Americans are a freedom-loving people.
Or, we used to be.
Before clutter, before Google and Facebook and voluntary enslavement to our kids. Before cellphones that make us always reachable and never alone. Before financial institutions reaching into our “convenient” online bill-paying mechanisms and taking fees. Before electric grids and fiber-optics and wireless transmissions that, when they go down, go down really big — and drag our self-reliance down with them.
Before we built our shaded backyard retreat but gave up our free time.
We may fly the tea party flag and protest against the tyranny of federal power, but in our daily lives we now are a freedom-surrendering people. Government mandates and perceived incursions into our rights as enshrined by the Founders? The least of our problems.
We diminish our independent selves all by ourselves.
Take this quiz:
You return from day-off errands to children demanding, “Why didn’t you take your phone?!” Do you snap, “Because I didn’t want you to bother me!” or do you plead, instantly, “I totally forgot, sweetie, I’m so sorry”?
Each day since Saturday, in downtown Bethesda, the Starbucks has been infested with snakes.
They slither in and stay — white cords, black cords, twisting around each other, three sometimes crawling out of the same device, into outlets zealously guarded by coffee squatters. Powerful people rendered powerless check the Pepco outage map . . . refresh . . . refresh . . . refresh.
They do not make their own coffee by boiling water on their gas range, which they have remembered can be lit with a match.
They do not shop at the farmers market. His harvest is going unbought and uneaten, wilting in the heat.
Why? He shrugs.
“Nobody has power.”
A bounty you could grab and eat right on the spot! Berries. Beans. Carrots. Lettuce. Raw food is only a farm-to-table trend when it’s on a composed plate in a serenity restaurant?
What passes for brilliant adaptability to harsh conditions is this: At the Starbucks, a young man reaches into his backpack and, with a flourish, pulls out a surge protector with six outlets.
“The unplugging is unnerving,” muses Anthony P. Graesch. “I think it speaks really powerfully to how we have come to rely on our household base, and our consumer technology in everyday life, in this very intimate relationship. We have forgotten how to live without it.”
People say this kind of thing all the time now, with ho-hum regularity. But Graesch is not a futurist. He’s an anthropologist and one of the four authors of “Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century.” A meticulous, systematic documentation by a cross-disciplinary team of academics of the material world of 32 families in Los Angeles, the book is intended as a visual ethnography of middle-class American households, “an unflinching examination of actual homes amid all the joys and messiness of real life.”
And what do we see? Mountains of material culture, choking off space and time. Irrefutable evidence of what that evolutionary psychologist Janis Joplin told us: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
The team, from the Center on Everyday Lives of Families at UCLA, sought to understand the challenges of dual-earner families with two or three children. They knew people were struggling with consumerism and accumulating the most possessions in global history, but what they inventoried was staggering, even in the flat, nonjudgmental prose of the field study:
“The first household assemblage we analyzed, of Family 27, resulted in a tally of 2,260 visible possessions in the first three rooms coded (two bedrooms and the living room),” and that didn’t include “untold numbers of items tucked into dresser drawers, boxes and cabinets or items positioned behind other items.”
“Display shelf, girl’s bedroom, Family 1: Beanie Babies, 165; Human/Animal Figurines, 36; Barbie dolls, 22; other dolls, 20; Porcelain dolls, 3; Troll, 1; Castle miniature, 1.”
These people were not hoarders. They were overwhelmed. The mothers, particularly, were stressed.
“Mothers were very aware of the mess and clutter and a laugh-it-off attitude that this was going to just keep reoccurring,” says Jeanne E. Arnold, a professor of anthropology at UCLA, “and a few were almost bitter. You could hear the sarcasm” when they described their surroundings to the ethnographers recording their home life every 10 minutes.
“They would say, ‘I clean up this table, and it just gets piled up again,’ ” Arnold says, “and the father would say, ‘Now, we really like this headboard.’ ”
Psychologists with the team collected saliva samples that showed elevated levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, in the mothers who commented on the disorganization.
“And learning that clutter was not just an annoyance, but that it had long-term implications for well being and health,” Arnold says, “was a very sobering discovery.”
In this way, the very items that signify success, ease and comfort — say, a freezer jam-packed with pizzas and potpies and drumsticks — turn ugly on you. Your house goes off the grid, and, all around you, your creature comforts morph into tiny cortisol pumps. The more you have, the more stress they make.
Graesch sighs. He remembers when he lost power in Connecticut once for a week. He notes that we construct our hyper-busy lives ourselves, accumulate possessions quicker than we develop ways to think about them and discard them.
“I think about societal collapse a little bit,” he says. “I’m an anthropologist. All societies collapse. There has never been one that hasn’t. It doesn’t just mean zombie apocalypse. Undulating climates, dissolving food supply, conflict, disease — these are the four, or in some combination.
“What happens to us in the wealthiest country in the world, where we live these very privileged lives and have more possessions than ever before? How are we going to be self-sustaining?”
Deep breaths, people. And remember to saw away from you.