Out of step with our real estate–obsessed culture

Three recent things prompted this post:


As my siblings and I cleaned out our parents’ condo to put it on the market, we had trouble giving away some of their furniture. Habitat for Humanity asked for photos, looked at them, and didn’t want anything. The Salvation Army came and took only a matching sofa and loveseat and a storage bench. It left a desk, a dresser (nicks on top), three wing chairs (sat on too much), a reclining massage chair, and a bookcase. We finally delivered those rejects to Goodwill.

My parents take care of things. Their furniture was gently used — without wobbly legs, visible stains, or gouges — but apparently thrift stores want furniture that looks new. The thought crossed my mind that maybe secondhand retailers would take nothing from my condo. Most of my furniture is from my first condo purchase in 1992, and nothing acquired since then cost more than $100.


A fellow volunteer at a service appreciation dinner was talking about living in two cities instead of three now that he sold his Manhattan home. In Chicago, he’s exchanging his single-family home for a penthouse condo with expansive outdoor space.

We started to talk about container gardening, but when he described working with a nursery to choose trees for pots, I felt like his gardening and mine are two different activities.

Unwelcome emotions arose: I felt censorious about wealthy people living grandly. Ashamed of being judgmental toward this man who is very nice and volunteers to help the needy. Not wanting to ever invite him into my condo.


Sunday’s Chicago Tribune had a piece detailing the benefits of good-enough homes over dream homes. Good-enough homes, it said, are structurally sound, functional, and affordable, meet your needs, and are in a desired location. They don’t require artisan tiles, stainless steel appliances, and room-size closets.

That reminder was welcome because even a committed nonmaterialist is subject to self-doubt, especially after my recent experiences. I had looked around my place and wondered whether it looks shabby — not as in shabby chic, just shabby.

On further reflection, I realized that what I was bothered about was how my place looks to other people. I was falling into the trap of thinking a home is supposed to impress. That’s understandable, given that real estate is a status symbol in the United States, but it belies my values.

Not having more than I need is a principle that I aspire to live by. I bought a smaller place than I could have afforded. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for comfort and convenience. There were nonessentials on my shopping list — like a balcony and space for an office — that I held out for. I’m not a candidate for a tiny house. It’s just that with all my needs met in 900 square feet, why would I buy 1200 or 1500 or more square feet?

In the late ’60s and ’70s, there was a fervent antimaterialism among the left that took root in me. Now I feel out of step with our real estate–obsessed culture. Today liberals are as likely as conservatives to live grandly. Many fine people, among whom I count family and friends, own high-end houses.

Thinking about real estate can catch me up in a mess of confusion and contradiction. I remind myself of my values even as I might be reluctant to invite over people who live richly. I reject conspicuous consumption for myself but don’t like feeling judgmental toward others.

I don’t want to presume to know why other people live as they do. The next time the owner of a minimansion says, “Let me show you the house,” I would do well to tell myself this: I expect any person whom I want to have in my life to judge me by who I am, not what I live in. Others should expect the same of me, whether they live large or small or somewhere in between.




Unlike previous quotations, this one is from Trump himself because no one else could make him look this pompous and absurd:

“In my great and unmatched wisdom . . . I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey.”

Really, does a “very stable genius” talk that way?

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