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It’s Not The Size That Matters

Suggested song: All I Want is More, Reel Big Fish Suggested drink: Bigger Better Blue Lagoon: coconut rum, peach schnapps, apple juice, blue curacao, 1 cherry

The happiest people don’t have the best of everything; they just make the best of everything. – Unknown

Horror of horrors, Pagni is gone! For the past 3 years I’ve been buying the best beef in the world from this boisterous butcher, operating from his white step van at the edge of the outdoor market in Aix. He has single handedly destroyed all attempts at eliminating red meat from my diet, much as I’ve tried. My kids were equally swayed by his product and charm, prodding me with instructions to visit Pagni on my morning marché rounds to get his ground beef for the occasional lunchtime burgers.

Last summer I noticed the segmented outline of a horse by his service counter and asked him to translate the word Chevaline, framed in an official-looking certificate by the image. At that instructive moment of clarity all pieces converged, and I realized why his product tasted different, was so much richer in flavor and deeper in color.

Yes, the rewards of ignorance can sometimes be a naive bliss. Some of us cringe at the thought of equine burgers, but the other red meat is making a comeback in France. Compared to cow, it has twice the iron content and about 17 times the level of omega-3 fatty acids in a standard strip steak. It’s also easier on the planet to produce. I’ll miss my chevaline ami but confident that he’s bringing a bit of fun and enrichment to the tables of others.

“I live in a 420-square-foot studio. I sleep in a bed that folds down from the wall. I have six dress shirts. I have 10 shallow bowls that I use for salads and main dishes. When people come over for dinner, I pull out my extendable dining room table. I don’t have a single CD or DVD and I have 10 percent of the books I once did.”

So starts a recent opinion piece by Graham Hill in the New York Times (to read the article, click here). His life journey circles from small by necessity to large by possibility, then back to minimal by choice. He sold an internet start-up in the late 1990s, which blessed him with that hallowed status to which we all aspire: independently wealthy (and then some, in his case). In unsurprising fashion, Hill immersed himself in a frenzy of unbridled consumption: big home, fast car, cool gadgets and expensive apparel. His appetite unabated, he hired a “personal shopper” to shovel more onto his heaping pile of possessions when too distracted with work to spend. Getting tougher to release those euphoric endorphins? Nothing that a bigger straw can’t solve!

Hill touches on themes in the NYT piece on which our Postcards have reflected before. That affluence enables the accumulation of stuff that can ends up consuming us, not the reverse. I use a sailing analogy in my Intérprize workshops, that everything in the immediate sphere of one’s life is either an anchor or a sail, there is little wiggle room in between. Anchors hold us back, sails propel us forward, and it’s healthy to take an honest inventory of both on a regular basis: home, car, job, hobbies, boss, spouse, lover, kids (wiggle room here), wine collection, gadgets, toys, etc., ….anchor or a sail?

The dimensions of my habitats have spanned a wide range over the years. I once spent 3 frigid winter months in a 20 foot camper trailer in the hills of Pennsylvania, surviving on teenage love and part-time work at the local ARCO station. Twenty years and a few careers later, my wife and I would stroll the sidewalks of St. Francis Wood in San Francisco and imagine a grand life in one of those immense Mediterranean style mansions. Reality was a more moderate family home in the neighboring Lakeside district. In between were all sizes and flavors of apartments, houses, duplexes, triplexes, wigwams (kidding on that one) and the occasional few days out of my car when between accommodations. (The cramped back seat of a ’67 Firebird is no excuse for a bed.)

This I believe: the size of one’s home correlates poorly to sustained happiness, once Maslow’s basic needs are met and the teens get some privacy. My own contentment is driven more by where I live than under what scale. It’s not the size that matters; it’s how you enjoy it. The flat I share with my son in Aix is a modest two bedroom, one bath. It’s one-third the size of our San Francisco home, but what more is needed? The compromise of dimension to location allows us to live in the center of one of the most beautiful cities in the world, just steps from fabulous outdoor markets, theatres, cafes and restaurants, from dozens of bubbling fountains and mysterious winding alleys laid out by the Romans centuries ago. Trade this for a McMansion in the tumbleweed suburbs?

This I will admit: I still secretly admire volume in some homes. My brother owns a french palace – his street address is actually Le Palais – in his village in central France. But he and his wife have reconditioned this home from the bottom up, busting down walls, pulling out windows, plastering and painting and getting enough splinters and pains through the process that Le Palais is now a true extension of themselves. And if I could afford a grand villa in St. Francis Wood I could possibly be swayed. I still meander through that neighborhood with my children when in San Francisco and we each select our personal favorites, our dream homes. Does this make me a hypocrite? Is my rant about the sins of size simply a self-rationalization of my disinterest in generating more income, hence buying a larger home? I don’t know. I hope not. Do you harbor the same ambivalence?

Back to Hill, there are some interesting statistics cited in his piece:

  1. The average size of a new American home has ballooned to 2,480 square feet in 2011, a 2.5 fold increase over the average in 1950. And because these larger homes house fewer people on average – 2.6 heads per home in 2011 versus 3.4 in 1950 – Americans are now taking up 3 times the space per head than they did then.

  2. We spend $22 billion on personal storage now. Even these massive homes aren’t sufficient for our love affair with buying.

If there is a silver lining in our fascination with size it’s that Americans are at least enjoying more leisure time in their swelling estates. According to a recent article in the International Herald Tribune, the average US worker is laboring 100 few hours, down to just 1,700 per year now, than in 1970. Of course the French, who’s productivity gains have outpaced the Americans during that time, have cut 500 hours from their work year, but preferring more time off (they get 6 weeks by law) to a fatter paycheck that buys more things to stuff in a bigger home. On to something or just lazy? (Despite their continued appetite for tobacco, they rank #14 in the world in life expectancy; the US comes in at #51.)

To finish off on a note of hope, perhaps the younger generations are not sold on that porn film maxim that size equals status. One of the hottest startups of the moment is Airbnb, a website connecting homeowners (with a room or sofa to let) with travelers (looking for a room or sofa to let). The company is carrying a valuation of $2.5 billion but the CEO is still living under the roofs of his clients. In his extreme opinion, homes have “become irrelevant.” How’s that for horse sense?

Bill Magill Aix-en-Provence

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