants, director of com-
munication for the City of Orlando and a reporter and communications counsel for the Orlando Sentinel. He has a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Florida, a masters degree in public affairs reporting from the University of Maryland College Park and a J.D. from the College of William and Mary.