Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Less is More

We went out as a family to eat for Father's Day. This is big news at our house these days. Starting a business means Dan is working long hours and money is sometimes tight. Sometimes we've done take-out but since Chloe was born in January we had yet to all go out somewhere.

Dan picked this dingy Italian place in the center of town, and I almost had to laugh since I had promised not to nag because it was his choice. Several slightly intoxicated older people were seated in metal chairs outside, rambling loudly as we headed through the doors. Inside the place was empty and smelled of smoke. I was reminded of several friends' houses in childhood, where the shades were always drawn, ashtrays brimmed with cigarette butts, and soap operas blared from the TV.

The food came and the sauce tasted as if it'd come straight from a jar (I'm picky that way, thanks to my Italian grandmother's legendary sauce recipe). The waitress was barely attentive and we had to ask for bread. Yet as we sat there chewing away, Ethan got the biggest grin on his face. "I love this place!" he announced. "I love eating dinner with my family!"

When I was a kid, we didn't have much money. I didn't do summer camp or gymnastics or dance. We rarely went out to eat unless my grandmother took us to McDonalds the next town over. If we went to the movies we never got popcorn or candy, although the smell of the popcorn and butter used to leave me salivating. I never felt that deprived, though (except for the day my grandmother clucked about how sad it was that we weren't going to Disney World the way our cousins were). Still, we had vacations in Maine. I had my Cabbage Patch kids. Life was pretty good.

Once I became I supposed grown-up and started making some money I realized how much I liked spending it. Dan, who came from a similar background, did the same. No, we didn't care about splurging on clothes (just look at us -- it's still obvious!) or decorating our home, but we really, really liked to travel, and we really, really liked eating out. And I liked books. Lots of books. So we did a lot of that, the first years we were married. And when the kids came along, we kept it up. While we haven't yet done the Disney thing, there were trips to indoor waterparks and New York and Boston and theme parks. There was the Bronx Zoo and the aquariums and fairs and festivals.

And none of these things were bad. We had fun. I'm just not sure how much we appreciated our little adventures.

When I was growing up, I thought rich people were shallow while simultaneously envying them. It's taken me more than 20 years to realize that people who are well-off are unfairly swept into the same pile in the exact way a more snobbish type might make assumptions about poor people.

I've learned to see people first, not their spotless house that dwarfs mine; not their exotic vacations or the rocks they wear on their hands.

At the same time more recently I've learned that while being financially comfortable is not a terrible thing, there are very real pitfalls. They point back to that word, comfortable. We all want that kind of lifestyle. We all want our kids to not feel deprived. Yet there seems to be a slippery slope that leads from comfortable to ungrateful. Ungrateful doesn't always mean a sulky attitude or a spoiled demeanor. I think sometimes it's just when we lose that sense of wonder and thankfulness. It's when a meal becomes just another time out and we start bickering on where to go or getting snide when the service is too slow. Sometimes it means, simply, boredom.

It's like that old song by Dave Matthews that sometimes runs through my head (It's a typical situation/In these typical times/Too many choices...). Less can be more. Fewer nights out, fewer trips to Six Flags, fewer goodies purchased on the fly at Target can be very good indeed. The leaner times are well worth it if it means seeing my little boy's eyes light up in a smelly little restaurant just at the treat of eating some gooey pizza while sitting next to dad. Infinitely worth it.

1 comment:

travelobsessed said...

So well said. I grew up with six children and one working parent. The only restaurants we ever ate were McDonald's, Denny's and Papa Gino's.. and I can count all those trips on two hands. But I never really felt poor. Next time I feel bad because I tell my kids they can't have their latest desire, I need to remember that its much more special when its few and far between; and much more appreciated too.