Buying into the `bigger is better' idea

January 02, 2007|By Joseph Bauers

Sometimes, to understand the big thing - like, say, the world - it helps to focus on a small one, like my tattered lampshade. My wife and I set about replacing it one day recently, and our search took us to no fewer than five stores in our fair city. None had the right size. They had plenty of lampshades, all right, but most were much larger than what we needed. They were made for bigger lamps, which were made for bigger tables, which are needed in bigger rooms, which are found in today's colossally bigger houses.

Our own house, which we call Crumbling Manor, was built in 1914. Houses were smaller then; rooms were fewer and much smaller; even doorways were narrower. Yet, those before us managed to live in these abodes quite comfortably. One family saw two boys grow into men in our house. This family of four shared one bathroom and the 1,300 square feet that my wife and I ramble in now.

For many people these days, this would not do. Modern drywall barns, as my friend Art calls them, dot the landscape. We scrape off precious topsoil to construct what seems to be an endless series of subdivisions. The houses sit on smallish lots, for the most part, but the structures are massive. There is the ballyhooed Great Room. There is the Family Room, in which the entire family could play touch football. There is the requisite three-car garage.

And inside that garage, of course, is the modern land yacht: eight cylinders, hundreds of horsepower, curb weights in excess of two tons, and four-wheel drive - all to better deliver its occupants to the fast-food drive-up and soccer practice. And next to it, another behemoth: the ubiquitous minivan, about which there is nothing mini.

How did our world, or more precisely the things in it, get so large? There may be grandiose theories. Perhaps it's a corollary of Frederick Jackson Turner's famous thesis, that our ever-expanding Western frontier lent a feeling of expansiveness to everything else in our country. Or maybe it's a sign of our unlimited optimism, the growth of our homes and cars as a testament to our eternal expectation that there will always be something bigger - and presumably, better - on the horizon.

Then again, maybe the things of our world are expanding simply because we are expanding. A recent University of Illinois study concluded that we have wasted an additional 1 billion gallons of gasoline since 1960 simply because we, the occupants of our cars, are so much heavier.

Life in this country is never far removed from great quantities of food. Restaurant portion sizes keep growing, and everywhere we turn there is a stand of junk food or a row of vending machines.

I suppose one could shrug it all off, then, as only an issue of diet and lifestyle. We simply choose to enlarge our waistbands, inhabit larger living spaces and move about in monster vehicles, because ... well, just because.

But any country takes on a national character over time. We are still a relatively young one, but our imprint on the world is becoming unmistakable. The Irish may be great storytellers; the Africans steeped in tribal traditions. So who are the Americans?

Just look at our media; they tell us every day. We are the consumer society. We are no longer expected to function as citizens, just as buyers of things. Even our politicians appeal to us as buyers: They promote themselves in the same way that the big-box stores shill their products. What do Americans do less and less of in the world? Make things. What do they do more and more of? Buy things.

We cruise the asphalt acres that surround the local China mart, where we cannot find a suitable lampshade. Our countrymen navigate their trucks disguised as family vehicles between the stripes, then return from the stores lugging huge bags teeming with inessentials. They goose the accelerator to set the great beast in motion - at 10 miles per gallon - from the mall parking lot to the fast-food drive-up window.

And later, when the oversized vehicle finally rests in its oversized garage, attached to the oversized house, the occupants disappear into an ever larger, but perhaps emptier, space.

Joseph Bauers is a freelance writer in Champaign, Ill. His e-mail is

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